[Each year for the last few, I’ve used Super Bowl week as a platform for a series on sports in America. This week, I’ll be AmericanStudying figures and moments related to women in sports, leading up to a weekend Guest Post on cheerleading in American society and culture!]
On two reasons why it’s wrong to limit our understanding of Title IX to sports, and one way in which that focus can still be helpful and meaningful.
1) The Act and Its Histories: Title IX refers to a particularly significant section of the Education Amendments of 1972, a law co-authored by Indiana Senator Birch Bayh and Hawaiian Congressperson Patsy Mink (after whom the act was re-named in 2002). Bayh was one of a number of legislators who had been working for some time on the Equal Rights Amendment; due to the continued challenges they encountered in bringing that proposed law to a vote, these lawmakers turned to other means to advance gender equality on the federal level, including the Higher Education Act of 1965. Reflecting these sweeping civil rights goals, the language of Title IX was purposefully broad and (as much as possible) all-encompassing: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” While sports became and have remained a particularly clear and compelling case study for and application of the law, to define Title IX as in any way a sports-related Act is to elide precisely its status as an overt and important extension of 1960s civil rights and Great Society programs and successes.
2) A Vital 21st Century Battle: I don’t think it’s much of an overstatement to note that in 1972, sexual violence against women was hardly acknowledged as a communal or national issue at all, much less made a focus of federal lawmaking efforts. That has, of course, rightly and dramatically changed in the four and a half decades since Title IX, and in the last decade sexual violence on college campuses has become a new focus of Title IX applications. Some of the first of those applications have been linked to sports, as when two female students at the University of Colorado (in 2006) and one at Arizona State University (in 2008) used the law to successfully sue their universities for damages after being sexually assaulted by football players. But of course the pervasiveness of sexual assault and violence on college campuses is in no way limited to sports, and to see this evolving extension of Title IX to these issues as simply a sub-category of sports-related applications would be to minimize or circumscribe our understanding of sexual assault in both an inaccurate and unproductive way. To extend my point in item one above, sexual violence has become a new and central civil and equal rights issue for women (and all Americans), and the continued use of Title IX to fight that vital battle reflects the act’s civil rights origins and legacies on one more key level.
3) Why Sports Matter: So if we think about Title IX in any way as a law focused on athletics, we’re doing an injustice to both its histories and its ongoing meanings. At the same time, however, there’s no doubt that both collegiate and high school athletics became in the years after the act, and continue to be in 2017, a central site of Title IX efforts and applications. And I would argue that there are symbolic and social as well as historical reasons to remember and celebrate that connection of Title IX to sports. For one thing, as yesterday’s story of Babe Didrikson Zaharias illustrates, sports in American society have long been linked to gendered images and narratives, to stereotypes of masculinity and feminity, to ideas about what boys and girls respectively can and should do or pursue or care about. Yet the truth is that (all stats from this piece), if just 7% of all high school varsity athletes in 1971 were women, and if only 16,000 women competed in collegiate athletics in 1966, those statistics reflect social, educational, and funding limitations far more than they do gender identities or realities. How do I know that? Because by 2001, 41.5% of high school varsity athletes were women, as were 43% of college athletes (more than 150,000 in total) in that same year. Sports thus offer a potent site for both providing access for all Americans and revising limiting gender stereotypes in the process—and Title IX has played a vital role in achieving those practical and philosophical goals.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other women and sports connections or analyses you’d share?