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Next month will mark the 40th anniversary of the approval of the Title IX law, which states: "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 educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
The law, the subject of a cover story in this week's Sports Illustrated, had a profound affect on the progress of women into higher education and professional careers. As the SI article notes, the percentage of women becoming lawyers and doctors went from 7 percent and 9 percent the year before Title IX's adoption to 47 percent and 48 percent today, near equality.
Its greatest impact, "seismic" as the article characterizes it, came in high school and college sports, as educational institutions were required to offer women the same scholarship and athletic opportunities (thought not in the same sports) as men. The Women's Sports Foundation reports about 294,000 female athletes took part in high school sports before Title IX, while the figure now is about 3.2 million and still growing.
Certainly this one act cannot get all the credit for this dramatic change. Women were already pushing for their place in activities and careers previously dominated by men. But it would also be a mistake to conclude that the change to greater gender equality would have happened so fast and to such a degree without Title IX.
The success of this act gives lie to those who contend that the federal government should play no role in trying to push history in the right direction. Not every step forward should be left to the vagaries of markets, the slow-churn of change and the magnanimity of those in power to yield it.
Parents who once saw the prospects of their daughters limited largely to either becoming housewives or, if entering a professional field, a nurse, teacher or secretary, now have come to accept no limits on the goals their little girls can dream to achieve. And they too can enjoy their daughters competing on the field of competition, learning the importance of teamwork, adding to self-confidence and becoming physically fit.
Passage of Title IX reminds us of a time when the political parties could work together without reducing every policy decision to an ideological battle. Patsy Mink, a liberal representative from Hawaii drafted and introduced Title IX and Republican President Richard M. Nixon signed it into law.
It did have to survive a political battle in 1988. In 1984 the Supreme Court ruled that the law applied only to programs receiving direct federal funding, excluding most athletic programs. But in 1988 Congress approved the Civil Rights Restoration Act, overriding a veto by Republican President Ronald Reagan. The act required educational institutions receiving federal funds to comply with Title IX in all programs, effectively reversing the court's ruling.
It is hard to imagine the emergence of the University of Connecticut's women's basketball dynasty without Title IX, or a WNBA, or U.S. dominance in many women's Olympic sports. Studies have consistently shown that girls who participate in sports are far less likely to have unplanned pregnancies, abuse alcohol or drugs, or suffer from depression or a poor self-image. Female athletes get better grades, graduate at higher rates and are more likely to get college degrees.
Government action can make a difference and for four decades Title IX has made a major difference for the better.