Published June 22, 2022

9 min read

During a landmark week in 1970, lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol bore witness to the ugliest realities of an educational system that was anything but equal. They listened to testimony from undergraduate and graduate students, professors, and professional women who had been discouraged from participating in school activities, laughed out of degree programs, and dissuaded from pursuing their academic and professional passions. As the women’s testimonies made clear, sex discrimination in higher education was a pernicious reality.

Ann Sutherland Harris, an assistant art history professor at Columbia University at the time, was one of the women who testified at the hearings hosted by the Congressional subcommittee tasked with investigating gender equality in higher education. She explained that male faculty members told her female students things like “You’re so cute. I can’t see you as a professor or anything,” “We expect women who come here to be competent, good students, but we don’t expect them to be brilliant or original,” and “Why don’t you find a rich husband and give this all up?” It was all part and parcel of a reality Harris called “psychological warfare.”

The hearings were the first step toward Title IX, a watershed law enacted 50 years ago that outlawed gender discrimination in federally funded education and opened up new opportunities for women in the decades that followed. Here’s how the law was passed in June 1972—and why it was so urgently needed to protect women who endured harassment, discouragement, and discriminatory treatment at all levels of education.

Incomplete civil rights protections

Title IX has its roots in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited segregation and banned discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Those protections applied to private employment and public accommodations, but Title VI of the law, which applied to federally funded entities like public schools, colleges, and universities, lacked protections based on sex. This left women unprotected in most educational contexts.

It showed: Women were regularly discriminated against in education. In primary schools, girls were forbidden from being crossing guards and were excluded from tasks like running projectors. Middle and high schools made home economics classes compulsory for female students. Women were underrepresented both as students and faculty members at institutes of higher education, comprising just 21 percent of college students in the mid-1950s. Some schools banned women from applying or put restrictive quotas on how many they would accept.

When colleges did accept women, some had separate entrances for women and gender-specific hallways. Girls’ sports teams were either nonexistent or poorly funded—fewer than 300,000 girls participated in school sports nationwide. Schools funneled women away from elite professions like medicine and law.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which extended civil rights protections to government employees and federal contractors. But that order didn’t include sex as a protected class—and women’s groups took note.

“We maintain that this country no longer can afford to waste the resources of its women citizens,” wrote a representative of the newly formed National Organization of Women in a 1966 letter to Johnson. It was just one of a flood of letters asking the president to rectify the omission.

The push for Title IX begins

Johnson finally added sex to the executive order in 1967. But it didn’t go far enough for many activists. One of them was Bernice Sandler, a university lecturer who was denied a promotion to one of her department’s full-time positions at the University of Maryland in 1969 despite her qualifications. A coworker told her why: “You come on too strong for a woman.”

Sandler was furious. Like many colleges and universities, the university held federal contracts. She started investigating sex discrimination at the university level and filed more than 250 comprehensive complaints with the federal government against universities that had violated the executive order.

The sudden flurry of enforcement requests piqued the interest of Edith Green, an educational policy expert and Democratic Congresswoman from Oregon. In 1970, she launched hearings on sex discrimination at federally funded universities.

Persuaded by the testimonies put forth during the hearings, Representative Patsy Mink of Hawaii joined Green in drafting legislation that would prohibit sex discrimination in education. Their bill was introduced in the Senate by Indiana Democrat Birch Bayh and passed as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

Resistance to Title IX

But the law met with fierce public resistance, even after its passage. Among the critiques was the misconception that the law would impose quotas on the number of women universities must admit. Another concern was that requiring universities to create equal opportunities for women in sports would force them to eliminate male-dominated sports like football or cancel existing programs if universities failed to find enough interested, qualified female players for a women’s team. This was not the case, however. The law itself made no mention of sports, and its enforcement guidelines allow single-sex sports and do not require defunding male-dominated sports to support opportunities for women.

But during the three-year gap between the law’s passage and the finalization of enforcement guidelines, little was done to level the playing field for women—and the most egregious examples of resistance to the law were often found in university sports.

Eventually, though, the resistance by Canham and others only resulted in more specific, and stringent, definitions of the law. The enforcement guidelines were clarified in the wake of his opposition. They involve a test that requires schools to follow at least one of three criteria: Either they have to have an equal proportion between male and female students and student-athletes; have a history of expanding protections to underrepresented students; or be “fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.”

Yet the University of Michigan continued to delay. It was the last university to meet the law’s standards—and only did so in 1982, after a variety of complaints of sex discrimination and an investigation that forced the university to admit it was noncompliant.

Title IX’s legacy

Despite opposition over the years—and ongoing attempts to gut the law—Title IX persisted. Along the way, it transformed women’s educational experiences. Today, women outnumber men in college admissions and, armed with advanced degrees in every conceivable field, participate in careers once considered out of their reach. Girls and women’s athletics have ballooned, and women are employed at all levels in schools and universities.

But there’s still inequity in education. Men hold a disproportionate number of faculty positions, and second-class treatment is still standard in school sports. In 2021, an external gender equity review of the NCAA found “significant” gender disparities in college athletics, in part due to the organization’s prioritization of revenue-producing sports like college football. 

(Why women’s basketball still fights for equal recognition.)

Meanwhile, thousands of enforcement actions are still requested each year, most of which relate to claims of sexual harassment, different treatment based on sex, retaliation, and sexual violence. Title IX may be a fixture in civil rights law, but there’s still progress to be made.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 3, 2022. It has been updated.

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