Title IX at 50: How 37 words changed the world for women

Daryl Marshke/University of Michigan/File
Carol Hutchins, head softball coach at the University of Michigan, huddles with her team before a game in Lexington, Kentucky, in 2018.
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Carol Hutchins was a self-described tomboy. She resisted makeup sessions with her two sisters to play sandlot baseball. Pretty soon, though, it became apparent that there was nowhere for girls to play organized sports in 1960s Lansing, Michigan.

“I felt like I was different in a bad way, like, there was something wrong with me,” Ms. Hutchins says.

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The effects of Title IX, considered one of the most significant pieces of gender legislation in the past 50 years, stretch beyond equity on the athletic field to touch almost every classroom and family in America.

Things changed with a sparsely worded law passed on June 23, 1972, that didn’t even have the word “sports” in it. Title IX simply made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in educational settings that receive federal funding.

The law ushered in a gender revolution that still continues today, a half-century later. The number of girls and women who play organized sports has ballooned. The law has also helped propel more women to get college degrees, provided them some protection against sexual harassment and assault, and aided them in advancing to corner offices and boardrooms.

Like any revolution, Title IX has generated its share of controversy, from its application to sexual assault on college campuses to the debate around including transgender individuals in its protections. In some instances, men’s sports opportunities have declined to make room for women.

Yet the fight for women’s basic rights isn’t over. Many women believe the law hasn’t gone far enough in correcting inequities – on athletic fields, in classrooms, or in corporate suites.

“It’s still too early, in my view, to be congratulating ourselves,” says Marissa Pollick, a lawyer and lecturer at the University of Michigan and a Title IX consultant.

It’s a story Carol Hutchins likes to tell. She’s sharing it again now, sitting in her office at the University of Michigan, surrounded by awards that hint at her status as one of the most successful college coaches – male or female – in the United States. It’s about her click moment in 1976.

Ms. Hutchins was a freshman varsity basketball player at Michigan State University, living her dream of playing college sports at a time when few women were student-athletes. On that winter day, her team got a fortuitous break: Instead of practicing where they normally did, in the intramural building with its leaky roof and warped floor, the women were working out in Jenison Field House – the big gymnasium where the men’s basketball team played. They were getting ready for a rare double-header in which both the men’s and women’s teams were hosting major out-of-town rivals. 

As the women ran plays, the visiting men’s team walked in with its famous coach – revered by anyone who followed college basketball. He called the women’s team over. Ms. Hutchins was excited. Surely, she thought, they were going to get a pep talk. Some strategic insights. A motivational anecdote. Not exactly.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

The effects of Title IX, considered one of the most significant pieces of gender legislation in the past 50 years, stretch beyond equity on the athletic field to touch almost every classroom and family in America.

“He said, ‘You need to get off the court because nobody gives a damn about women’s basketball,’” Ms. Hutchins recalls. Even today, nearly five decades later, the woman who has gone on to win more games as a college softball coach than anyone else in NCAA history winces at the memory. Her eyes flash anger. “He said it to our faces! I was lit. It definitely changed my world.” 

She won’t name the basketball coach outright. She doesn’t need to. “This is the thing,” says Ms. Hutchins, who has coached at Michigan since 1983. “The reason I don’t name him is because it could be a lot of them. That was the era.”

Tonuy Avelar/AP/File
Brigham Young University goalkeeper Cassidy Smith lunges to block a penalty kick by an opposing player in a tournament in California in 2021.

It’s certainly not the era anymore. The reason a comment like that sounds so archaic now, and women like Ms. Hutchins have been given the opportunity to vault to the pinnacle of the college athletic world, is largely because of a sparsely worded law passed on June 23, 1972, that didn’t even have the word “sports” in it. Title IX simply made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex in educational settings that receive federal funding. 

Yet the law ushered in a gender revolution – and has, by many accounts, become one of the most significant pieces of federal legislation to benefit women in the past 50 years. 

Monitor Backstory: Voices of Title IX

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Title IX is complicated. Reporting on the 50th anniversary of this 37-word law, the Monitor's Kendra Nordin Beato saw the many and varied ways it reshaped US society. In today's episode, she shares how women have pushed for equal treatment with courage and resilience, inspiring generation after generation. Hosted by Samantha Laine Perfas.

Today its ripple effects reach into almost every dugout and locker room in America, almost every living room, almost every classroom, and even corporate suites. It has changed the lives of countless individual women – and society itself. 

The dramatic rise in the number of girls and women participating in sports is the most often cited impact. But the changes extend way beyond that. The law has helped propel more women to get college degrees, provided them some protection against sexual harassment and assault, and aided them in advancing to corner offices and boardrooms. Girls can take auto shop today, in part because of the cultural changes wrought by Title IX, and getting pregnant no longer means getting kicked out of school or losing a job. 

Still, like any revolution, Title IX has generated its share of controversy. Some critics think its scope goes way too far, while many proponents of the law think it hasn’t gone far enough. Indeed, ask almost any women’s rights advocate or female coach who has traced the law’s arc of progress over the past 50 years, and they will say the work of Title IX is hardly complete. 

“It’s still too early, in my view, to be congratulating ourselves,” says Marissa Pollick, a lawyer and lecturer in sports management at the University of Michigan and a Title IX consultant. “I think the law is widely misunderstood, and there’s still a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding the law and its application.”

Thomas Boyd/AP/File
Runners compete in a preliminary heat of the women’s 200 meters during the NCAA Division I track and field championships in 2021 in Eugene, Oregon.

The use and interpretation of Title IX have, in fact, been inconsistent since its passing, tossed like a political football under changing administrations. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan tried and failed to limit the law’s application to specific programs. In 2005, President George W. Bush suggested colleges dole out federal money to men’s and women’s sports based on the level of interest in them.

In 2011, President Barack Obama pointedly reminded colleges of their obligations to combat sexual harassment under the law, while the administration of President Donald Trump narrowed the definition of sexual misconduct and required that both parties be present at investigative hearings and subject to cross-examination. The current administration is considering extending Title IX protections to transgender students. 

As these whipsaws have occurred at the top levels of power, clashes have erupted on college campuses, too. Critics have long argued that requiring equal opportunities for women will diminish men’s opportunities. In some ways, they have.

By protecting budgets for revenue-generating programs such as football and men’s basketball, athletic directors – a majority of whom are male – can feel forced to cut smaller programs such as men’s swimming and wrestling in order to fund women’s programs.

Yet the benefits to women, even if not as much as they’d like, have been undeniable. The law has helped create a female sports culture where none existed and even relaxed rigid gender stereotypes in society.

Daryl Marshke/©University of Michigan/File
University of Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins talks with one of her players at a game in Oklahoma City in 2015.

Ms. Hutchins has seen all the progress of the law, and its pitfalls, up close. 

Carol Hutchins was a self-described tomboy as a youth. She resisted makeup sessions with her two sisters to play sandlot baseball and football with her brothers and neighborhood kids.

But once she reached a certain age, her mother pulled her aside and told her girls don’t really play sports. Plus, she was annoying the boys. “There was nowhere to play organized sports,” Ms. Hutchins says of Lansing, Michigan, in the 1960s. Her brothers got to play on a baseball team sponsored by an insurance company. “I felt like I was different in a bad way, like, there was something wrong with me. ... I used to think I wanted to be a boy. And then I realized I didn’t want to be a boy. I wanted to be an athlete.”

She would soon benefit from someone who lived half a country away and whose focus wasn’t sports at all. In 1970, Bernice Sandler was struggling to find a job. She had a Ph.D. in education from the University of Maryland, where she had been teaching part time, but she was not getting any full-time offers. Her younger male classmates, meanwhile, were having no trouble advancing in their careers. “You come on too strong for a woman,” one male faculty member suggested to her as an explanation.

At the time, women were entering the workforce in record numbers, but their participation was predominantly in traditional “female occupations”: nursing, child care, primary education, secretarial work. Schools reinforced that ethos. Girls were barred from auto mechanics and boys from home economics, explains Sarita Pillai, co-author of “More Than Title IX: How Equity in Education Has Shaped the Nation.”

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Students attend a graduation at Georgetown University in Washington in May. Title IX has propelled more women to get college degrees.

Quota systems limited female enrollment at colleges and universities, further narrowing their job prospects. In 1972, only 12.4% of working women between the ages of 25 and 64 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So Ms. Sandler took action. She joined the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) and began researching federal compliance for contractors. She studied the strategies that activists used in the civil rights movement and how they might apply to women in higher education. In a footnote, Ms. Sandler found a reference to an executive order amended by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 stating that entities receiving federal funding could not discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. Ms. Sandler, who died in 2019, described this as her “eureka” moment. 

Universities that received federal aid and failed to hire qualified women and pay them accordingly were in direct violation of the mandate. It was an opening through which the “godmother of Title IX” would deploy a full-court legal press. Together with WEAL, Ms. Sandler launched a historic class-action suit, filing more than 250 complaints on behalf of all women in higher education.

Bernice Sandler, called the “godmother of Title IX,” helped initiate a class-action suit that led to the introduction of legislation in Congress.

The avalanche of compliance requests spurred a series of congressional hearings on the issue. “Professionally, women in the United States constitute only 9 percent of all full professors, 8 percent of all scientists, 6.7 percent of all physicians, 3.5 percent of all lawyers, and 1 percent of all engineers,” Rep. Edith Green, a Democrat from Oregon, testified at one of the hearings in 1970.

Eventually, Ms. Green and Rep. Patsy Mink, a Democrat from Hawaii, and Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana introduced bills in Congress. President Richard Nixon signed into law these 37 words as Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972: 

“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.”

Far from the halls of Congress, things began to change quickly, including at Everett High School in Lansing, where Ms. Hutchins was a sports-obsessed 10th grader. Even though she had barely heard of Title IX, by her senior year she had other athletic opportunities beyond cheerleading and informally arranged basketball games against girls at other schools. 

“We got our first varsity basketball team and we had a real schedule,” she says. “We had uniforms, we had buses, and we had cheerleaders. I mean, my dream came true. I was so happy.” 

Title IX would slowly begin to spur lawsuits and complaints across the country. And they weren’t just about expanding women’s participation in sports. Over the years, the law has become a pry bar to open up all kinds of opportunities for women. In one sense, it was a way to channel pent-up political energy that had been building since before the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (center left) and tennis legend Billie Jean King (center right) take a selfie with members of a girls’ high school basketball team during a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX in Washington.

“Title IX didn’t start all of these intense changes in society,” says Sherry Boschert, author of “37 Words: Title IX and Fifty Years of Fighting Sex Discrimination.” “There were social justice movements already going along that Title IX then just gave [women’s rights advocates] a better tool. All they were asking for was some kind of grievance procedure, some kind of way that the people who were being harassed and assaulted and discriminated against ... could complain and have it be heard by the system. That’s one of the beauties of the Title IX story. It’s a cast of thousands. ... It isn’t one hero or heroine who did all this.”

One prominent member of the cast was Ann Olivarius. She arrived at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1973, just four years after the college opened its undergraduate programs to women. But the thrill of attending one of the nation’s most hallowed halls of learning was soon replaced by outrage.

As an undergraduate researching the status of women at the university, who made up just a quarter of the student body, Dr. Olivarius noticed a pattern: Female students who reported accounts of sexual harassment and rape by faculty members had no protections from the university. 

“We fundamentally could not understand why there was a disconnect,” says Dr. Olivarius, who runs a legal practice today that includes a specialty in sex discrimination. “Our view was that everyone had a mother at least, most had partners, they had daughters, they had cousins, they had sisters. ... Why would they look the other way?” 

She gathered together plaintiffs, with the support of legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon and attorneys at the New Haven Law Collective. They filed a lawsuit in 1977 using an untested argument: By failing to effectively address complaints of sexual assault and harassment, Yale was violating Title IX. Only one of the plaintiffs’ claims advanced to trial. The rest were dismissed. But a single line written by U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Latimer in Alexander v. Yale changed history: 

“It is perfectly reasonable to maintain that academic advancement conditioned upon submission to sexual demands constitutes sex discrimination in education.” 

Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun/AP
The University of Maryland’s Jordyn Lipkin (left) is hit by Boston College defender Hollie Schleicher during a lacrosse tournament in May in Baltimore.

That line paved the way for grievance procedures in colleges across the nation. “The successful application of the law to sexual harassment ... as a form of sex discrimination in education ... kicked off a normative shift on college campuses,” says Celene Reynolds, a presidential postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University who studies Title IX. “And that shift is not complete by any means. We’re not living in a world where sexual harassment doesn’t happen anymore. But we are living in a world where it’s not accepted as part of life in universities.” 

Although schools now have reporting mechanisms in place, rape on college campuses still happens. In a 2020 study by the Association of American Universities, 20.4% of female students, 20.3% of transgender and nonbinary students, and 5.1% of male students said they had experienced rape or sexual assault.

Harvey Georges/AP/File
Former U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink of Hawaii (left, center) was one of the authors of the Title IX law passed in 1972. Here she appears with social activist Bella Abzug and feminist leader Gloria Steinem (at podium) in 1979.

It is only in the past decade that schools have established robust systems for students to report sexual harassment under Title IX, according to Courtney Bullard, founder of Institutional Compliance Solutions, a Title IX consulting firm. 

“I would argue that if you were to ask someone in 2010 who their Title IX coordinator is, they would have no idea what that even meant,” she says. “So much of the progress that happened with raising awareness, encouraging reporting, believing survivors when they come forward – that’s really happened in the last 10 or 12 years.” 

While Dr. Olivarius was bringing her pioneering lawsuit in New Haven to expand the use of Title IX, Ms. Hutchins was frustrated with the way the law was being applied in her domain – gymnasiums. 

True, she had seen tangible benefits from Title IX in her final years in high school and was grateful for the spot she now had on the basketball team at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

But she was noticing that not all was equal on campus. She saw male athletes getting more funding for uniforms, facilities, coaching, locker rooms, and food and lodging for away games. If the women’s games weren’t yet as competitive or popular, no one was investing in them to at least prove they could be.

When Ms. Hutchins heard in 1976 that a group of upper-level students on her basketball team was going to consult with Jean Ledwith King, a women’s rights lawyer, about suing for unequal treatment between men’s and women’s programs, she made a decision. “I’m in.” 

It took the judge only an hour to rule in the women’s favor.

Since then, similar suits and the practical nudge of the law have spurred widespread changes on athletic fields across the country. In 1971, a year before Title IX was passed, fewer than 300,000 high school girls and 30,000 college women played sports. Today, those numbers have ballooned to 3.4 million in high school and more than 215,000 in college.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
The University of Connecticut’s Paige Bueckers moves on the University of South Carolina’s Destanni Henderson in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in Minneapolis in April.

Still, none of this means that full equal opportunity under Title IX has been achieved, say its advocates. In 2019-20, American male athletes received $252 million more in athletic scholarships than female athletes, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. Women make up less than half of NCAA coaches for women’s teams and hold less than a quarter of all college athletic director positions. 

“I’ve seen athletic departments with highly qualified administrators and coaches who nonetheless don’t have comprehensive knowledge of the law,” says Dr. Pollick at the University of Michigan.

A fight is brewing, too, over plans by the Biden administration to add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in Title IX – a move likely to bring another flurry of lawsuits.

“While we saw [Title IX] coming out of the feminist movement, so originally with a leftward-leaning political bent, now we [conservatives] actually see it as a shield,” says Sarah Parshall Perry, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “The conservatives are standing up to say the interests that were sufficient for protection in 1972 now need double protection because all it’s taking is for someone to identify as a female, even though they are a biological male, and take away scholarships, slots in admissions, competitive team roster slots.” 

On a brisk spring day in Ann Arbor, it’s easy to see how far the country has evolved since those 37 words were codified in 1972 – and how far Ms. Hutchins has journeyed. Her office overlooks a $5 million softball complex, where she and a battalion of coaches run three-hour practices with Swiss watch efficiency. The lobby of their training building overflows with trophies. Their games appear on ESPN, and the 2,800-seat stadium regularly fills up with ticket-buying fans.

Over her 39 seasons as head coach, Ms. Hutchins, known in the college softball world simply as “Hutch,” has led the Wolverines to the NCAA Women’s College World Series 12 times, winning it once. She has clinched 22 Big Ten titles and helped produce 69 All-American athletes. She’s been named Big Ten Coach of the Year 18 times, has been inducted into numerous sports halls of fame, and has won more games than any coach – female or male – in Michigan’s storied sports history. She ended the 2022 season in May with 1,707 victories.

Yet despite the impressive résumé, Ms. Hutchins hasn’t forgotten how in 1985, when she first got the job as head softball coach, she had to mow her own field after doing morning secretarial duties. Or how in 2007, two years after winning the World Series, she took the risk of asking for a raise after the university awarded the men’s baseball coach, who was younger, less experienced, and less successful, a contract that doubled his salary. Ms. Hutchins challenged the discrepancy and eventually won her own more lucrative contract. 

But it was never about the money, she says. “It’s about the value of women.”

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP/File
Lexie Blair is a star softball player at the University of Michigan and is interested in a career in sports communication.

And she doesn’t want her athletes to forget it, either. Educating her players about Title IX is a task Ms. Hutchins makes as much a part of her coaching as rotating her players through hitting and fielding drills. She often leads team discussions. 

Lexie Blair, a star Wolverines outfielder from Winter Garden, Florida, recalls a rained-out game during a trip to California. Ms. Hutchins took the whole team to see “On the Basis of Sex,” the feature film about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They spent the bus ride back to the hotel discussing Title IX and gender discrimination. It all leaves an imprint on these young scholar-athletes.

“Hutch, you know, her thing is you want to leave the world better than you found it. And I feel like ... she can go out saying, ‘I left the world better than I found it,’” says Ms. Blair, a communication and media major who aspires to become a sports broadcaster. “She’s huge on leadership, huge on using your voice, huge on just taking the opportunity to expand knowledge and pass it on to other people. ... I think that’s something I’ll carry throughout my career and then throughout my life. [It’s something] that I want to do and pass on to younger girls.”

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