A Look Back at Title IX

By Charlotte Turner

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 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 education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Forty years later, Title IX remains one of the most important legislative decisions regarding education in America.

Title IX is best known for the impact it had on sports. Women had little to no opportunities to participate in college athletics before, were forced to raise their own funds for their sports team (if they had one at all), and discouraged from engaging in an area that they were told was best reserved for men. Aside from the predominantly negative attitudes surrounding women and sports (or perhaps because of it), women’s athletics received no federal funding. Title IX changed that, and should be given due credit for providing women the opportunity to earn scholarships based on athletic merit and compete in a field that promotes individual growth. This was, however, just one area that the landmark legislation revolutionized.

Beyond athletics, Title IX also addressed gender inequality in other key areas: access to higher education, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students, employment, learning environment, math and science, sexual harassment, and standardized testing and technology.

There was a time, not so long ago, when mainstream American culture viewed a woman’s worth as almost inextricably interwoven with marriage and children. That was the vein of old ideas that discouraged women from participating in sports and that held marriage (and pregnancy) as mutually exclusive to higher education. A woman could educate herself or raise a family, but she could not do both. Even if she got an education, of course, her chances of having a career were negligible compared to her male counterparts. Her college experience was more likely to remain an experience than to actually allow her to flourish in her chosen field. In fact, many women were not given access to their chosen field, especially if it lay within the sciences. The supporters of Title IX recognized the growing rebellion against old concepts of rigid gender roles and helped to facilitate that rebellion. Today, women make up the majority of all college undergraduate and graduate students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women earned the majority of all degrees in the 2009-2010.

Still, there is more work to be done. Although Title IX also requires that students who are or have been pregnant (as well as students of any marital status) be given the same opportunities as any other student, schools continue to discriminate against pregnant and parenting students. For students who are pregnant, Title IX maintains that pregnancy must be treated as any other temporary disability and that the student be allowed necessary absences due to their condition. In the past, institutions of higher education not only failed to grant equal rights to such students but were quick to expel them. This is no longer the common practice, but problems remain. For example, some schools have failed to institute a consistent policy regarding absences and make-up work, leaving it instead to the individual student and his or her professors.

In science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), too, women have been given equal opportunity and access to their respective fields. However, the problem remains that equal access is not synonymous with equal realization. Although the legislation supplies a crucial set of laws that must apply to each educational program that receives federal funding, societal ideas and attitudes often lag behind the implementation of laws. Women continue to report discrimination in STEM and are underrepresented in such fields. In 2009, according to Why So Few?, published by the American Association of University Women, women earned only nineteen percent of physics bachelor’s degrees and twenty-two percent of master’s or doctorate degrees in engineering or engineering technologies. Why are there still so few? Mathematician, computer scientist, and President of Harvey Mudd College Maria Klawe was “consistently told by teachers in adolescence, then later by colleagues, that the things she was interested in were things women didn’t do,” said Klawe’s husband Nicholas Pippenger in The New York Times. Although the times and the laws are changing, real change requires vigilance. Women and men must continue to report and examine such cases of discrimination and fight to close the gap between the laws and their implementation if Title IX is going to have its desired effect. As one often hears these days, “freedom isn’t free.”

Charlotte Turner is a junior at Clark University majoring in English. Clark is home to the Lambda of Massachusetts chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.