I’m a day late recognizing the 38th anniversary of Title IX.
But it’s never too late to give a big shout out to Bernice Sandler, the woman responsible for initiating the law that for almost four decades now–long enough to see significant benefits to girls and the women they become–from removing barriers to access to equity in school sports and educational opportunities that used to be denied to females based solely on gender.
How much has changed? Let me tell you this story: When my occasionally impolitic husband, Alex, asked a friend’s soccer ace 8-year-old daughter Emily whether she was a tomboy, Emily replied without a trace of self-consciousness: “What’s that?”
You can be sure women have made serious progress when even the language that would have defined an athletic girl as an aberration from her gender just a generation before has disappeared from the lexicon. Emily learned a bevy of leadership skills from the team sport, and has had the sort of experience that boys have been learning as a matter of course forever but only recently have been available to girls. Physical mastery, for starters. How to be competitive and collegial at the same time. Building a team and the power of teamwork. How to win gracefully, and that losing isn’t the same thing as defeat. Strategic thinking—just to name a few. That girls who play sports are somewhat more likely to get higher education and to work in high-skilled but previously male-dominated jobs suggests that these leadership competencies pay off over the long haul.
Emily gets to play soccer in school thanks to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, later renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act to honor the late congresswoman who authored the law banning gender discrimination in federal funding of educational programs, including, for the first time, athletics. The impetus for this legislation came about when Bernice Sandler was turned down for a professor’s position. After a male faculty member told Sandler she hadn’t been hired because, “You come on too strong for a woman,” she realized she had no recourse against such discrimination unless new laws were written. Properly insulted, Sandler researched the laws and then located a supportive congresswoman to draft the remedy and champion it through to passage.
Gaining the right to an equal opportunity to play soccer is one thing. Choosing to take the opportunity to play is another. The same is true of all other opportunities women have today as a result of the trailblaing and door-opening done by generations of women before us.
That’s why it’s important to celebrate milestones: to make sure that Emily and her peers not only have the luxury of never thinking that playing sports makes them “tomboys” or in any way an aberration from the norm, but also so that they may learn their responsibility to ensure that future generations of girls and women can do the same.
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