This month marks 50 years of Title IX, a groundbreaking civil rights law that prohibits federally funded educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of sex. Even after 50 years, Title IX is still evolving, and we believe must be strengthened in the interest of all students and school employees.
Title IX requires that educational institutions from elementary through higher education provide students equal opportunity to participate in sports programs, academic courses and extracurricular activities, and protect students and staff against sex/gender discrimination, including sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Title IX is a gender-neutral law, ensuring that individuals can excel regardless of gender norms. For example, in the historically female-dominated field of nursing, men made up 12% of U.S. nurses as of 2019, up from 2.7% in 1970. Before Title IX passage in 1972, women comprised only 12% of first-year law school enrollment in the 1971-72 academic year, but more than 50% nationwide by 2016. Such significant gains have also been made by female school and college athletes, demonstrated right here at home in the growth of women in professional sports, such as the OL Reign and Seattle Storm.
Ten years ago, our Times Op-Ed on the 40th anniversary of Title IX highlighted that while Title IX had been a powerful law, racial disparities remained, with higher participation rates in sports for white women and girls than nonwhite women. While significant efforts and gains have been made, there is more work to do to address the barriers to participation that women and girls of color face.
In addition to those disparities, differences between the letter and the spirit of the law as well as the implementation of it matter greatly. The ideals and rights specified by Title IX are less impactful without vigorous support from the agency responsible for enforcing it, the U.S. Department of Education.
Over the past few years, Title IX regulations unfortunately have become a political battleground. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Department of Education issued a controversial rule change expanding the rights of individuals accused of sexual assault and narrowing the definition of sexual harassment, which many said would discourage sexual assault survivors from reporting.
With the new administration in the White House, more changes are expected to the rules governing Title IX. The Biden administration is expected not only to roll back those Trump-era changes, but also to codify protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, extending Title IX protections to transgender students.
Ideological battles around Title IX are taking place at the state level, too. In March, Utah became the 12th state to enact legislation that would bar young transgender athletes from participating in girls’ sports, overriding the governor’s veto. This law will likely be challenged in the courts.
As policymakers, parents and women, we know that Title IX was meant to ensure that all students, regardless of their gender or identity, can take advantage of every opportunity in safe schools and universities. It aimed to ensure that all students can explore the many different facets of themselves through participation in athletics, academics and extracurriculars.
Looking to the future of Title IX, let’s remember that complacency is not an option, but that Title IX shouldn’t be a battleground either, leaving students to bear the brunt of political posturing.
Title IX was intended to protect the freedom of young people to learn, grow and compete regardless of gender or identity, and has changed the lives of countless young people over the last 50 years. Hopefully, with the support of a grounded U.S. Department of Justice, it will improve lives for the next 50, too.