The fight for women and girls in sport did not end with Title IX

This Saturday will mark the 40th anniversary of Title IX, a piece of legislation that has done more to open up sports and athletics to women and girls than just about any thing else I can think of.

Women and girls did play sports prior to the passage of Title IX, but the lack of institutional support made it really difficult and the women who prevailed had to be extraordinary to do so.  That lack of institutional support manifested itself in ways that I think women and girls of my generation take for granted, like, say, having no locker rooms for women. For instance, Cheryl Treworgy, pioneer of women’s running (and mother of Olympic-bound marathoner Shalane Flanagan), has talked in the past about having to change and clean up in gas station bathrooms while traveling to meets. I’m pretty sure that if playing volleyball in high school meant changing out my uniform in some grubby Gas ‘n Sip bathroom in the outskirts of Tulsa, I would have been perfectly happy to stick to debate, you know?

Sadly, there seems to be a belief among my fellow feminists that the passage of Title IX means women have full access to sports and athletics and nothing more needs to be said or done on the topic.  It’s as if the statute became law and women’s rights activists crossed it off their list and said, “Okay, what’s next?”  I regularly read a lot of the major feminist blogs, and the topic of women’s sports almost never surfaces, and when it does it’s almost always in conjunction with Title IX.  I understand that a lot of feminist bloggers, writers and activists have their hands full, what with lawmakers who think “vagina” is a dirty word and officials who are slowly but surely trying to lay claim to the nation’s uteri and the defeat of equal pay legislation and so on and so forth, and I also imagine that quite a few feminists consider sports to be frivolous and not worthy of attention.

However, I also think it’s important to recognize that female athletes are still fighting for respect.  It’s also important to remember that one person’s frivolity is another person’s passion.  And I don’t think I can state this enough – many of us are the strong, capable women we are in large part because we have proven ourselves on the playing field.

Here are three reasons why I don’t think anyone who cares about women and sports should be resting on their laurels quite yet.

1.  Title IX is still facing challenges.

Forget the comments that are sure to appear on every news site whenever discussion of Title IX takes place (and believe me, they are – a certain class of individual seethes with rage whenever the words “title” and “nine” are mentioned in the same sentence, usually followed with some sputtering about men’s wrestling and women’s competitive basket-weaving).

Even state legislators are voicing their displeasure with Title IX.  They are even doing it in the presence of iconic female athletes during ceremonies meant to commemorate Title IX:

[Brandi] Chastain was on hand along with Brazilian soccer player Sissi for what was expected to be a routine adoption of a resolution to honor the 40th anniversary of Title IX. But what Chastain didn’t see coming was an expression of resentment to the federal law that mandated gender equity in high school and collegiate sports.

Assemblyman Chris Norby contended that Title IX’s advances for women had also meant fewer athletic opportunities for men.

Said the Fullerton Republican: “We need to be honest about the effects of what I believe are faulty court interpretations or federal enforcement of Title IX, because it has led to the abolition of many male sports across the board in (California’s public colleges). And that was never the intention of this, to have numerical equality. It was never the intention to attain equality by reducing opportunities for the men.”

Assemblyman Norby was rather high-profile in his attacks, which were sure to draw attention, seeing as though he made them in the presence of one of the most recognizable female athletes of the 1990s.  And yet Norby was merely vocalizing what many feel to be true.

Title IX has faced a barrage of less overt but no less damaging attacks. Don’t believe me?  There’s an entire blog dedicated to tracking the legal issues surrounding Title IX.  The blog dates back to 2006 and contains hundreds of entries.

These attacks continue despite the fact that Title IX does not even include the words “sports” or “athletics,” and that the benefits of the legislation have extended throughout the entire educational system.  (And especially considering that the attacks on Title IX are misguided, to put it politely.)

The fact that Title IX’s impact on sports and athletics draws the heaviest fire, even though it has been applied to all aspects of education, is evidence that there is a sizable contingent among us who still believe that sports are for men and men alone.

2. Title IX did not help all female athletes.

Amid all of the celebration of Title IX, two groups met in recent weeks to discuss the ways in which black female athletes were left behind under Title IX.   From a New York Times article about the forums:

According to a 2007 report by the United States Department of Education, among high school sophomores, white girls had a 51 percent participation rate in sports, compared with 40 percent for black girls. The percentages were lower for Asian/Pacific Islanders (34 percent) and Hispanics (32 percent).

The lack of access to sports at youth levels becomes manifest at the intercollegiate level, where African-American women are underrepresented in all but two sports: Division I basketball, where black women represent 50.6 percent of athletes, and indoor and outdoor track and field, where they represent 28.2 and 27.5 percent. They are all but missing in lacrosse (2.2 percent), swimming (2.0), soccer (5.3) and softball (8.2). They are an underrepresented rising presence in volleyball (11.6).

As I read this, I thought about statistics that found white women by and far were the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action (which is particularly interesting when you think of all the racist blathering about “unqualified” black people taking spots away from the white men who “rightfully” earned them – oh reality, once again showing your absence from the minds of bigots).  Legislation can be powerful but it can also be imperfect, as this shows.

The Women’s Sports Foundation has a position paper in which they lay out the disparities:

  • 17.5% of the female athletic opportunities for black women, who comprise 26.2% of the female student population
  • 75% of total female athletic opportunities for white women, who comprise 68.5% of the female student population
  • More than two-thirds of those black female athletes participate in two sports: basketball and track & field

The statistics grow ever more dismal when you start looking at administrative and coaching positions.

Clearly the blind spots among mainstream feminism have persisted even into the realm of athletics, and I think white feminists like myself would do well to update our way of looking at the world and to recognize that it’s not simply a matter of all women facing the same battle, but that we occupy different positions of power based on things like our race, our class, our nationality and our physical abilities.

Now, this isn’t to say that Title IX hasn’t done a lot for female athletes of all races.    The participation of black women in college athletics has increased by nearly 1000% since the passage of Title IX.  Yet the fact that a gap remains – for black men as well – tells me that we can do better.

3.  Women are still marginalized in the highest level of sports culture – the professional realm.

Oh boy, where do I begin with this?  How about the fact that this country only seems to have room for one high-profile professional women’s sports league?  And that a league that looked like it might have a chance, due to its roster of legit stars, folded earlier this year?  And yet there seems to be endless desire for women’s sports where the players wear nothing more than lingerie?

How about the fact that women’s sports only garnered 1.6% of all sports-related media coverage on television?  Or the fact that fewer and fewer head coaches are women?  Or the fact that ESPN actually had a whole category on its contact form dedicated to complaining about female commentators?

Can we talk about the fan experience?  How sports organizations think that making gear female-friendly means producing it in various shades of blush and bashful?  Or that the CBC actually thought it was a good idea to create a show called “While the Men Watch” to run concurrently with Hockey Night?  Or the fact that the only women you’ll ever seen on a court, baseball diamond or ice rink at a pro games are the young ladies hired to be eye candy in short shorts or midriff-baring tops?

Title IX has accomplished incredible things, there is no doubt about that.  But the fight is not over. Forty years after Title IX, there is still work that remains to be done.


This post was written as part of the Title IX blog carnival for the National Women’s Law Center.

7 responses to “The fight for women and girls in sport did not end with Title IX

  1. Sports are one thing, but I think there’s possibly an even more basic issue, which is that physical education/physical culture is taught as if everyone is a boy who wants to play team ball sports. When I was growing up, girls who maybe would have really loved some other kind of physical activity were subject to the humiliation of always being considered second-class citizens in gym class, mostly picked last and mostly not getting the benefit of physical “education”. As a result, most women that I know from my generation hated “exercise” (though what they really hated was the constant social ranking and lack of proper instruction entailed in this model of phys ed) and had to redefine physical activity for themselves as adults, because the ONLY model was so one-size-fits-all. It’s like “girls aren’t good at math” — built into our model of how we train people to be active are assumptions that all people are alike and learn the same way.

    • This is so true! I’ve read writing/research that says this acculturation starts well before we even start school and that people are way more likely to encourage athleticism with their sons and to discourage it with their daughters. I think people have this tendency to think of athleticism as this thing that is inborn, like you either have it or you don’t, and while this is true to a certain extent, it’s also true that most athletes are made, not born. Not that everyone has to be an athlete, but I guess it’s more the idea that a person’s physicality is only developed as much as they actually use it. And sadly our culture still does not have a lot of room for truly physical women and girls.

      Colette Dowling wrote a whole book – that I love to bits and pieces – about this, called “The Fragility Myth.” I highly recommend it.

  2. About pro sports. Once you get to that level, it becomes a business. It gets very murky. The thought is not necessarily equality, though it may be a factor in brining in talent (which may or may not be something mandated by the companies who can afford it), it’s very much about investment and return. That’s a major basis of getting into a business. I personally would pay to see pro athletic women perform for reasons that 90%+ of society may not pay for, but I doubt only my own dollars can support a women’s pro sports club.

    • Definitely. It’s complicated and I don’t mean to act like people should take on women’s sports as charity projects. Rather, I think the fact that we only have one – or two, if you count the WNBA – women’s pro sports leagues that are staying afloat, and that even that one (women’s tennis) is facing its share of problems, tells me that we still have a long way to go before we accept the idea of women as athletes, you know what I’m saying?

      • I do, though I don’t agree 100% on that point. I think there is potential to develop female athletics on a pro level more, but, it’s a risky venture which has to overcome the prevailing idea of mainstream femininity or rather, it has to evolve beyond curves. I think it may be a matter of the right people making the investment in that.

        We often in movies, TV shows, animations, etc, get that overwhelmingly strong female type character for that shock and awe moment, but is she taken seriously enough?

        I think We’ll find out more once the bold experiment in the Avatar: The Legend of Korra ends its first season.

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  4. Everyone who enjoys sports, should buy a ticket to a WNBA game. If you support women’s sports, then you should watch women’s sports, at least once.

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