What Every Woman Should Know is a column on American Women’s History.
Most people like to think of history as a nice, neat, linear progression. That’s hardly how it goes, however, and that little fact is why we have aphorisms like “two steps forward, one step back,” and “history is doomed to repeat itself.” In reality, history is a reflection of humanity, and humanity is chaotic and messy. Earlier this year I re-read the first chapter of The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s seminal work, which I had not picked up since I was a girl too young to understand it. I was amazed to re-learn how much women had lost in the years between passage of the 19thAmendment and publication of that ground-breaking work. I was, of course, compelled to make the analogy that we’re here again, repeating ourselves, falling victim myself to the fantasy that history is neat and linear.
What jolted me back from my delusion was basketball season, and the presence of so many women on the court. It’s true, as a Louisville girl, I perhaps got swept up in the hometown fervor as Angel McCoughtry tried to bring the championship home to the University of Louisville (full disclosure: I am a graduate student in U of L’s English program), but I also remembered that this is the impact of Title IX, or The Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, and that it is the perfect example of feminism scoring a win.
Title IX stipulates that:
No person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid.
Title IX was designed to protect women and girls from discrimination in education, but it also protects boys and men. 37 years after its passage, Title IX has had an impact for women in several previously male-dominated fields, most notably perhaps in sports and in careers associated with math and science. It also made possible the stunning statistic that today there are more women in college than men—to the tune of 57%. Turn the statistics on their heads. Can you imagine if this statistic applied to number of women in elected positions? If we can do it with Title IX, we can certainly do it with other goals.
To understand the full impact of Title IX, perhaps some statistics are in order. In 1972, women earned just 9% of medical degrees and 7% of law degrees. Most medical and law schools limited the enrollment of women to 15 or fewer, regardless of student body size. Today we are nearing parity in both of those fields. When Title IX was passed, most schools would not allow women to take certain courses, such as Auto Mechanics or Criminal Justice, and men were prohibited from taking Home Economics. Entry standards and tests were different for men and women as well. In 1972 most universities assigned a curfew of midnight for women; men had no curfew.
Sports scholarships for women barely existed before Title IX. In fact, just 7.5%, or less than 300,000 of all high school athletes were girls in 1971. Today those numbers stand at 39% or 2.4 million. Of the athletic scholarships available, 50,000 went to men and fewer than 50 went to women in 1971. Yes, fewer than 50. Today 80% of female managers at Fortune 500 companies have an athletic background.
Watching the University of Louisville Women’s Basketball team this last March was an eye-opening experience for me. For the first time in my life I found myself yelling at the T.V. I cheered with all my might when my team scored or took the lead. I never understood this behavior before, though I recall watching men do it routinely throughout my life. It was a “guy thing.” But during that play off season I got my first taste of what that was like. By the time the final game was half over I didn’t care who won, I just wept because I had never experienced anything like it. I never would have if it were not for Title IX.
Since its inception, the law known as Title IX of the Education Amendments has been under attack, subjected to amendments and court challenges, and still it has stood and women have made progress under it. Here is a list of the attempts to amend the document, and when they occurred. The lengthy list is breathtaking in scope, and makes clear where our elected officials have stood with regard to women’s rights. They have fought them tooth and nail, with very few exceptions.
So many women today, who are free to declare whatever major they want in college, and later pursue whatever career they choose, have forgotten that it wasn’t until 1972 that they were granted that right. If you have the opportunity, remind them. Remind them that every ambition they currently have was largely verboten just a few decades ago. When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique less than fifty years ago, women were awakened to what they’d lost in the preceding fifty years. We do not want to find ourselves there again. Sharing our own history with each other is currently our only option in preventing this loss of knowledge. It is up to us to ensure we are not doomed to repeat this important step in the progress for Civil Rights.