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Women's Sports Today & the 36 Words that Made It All Possible

Even for non-sports fans it would have been hard to miss the excitement around Baylor's women basketball team victory over Notre Dame last week. With this victory, the Baylor women not only won the national championship but became the first N.C.A.A. basketball - in either the women's or men's divisions - to win 40 games in a season. Deservingly, much attention has been paid to the role of 6-foot-8 Baylor star Brittney Griner, recently named the Associated Press' women's college basketball Player of the Year.1

Stepping back from these current events for a moment however, it's worthwhile to reflect on the relatively recent changes that took place in America that made accomplishments like Griner's possible. The U.S. has among the highest levels of participation of girls in sports and that fact is largely due to a little known, but hugely significant law passed in 1972 called Title IX. Title IX is incredibly succinct, declaring in only 36 words that "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 program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." In short, title IX requires gender equity in all educational programs that receive federal funding. Although this post focuses on its impact on athletics, it's worth noting that the law also contributed significantly to the increase in women obtaining advanced degrees due to elimination of gender bias in admission policies.

Prior to its passage, many schools offered few athletic options for girls and even major sporting events often barred women. The picture below depicts a famous instant during the 1967 when Kathrine Switzer ran in the Boston Marathon in violation of its ban against women. Officials attempted to remove the 20 year old Syracuse University student from the route mid-run but other runners came to her aid, and she was able to complete the race.

There's no question that Title IX has had a transformative impact on girl's and women's participation in sports. Just consider that the number of women's intercollegiate teams at colleges increased from an average of 2.5 per school in 1970 (two years before Title IX's enactment) to 8.65 per school in 2008 -- that translated to an increase in the number of individual female college athletes from 16,000 in 1968 to over 180,000 in 2008. High school participation experienced similar growth and, as of 2007, there were over three million high school female athletes not including those involved with community and club teams.2

As a child of the '80s, I personally benefited from the legacy of Title IX. There was never any question in my family that I would play sports as a child and our community and school system provided robust sports programs for both girls and boys. Like me, the young female stars of today such as Griner are the inheritors of the Title IX legacy. As we celebrate the athletic accomplishments of today, let's take a moment to remember the hard work and dedication of girls and women of the past that helped make it possible.

Recommended Reading

For a great resource on teaching tweens/teens about the history of Title IX and its impact on girls' lives, we recommend Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America.

There are several great, inspirational books on famous women athletes perfect for young athletes or those you'd like to encourage to participate in sports including Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?, Superwomen: 100 Women-100 Sports, Yes, She Can!: Women's Sports Pioneers, and Extraordinary Women Athletes.

A Mighty Girl also has a growing sports section with many fiction and non-fiction books on girls and women in sports that can be sorted by a specific sport. And, for a compelling depiction of girl's sports prior to the passage of Title IX, don't miss the film Believe In Me.

Title IX is a living law - even with the many advances in women's athletics, it is still very relevant today and faces challenges to weaken its impact. To learn more about protecting Title IX and about your rights under Title IX, the Women's Sports Foundation offers wonderful resources. They also offer this helpful primer on Title IX.

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