Imagine applying for a degree program in medicine and being denied admission solely because you are a woman.
You would be rightfully appalled. This violation of your basic rights might sound far-fetched today, but it was the reality for many women prior to the passing of Title IX in 1972. Administered by the Office of Civil Rights, Title IX is a law that bans sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs within elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools. Title IX says that all students must have equal access to scholarships, equipment, facilities, and other resources that help students be successful. More specifically, Title IX states:
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 education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
The law did not initially mention athletics explicitly, but by mentioning the word “activity,” Title IX enabled women to gain increased access to sports. It also incorporates other protections for students, staff, and federal program participants, including:
The right to an environment free of sexual harassment and discrimination
Equal access to professional development and mentorship
Equitable treatment within science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs, which have traditionally been deemed “male-dominated” disciplines
Fair treatment regardless of pregnancy status
How Title IX has changed
In the 1970s, Title IX was just scratching the surface of combating discrimination against women in educational programs. Since then, Title IX has advanced through several key changes:
Challenging the way sex is established and classified in sports programs
Extending protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity
Changing the way colleges and universities handle sexual misconduct cases and requiring equal appeals processes for all parties
Adding protections for employees, specifically regarding workplace harassment and discrimination
Revising the definition of ‘sexual discrimination’ to include sexual assault
Exemptions of the law
Some aspects of Title IX allow exclusionary practices within the confines of the law. Examples include:
No equal spending. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, Title IX does not require equal spending on male and female sports; however, it does require that schools provide equal financial assistance.
Limited reach within religious organizations. Faith-based schools can request an exemption from Title IX if complying with the law means going against their religious beliefs. In 2022, a federal judge upheld the exemption when 40 members of the LGBTQ+ community sued the Department of Education to abate the exemption.
The admissions function within private colleges and some public schools. These institutions can form all girls' or all boys’ schools, for example, without violating Title IX.
No governance over sorority and fraternity membership practices. Greek organizations can maintain same-sex membership requirements, but all other activities must comply with Title IX.
The evolution of Title IX: Supreme Court cases and women trailblazers to know
Prior to the passing of Title IX, everything from gaining admission to rigorous academic programs to securing scholarships was out of reach for women, which likely hampered graduation rates. The Justice Department reports that 14 percent of men graduated college in 1970 compared to just 8 percent of women aged 19 and older. Title IX was developed to reduce the barriers that hindered women from finishing college and laid the foundation for several landmark Supreme Court cases.
Here are a few you should know:
Grove City College v. Bell
This 1978 lawsuit helped clarify what it meant to be subject to Title IX requirements. Two years prior to the lawsuit, the Department of Education required Grove City College to verify its compliance with Title IX since several of its students received federal aid to attend the school. The school refused since it did not receive federal funds directly. In the end, the court determined that the college was in fact subject to Title IX regulations, sending a message to other schools that the law had greater reach than people initially realized.
NCAA v. Smith
By 1996, it had become clear that any school receiving federal funds was subject to Title IX regulations, but it was still unclear whether private organizations like the NCAA were subject to the same rules.
When Renee Smith, a volleyball player and graduate of St. Bonaventure University, was denied the right to play at her graduate school, she requested a waiver from the NCAA. When it was denied, Smith filed a lawsuit claiming that the NCAA grants more waivers to male athletes. The NCAA countered that it does not receive federal financial assistance and therefore, cannot be subject to Title IX. Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the NCAA, solidifying that Title IX did not apply to the organization.
Bostock v. Clayton County
Although Title IX is often associated with school settings, cases like Bostock v. Clayton County have made it a mainstay in other workplaces as well. When longtime Clayton County employee Gerald Bostock joined a gay softball league at work, he did not realize he would be fired soon after. Although the County did not explicitly mention his sexual orientation, the discriminatory remarks Bostock started getting led him to believe that the County terminated him because he was a gay man. Bostock, who’d maintained satisfactory job performance for years, cited his dismissal from work as a Title IX violation in his 2016 lawsuit. The initial lawsuit and subsequent appeal were dismissed. However, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling in June 2020, solidifying the idea that discriminating against someone for their sexual orientation automatically constitutes sex-based discrimination.
Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education
When teacher and basketball coach Roderick Jackson realized that the girl’s team was receiving less funding than the boy’s team, he brought his concerns to the school. After being terminated as a coach, Jackson filed a lawsuit stating that being fired for speaking up about the inequities was a Title IX violation. Initially, the court ruled against Jackson but in 2004, the Supreme Court ruled that retaliating against an employee for reporting a Title IX violation amounts to sex discrimination. This case raised a key issue: Title IX violations could not be addressed if students and staff were too afraid to report them.
Today, every school that receives federal funds is responsible for establishing safe reporting procedures for Title IX violations.
5 pivotal women in Title IX history to know
The list of women who have played a role in the history of Title IX includes everyone from the women whose grievances about sex-based discrimination went unheard to HR professionals, Title IX coordinators, and policymakers who have helped shape legislation along the way.
While we don’t know all of their names, we do know the names of several women who were instrumental in advancing Title IX.
Depending on where you look, you might find Title IX under its official name: the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity Act. Patsy Mink, the first Asian-American woman to serve in Congress, was the primary author of Title IX. Known for her staunch support of women’s rights legislation, Mink was heavily influenced by her own experiences with sex discrimination. According to the University of Chicago Library, Mink had applied to multiple medical programs as a student but was repeatedly denied. She decided to become a lawyer instead and was only one of two women in her graduating class. Mink’s indelible mark on the fight for equal opportunities is still evident today.
Tina Sloan Green
Tina Sloan Green is no stranger to making history. Green was the first Black woman to coach a college lacrosse team, heading the Temple University Owls between 1975 and 1992. Green witnessed the early years of Title IX and observed the slow shift in women’s sports, but also recognized the disparities that persisted for Black girls and women. To remedy this, Green began pushing for more Black coaches to be present at Title IX conferences and created more opportunities for Black women to be exposed to multiple sports from an early age. In 1992, Green co-founded the Black Women in Sport Foundation, whose mission is to increase access to sports for Black children in Philadelphia and neighboring areas.
Billie Jean King
With 39 Grand Slam titles and a spot in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, Billie Jean King is not just a legend in tennis; she’s also a lifelong advocate for equality. According to her website, King’s early experiences with gender inequality helped drive her efforts to create equal opportunities for women, on and off the tennis court. King’s public support of Title IX, perhaps most notably by testifying on Capitol Hill in 1973, was central to cementing the law in the U.S. legal system.
Marcia Greenberger is the first full-time women’s rights legal advocate in Washington, D.C., and the founder of the National Women’s Law Center, which was created in 1972 to rally against sex discrimination. "The idea that women aren't interested in sports or just aren't good at it, well that's the exact kind of stereotypical thinking that has kept women out of law and medicine over the years," Greenberger reportedly told ESPN regarding Title IX. Her tireless work to promote and enforce Title IX has undoubtedly helped the law evolve over the years.
Nancy Lieberman was a teenager when Title IX was enacted and, by her own account, oblivious to the fight for equal access to education and athletics. However, as the first female athlete to attend Old Dominion University on a full scholarship, she would soon come to understand the importance of the law and how it made her dreams possible. Nicknamed “Lady Magic,” Lieberman went on to become the first two-time winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy, the first woman to try out for the NBA, and a household name in basketball as a player, coach, and analyst.
How to report discrimination under Title IX
You have the right to report any situation that makes you feel uncomfortable. But how do you know if the situation is a Title IX violation? Discrimination under Title IX usually means that you have not received the proper access or resources at school or work because of your sex.
Here are a few examples of what that might look like:
A member of the organization requesting sexual favors in exchange for getting on a team or getting a promotion
Being bullied for how you identify
Getting hugs, kisses, hand-holding, or other unwanted physical contact
Being exposed to an uncomfortable environment by a coach, professor, supervisor, or authority figure; in 2022, a Title IX investigation was initiated against former WNBA player and Texas Southern women’s basketball coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, whose alleged abuse reportedly included bullying, name-calling, and berating the players about their looks and sexual lives. Eventually, Cooper-Dyke resigned and the investigation was closed. The complainants brought significant awareness to the violation of their rights, which could help sustain a healthier environment going forward.
If you are unsure where your issue falls, consider going to the ombudsman or Title IX coordinator at your institution to talk through your options.
You can also report the matter directly to the Office for Civil Rights by accessing the Complaint Assessment System. Anyone who believes they have been discriminated against can file a complaint. You can also file a complaint on behalf of someone else but should get their consent before doing so.
The future of Title IX
In 1972, Title IX lawmakers captured some aspects of sex discrimination, but time would reveal that there was much more to protecting and including women at educational institutions. The Biden administration’s 2022 proposed changes to Title IX could vastly alter the law, calling for more accommodations for pregnant students and staff, increasing protections for LGBTQ+ individuals, and adding language that prevents discrimination based on stereotypes.
In so many cases, laws are fixed directives that do not offer everyone the same humanity and respect, resulting in sweeping injustices for marginalized groups. While ongoing changes to Title IX offer hope that some laws can evolve with the world, there is still work to be done. According to a 2022 Pew Research Center study, 46 percent of women say that Title IX has not done enough to increase access for women in sports, compared to just 29 percent of men. The message here is that Title IX has come a long way and still has a ways to go.
When asked how she felt about being a trailblazer in women’s sports, Tina Sloan Green once said, “I was very proud to be the first, but I never wanted to be the ‘only’.” Title IX must continue to evolve to ensure that even if a woman is the first one in her league, she will not be the only one.