With both political candidates focusing so heavily on the women's vote this November, I thought I would re-run one of my earlier columns this year about the many positive effects of Title IX, the ruling that changed my life and the life of many famous individuals.
My niece Amelia, age 9, is one busy and very smart girl. Just recently, she won her school's science fair by having her soccer teammates taste and quality-test bottled and tap water. Her next step is to represent her school in the regional science fair.
But that might be something of a challenge for her and her parents...the regional science fair is the same day as her cello concert. But, as her father says, they'll manage. It's a good problem to have!
As you can see by the picture, she honored her soccer team's participation in her science project by wearing her kit to the awards ceremony.
Scientific studies indicate that children who participate in sports do better in math and science. They also enjoy better health and well-being than their more sedentary counterparts, and are better equipped to manage pressure-filled situations.
In other words, life is only made better and healthier when allowed to participate in sports.
Small wonder that one of her life's ambitions...and they change frequently...has been to help her daddy at his environmental law firm.
My niece's life was brought to you, courtesy of Title IX.
Title IX was passed on June 23, 1972, and declares the following:
"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."
Before 1972, the only women's sports available for professional public consumption were tennis, golf and bowling. Every four years, we were reintroduced to track and field, swimming, diving, gymnastics, and figure skating, courtesy of the Olympics. And in the 50's and 70's, there was roller derby, which is currently enjoying a renaissance. (Thanks for a fun Saturday night, Windy City Rollers).
Since 1972, according to the Women's Sports Foundation, female participation in high school sports has increased by more than 900%.
Amelia, born in 2002, lives in a vastly different world than the one her father and I grew up in. She has a confidence and maturity I didn't develop until much later. She has choices and abilities that were unheard of a generation before. Today, women and girls everywhere have more freedom that ever before to use their uniquely God-given talents.
When I was Amelia's age, I was a left-handed, red-headed, feisty tomboy whose tiny, feisty, former ballerina mother bravely battled pre-Title IX village bureaucrats for girls to have the right to play Little League ball. In Pre-Title IX days, there was no SOFTBALL team, either. At the same time, I was struggling to love a game that was my only outlet in our local park district ...tennis. And trying to look as graceful as my swan-like good friends at our weekly ballet lessons. (Never happened!)
Don't get me wrong. I love tennis. And classical ballet. But it still wasn't my heart. And I was trying to figure out some exercise that I could love that involved a good throwing arm and footwork.
Oops, couldn't play football either!
Title IX changed my battleground from winning the legal right to access to ensuring that the rights were exercised. The only other law that has had as many challenges, I think, has been the Voting Rights Act of 1865 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
As any civil rights lawyer will likely tell you, changing or adding federal laws to legally change the rules is one thing. Changing a culture, a set of values, an entrenched system, and a social environment is, at best, an ongoing work in progress.
There is a Pre-Title IX generation, I find, who truly doesn't believe that women's sports will ever be a force in this world. They don't believe the game is interesting. And as the Women's Sports Foundation points out, "Typically, athletic departments have refused to "tighten the belt" of popular men's sports like football, and have cut men's non-revenue producing sports instead and blamed it on Title IX."
Three points, says the Foundation, should be made in this regard: (1) it is dysfunctional to "pit the victims against the victims" -- men's non-revenue sports against women's sports, both of which have been traditionally underfunded, (2) over 80% of all college football programs and almost all high school football programs lose money, and (3) nothing negative would happen to men's revenue-producing sports if their budgets were decreased across the board with all schools and all teams lowering expenditures simultaneously so the playing field is kept level. In fact, football expenditures have continued to increase at rates higher than inflation.
NBA Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman, one of the first recipients of an athletic scholarship under Title IX, remains committed to the cause. "I'm a lifer," she told me last summer. "My son grew up watching the WNBA. So did a generation of other girls.It's most gratifying when I see girls of six (years old,) at a WNBA game, who are seeing that they can work hard and make a profession out of something they love."
My niece Rosie, 7, is another one who is witnessing professional women's sports firsthand. I took her to her first Chicago Sky game last year. "Aunt Alison, do those girls get PAID for playing basketball?" "Yes, honey, they do, " I said. "Then I wanna do that!" She's visiting me again this year. What does she want most in the world? "Can you take me to a basketball game again?"
I also find that every new generation needs to be educated about Title IX, and just generally, to have respect for both male and female participants in sporting activities.
I experienced this firsthand with Amelia and her brother a few years back.
I was in Palo Alto to cover the NCAA Women's Regionals at Stanford University's Maples Pavilion, where the Cardinal, led by first-round WNBA draft pick Jayne Appel, demolished the University of Iowa Hawkeyes for the Regional Championships. While visiting my brother and sister-in-law, I found out that UC-Berkeley was hosting the Women's NIT Regionals. After talking to my brother and sister-in-law, I bought tickets for the kids and I to see the Regionals.
This was our first sporting event together, and I was excited to take them. We were walking down a nice, tree-lined street pre-Regionals when I told Matthew, Amelia's younger brother, that we were going to see girls play basketball that night. To my surprise, he started crying and stomping his feet. (really reminded me of his father when he was the same age!) .
"I DON'T WANNA SEE DUMB GIRLS BASKETBALL," sobbed Matthew. "I WANNA SEE BOYS BASKETBALL!"
I get that gender identification is important for four-year-olds. And that Matthew meant no disrespect. It was out of his comfort zone and experience. But trouble like that can only grow if the perception lingers that it's not legitimate if it ain't boys (or men) playing. Nipping it in the bud is key.
"Matthew, honey," I said, "Guess what? Girls play a great game of basketball. And it's not nice to call anyone's game dumb. How'd you like it if someone didn't like boys playing basketball? You'd think that was pretty mean, right?"
Rubbing his eyes, Matthew nodded. "But I still want to see boys basketball!" he insisted. "Well, the boys aren't playing tonight," I said. "Only the girls. So we're going to see the girls team. Okay?"
Lucky for both of us, UC-Berkeley's mascot took a liking to Matthew, and started playing with him and dancing with him all over the arena, where dozens of people were gathered for the game. He came out of the game with his sister, smiling and happy. And having had fun.
Matthew's dilemma, Amelia's success, and the 40th Anniversary of Title IX all point to the same question...where are we today?
Some people consider it unfair to men's sports, that they were "forced" into it; others, like me, have had the career we always wanted because of its benefits.
The Constitution and Bill of Rights notwithstanding, most Americans who have not been a) The Founding Fathers of our country. b) White males...have, at one point or another, had to stand up, organize and fight verbal, and oftentimes costly battles to claim their rights under the laws of the land. Leaving it to human nature hasn't always worked out as well as expected. See: the 19th Amendment (Voting rights for women, 1920), Plessy v. Ferguson, ("Separate but equal" overturned, 1954,) the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (extended the Voting Rights Act), and so on. Over the years, various groups have challenged its constitutionality and fairness.
"Fairness" is only achieved when all groups have equal representation and a place in the process of decision making.
That is why the preservation of Title IX is so important. Naperville native and LA Sparks' Candace Parker's comments on the 15th Anniversary of the WNBA were telling as to the impact of Title IX on her life. "I was 10 years old when the WNBA first came into existence," she said. "I don't know a world without it. And without believers like NBA Commissioner David Stern, the WNBA, all three women's profesional soccer leagues, the Canadian Women's Professional Hockey League (which boasts a team from Boston), and even the LPGA...exist because of the faithful few who, for some reason, never gave up believing women's sports would find a place in popular culture.
Here's a news flash...the same thing happened with the NFL, NBA, the NHL, and every other sport introduced in this era. They grew in a time before most of our parents were living. We did not see their growth. We have a firsthand look at the growth of women's professional sports teams. In another generation, like Parker, I see a day when women's sporting events will be as popular as men's sports. I may be old and crochety by that time, but I will live to see it.
And what good does it do for us to continue to fight the Title IX fight? For one, it strengthens our communities. It brings families together. And finally, to quote the social anthropologist Margaret Mead:
“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”