Title IX: 37 words that changed everything

It's just 37 words, 37 plain and grammatically clunky words hiding inside a large education bill, 37 words that didn't seem to be a big deal at the time, 37 words that would change everything:

    "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 educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Those are the words of Title IX, a section of the Education Amendments signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on June 23, 1972. Not exactly "We hold these truths to be self-evident ... " but, then again, the Founding Fathers knew they were on to something back in 1776.

The Founding Mothers of Title IX were just looking for a more level playing field in academics. "We had no idea," says Bernice "Bunny" Sandler, who helped draft the legislation and now works as a senior scholar for the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C. "We had no idea how bad the situation really was -- we didn't even use the word sex discrimination back then -- and we certainly had no sense of the revolution we were about to start."

You'll notice that not one of those 37 words is "athletics" or "sports," the very words that have come to be associated with Title IX. "The only thought I gave to sports when the bill was passed," Sandler says, "was, Oh, maybe now when a school holds its field day, there will be more activities for the girls."

They ended up having much more than a field day. The number of girls playing high school sports jumped from 294,015 in 1971-72 to 3,172,637 in 2009-10, an increase of 1079 percent. (The number of male high school athletes grew from 3,666,917 to 4,455,740 during that same period, an increase of 22 percent.) The number of women playing varsity sports in college rose from 29,972 in 1971-72 to 186,460 in 2009-10, a 622 percent increase that still leaves them behind the total of NCAA male athletes, whose population grew from 170,384 to 249,307 (46 percent) in that time frame.

Of course, the true significance of Title IX has been the accompanying increase in opportunities for women off the field -- a level of female empowerment so strong that Sandler calls the law "the most important step for gender equality since the 19th Amendment gave us the right to vote."

And yet, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX, we must also recognize that there's still more work to be done. Female athletes still lag far behind males in participatory opportunities, scholarship money and resources, even though there are more female students in both high school and college, according to the Women's Sports Foundation, which was started by Billie Jean King in 1974.

Those 37 words mean as much now as they did in 1972. "To me, Title IX can be boiled down to just two words," says Margaret "Digit" Murphy, a former Cornell hockey star and the longtime Brown hockey coach, as well as a mother of six. "Those two words are: Why not?"

Why not? That's what Bunny Sandler asked herself back in 1969. While Title IX would need champions and examples like King, Donna de Varona, Cheryl Miller and Mia Hamm, it would not have succeeded without the thousands of unsung heroes who fought for it and fight for it still, be they lawyers or athletes, legislators or coaches, civil servants or parents.

Sandler was a part-time lecturer on educational counseling at the University of Maryland when she applied for a tenure-track position, only to be told that she came on "too strong for a woman." So she began to research the laws on gender discrimination and found a footnote to a law on federal contracts that prohibited discrimination based on sex. She also found a sympathetic ear in Vincent Macaluso, an assistant director in the compliance division at the Department of Labor, who told her he'd been waiting for somebody to ask about gender bias in academia. "My main responsibility was the construction industry," says Macaluso, now 90 and still living in Washington. "But discrimination was always my concern."

Surreptitiously, he helped Sandler craft a complaint against Maryland based on the little-known law. Then, after running an ad in the Saturday Review of Books looking for other examples of discrimination in higher education, Sandler gathered enough material to file 250 complaints against colleges receiving federal contracts. At the urging of Macaluso, she sent copies of the complaints to members of Congress, asking them to urge the secretary of labor to enforce the law.

One of the recipients was Edith Green, a Democratic representative from Portland, Ore. The daughter of schoolteachers and a former teacher herself, Green was also chair of the House committee on education, and she had been waiting for a chance to introduce a bill requiring gender equity in education. Sandler's complaints gave Green the ammunition she needed. The congresswoman held hearings that few of her male colleagues bothered to attend, then she hired Sandler to work on her staff. Together they drafted Title IX. "It's really just a variation on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," Sandler explains. "Instead of 'race, color or national origin,' we substituted 'sex.'"

The language of Title IX might be derivative, but the strategy behind it was a stroke of original genius. Sensing its implications and anticipating objections, Green slipped it into the omnibus education bill Congress was preparing. She also shooed away women's rights activists who wanted to lobby Congress. "She thought that if the bill drew attention, it would be saddled with amendments, or worse, killed altogether," Sandler says. "The less we said about it, the better." (She also had a Senate ally in Birch Bayh, a Democrat from Indiana, who is often hailed as the father of Title IX.) The only time the issue of sports came up was in Senate hearings on the bill, when one senator made a joke about coed football. The laughter ended the discussion.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment. Rep. Green didn't like the version of the Education Amendments that emerged from the House-Senate conference committee. In fact, she felt betrayed by House members, who didn't object to a busing provision she had opposed. So after working and fighting for Title IX for two years, the principled Green got up before the House and asked her colleagues to defeat the entire bill. Despite her opposition, the legislation passed 218-180.

In later years Green, who died in 1987, came to take pride in Title IX, which now bears the name of another of its champions, Rep. Patsy T. Mink of Hawaii. "It's what she wanted to be remembered for," Green's son Richard told The Oregonian two years ago. But on the day Nixon signed the bill into law, Edith Green was not a happy woman.

Margaret Degidio wasn't very happy that summer either. She was a 12-year-old girl who wanted to play baseball with the boys at Beechmont Field in Cranston, R.I. "I was peering through the other side of the chain-link fence," says Digit Murphy, the woman Margaret was to become. "I never forgot how unfair it all seemed. My gender mattered more than my performance."

Fortunately, she found ice hockey. "I owe it all to Jackie Begosian and Barbara Butler," she says. "They were two stay-at-home moms from Cranston who played hockey and started a team for girls. Jackie's husband, Bob, coached us. They gave structure to our athletic abilities. Then Title IX came along and added a whole educational component to our ambitions. There I was, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks whose parents never went to college, and an Ivy League school comes calling."

While Degidio was honing her hockey skills, Title IX was going through growing pains. The history of the law is somewhat complicated (which is why the book "Let Me Play," written by Karen Blumenthal, ostensibly for teens, is recommended reading). Suffice to say, as soon as the NCAA figured out the implications of Title IX, the organization began challenging it. But Caspar Weinberger, secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the office charged with implementing and enforcing Title IX, cared very little about sports and ignored the NCAA's cries that the sky was falling.

Meanwhile, as women's right activists kept fighting for Title IX, they found unlikely supporters. "There weren't a lot of jocks on The Hill," Sandler says. "Democrats and Republicans both understood what we were fighting for because they had been the last kids picked for their teams." Even the jock-in-chief himself, former football standout Gerald Ford, spurned lobbying efforts by the most famous football coaches in the land; on May 27, 1975, the president signed into law a set of Title IX regulations for athletics. The man did have a daughter, after all.

Far less cooperative were supposedly enlightened educational institutions. The Boston Tea Party of Title IX happened on March 3, 1976, in the athletic department offices at Yale University. The members of the women's rowing team were justifiably upset because there were no shower facilities for them at the Yale boathouse -- only for the men. So, after drenching workouts in the freezing cold, the women would sit on the bus that took both crews back to campus, while waiting for the men to finish their showers. One of the female rowers had already come down with pneumonia.

Fed up with Yale's inattention, and led by future Olympian Chris Ernst, 19 women marched into the office of women's athletic director Johnny Barnett (pronounced "Joannie") and took off their clothes, revealing to her the words "Title IX" written on their chests and backs. In the presence of a New York Times correspondent, Ernst then read a statement that said, in part: "These are the bodies that Yale is exploiting. On a day like today, the ice freezes on this skin. And we sit for a half-hour, as the ice melts and soaks through to meet the sweat that is soaking us from the inside."

The subsequent story in the Times got them their showers. More important, it raised awareness of gender inequity in college sports and served notice to schools that Title IX could no longer be ignored. (The protest is the subject of "A Hero For Daisy," a documentary directed by former Olympic rower Mary Mazzio. The hero is Ernst, who, after fighting for showers, now installs them as the co-owner of an all-female plumbing company in Roslindale, Mass.)

Behind the scenes in Washington, Title IX was being poked and prodded and shaped. In the winter of 1979, when Cornell freshman Margaret Degidio was lacing up her skates, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare issued a set of compliance standards for athletics that came to be known as the Three-Prong Test, any one of which a school had to meet:

• Female sports participation must be proportional to female enrollment in the school.

• The school must show a recent history of expanding sports offerings for women.

• The interests and abilities of female athletes must be fully and effectively accommodated, as documented by regularly administered surveys.

Alas, the test did not address pay for coaches of women's teams, or facilities and resources for their athletes. Murphy recently told members of the Cornell women's hockey team about what it was like for her and her teammates when they played: "We dressed in a locker room that was about half the size that you have now, and we sat on those gray metal folding chairs. Our equipment room was a makeshift cabinet on top of a one-stall bathroom. We didn't travel in buses. Imagine 18 of us in two vans, with all our equipment."

In her four years at Cornell, Degidio totaled 123 goals and 213 points, made All-Ivy four times and led her team to two Ivy League titles. She also, on occasion, rubbed people the wrong way. "I was a fierce competitor and a crotchety athlete," she told the Ithaca Journal. "I always wanted to do more and win more. Sometimes I was not so nice to be around."

In other words, she was the kind of person who always asked "Why not?" She was the kind of soldier Title IX needed. The law took a major hit in 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled in Grove City v. Bell that Title IX applied only to specific programs that received federal funding, such as financial aid offices, not athletic departments in general. The winds had changed under the Reagan administration and women weren't the only ones to suffer: minorities and the disabled were also left without recourse when faced with discrimination in education. When Edith Green died in 1987, Title IX was under siege.

Digit, meanwhile, went to work as a production manager for Data General. She couldn't ignore the siren call of coaching, though, so she took a job as an assistant coach at Brown for the 1987-88 season. Just as that season was ending, activists won a major victory when Congress overrode Reagan's veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act, which put the teeth back into Title IX.

Digit became the Brown head coach for the 1989-90 season and began an unprecedented reign: 22 years, 318 victories (an NCAA Division I record), six ECAC titles, five Ivy League titles, four Frozen Four appearances, seven Olympians. She became a legend, both for her ferocity -- "I'm not about nice," she says -- and for her loyalty. Recently, she received a thank-you letter from one of her former players, Kristy Zamora, Class of 2002, that read: "You were hard on us, but it was only because you wanted us to become better hockey players and better people. Your style may have been unorthodox, but everything you did was from the bottom of your heart and soul, and you were willing to go to war with your team every step of the way."

Along the way, Digit found the time to marry Ken Murphy and give birth to four children, whom her mother helped her raise. When Digit wasn't driving her players, she was driving administrators for the rights guaranteed by Title IX. "That equity piece is important to me," she says. "I don't like standing on the other side of that chain link fence. I don't like hearing, 'Because I said so,' when I question something." When Brown was sued by Amy Cohen in 1995 for dropping women's gymnastics, Murphy stood behind the student and not the school, which ultimately lost. "That was a really difficult time," she says. "The athletic department was like a war zone. I remember testifying against the school when I was seven months' pregnant."

Her advocacy for Title IX also earned her an invitation to Washington in October 2002 to testify before the Senate's Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space. The chairman of the subcommittee, Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), wanted to show that Title IX could provide the same kinds of opportunities for women in science and technology that it had for women in sports. "The world of sport used to look like the world of math and technology -- all boys and no girls," Murphy told the hearing. She went on to say, "As the parent of a 7-year-old girl, I firmly believe that if parents were more informed of the opportunities or lack thereof for their daughters in math and science, they would be as vocal and engaged as they are in their quest for equality in athletics." She closed by saying: "Girls hit hockey pucks, girls are great mathematicians, girls check and girls love technology. If you create environments that send such messages to girls, they will come."

That 7-year-old girl, Meaghan, is now a junior defenseman at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass.; her team just won the New England prep school Division I championship. She is part of Digit's blended family -- four boys, two girls -- with her partner of nine years, Aronda. (Digit and Ken divorced in 2003, "but we still talk every day," she says.)

Murphy "retired" from Brown last summer because of philosophical differences over the future of the hockey program. But retirement hardly means she's resting. She now does college counseling, advises the Slovakian national team, works with USA Hockey, coaches her 12-year-old son's lacrosse team and maintains a lively blog, "Digit Says," in which she rails against everything from pushy parents to the preponderance of male coaches for women's sports.

Back in February, Cornell assistant coach Danielle Bilodeau organized a tribute dinner for Murphy in Ithaca. "More like a living funeral," Digit says. In her speech that night, Murphy relived her Big Red days, thanked her family, her former players, her fellow coaches and Title IX for "what sport did for me." She closed by issuing a challenge: "Why can't a woman be a coach in the NHL?" When she heard the laughter, she said: "If you laugh about that, we will never be coaches at the highest level. There is no reason that a female cannot coach at that level. We are doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers. Don't you think it's a little funny that women aren't coaches?"

Why not?