By Wendy Blake
On May 18, 2022, the United States Soccer Federation announced a deal to pay the U.S. Women’s and U.S. Men’s National Soccer Teams equally. This historic achievement might never have occurred were it not for a single paragraph added to the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX stated:
“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 50th anniversary of the legislation is being celebrated at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS) in an exhibition called “Title IX: Activism On and Off the Field,” which opened on May 13 and will run until September 4.
“The focus on sex discrimination in education and on access to education really highlights how foundational Title IX is to larger societal change,” co-curator Allison Robinson told West Side Rag. “It’s powerful to consider how much has shifted since this phrase was incorporated in the Education Acts of 1972.”
When Title IX was passed, many universities and colleges were still denying admission to women and jobs to female faculty; female students had no recourse in cases of sexual misconduct; and women’s sports programs were appallingly overlooked.
In contrast, in 2019, women earned 57% of all bachelor’s degrees in the U.S., according to the NYHS, and the percentage of female faculty in higher education has more than doubled to 54%. Grievance procedures are in place at all schools for people who are the victims of sexual harassment and violence. And more than 190,000 women compete in intercollegiate sports, six times as many as in 1972.
The progress initiated by Title IX has by no means been a straight line. Hard-won victories have been achieved by activists, politicians, students and others working to fend off challenges to the law.
The exhibition highlights landmark events in the fight for women’s parity. It includes items from the archives of Billie Jean King (an Upper West Sider) and the Women’s Sports Foundation, both of which are housed at the NYHS, and from activists’ personal collections. They include official documents, letters, protest posters, photos, videos, athletic uniforms, and consumer products.
One of the items Ms. Robinson is most proud of is an original copy of the 1990 Clery Act, which she refers to as Title IX’s “sister act.” Named after a murdered college student, it requires schools receiving federal funds to disclose crime statistics.
Another of her treasured items is a sweatshirt worn (and removed) by a female Yale crew member participating in a 1976 “strip-in” to demand proper shower facilities. Members of the team stripped in the athletic director’s office to reveal “Title IX” painted on their bodies.
Also highlighted are the “Take Back the Night” protests, which continue to this day and are meant to raise awareness of sexual violence on campuses.
Various objects bear witness to the increasing visibility of professional women athletes, including Serena Williams’ tennis dress and gymnast Mary Lou Retton’s shoe. Wheaties boxes feature images of superstar athletes, such as runner Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and there are Barbie dolls modeled after sports celebrities.
The exhibition addresses the contemporary applications of Title IX to LGBTQ+ students—for instance, the successful gender discrimination case of high school sophomore Gavin Grimm, who sued his school board to be allowed to use the restroom matching his gender identity.
The exhibition also touches on the hot-button issue of trans and non-binary students in sports: On display is the cross-country T-shirt that high school student Lindsay Hecox wore while testifying in a federal lawsuit against Idaho, the first state to ban transgender women and girls from playing on women’s sports teams at public schools, colleges and universities. That case is still pending.
The fight for women’s parity persists in new forms. One of the most impactful was a 2021 TikTok video in which Sedona Prince, a college basketball player, contrasts the massive men’s gym at her school with a paltry set of weights for the women. “Women are still fighting for bits and pieces of equality,” she says. Major changes in gender parity were made within the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) after her TikTok — merely 38 seconds long — went viral.
The oldest museum in New York City, the New-York Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West at 77th Street. For further information check the website.