Zia Cooke
South Carolina's Zia Cooke drives to the basket during the second half of a college basketball game in the final round of the Women's Final Four NCAA tournament Sunday, April 3, 2022, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

This past February 13, the tennis superstar Billie Jean King walked to the center of SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles to start the Super Bowl with the customary coin toss. Moments before the camera zoomed in on King, it panned out briefly to show six girls decked out in red, green, blue, and yellow football uniforms standing near the midfield in front of the players, referees, and 70,000 fans. It was a striking visual and a reminder of just how far girls and women have come in sports. 

37 Words: Title IX and Fifty Years of Fighting Sex Discrimination
by Sherry Boschert
New Press, 400 pp.

King, a longtime proponent of equity who fought for equal pay for women tennis players, was there along with the female football players to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation that prohibits gender-based discrimination in education and essentially opened the door for girls and women to compete even in traditionally male-dominated sports like football. “It’s hard to understand inclusion until you’ve been excluded,” King said during a short tribute to the law. “But the fight for access isn’t unique to women. It is for all of us.”

The historical contours of that push for equality form the basis of the journalist Sherry Boschert’s new book, 37 Words: Title IX and Fifty Years of Fighting Sex Discrimination. Five decades ago, it may have been a distant dream that girls one day would have the opportunity to play football (in fact, women’s rights activists weren’t focused on sports at all as they were trying to move the provision through Congress), but as Boschert lays out in meticulous detail, the protections the law affords have continued to evolve through intense cycles of expansion and backlash.

The journey begins in the suburban Maryland home of Bernice Sandler, whom many regard as the godmother of Title IX. She was completing her doctorate in counseling and personnel services and had come up against her own glass ceiling, applying for teaching jobs in academia but being repeatedly passed over for male candidates—some of whom were far less qualified. In 1969, Sandler began coordinating complaints against colleges and universities that were violating an executive order from the Johnson administration by refusing to hire or promote women while taking federal money.

Before long, Sandler and other activists—including Pauli Murray, a cofounder of the National Organization for Women—began pushing for stronger legal protections. They found an ally in Representative Edith Green, one of only 11 women in Congress at the time. It was a warm day in Washington on June 17, 1970, when the Democrat from Oregon gaveled open a hearing of the Special Subcommittee on Education with the aim of alleviating “the discrimination against women which still permeates our society.” It took two years of intense negotiations to pass what would eventually become known as Title IX, which was signed into law on June 23, 1972.

Over time, through lawsuits and the federal rule-making process, the reach of Title IX evolved not only to cover discrimination in sports but also to grapple with how sexual harassment and assault can deprive girls, women, and members of LGBTQ communities of their educational rights.

The heart of Title IX is a very brief paragraph—it’s 37 words long, as the book’s title notes—that states that no one can be excluded because of their sex from any education program or activity that receives federal money. While the original push for the law largely centered around access to opportunities in higher education, the open language gave Title IX the flexibility to address inequalities beyond what anyone was expecting at the time. Almost immediately after the law was passed, sports became a flashpoint because college athletic departments—concerned that they would have to take some of their budgets away from men’s teams—rose up in opposition. (Boschert relays a telling anecdote about how unprepared activists were for this. As the backlash gained momentum, Sandler said to her research assistant, “I think athletics is going to be really important. Figure it out.”) Over time, through lawsuits and the federal rule-making process, the reach of Title IX evolved not only to cover discrimination in sports but also to grapple with how sexual harassment and assault can deprive girls, women, and members of LGBTQ communities of their educational rights. 

Aside from the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, there is no single piece of legislation that has done more to help the advancement of women than Title IX. Fifty years ago, men earned nearly 60 percent of the bachelor’s degrees conferred while women earned about 40 percent. Today, that statistic is flipped. This year, women are on track to receive 62 percent of master’s degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. They now make up more than half of law school students and hold nearly half of tenure track positions at colleges and universities. But opening the door to education didn’t just allow women to collect diplomas or be considered for plum professorships. With that access to education came pathways for generations of women to get better jobs, create wealth, shape public policy, and amass political power—all things that had proved nearly impossible before Title IX and that still remain elusive to a certain extent today. 

As we celebrate that progress, we also have to recognize the limitations of the law. Much of the discrimination women face in education today—from implicit biases in the classroom to barriers in the pipeline to STEM careers—is simultaneously more subtle and societal, making it difficult to legislate against. Title IX isn’t as effective at stopping a math teacher from sending inadvertent signals to young girls that the subject isn’t for them as it is at making sure colleges have both men’s and women’s soccer teams. Beyond that, the law has not benefited everyone equally. By many measures, women of color still lag far behind their white counterparts. The percentage of white women attaining associate’s and bachelor’s degrees is nearly double that of Black women, who are funneled into colleges and universities with far lower rates of per student spending and graduation rates. Only 6 percent of faculty members are Black and Hispanic women. The number of Native American female doctors remains disproportionately low in absolute numbers.

Fifty years ago, men earned nearly 60 percent of the bachelor’s degrees conferred while women earned about 40 percent. Today, that statistic is flipped.

Boschert acknowledges that there have been fewer gains for girls and women of color, but what’s missing from the book is a deep accounting of why. Part of the answer may lie in the fact that Sandler, Green, and other supporters—like New York Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to serve in Congress—wanted a more integrated approach, but lawmakers failed to deliver. The original plan, as the author notes, was to update Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to include sex-based discrimination, a step that would have gone well beyond education to include housing, health care, and other aspects of everyday life. Instead, Title IX was written to focus solely on gender barriers in education. “From this point on, separate civil rights laws would try to stop discrimination based on sex, or age, or disability, or race, color, and national origin,” Boschert writes. “As more people in ensuing decades came to better understand the multiple discriminations faced by women of color, for instance, these separate laws lacked the legal scaffolding to protect against the additive effects of these converging discriminations.”

But that gets us only part of the way there. At the time Title IX was working its way through Congress, public schools were still deeply segregated and white families were resisting changes in their local districts—in some cases violently. Schools that were predominately white often had more resources, which meant that white girls had access to better lab equipment, more college prep courses, up-to-date textbooks, and, most important of all, more highly skilled veteran teachers. Their schools could afford, in many cases, to add new sports teams to satisfy the growing demand for athletic participation. Children of color were clustered in schools that frequently lacked basic supplies. Boschert mentions the controversy over busing in relation to Edith Green’s opposition to it but doesn’t fully connect the dots between how the angst over integration undermined the push for equality for girls of color under Title IX. Fifty years ago, it may have been impossible to pass a law that solved all of these problems. But schools remain largely segregated today, making it important to ask the question: What good is being equal to the boys if the boys themselves are stuck in a substandard or failing school because racial inequalities persist?

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to learn from 37 Words. The book condenses 50 years of history into fewer than 300 pages, an impressive feat that can be dizzying as Boschert recounts the major Supreme Court decisions, dozens of “Dear Colleague” letters from the Office for Civil Rights laying out best practices for compliance, and the backlash from men’s rights groups, and reports on everything from the number of women playing sports to the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses. Spun together, the details chart the trajectory of the law from its early days, when it was most closely associated with the expansion of athletic opportunity, to how it became an imperfect tool for holding schools accountable for not taking rape seriously and failing to protect gay and transgender students. And for people on the fence about whether elections matter, Boschert shows that enforcement of Title IX urgently depends on which political party occupies the White House. Republican presidents have tried to curb the protections; Democrats have generally worked to expand opportunities. Nowhere was this clearer than in the zigzag between the Obama and Trump administrations—the former relaxing evidentiary standards, the latter allowing colleges to use a higher bar of evidence when adjudicating cases—as they promulgated rules on handling sexual assault in education. 

Looking forward to the next 50 years of Title IX, there is still much work to be done to fulfill the promise of the law. Many schools still don’t have Title IX coordinators, which the law requires, and aren’t in basic compliance. Sexual misconduct remains prevalent on college campuses, and victims continue to report that university procedures dissuade them from coming forward. A proliferation of anti-transgender bills—including one in Iowa that prohibits trans girls from participating on female sports teams—threatens the fight for equal access that Billie Jean King said was for all of us. But Boschert sees hope in the future. “Culture change may lag legal change, or vice versa, but trends toward recognizing the fundamental fairness of civil rights aren’t easily undone,” she writes. “One excited scream of discovery can turn into millions. Then there’s no going back.”

Laura Colarusso

Laura Colarusso is the senior editor of Nieman Reports, an online and quarterly magazine devoted to raising the standards of journalism. She was previously the digital managing editor of WGBH News in Boston.