A half century after its enactment, Title IX, the federal law that bars discrimination against women in education, has forced a leveling of the playing field on campus, though advocates say its work is still not done. In recent years, the law has forced a reckoning over sexual harassment and assault on campus, and its protections have been extended to cover bias on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Those impacts follow on others, particularly in women’s sports, where the changes it forced have been described as “transformative.” The Gazette asked Jeannie Suk Gersen, the John H. Watson Jr. Professor of Law and an expert on gender and the law, and Susan Ware, A.M. ’73, Ph.D. ’78, historian and author of “Title IX: A Brief History With Documents” (2014) to discuss the legacy of the law. The two were interviewed separately for this piece, and both interviews were edited for clarity and length.
Jeannie Suk Gersen and Susan Ware
Gazette: Why was Title IX needed when it passed in 1972? Didn’t the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ban discrimination in several areas based on sex?
Gersen: Women faced blatant educational inequality, such as exclusion from certain colleges and universities or from certain programs and spaces within those schools, higher admissions standards than men, more frequent tenure denials than men, and myriad other imposed disadvantages relative to men. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act had prohibited sex discrimination in employment but didn’t cover education, and Title IV had prohibited discrimination in federally funded entities but didn’t cover sex discrimination. So Title IX followed up in 1972 to fill the gap and directly address sex discrimination in education.
Gazette: Were there fierce partisan battles over the passage of Title IX?
Gersen: Title IX was passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. But it was wrapped in controversy as part of the wider controversial debate of the era about what equality would mean for women’s traditional roles in the home and in society, exemplified by the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment, which was ultimately not ratified and did not become a constitutional amendment.
Gazette: After 50 years, does it remain controversial?
Gersen: Title IX remains controversial because even as the ideal of equal opportunity and prohibiting sex discrimination are widely accepted as a general matter, what constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex has been fiercely debated. The meaning of “discrimination” and the meaning of “sex” have also become less settled over the decades, particularly as young people on campuses in each generation question what these concepts mean and breathe new and urgent meaning into the promise of Title IX. These debates keep the interpretations of Title IX controversial, even among people who have no trouble agreeing that sex discrimination in education is prohibited and unacceptable.
For decades, the general public associated Title IX with equal opportunity for female students in sports because athletic excellence had traditionally been associated with males, and girls’ and women’s sports were often neglected in terms of funding and support.