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Former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, D-Ind., in 1972 introduced in Congress Title IX, legislation that prohibited discrimination based on one’s sex in educational programs that receive federal funding.
The amendment passed and was signed into law that year, and 40 years later it continues to have a significant impact, providing women greater educational and athletic opportunities.
The impetus to introduce Title IX didn’t happen overnight. He’d been working on the Equal Rights Amendment with the League of Women Voters for a while.
“The testimony really showed that women were being discriminated against in the area of education,” he said.
He also had a personal motivation. His first wife, Marvella Hern Bayh, who died in 1979, had been denied educational opportunities because she was a woman.
Marvella had been a straight-A student and student body president in high school and wanted to attend the University of Virginia. But her application was returned “Women need not apply.”
“That was my first awareness of discrimination against women,” Bayh said.
He knew Title IX had led to progress when he was living in northwest Washington and would jog around an American University practice soccer field, which was near a public field.
“The field had used to be filled with little boys playing soccer. Suddenly it became a field filled with girls playing soccer. And you had fathers saying, ‘Jenny, go get that ball!’” Bayh said.
The Republic interviewed Bayh to discuss the impact of Title IX 40 years later.
Q: How do most people understand Title IX, if at all? What are the most common misperceptions?
A: If you go up to any star athlete now in a women’s college program and ask them what they think of Title IX, you’re going to get a blank stare. They don’t even know what Title IX is, and that’s a good thing. They shouldn’t have to worry about that; it should be guaranteed equality without a lot of hoopla. The previous generation obviously understands it, but this generation just takes it for granted that they should have equal rights, that the universities are smart enough to balance out the numbers from football and rowing programs and other kinds of sporting activities.
And academically, of course, I think we’re across the board now where women’s numbers are greater than men’s numbers, because that’s what the population is. I think it’s only in a couple areas that you still need work in the highly technical fields. But we’ve made a lot of progress in that the last 13 years, and also in the tenure program. Where in most of universities’ tenure is decided, to become a tenured professor you have to be chosen by those who are already in tenure, and most of those already tenured are men.
I’m only speaking of the exceptional cases; I think most universities have complied across the board.
Q: What was it like trying to get Title IX passed? What was the climate of the time like for that?
A: Most (congressmen) were very conservative Republicans who wanted to get it (defeated).
Sen. (John) Tower from Texas had an amendment to exempt football from it. Football is the elephant in the tea party because of the numbers, but it’s still part of the public financed programs.
I think now there has been so much progress made, and I think it has been because of the constant drumbeat of the national organizations for women.
Q: How has the law been received?
A: We went through some patches at the beginning, but now I think it’s taken for granted.
It’s not exceptional to see a picture of girls shooting baskets or playing field hockey or soccer or whatever on the sports page. I think the last bastion of male chauvinism was our sports pages. I thought our time had arrived when I saw a sports headline in the Washington Post many years ago about a game against the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland, and it was a girls’ (basketball) game, a women’s game.
We’re talking about the satisfaction that comes from being an athlete, but I think it’s important for us to recognize that with all the notoriety and all the thrills that goes with athletics, that the record is that women who participate, and girls, have lower dropout rates, lower smoking rates, lower heart (problems). These young women by being involved in sports, they learn the need for cooperation, they understand the need for hard work, for teamwork.
All of those are skills that transcend the line from athletics over to out in the cold, cool world when they graduate.
Q: In what ways has Title IX had the most impact? Where does it need improvement?
A: I haven’t had a chance here the last few years to look at all the dots and totals, but I’m sure there are some ways it can be improved.
I think what we need now is constant vigilance so that we don’t slip backwards. I think tremendous progress has been made.
You look at the (college) enrollment rates, the enrollment rates for young women are higher than men by maybe 5 percent; that’s sort of the difference in the population between men and women in our country. I think we’ve made great progress.
I mentioned the whole question of tenure. Maybe we ought to look hard at some of these stodgy old men professors and some of the heads of the department in the hightech areas. But, that’s something that probably doesn’t need to be done now. We’re talking about the last several years, there’s been such a drumbeat.
Fortunately the women have not been still, they’ve not been idle.
Q: What do you think Title IX will accomplish in the next 40 years?
A: I don’t know. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow. I think there has been such a steady drumbeat. I think equality for women has been pretty well accepted by most of those in positions of authority.
And it’s important for women and men to insist that this progress not be turned back, reversed. I think right now we’re in remarkably good shape.
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