An article in the Jan. 25 Style section on lawyer Marcia Greenberger incorrectly identified an organization. The group's name is the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. (Published 1/28/03)

Marcia Greenberger has a typically busy day. Her morning started at a news conference to mark the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. She has a conference call regarding a pending report on women and the health effects of smoking. She has to interview job candidates for an affirmative action coalition. She's expected at an early-evening prayer service held by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights. And she was out late the night before, attending a Roe v. Wade gala.

When she pauses for lunch, though, there is only one topic on her agenda: Title IX. Title IX, the law passed 30 years ago to prohibit sex discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funds. Title IX, the law that is known primarily for one reason: It gave millions of young women a greater opportunity to play organized sports.

In her 30-year career as co-president of the Washington-based National Women's Law Center, no issue has consumed more of Greenberger's energies than Title IX. She fought to implement it, she fought to enforce it, and she has fought to preserve it. Now she is fighting once again.

On Wednesday, at the Hilton Washington, a commission empowered by the Bush administration will convene for a two-day meeting to vote on proposals that would change Title IX's standards.

According to a copy of a report obtained by The Washington Post, the Secretary of Education's Commission on Opportunity in Athletics is considering proposals that, at their most controversial, would decrease the number of athletic scholarships required to be provided to women. That proposal would allow schools to provide as few as 43 percent of their scholarships to women, regardless of the percentage of women in the student body. Under current guidelines, the safest way to comply with Title IX -- and the way most women's rights activists hope institutions would comply -- is to match the percentage of scholarships offered to male and female students to the percentage of each sex on campus.

Another proposal would peg athletic opportunities to the results of surveys of the student body, to determine interest in sports.

None of the proposals pleases Greenberger, who, with her organization, is on a campaign to let the public know what is about to happen. The NWLC is in full-alert mode, staging news conferences, issuing releases, calling, faxing and e-mailing the media.

There is so much to worry about these days for women like Greenberger who have devoted their lives to activism on women's issues: Roe v. Wade; tax cuts that could affect women's programs; the economic downturn and its effects on women struggling at the poverty level.

For Greenberger, though, the mission of the moment is clear. "We have a lot of core issues," she says, "but there is no more important issue than educational opportunities for young women. And because of that, there is no more important piece of legislation than Title IX."

Counting Up From IX

Get Greenberger started on the issue and she can't stop. Lunch comes, lunch sits, the Cobb salad untouched for long stretches. The statistics, of course, have been repeated over and over: In 1972, when Title IX came into being, fewer than 32,000 women participated in college athletics, and those women received just 2 percent of the schools' athletic budgets. Thirty years later, participation at the college level has almost quintupled, and high school girls play sports at eight times their 1972 rate.

And no one has a problem with those numbers. No one will go on record saying that Title IX is a bad law. When Secretary of Education Roderick Paige announced the creation of the commission last June, he lauded the law. The issue, he said, is whether the law has increased women's opportunities at the expense of men.

That argument drives Greenberger batty. "Title IX wasn't designed to increase men's opportunities in athletics," she says. Moreover, she can cite statistics arguing that, in fact, men's athletic opportunities and budgets have increased since the law went into effect.

Among her chief frustrations, though, is the issue of what the NWLC calls the "interest surveys" -- the suggestion that more men than women are interested in sports. If we accept that premise, she says, how long will it take before we start believing, again, that girls don't really want to be scientists or mathematicians or computer engineers? That the low numbers of women in those fields relates not to opportunity or encouragement, but to interest?

"If these stereotypes are allowed back into the law," she says, "there's going to be spillover into so many areas of education. We're going to be back in another 20-year effort."

And she knows the effort. She has been there every step. The court cases, the challenges to Congress, all of it. When she first fixed on Title IX in the mid-1970s, the issue was implementation of a law that had been passed but had no method for enforcement. She helped athletes sue their colleges.

The biggest battle came in the 1980s, after the Supreme Court narrowed the scope of Title IX in Grove City College v. Bell; this allowed schools to limit enforcement to only those specific programs that received federal funds, rather than to the institution as a whole. What followed was a brutal four-year battle to reinstitute the broader scope, achieved by the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988.

"She, more than anybody else I can think of, and certainly the NWLC as well, has been the reason -- the reason -- that Title IX has been as important as it has been to these generations of women," says Judith Lichtman, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

Greenberger is known for being a great strategist, and for being able to bring large numbers of women's organizations together in effective coalitions. Nancy Kreiter, of the Chicago-based Women Employed, met Greenberger when she enlisted her and NWLC's help in a major affirmative action case. After a 14-year battle, the NWLC secured a $14 million judgment for women and minorities.

"She's absolutely at the very height of activists," Kreiter says.

Confront Greenberger with the litany of arguments made by Title IX's critics -- that it has hampered men's opportunities, that it has resulted in the loss of men's programs like wrestling or gymnastics as institutions reconfigure budgets (which are top-heavy with men's football and basketball programs) -- and she sets down her knife and fork and digs in for a long, even-toned but passionate response.

"The truth is, men's baseball, soccer and lacrosse have all increased in numbers and more men's teams have been added," she says. "Of course, women's opportunities have expanded at a greater rate, but they were starting from such a disadvantaged place."

And a major concern is that people just don't know that this is happening. That people have the false belief that it would take an act of Congress or a major court decision to change the heart of Title IX. The truth is the commission, which has been meeting with little fanfare in light of all the other issues drawing national attention at the moment, can recommend changes that the Bush administration can institute with a mere stroke of a pen.

"The same arguments being made today have been made for the last 30 years," Greenberger says, winding up. "They've been rejected by Congress, they've been rejected by the courts, and now there is a full-court press by this administration to do the work that the courts refused to, that Congress refused to do, and to do it in a cloak of darkness while much of the country's attention is focused elsewhere. And there's this soothing rhetoric that everybody's a friend of Title IX and it's just a question of improving and fine-tuning."

Her hands wave as she talks. Her frustration is obvious. Finally, she picks up her fork and digs back into the salad. "It's not like I don't care about this issue!" she says, then laughs at herself.

A Calculating Childhood

Greenberger, 56, was raised in Philadelphia by parents who stressed that girls could grow up to be anything. Actually, she was raised by a schoolteacher father who stressed that his girls could grow up to be one thing -- mathematicians like himself.

Joseph Devins succeeded with Greenberger's two sisters -- both math majors -- but Marcia went on to study history, then law, at the University of Pennsylvania.

"My father had never heard of such a thing as young women not being confident in math and science," she says.

She wasn't an athlete. At her all-girls high school in Philadelphia in the 1960s, there were a few athletic opportunities: mainly the old-fashioned, half-court version of girls' basketball and field hockey. One of the most popular pursuits was to serve as a cheerleader for the boys' high school down the street. It never occurred to her that she was missing out on anything.

"When I look back I realize I was a feminist even though I'd never heard the word," she says.

At Penn Law School in the late 1960s, Marcia Devins was one of 10 female students in a class of nearly 200. There, she met her future husband, Michael Greenberger, in a class. They married, then moved to Washington in 1970 for what was supposed to be a one-year adventure before settling in Philadelphia to raise a family. One year became two, two became four, and their house in Northwest became their permanent home. They raised their two daughters there. Michael Greenberger, who worked first as an attorney in a small practice, now is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Marcia Greenberger started out as a tax attorney in a local firm, then in 1972 -- the year Title IX was passed -- she was hired by the Center for Law and Social Policy to join a women's rights project. That project would become the National Women's Law Center, which became independent in 1981.

Her first significant work focused on pregnancy rights; she fought a case against General Electric, being sued for excluding pregnancy from its disability coverage. The case helped lead to the landmark Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which protects women's job security and disability coverage when pregnant. Once she turned her attention to Title IX, though, Greenberger saw an opportunity to really make a difference in the lives of girls and young women.

"Only once I got a chance to start working on issues involving legal rights for equalities for women did I look at the potential of Title IX to be really life-transforming for generations of women," she says.

The NWLC's issues range from sexual discrimination to welfare rights to the child tax credit. The organization has been helmed for 30 years by Greenberger and her close friend, Nancy Duff Campbell. Campbell handles most of the economic issues -- welfare, taxes, economic security. Greenberger's chief field is education. Hence, Title IX has been her baby.

"From the very beginning, it was a signature issue for the center, and for her personally," says Campbell. "At the same time, though, Marcia had kids who went through the educational system. So while she felt a professional connection with Title IX in the sense she was helping to shape it, it was also another baby that you launch into the world."

And now that baby is at risk. What happens if the commission changes the standards, if Paige accepts their recommendations, and if President Bush approves them? "I can tell you she's not going to lie down and roll over," Campbell says. "There's going to be a real fight."

A Good Sport

The only sport Greenberger plays is tennis. She's passable, according to her younger daughter, Anne. "She's a great sport, even if she doesn't have the same skills the rest of us have," says Anne, now 24 and working in New York at a real estate firm. (Sister Sarah is 28 and attends Penn Law School, as her parents did.)

Anne remembers growing up in a house filled with activism. She remembers meeting the college athletes who filed the early discrimination suits. She remembers rallies and protest marches, and she remembers days after a big Republican election triumph when her mother and father would be so down they couldn't bear to watch the news on television.

"You can say that I had an interesting childhood that was surrounded by activists," says Anne, who still follows the Title IX issue and always has been involved in her mother's work. "I've always thought of my mother as extraordinarily dedicated and invested in her work. I admire her and her achievements enormously, but it never crossed into her mothering me."

Her mother remembers the games. Anne's games. Sarah's games. Since they were three-sport varsity athletes both, there was always another softball or lacrosse or basketball or soccer game to attend. Greenberger sat in the stands for most of them, with the other mothers and fathers, cheering something that seemed so different from when she grew up.

"I can tell you that some of the most memorable experiences I have from my children growing up were at their sporting events," she says. "It was joyful, of course, to watch your children play, but it was especially meaningful for the women of my generation."

It is a moment in the conversation when Greenberger softens, and there is no talk of lawsuits or court battles or the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. For a moment, it's not about rights, it's about reality. It's about the millions of girls -- two of them her own -- who now have grown up playing organized sports.

Legal activist Marcia Greenberger is working to ensure Title IX continues to fill gyms and playing fields with female athletes.Greenberger says more than sports is at stake if Title IX opponents succeed in changing the law's guidelines. "There's going to be spillover into so many areas of education," she warns.