Days before Title IX hits the Big Four-Oh, dozens of top-ranked women came to Washington to take a victory lap.

Billie Jean King, with moderator and former All-American gymnast Bonnie Bernstein, left, and Assistant Attorney General for Civil rights Tom Perez, speaks during a forum at the White House during a gathering to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX Wednesday, June 20. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

They cheered the 1972 law, all 37 words of it, mandating that  “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.”

Schools, libraries, museums, even prisons had to level all their playing fields, academic and athletic, under the law signed by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972, a scant week after the Watergate break-in.

Primarily aimed at luring more women into male-dominated colleges and grad schools, Title IX had the added benefit of getting them seriously into sports, where they soon learned the importance of skills long honed by men: Teamwork. Leadership. Resilience. Ambition. Strategic thinking. Backing off. Piling on. And, of course, the occasional deployment of sharp elbows. Coupled with academics, those skills helped propel two generations of women into boardrooms, backrooms, courtrooms, operating rooms, officer-training programs and even outer space.

No surprise that on Wednesday, the White House Council on Women and Girls hosted a star-studded, multi-generational panel to discuss the life-altering nature of sports. Panelists included tennis goddess Billie Jean King, 68, who won scores of Grand Slam titles; All-American NCAA point guard Shoni Schimmel, 20, a University of Louisville rising senior who credits basketball with getting her off Oregon’s Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Aimee Mullins, who in the ’90s was the first double-amputee sprinter to compete in NCAA track and field for Georgetown University, and later became a model, actor and speaker.

For those who don’t recall the bad old days before Title IX, King noted that she worked two jobs to be able to afford college in 1960s California, while 30 miles across Los Angeles, USC’s Stan Smith and UCLA’s Arthur Ashe enjoyed full scholarships. On the plus side, there were so few female players back then, she got to practice against men.

On Thursday, “40 For 40” female jocks — who played high school or college sports after the law passed — were honored for their successes, along with a quartet of other achievers. All were chosen by the sponsoring Women’s Sports Foundation, Women in Cable Telecommunications and Several awardees noted that the number of girls and women playing high school and collegiate sports has jumped by 1,000 percent in the 40 years since Title IX was enacted.

But Beth Brooke, 53, the first Purdue University woman to receive a basketball scholarship in 1977, told me that some playing fields remain woefully lopsided.

“More than 50 percent of college graduates are women, more than 50 percent of the workforce is women, but there are only 17 women out of 100 senators, only 15 percent women on boards of directors and only three percent of corporate CEOs. It’s just ridiculous,” said Brooks,who is global vice-chair of public policy for Ernst & Young.

Astronaut Sandra Magnus, 47, who flew on the final space shuttle mission last year long after playing soccer at what is now Missouri University of Science and Technology, worries there are too few women taking the so-called STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math.

Middle school is crunch time, Magnus told me, “because that is where we lose a lot of girls as they start becoming self-conscious about being good in math and science. It’s very important for teachers to encourage them to keep studying. I knew in middle school I wanted to be an astronaut and was told ‘girls don’t belong in physics.’ But I was focused and kept on going.”

A year ago, Brig. Gen. Lori Reynolds, 47, who played basketball at the U.S. Naval Academy, became the first woman to command Parris Island, the notoriously tough Marine Corps training camp. “It was not the case that people didn’t want me there as a female, because Marines still respect rank, they absolutely do,” she said. “But you’d like to get to the point as an American that you can do whatever you want, but you’ve got change the culture first.”

Part of that change involves expanding the law’s reach, including “reinforcing Title IX’s role in preventing sexual harassment and violence,” noted a recent White House news release. “According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly one in five college women will be the victim of a sexual assault.” 

The Title IX  anniversary couldn’t have come at a better time for President Obama, who has seen his double-digit lead among women shrink as presumptive Republican rival Mitt Romney ramps up his campaign.

 Though Obama was out of the country when the two Title IX panels were held next door to the White House — the other was on getting more women on the STEM track — he has talked up the landmark law for months. He mentioned it in April when announcing he would tap Pat Summitt, 38-year coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers, for a Presidential Medal of Freedom. The NCAA’s winning-est coach, male or female, Summitt, 59, racked up eight national titles and an .840 average before stepping down to deal with her Alzheimer’s disease.

 Among the many personal tales from this week’s Title IX all-stars, I found two especially illuminating. Julie Foudy, an Olympic gold medalist in women’s soccer who later turned pro, said when she and others were planning the first Women’s World Cup tournament in the United States in 1999, they were advised to book stadiums that held no more than 5,000 fans, and only on the East Coast because the game had limited regional appeal.   

Instead, they opened in the packed, 80,000-seat Giants Stadium to a deafening standing ovation, Foudy recalled. “It was an incredible epiphany. We realized our potential.”

And any number of women quoted King’s view of defeat: “I always think of losing as just feedback. I don’t think of it as losing.”

Annie Groer, who briefly and badly played intramural college softball, is a former Washington Post and writer whose work has also appeared in the New York Times, and Washingtonian. She is at work on a memoir.

This post has been updated since it was first published.