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I was born during my dad’s senior year of college. I have a photo of him holding me in his cap and gown after finishing his final season playing football. As I grew up, he taught me how to throw a football, hit a baseball and shoot a basketball. He coached my first soccer team. It was practically inevitable that I would be a three-sport athlete and voted “Most Athletic” by my high school class.
What I didn’t know was that just seven years before I became a varsity goalkeeper, my high school didn’t have a girls’ soccer team. Seven years before I was recruited to play at Xavier University, there was no women’s soccer program there, either. Both teams were established amid the wave of programs created for girls and women in the late ’70s and early ’80s as educational institutions worked to comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
When Title IX was signed into law on June 23, 1972, I was 1. I wrote my forthcoming graphic memoir, “The Keeper: Soccer, Me, and the Law That Changed Women’s Lives,” because I wanted to know more about the law that shaped my life. I wanted to learn more about how and why Bernice Sandler and former representatives Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) and Edith Green (D-Ore.) — along with others, including former Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) — devised this 37-word piece of legislation. I wanted to know more about the connection between women’s sports and women’s rights.
One hundred years ago, as women were fighting for the right to vote, they were also fighting for the right to play soccer. For a while, they succeeded. During World War I, competitive women’s soccer teams formed in England and Europe. One of the most successful teams, the Dick Kerr Ladies, played in front of a combined total of 900,000 spectators in 1921, often having larger crowds than the men’s teams.
Can you guess what happened next? That year, the British Football Association banned women from play, calling the sport “unsuitable for females.“ The association, in addition to wanting to regulate women’s bodies, did not want women to get paid fairly for their time and labor.
The ban stayed in effect for 50 years and was finally lifted in England at the same time Title IX was enacted in the States, but the Dick Kerr Ladies showed a skeptical world that women were quite suited to play sports. I wish I had known about them and about Title IX when I was a young girl on the soccer field.
Notably, Title IX was never intended to affect sports. The central figures who worked on the law had all been denied admission or jobs at universities and were aiming to address sex discrimination in higher education. But as the single-sentence law was interpreted, extracurriculars like sports became a significant aspect of the fight for equal opportunities. As a result, girls’ participation in high school sports has increased more than 1000%, from 300,000 in 1972 to well over 3 million today.
We continue to fight over the interpretation and application of this law, which also covers sexual assault and gender identity, and there is still much to be done. Although Title IX was conceived by a diverse group of women, it has disproportionately benefited White women, like me. This is true of academic and athletic opportunities as well as protections against sexual assault. And the law remains under attack from administrations that seek to weaken it, as former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos successfully did with her 2020 regulations that reduce victims’ rights in sexual assault cases on campuses.
The history of women’s sports has always been inextricably connected to the history of women’s rights. As we celebrate Title IX’s 50th anniversary, we should also renew our commitment to uphold its protections and fight discrimination in all forms. In doing so, we can look for inspiration to the originators of Title IX, whose efforts and advocacy changed the world. This comic is about that fight: past, present and future.
This article has been updated to include former Sen. Birch Bayh’s contributions.
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