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As Title IX turns 50, students continue to protest sex discrimination

Activism on college campuses has always guided this landmark legislation.

A Title IX protest held in 2017 at the George Mason University Arlington, Va., campus. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Fifty years ago this month, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 passed. These 37 short words, modeled after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, fundamentally reshaped American society by prohibiting sex discrimination in education.

The law has never been static in its 50-year history, with each presidential administration interpreting its implementation differently. Today, two pressing Title IX debates await guidance from the Biden administration, regarding transgender students participating in sports and campus policies on sexual assault.

A new exhibition curated by the Center for Women’s History at the New York Historical Society, entitled “Title IX: Activism On and Off the Field,” commemorates the anniversary of this momentous legislation by highlighting how ongoing student activism, particularly at the college level, has shaped its enforcement. The exhibit is based on dozens of interviews with students, faculty, staff, government officials and activists who have pushed for greater gender equity in education over the past five decades.

The exhibit underscores how students, often working with advocacy organizations, have relied on Title IX to push their colleges and universities toward greater gender equity across a range of issues, including in sports and sexual abuse cases. Today’s student activism in these two areas reveals the persistence of problems from the past; it also shows how new activists are pushing universities to go even further and rethink how policies should change and whom Title IX can protect.

Title IX fundamentally reshaped college athletics — almost to the point where many people think (incorrectly) that Title IX only pertains to sports. In the years immediately following Title IX’s passage, women eagerly joined college athletic programs, excited to take advantage of new opportunities open to them at last.

Yet they soon realized the stark inequities in university support. Compared to men’s teams, women’s teams tended to have less funding for equipment, inconvenient practice times and less access to training facilities. When the MIT women’s crew team went varsity in 1974, the university refused to provide new uniforms. To bring attention to this denial, the team purchased their own “uniforms” — matching Mickey Mouse shirts and hats from Disney World.

Other athletes took a less lighthearted approach.

The 1976 Yale women’s crew team, which dominated in intercollegiate competition and included members of the previous year’s U.S. world championship team, had nowhere to change out of wet rowing gear after practice sessions at the university boathouse. In the winter, they shivered in the bus while waiting for the men’s team to shower and change. Outraged, rowers Anne Warner and Chris Ernst led 19 other rowers to stage a “strip-in” at the office of the women’s athletic director, Joni Barnett, delivering a collaboratively written letter that stated: “These are the bodies Yale is exploiting. … We can’t accept any excuses.” With “Title IX” written on their naked bodies, the team spoke of the persistent inequities they still endured four years after Title IX had passed. The New York Times covered the protest, and, in response, Yale built a women’s locker room at the university’s rowing site soon after.

Earlier Title IX student activism also focused on sexual harassment and assault. In 1977, five Yale undergraduate women sued the university, arguing that sexual harassment in education was sex discrimination. Although a judge ultimately ruled against the students, the case, Alexander v. Yale, laid the groundwork for future sexual harassment cases under Title IX.

The grievance procedures the case called for are now commonplace at colleges and universities — thanks to student activism at universities across the country.

In May 1987, for example, the University of New Hampshire campus erupted in protest after three men were found not guilty of an on-campus sexual assault despite multiple witnesses. In response to the anti-rape protests on campus, administration officials improved counseling services and other supportive resources for survivors of sexual assault.

Student activism in these areas continues on college campuses today. Take Back the Night protests, which began in the 1980s, have become a cornerstone of college activism, pushing universities to continuously reckon with the pleas for justice from sexual assault survivors. And last year, social media posts went viral, exposing the vast difference in training facilities for men’s and women’s basketball teams at the NCAA tournament.

But student activists in recent years have also taken debates about how to define sex discrimination under Title IX in new directions that earlier generations could not have anticipated.

Since the 1970s, prevailing interpretations of Title IX have reified gender binaries by segregating men’s and women’s sports in the name of creating new opportunities for women. Yet this leaves trans and nonbinary students excluded.

Students today argue that gender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination. As state legislatures increasingly ban trans and nonbinary athletes from participating in sports, students are fighting to play on teams that affirm their gender identity.

In 2020, Lindsay Hecox, a transgender long-distance runner attending Boise State University, joined high school athlete Kayden Hulquist and the ACLU in suing the state of Idaho over its Fairness in Women’s Sports Act. This state law was the first to effectively ban intersex and transgender women from participating in women’s sports — employing invasive mechanisms for verifying the sex of suspected trans students and overriding 2009 NCAA guidelines for their inclusion.

While the law is currently blocked by an injunction, it has served as a model for other states to pass similar laws in the name of protecting women’s sports. In response, students and allies will continue to protest their strictures as a new form of discrimination under Title IX, continuing this debate about how to interpret the law.

In cases of sexual abuse and harassment, today’s students are also pushing to rethink the campus systems that earlier generations of activists demanded be established. They point to how these systems exclude some students or do not adequately address or prevent harm. With social media increasingly allowing students across disparate campuses to connect with one another and coordinate advocacy, students have founded new organizations such as End Rape on Campus, Spring Up and Know Your IX to point out systemic flaws in universities’ Title IX procedures, particularly for LGBTQ+ students and students of color.

Graduate student unions have also called upon their campuses to rethink and revise how Title IX is implemented, with unions at universities such as Columbia and Harvard arguing that current procedures protect universities’ liability and allow for faculty accused of sexual harassment or assault to avoid consequences (for example, by taking early retirement). The demand to provide neutral, third-party arbitration has been a sticking point for contract negotiations, with Columbia finally agreeing to include the demand in the union’s new contract following a 10-week strike.

As we look toward the next 50 years, one thing is certain: Students will continue to call upon Title IX to push their campuses to be equitable educational spaces that empower every student to thrive.