The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fifty years ago, these feminist networks made Title IX possible

The work of three women, in particular, helped pass this landmark legislation

Esther Peterson, pictured in 1961, laid critical groundwork for the passage of Title IX in 1972. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
6 min

With June 23, 2022, marking the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in education, there has been ongoing publicity about the law’s impact over the past five decades. There has been far less coverage of the origins of Title IX, and that history tends to focus primarily on Congress.

But congressional action is only half of Title IX’s origin story. The other half, equally important, involves activism that began a decade before 1972 and was carried forward by a large open-ended feminist network spanning across the United States. These activists — working alongside federal government administrators, civil service employees, members of Congress and their staffers — made Title IX a reality.

The history of Title IX in Congress revolves around Rep. Edith Green (D-Ore.) — the chair of the subcommittee on higher education — leading a successful legislative effort in the House, while Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) pushed the bill through the upper chamber.

In 1970, Green introduced an omnibus education bill that included a provision banning sex discrimination. She then held the first-ever congressional hearings on sex discrimination in education, but the bill never made it out of committee for a vote. In 1971, Green again introduced an omnibus education bill that included a provision banning sex discrimination. This time, with much effort, she succeeded in having the larger committee accept her provision, followed by approval in the full House.

On the Senate side, Bayh had a rough time introducing a sex discrimination amendment into an education bill. He was not on the subcommittee on education, and that committee’s chair, Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), did not want potentially divisive issues disrupting the federal undergraduate student loan program he was trying to pass — what would eventually become Pell Grants. After repeated tries, Bayh finally garnered the necessary votes to bring his amendment to the Senate floor, where it passed. The House and Senate bills then moved to a conference committee, which resulted in a compromise omnibus bill after long and heated sessions on hot-button provisions about school busing and funding for higher education. The bill passed with the largely ignored Title IX provision tucked into it.

But this narrative overlooks how, beginning in 1960 and continuing into the 1970s, three key leaders outside of Congress supplied the lobbying energy and crucial documentation needed to make Title IX a reality.

The first leader to emerge was Esther Peterson, who served as assistant secretary of labor in the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Peterson guided Kennedy’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to advocate for what became the Equal Pay Act of 1963 — and she did so by bringing together like-minded administrators and staffers, members of Congress, labor unions and women’s groups. The Equal Pay Act was the first federal statute prohibiting employment discrimination based on sex. But it was relatively weak, excluding women working in educational institutions, where most women worked outside the home.

Still, the fact that Congress passed something to address equal pay for women encouraged Peterson and her network of activists to do more. They then pressured Johnson to sign Executive Order 11375 in 1967, an amendment that added “sex” to the protected categories of race, creed, color and national origin in an earlier executive order that banned discrimination by federal contractors and subcontractors. Significantly, the amended EO 11246-11375 placed sex on equal footing with race. And it covered educational institutions, which enabled women to file hundreds of sex discrimination complaints.

Peterson, with her ties to federal administrators and staffers, Congress members and numerous feminists, had become a central leader of equal employment initiatives. In other words, she and her network of advocates helped lay the foundation for Title IX.

So, too, did Catherine East, a civil service employee in the federal government. Over the course of almost 40 years, East worked her way to a strategic position within the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau, where she gained access to crucial statistics and other information needed to move legislation ahead for women. East worked without fanfare, photocopying statistics, legal briefs and related information to send to lawyers, women’s groups and other interested parties. Recipients recopied the information and sent it to others, who often did the same. East, who was active in women’s organizations, also worked to expand her feminist network by linking advocates together.

Bernice Sandler, the third central figure of this widening network, was a highly qualified aspiring professor turned advocate after she lost out on academic jobs because of her gender. She joined the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) that was formed in 1968 to focus on equal opportunities for women in employment and education. When Sandler read about EO 11246-11375, the Executive Order that Peterson had pushed for the year before, she immediately thought of its application to colleges and universities, most of which received federal contracts. She met with the Labor Department’s Vincent Macaluso, who gave her valuable advice on the process of filing complaints. He also arranged for her to meet East, who, he informed Sandler, had a wealth of information.

Sandler turned to East for crucial documentation that enabled her to file sex discrimination charges against 250 institutes of higher education. She also supported her complaint with data from the network of extensive contacts she had established with college women nationwide. East then helped Sandler distribute the complaint and evidence to members of Congress at a crucial moment — right as Green, as the chair of the subcommittee on higher education, was looking for hard data to help her introduce legislation and hold hearings on sex discrimination in education. Green hired Sandler, who prepared for the hearings by contacting potential witnesses; afterward, she compiled related testimonies and documents into two volumes of 1,261 pages.

Meanwhile, Sandler and her network of activists provided Bayh with data that he needed to secure votes on his amendment to the Senate education bill.

With the 50th anniversary of Title IX upon us, it’s time to recognize the importance of Peterson, East and Sandler, who — with overlapping networks of feminist activists and ample documentation of sex discrimination — supplied exactly what Green and Bayh needed to pass Title IX through Congress.