The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Title IX’s greatest achievement wasn’t equality. It was possibility.

Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt and her players celebrated her 1,000th victory in 2009. (Wade Payne/AP)
6 min

One thing you learn from watching athletes closely is that muscle isn’t power and in fact can be pretty clumsy and useless. Movement is power — mobility. It’s the tremendous sense of movement created by Title IX over the past 50 years that matters. And sometimes the most powerful movements are the stealthiest.

“Would you call yourself a feminist?” I asked Pat Summitt, early in our acquaintance.

“No,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I’m not a sign-carrier,” she said.

But after a few days of studying how Pat went about her business as the women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, I knew what to call her. Pat allowed me to shadow her through her workday in the interest of writing a book together, and I watched from corners of rooms as she would murmur with ladylike restraint through meetings, charm old-boy Southern male administrators in their offices with her mildness and then turn around and urge her players to thunder up the court with a roaring intensity. One afternoon, I returned to the subject.

“I know what to call you now,” I said. “I know what you are.”


“You’re a subversive,” I said.

She laughed, and then she said, perfectly serious, “That’s exactly right.”

In the half-century since Congress enacted Title IX on June 23, 1972, it has become ever clearer just how stealthily radical that piece of legislation with the Roman numeral really was. On the surface, it was a straightforward sentence, buried in a larger education act, that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. Conventionally, we’ve assessed its impact in terms of pure numbers, scholarships and budgets, as measures of “equity.” But that was just a petty, superficial, administrative application. Numbers don’t tell the whole story — not even close. Pat was after something much, much bigger than a budget.

One of the historical curiosities about Title IX is that there never has been full compliance with the law — the resistance by male administrators was immediate, and their clenched-fist withholding of fair resources has continued implacably ever since. An old Cotton Bowl official told me back in the 1980s that women’s sports advocates were out “to tear the shirts off our backs.” In 2011, a coalition of male coaches was still claiming women unfairly “laid waste” to their programs through quotas, and the book cooking continued through the 2020 NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

So how is it that the law worked so well? How did it become so … uncontainable?

Who’s making the most from NIL? Women’s basketball is near the top.

Because its opponents were thinking way too small. Title IX didn’t lay waste to men’s athletic programs. Title IX laid waste to everything. It laid waste to ideas — men’s ideas of what women were capable of, but most importantly, women’s ideas about themselves.

When you cure the perception of emotional frailty and physical incompetence in a young woman, you kill the idea that there are some things she is constitutionally unfit to do. And you seed a new idea in her, that she has the inalienable right to choose her professional interest and to work at it with an unembarrassed shouting passion.

Tennis star Billie Jean King and first lady Jill Biden spoke in D.C. on June 22 ahead of the 50th anniversary of Title IX. (Video: The Washington Post)

How do you measure the effect of those seeds cast into the wind?

What’s striking, in revisiting its history, is how intentional the champions of Title IX always were. They knew. They knew what the law would really do.

As the law’s most powerful original lobbyist, Billie Jean King, told journalist Grace Lichtenstein, “I’m interested in the women’s movement but from an action point of view, not an intellectual one.”

Athletic competition was a unique arena in which women could prove they weren’t inherent “chokers,” King once said. That was why King took such a sustained interest in a young pre-Title IX Stanford undergrad tennis player she met in 1972 named Sally Ride and mentored her even after Ride decided not to turn pro and chose to pursue physics instead. In a NASA news conference before her first space flight, Ride was famously asked, “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” Ride just grinned and suggested her male crewmate answer the same question.

King, like Summitt, knew Title IX wasn’t some budgetary mandate that would rob men of a few sports scholarships. It was a missile that would explode a hole in the world.

Summitt and King weren’t just interested in scholarship athletes but in any young women who came into their orbit — colleagues, rivals, opponents, Chris Evert, wonky science majors and even female sports journalists, at the time relatively rare creatures. In conversation, Summitt and King would go to work on you quietly, press you with questions and challenges. “What is it you really want to do?” King asked one day when I was supposed to be interviewing her.

You emerged from their sway with a sense that identity was a self-construct to be pursued with a triumphalist energy. “You don’t ever let anyone else define who you are,” Summitt would say.

How the NCAA women’s Final Four was born

That was the real incursion into the previously tribal-magic male inner circle. And its effect was titanic. If you want a number to measure it, try this one:

In 1970, before Title IX, women earned just 10 percent of all doctorates. Now they earn 54 percent. That’s movement.

Those twin towers, King and Summitt, understood that what kills ambition is an utterly impassable obstacle. They set out to remove what MIT’s first female president, Susan Hockfield, once called “the quiet oppression of ‘impossibility.’ ”

Their aim, throughout the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, was to subvert athletic power for women and thus create a strategy for evading seemingly impossible restrictions, for slipping handcuffs and rolling stones out of the road.

You learned from watching them that technical mastery was supreme to raw strength every time. You learned that the way to beat stigma and stereotype and unfairness was not just to protest it but to use it as a whetstone for excellence, the stropping of your professional blade. You learned to treat “pressure as a privilege,” as King always said, because when things were hard, a deep secret joy could be found in meeting obstacles — and moving them out of the way.