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It's just 37 words, 37 plain and grammatically clunky words hiding inside a large education bill, 37 words that didn't seem to be a big deal at the time, 37 words that would change everything:
"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 educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
Those are the words of Title IX, a section of the Education Amendments signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on June 23, 1972. Not exactly "We hold these truths to be self-evident ... " but, then again, the Founding Fathers knew they were on to something back in 1776.
The Founding Mothers of Title IX were just looking for a more level playing field in academics. "We had no idea," says Bernice "Bunny" Sandler, who helped draft the legislation and now works as a senior scholar for the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C. "We had no idea how bad the situation really was -- we didn't even use the word sex discrimination back then -- and we certainly had no sense of the revolution we were about to start."
You'll notice that not one of those 37 words is "athletics" or "sports," the very words that have come to be associated with Title IX. "The only thought I gave to sports when the bill was passed," Sandler says, "was, Oh, maybe now when a school holds its field day, there will be more activities for the girls."
They ended up having much more than a field day. The number of girls playing high school sports jumped from 294,015 in 1971-72 to 3,172,637 in 2009-10, an increase of 1079 percent. (The number of male high school athletes grew from 3,666,917 to 4,455,740 during that same period, an increase of 22 percent.) The number of women playing varsity sports in college rose from 29,972 in 1971-72 to 186,460 in 2009-10, a 622 percent increase that still leaves them behind the total of NCAA male athletes, whose population grew from 170,384 to 249,307 (46 percent) in that time frame.
Of course, the true significance of Title IX has been the accompanying increase in opportunities for women off the field -- a level of female empowerment so strong that Sandler calls the law "the most important step for gender equality since the 19th Amendment gave us the right to vote."