The Cheap Seats: Girls, Girls, Girls
50 years since Title IX’s passage, sports have become a powerful instrument of opportunity for gender equality. The kicker — women aren’t done yet.
50 years ago on June 23, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. It contained 37 words that transformed gender equality in education, and perhaps most visibly, gender equality in sports. Title IX, later renamed the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act, continuously paves way for millions of girls to grow up kicking soccer balls, lifting weights, coming home late from practice and working hard on and off the field until their dreams become reality.
One year after Title IX was passed, much of the nation challenged such a notion of equality, and many refused to believe that women could be elite athletes without a tangible example. This came in the historic “Battle of the Sexes” — women’s tennis star Billie Jean King was challenged to a tennis match by Bobby Riggs, a previous number one world amateur male tennis player. In Houston’s Astrodome with 30,000 fans watching and countless more across American living rooms, King won the match and, subsequently, helped women across the nation prevail.
Looking at the “Battle of the Sexes” in hindsight, it is hard to wrap one’s head about why this event was necessary in the first place. Throughout the match, commentators incomprehensibly discussed King’s attractiveness and seriousness on court. King’s efforts were monumental, and she later founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, which focuses on female participation in sports. Almost 50 years after the 37 words that made the organization possible in the first place, the group released a report titled “50 Years of Title IX: We’re Not Done Yet.” The report advocates for a level playing field for girls of all backgrounds: “women of color, with disabilities and from low socioeconomic households, as well as LGBTQ+, trans and non-binary youth.”
One of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s goals is to make Americans aware of the existence of Title IX; a recent poll by the University of Maryland suggested that although parents and students “overwhelmingly” supported gender equality in high school sports, a majority of these same people know “nothing at all” about Title IX. The lack of knowledge among students, parents and teachers is an issue — there is no way to push the boundaries of that legislation to greater opportunity and, more importantly, to ensure gender equality.
To those familiar withTitle IX, however, the legislation has become a tool for people across the country to file lawsuits to enact change, particularly within school districts. This is exactly what happened when Ginger Folger, the mother of a softball player from Georgia, challenged her local school district when she compared the state of the high school boys’ baseball field and girls’ softball field. While the boys baseball field could be characterized as pristine, the softball field fell into the category of being a safety hazard, she claimed. Eventually, the school settled by spending $750,000 to construct facilities in equal conditions for the softball team, as well as ensuring the same quality of resources for both teams. What is most striking about Folger’s story is its impact. The cycle of parents and loved ones fighting for their children’s rights is the basis of how Title IX became what it is today — when an individual speaks up, the 37 words of the legislation broaden their capacity for opportunity. While there were less than 300,000 girls playing sports in 1971, today there are over three million.
A recent endeavor that speaks to just how far women have come since the passage of Title IX is establishment of Angel City FC in Los Angeles in 2020. The club, co-founded by Natalie Portman along with a star-studded group of female investors and athletes, aims to have working conditions and salaries for the players of Angel City that rival their male counterparts. Angel City has made its mission of showing the country how important it is to invest in women’s sports clear.
Although it is easy to get wrapped up in the excitement and pageantry of watching American sports, we tend to forget how sports can shape people’s lives as an instrument of growth. Since 1972, sports have been part of the American educational experience for both men and women. Sports instill responsibility, confidence and perseverance with a fighting whisper that can drive each of us, saying “maybe If I just work hard enough things will get better.” Sports show women how strong they really are. From a young age, girls are made aware of all that their bodies can do. Title IX was never meant for sports, but the efforts of Billie Jean King, Ginger Folger, Angel City FC and many more have proved that progress can be achieved, and the fight for gender equality in sports must continue.