Facades change, but Title IX foundation remains

The Edith Green and Wendell Wyatt Federal Building (Photo by Sherry Boschert)

An aging federal building in Portland, Ore. that was rehabilitated to model modern environmental ethics honors a woman, coincidentally named Edith Green, who is best known for rehabbing federal laws to treat women ethically.

Rep. Edith Louise Starrett Green (D-OR), a former teacher, birthed Title IX in 1971-1972 as chair of the Subcommittee on Education of the House Education and Labor Committee, giving girls and women equal opportunities in education. During her 10 terms from 1955 to 1974, Congress also felt her influence in the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a 1971 bill that outlawed sex discrimination in training doctors, nurses, and other health care providers, and much more. I visited the building named for her and Rep. Wendell Wyatt (R-OR) today on a research trip to study her papers in Portland.

She grew up in an era when the Ku Klux Klan essentially ran Oregon politics, her son Richard Green said in an interview. The Klan rehabbed itself, in a way, into the John Birch Society, then into the Moral Majority and other iterations including some of today’s Presidential advisors in the White House. Not all rehabs are good ones.

This drawing in an exhibition of student art in the rear lobby reminded me of Green. (Photo by Sherry Boschert)

But Green learned to think for herself. The daughter of two teachers, she won the state high school debate championship in 1926 and went on to national contests in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. People dissuaded her from becoming an electrical engineer because she was a woman, so she taught. Eleanor Roosevelt’s example helped inspire her to enter politics. Green earned a reputation in Congress as a persuasive speaker and politician willing to cross party lines when needed to make change happen.

Her husband, Arthur, supported her ambitions. An avid outdoorsman, he never found his place in Washington, D.C, though. They divorced in the 1960s. Green persevered in politics. She sponsored or influenced almost every education bill that passed through Congress in her 20 years there. She championed a 1958 bill that opened up federal aid for education and made it more inclusive at a time when the G.I. Bill that was sending millions of men to college didn’t include women. Green’s bill created loans for impoverished students, and she later championed financial assistance for middle-class students. She sponsored two major bills in the 1960s to expand federal support for higher education, bills that President Lyndon Johnson called “the greatest step forward in the field” in 100 years.

Green and Wyatt (Photo on banner in the building)

Green drove her staff hard to be as prepared as possible for managing any bill, any issue, partly because of her standards for debate preparation but also because, as one of very few women in Congress, she had to work twice as hard as most Congressmen to prove the value of her ideas.

But she never saw herself as a “feminist” – a term too radical for her — and her increasingly conservative positions as she grew older alienated some women’s advocates and allies in the Democratic Party by the end of her career. An essentially practical woman, she based her arguments on what she thought made common sense. Green became the only Congresswoman to vote against adding “sex” as a protected category in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because she feared that would create enough opposition to kill the bill. She was wrong. On the other hand, she advised women’s advocates not to lobby for passage of Title IX in 1972 so it wouldn’t draw attention, giving it a better chance of passing. She was right.

A rotating electronic display in the rear lobby unwittingly juxtaposed two sides of feminism’s multifaceted story: celebrating women’s history month, and inadequate attention to “missing” girls of color today.

She clung to being “mainstream” to gain acceptance while also striving to stand up for her principles. One of her early campaign buttons simply showed her putting on an earring, sending the message that she would remain feminine even if elected. She wasn’t afraid to take an unpopular stand when she felt she had to — Green and only a handful of Congresspeople voted against funding President Johnson’s escalation of the Viet Nam war. In the early 1970s she and her ally Sen. Birch Bayh (D-IN), the “father” of Title IX in the U.S. Senate, argued persuasively that it simply made no sense to waste the minds and energies of half the population by denying girls equal opportunities in education. Her strong focus on education throughout her career earned Green the nickname “Mrs. Education” in Congress.

The federal government opened the Portland office building named after Green and Wyatt the year she retired, 1974. But times change, and better ways of doing things evolve. The government rededicated a rehabbed version of the building in 2013 using leading designs for energy efficiency, water conservation, and comfort.

A poster in the building touts its solar energy.

Reputations and laws evolve too, sometimes getting major rehabs. Because she left office only two years after Title IX passed, Green wasn’t around to defend the law from near-constant attacks in its first decade and multiple assaults since then. Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI) and others filled her shoes and became more identified with Title IX in the public eye. When Green died in 1987, her New York Times obituary didn’t even mention Title IX, one of her crowning achievements (an omission that also might have been influenced by the decimation under the Reagan Administration of Title IX and other civil rights laws, which were on life support with the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987). In 2002, Congress renamed Title IX after Mink, moving Green farther into the shadows. Now, many internet sites and posts miscredit Mink as the mother of Title IX.

A poster in the building highlights its water conservation.

Title IX’s application evolved with the times in ways that Green might not have approved or even conceived of – boys and girls playing on some of the same sports teams, or transgender children being recognized for who they are – because ending sex discrimination is an ongoing, iterative process. There have been two major rehabs of Title IX, and another may be coming. The devastating court ruling supported by the Reagan Administration (Grove City College v. Bell) was the first, fixed by the Congressional act to restore civil rights laws. With Republicans controlling all three branches of the federal government now, a gutting or even demolition of Title IX could be conceivable.

A poster describes wrapping the old building in a modern “skin.”

But that won’t negate the foundations upon which Title IX is based. Girls and women still demand equal opportunities and fair treatment in education, and will not sit back and let hard-won rights be taken away. Ditto for the men who also benefit from Title IX. These are the base of Title IX, still holding up the law to make a more welcoming space in tune with modern principles of non-discrimination. We now expect educational institutions to comply with Title IX to protect transgender students and to more aggressively combat sexual assaults on campuses because our understandings of how sex discrimination operates have improved over time, and because many still aren’t complying with some Title IX basics after 45 years.

There’s nothing in the lobby of the Edith Green/Wendell Wyatt Federal Building telling of the building’s namesakes, but Green’s presence remains, even if the building looks different than when she last saw it. On the basement level, a banner hangs on the wall outside the employee fitness room acknowledging Green and Wyatt for serving their country. Only Green’s portion includes an extra sentence, emphasizing just one of her many accomplishments because of its significance to our society: “She played an instrumental role in passing the 1972 Equal Opportunity in Education Act, better known as Title IX.”

We’ve all been living in the structure that Title IX built. Here’s hoping the federal government will continue to embrace its modern innovations and honor its practical, inspiring past.

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