Get ready for more Title IX fireworks

Happy 2018! In the new year, the backlash against Title IX will make more headlines as the Trump Administration continues to change regulations dealing with sex discrimination in education. Advocates for girls and women will push back and eventually move society two steps forward for every step back. We’ve seen this before, many times. Let’s take a look at the challenges that Title IX faced and overcame at this point in previous decades. It’s been a wild ride toward equity in education. The fun isn’t done.

This timeline leaves out a lot, yet you can see patterns and progress:


Chicago police drag protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention in front of a sign reading, “Make Love Not War.” (National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons)

Major upheavals in U.S. society affect education, of course, and lay the groundwork for Title IX. Assassins kill the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Racial justice and anti-war activists take over buildings at Columbia University for a week until police arrest more than 700.  Police kill three African-American students, beat a pregnant student until she miscarries, and wound dozens more at South Carolina State College at a protest against a segregated bowling alley. Sex discrimination in education is rampant. One example: Medical schools alone receive $755 million in federal funds (the equivalent of $5.3 billion today) but routinely exclude half or more of female applicants regardless of qualifications in order to accommodate larger quotas for men. Women’s sports in schools and colleges are nearly non-existent.

Feminist consciousness-raising groups mushroom across the country. All-male Yale University agrees to admit some women. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules that the Civil Rights Act forbids listing jobs in segregated categories for men or for women. New Yorkers elect the first female African-American to Congress, Shirley Chisholm, who becomes a Title IX champion. Mostly midwestern white women found the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL), giving women who aren’t ready for the National Organization for Women (NOW) another outlet for organized action, especially related to jobs and education. An executive order signed in 1967 by President Johnson becomes effective, outlawing sex discrimination by federal contractors. By 1969, activists realize that nearly all schools and colleges get federal funding, making employment-related sex discrimination illegal in education under the executive order and building momentum for Title IX in 1972 to cover all parts of education.


Six years after Title IX passed, the regulations to enforce it are only three years old. Women’s advocates have beaten back repeated attempts by conservative Congressmen to weaken Title IX. The new Carter Administration in 1977 finds two boxes containing 600 letters about sex discrimination left unanswered by President Ford’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). A 1977 report by the Project on Equal Education Rights on elementary and secondary schools finds that Ford’s OCR resolved only 7% of 871 Title IX complaints within 6 months. The first Title IX lawsuit against sexual harassment and assault (Alexander v. Yale) gets the green light to proceed at the end of 1977 when a federal magistrate rules that Title IX prohibits sexual harassment.

Pamela Price becomes the lone plaintiff in Alexander v. Yale after a federal magistrate dismisses the others. (Photo by Sherry Boschert 2017)

In 1978, the deadline passes for high schools and colleges to comply with Title IX, but most don’t. OCR investigates nearly 100 complaints about sex discrimination in athletics. The NCAA sues the government to exempt sports from Title IX and gets thrown out of court. To nudge resistant colleges, OCR issues draft guidance on compliance in athletics that will be fought over for years. Carter appoints the first female chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Eleanor Holmes Norton, who goes on to issue explicit guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace. Hannah Gray becomes the first woman to lead a major U.S. college or university, the University of Chicago. Hundreds of people around the country protest the Carter Administration’s delay in enforcing a law prohibiting discrimination based on disability, forcing the government to implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Congress passes the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Another Title IX lawsuit, Cannon v. University of Chicago, soon takes Title IX to the Supreme Court for the first time and affirms that private plaintiffs have a right to sue under Title IX, giving women a stronger tool to fight sex discrimination in education.


Martina Navratilova in 2006 (Via Wikimedia, Michal.Pohorelsky)

For four years civil rights advocates for women, racial minorities, the disabled, and the aged have worked together toward legislation  to undo the damage by a 1984 Supreme Court ruling influenced by the conservative Reagan Administration. Grove City College v. Bell decimated all civil rights laws in education, including Title IX, by saying they apply only to a specific department or program receiving federal funds, not the whole educational institution. Title IX advocates escort tennis star Martina Navratilova, among others, to lobby Congress. In each office, the politicians pull out their rackets and ask her to check their grips rather than talk politics.

Congress finally overrides President Reagan’s veto in 1988 to pass the Civil Rights Restoration Act, bringing Title IX back to life. The National Women’s Law Center successfully settles Haffer v. Temple University, the first Title IX lawsuit concerning athletics at a major college or university. Increasing advocacy against sexual harassment and assault throughout the 1980s shines a brighter spotlight on these problems. Congress introduces the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Testifying for the ADA in autumn 1988, 14-year-old Lakisha Griffin from Alabama embodies the intersectionality of civil rights struggles: “I worry that people will treat me differently because I am blind, black, and female. My parents worked hard in the textile mill… I  hope to be the first person in my family to go to college.”*


Title IX is 25 years old and the Clinton Administration’s OCR has just released the first Title IX guidance regarding sexual harassment of students. The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education gives the nation an average “C” grade on a Title IX report card. Women earn more than half of associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees but just 39% of doctorates. Women make up 73% of elementary and secondary teachers but only 35% of principals. High schools have 24,000 more boys’ varsity teams than girls’ teams, women get only a third of all college athletic scholarships, and women’s sports receive only 23% of college athletic operating expenses, a federal study finds. OCR issues more guidance, this time regarding fair awarding of athletic scholarships. Congress requires colleges and universities to report annual data on athletic resources by sex. Despite ongoing resistance to Title IX, its impact on athletics will be seen the next year when U.S. women win soccer’s World Cup for the first time.

From the 2014 documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.

The Food and Drug Administration approves the first emergency contraception. The number of Title IX lawsuits has exploded in the past six years since the Supreme Court ruled that high school student Christine Franklin had a right to sue for monetary damages after a teacher sexually abused her. Title IX cases take a dive in 1998, though, when the Supreme Court rejects high school student Alida Star Gebser’s suit over sexual coercion by a teacher. The court places two conditions that are hard to meet: The plaintiff must show that an official with authority to take corrective action knew of the misconduct (even though Franklin’s district had no reporting mechanism), and officials deliberately fail to act. On the up side, fifth-grader LaShonda Davis’ suit soon will move the Supreme Court to say that Title IX covers sexual harassment and assault by peers, not just teachers and administrators.


Women’s advocates have successfully fought off multiple attempts to weaken Title IX regulations under the conservative George W. Bush Administration and in the courts. Women score some big payoffs against discrimination in athletics: The Michigan High School Athletics Association pays $4.5 million; Fresno State University pays millions to three female coaches. Another OCR guidance letter further clarifies what counts as a sport under Title IX. (Cheerleading: not.)

Alexandra Brodsky, 2016 (by Sherry Boschert)

Yale officials convince freshman Alexandra Brodsky to keep quiet about a rape attempt against her, letting Yale off the hook. She and other feminists there become increasingly alarmed about the number of sexual assaults. They and women’s advocates on other campuses connect through the Internet. Their pressure for change pushes the Obama Administration Office for Civil Rights to write yet another guidance letter reiterating how colleges can comply with Title IX.

Ann Olivarius, 1970s

The 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter launches the modern era of an explosion in Title IX complaints over sexual harassment and assault. Sixteen Yale students — men and women, including Brodsky and Chase Olivarius, daughter of Ann Olivarius, who instigated the first Title IX lawsuit over sexual harassment in 1977 — eventually file a Title IX complaint against Yale. Brodsky goes on to co-found Know Your IX, one of the strongest ongoing advocacy organizations for Title IX.


Less than a year after taking power, the uber-conservative Trump Administration has appointed to head its Office for Civil Rights Candace Jackson, a woman who complained of being discriminated against in the 1970s for being white and who in 2017 said most student complaints of rape are just regrets from drunken hook-ups. OCR has rescinded previous guidance advising that schools should let transgender students use bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their identified gender. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has gone out of her way to meet with students accused of rape and rescinded previous Title IX guidance on sexual assaults, promising new guidelines perhaps in 2018.

At Women’s March 2017, San Diego. (Wikimedia Commons, Bonzo McGrue)

Still, Title IX is alive, and we need it as much as ever. OCR is investigating 343 complaints of sexual assaults at 243 colleges and universities alone. Each higher-education investigation takes nearly 2 years, on average. An Associated Press study finds 17,000 sexual assaults by K-12 students against other students in a four-year period. OCR reports that black girls are twice as likely to get suspended from school as girls of any other race. Of the 7,747 Title IX complaints in the most recent year reported, 80% deal with athletics (still!), 9% stem from sexual or gender harassment and violence, and 5% complain of retaliation, among others.

These and other transgressions against equity for women are inspiring women across all sectors of society to fight back in diverse ways. Some states have adopted Title IX policies abandoned by the feds. Know Your IX held its first campus strategy call to focus advocacy within educational institutions. Other groups like End Rape on Campus, the National Women’s Law Center, Equal Rights Advocates, and others continue organizing and litigating. Women and their allies staged the largest single-day public demonstration in U.S. history at the 2017 Women’s March and plan an encore in 2018. The #metoo movement exploded on social media and brought unprecedented attention to sexual assault. More women than ever are running for Congress in 2018.

Will 2018 follow history and move women two steps forward for every step back? We’ll see.

If you know of other important Title IX developments that happened near each of the years listed above, feel free to share in the Comments.

(Fireworks image by Magnus Johansson via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons)

* From Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest US Minority Its Rights, by Lennard J. Davis.

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