Part of the fun of researching Title IX history is seeing the chain of women’s activism linking so many “foremother” feminists in politics with bad-ass female public servants of today, backed by the wider women’s movement. Progress is never simple; they lobbied, persuaded, bargained, defied, and often had to trust that their efforts would cumulate into unstoppable momentum toward equity.
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the media in February, 2017 after he used an arcane Senate rule to cut off Sen. Elizabeth Warren mid-speech. Warren had been reading a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King critical of Sen. Jeff Sessions (at that time a nominee for U.S. attorney general), and when McConnell shut off her mic, Warren finished reading the letter live on social media outside the Senate chambers, gaining millions of viewers.
Warren was hardly the first woman in Congress to be told to sit down and shut up by her male colleagues. In the years of Title IX’s gestation — roughly 1969 to 1972 — the dozen women in Congress (down from a high of 20 in 1962) worked hard within the system to stand up for their constituents and to convince the 523 male lawmakers in the House and Senate to support civil rights. I gleaned snippets of their stories in articles by the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and other sources in the papers of Rep. Edith Green at the Oregon Historical Association, Portland.
Rep. Shirley Chisholm, elected in 1968 by Brooklyn, N.Y. voters to be the first African-American woman in Congress, objected when the traditional committee-assignment system named her to a subcommittee dealing with forestry and rural development. She marched up to a microphone during a Democratic caucus and refused to budge until the leadership reluctantly recognized her to speak, shocking her colleagues and staging what is believed to be the first successful single-handed revolt against the assignment system. Then she pushed through a measure moving her assignment to the Veterans Affairs Committee, saying, “There are a lot more veterans in my district than there are trees,” the Washington Post reported in 1971. Chisholm became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969.
Her colleague Rep. Martha Griffiths (D-MI), a former judge, held a senior position and was the first woman on the influential House Ways and Means Committee. Her bold but risky maneuvers succeeded in getting sex discrimination added to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though it didn’t cover education.
In 1970, Griffiths’ efforts brought the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to a vote in the House for the first time. The ERA had been introduced in some form in every session of Congress since 1923 but always stalled in committees. Griffiths engineered a successful “discharge petition” to force the ERA out of committee, persuading a majority of House members that the bill deserved consideration by the full House of Representatives. The House passed the ERA in August 1970 but problems with a Senate version doomed its passage that year. Griffiths went back at it in 1971 and after months of debate, hearings, and modifications, the House approved the ERA again in October 1971. The Senate passed an identical version championed by Sen. Birch Bayh (D-IN) in March 1972, sending the Constitutional amendment to the states for ratification, where it stalled three states short of the 38 needed for final approval. This year, Nevada passed the ERA, giving it new life. The work of Griffiths and so many others may not be finished.
Rep. Edith Green, a famously independent-minded Democrat from Oregon, also was known for her dogged persistence. Though her long tenure in the House put her in charge of the influential Subcommittee on Education, she often did not get along with other committee members. Green did not suffer fools gladly, and her biting comments undoubtedly bruised male egos. When they disagreed, she took her case to the floor of the House as a whole, and almost always won. She spent long hours doing her homework on the issues and came better prepare than most of her colleagues, having been a champion debater in high school. Green was one of the few Representatives who could sway a final vote by speaking on the floor of the House.
Even when she didn’t win, her persistence paid off later in many cases. She and allies worked for eight years to pass the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Title IX, too, didn’t happen overnight. After being inspired by Bernice Sandler to hold the first Congressional hearings on sex discrimination in education in summer of 1970, Green tried to include a prohibition against sex discrimination in a 1970 omnibus higher education bill, but it died at the close of the 91st Congress. She introduced a similar amendment to a 1971 version of the bill. Her own subcommittee members replaced it with a version by Republican Rep. Albert Quie of Minnesota that limited it to graduate schools and institutional employees. The next week, Green argued before the full Education and Labor Committee that exempting undergraduate institutions would leave out 90% of college and university students, making it meaningless.
During the debate, Green asked Quie publicly to cite specific examples of schools that might be hurt by her version of the the sex discrimination prohibition. He replied weakly, “Stewardess schools?” The committee members giggled and voted along party lines to go with Green’s wording.
That wasn’t the end of it, though. To Green’s dismay, Rep. John Erlenborn (R-IL) succeeded (by a five-vote margin) in amending the provision on the House floor to exempt private undergraduate colleges and universities, and the House passed the education bill in late 1971. Earlier in 1971, Sen. Bayh’s attempt to add a sex discrimination prohibition to the Senate version of the bill got rebuffed as “not germane,” leaving the Senate’s omnibus education bill without the provision. He, too, persisted. When the Senate reconsidered the bill in early 1972, Bayh succeeded in getting a sex discrimination provision attached, though, like Erlenborn’s amendment, it exempted private undergraduate institutions.
(Meanwhile, Green also had sponsored a similar provision in the Comprehensive Manpower Training Act of 1971 to outlaw sex discrimination in medical schools, nursing schools, and other health care training. She got Bayh to use identical language when he amended the Senate version of the bill two weeks later, “so that no one can play games with it in the conference committee” that reconciles the House and Senate versions of the bill. President Nixon signed that bill into law Nov. 18, 1971. So medical schools, at least, were covered regardless of whatever happened to Title IX.)
The conference committee that hammered out differences in the House and Senate versions of the omnibus education bill in 1972 focused more on the highly controversial issues of busing and financial aid. In the end, Rep. Green spoke and voted against the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 because she objected to provisions on those topics, even though the bill contained the sex discrimination protections she long had championed.
Luckily for us, Green’s persistence and eloquence failed this time. Against her wishes, Congress approved the bill on June 8 and President Nixon signed it on June 23, 1972, making Title IX the law of the land and opening all aspects of education to women and girls.