Title IX itself isn’t on the ballot Nov. 8, but it might as well be. The gains made for sexual and gender fairness through Title IX were created by politicians, courts, and activists, and can be undone by them, too.
Now that we’ve had several generations of women grow up and grow stronger under Title IX, I tend to think that we’ll never go back to the days when “normal” meant only men got to make the decisions and to define what’s fair. We’ve still got a long way to go to reach equity in so many parts of our society, and who we elect will speed or hinder progress toward that goal.
Over the past year and a half of working on my book, I’ve asked dozens of interviewees whether women’s progress and Title IX could be threatened. Here are 10 things I learned from those conversations. The quotes are theirs, but the opinions on voting are mine:
1) Vote to influence the chain of command.
Preserving Title IX is like dental hygiene — brush and floss to keep things healthy, or, in this case, speak up and vote, says Margaret Dunkle, the first chair of the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education. “It matters how you vote in presidential elections because the President appoints the secretary of the department of education, and the secretary of the department of education appoints the assistant secretary for civil rights, and they’re the ones who determine how much to enforce [Title IX] and whether or not to enforce, and control the budget process in terms of resources to actually do things,” she says. “You know, how you vote matters.”
2) Vote to uphold principles.
Cheryl Fields, a former reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, recalls a 1976 survey that rephrased portions of the Bill of Rights in everyday language and asked people if they would support a law to do what the Bill guarantees. “There were huge numbers of people who wouldn’t support the [guarantees in the] Bill of Rights,” she says. Any civil rights law or antidiscrimination legislation is vulnerable to attack, Fields believes. “This is a pretty conservative country, except we have blips when it’s not.”
3) Vote for a Supreme Court that will stand up for women.
“It’s a pretty sad thing that we have never gotten enough support in this country to want to say that women should be guaranteed equal rights under the Constitution,” says Barbara Dixon, who fought in the losing battle for the Equal Rights Amendment as a staffer for Sen. Birch Bayh. Title IX and other legislation provide a hodgepodge of protections that can be picked apart by opponents of women’s rights. “I think we’re in real danger — depending on who’s on the Supreme Court — of losing a woman’s right to the choice of abortion in this country,” she says.
4) Vote to restart progress.
Deborah Ashford worries about U.S. women’s future. “The progression toward more rights for women, more accomplishments, and a broader understanding of what that meant, was an always upward progression. I feel that we’ve stalled,” and may be backsliding on some issues, says Ashford, who worked in the Office for Civil Rights. Salary differences have decreased but equal pay remains a dream. Glass ceilings still hover overhead. Political attacks have chipped away large chunks of women’s right to choose abortion. “I think we need to be taking to the streets again because the things that have occurred in what some people think are just pockets” of society are very concerning, she said.
5) Vote to keep Title IX in the toolbox, and use it.
“Title IX is only as powerful as people are willing to use it. It’s not self-executing. It’s not even self-defining in terms of the range of discriminatory injuries that can be covered,” says Gwendolyn Mink, daughter of the late Rep. Patsy Mink. Title IX was renamed after Rep. Mink in 2002 and she received a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 to honor her work, especially on Title IX. “People need to know that it exists and that it is a weapon for justice, and they need to use it.”
6) Vote to influence all three branches of government.
“I’ve been very, very worried by a lot of the anti-woman legislation that we’re seeing now, a lot of the anti-abortion laws that are coming into effect in some of the red states,” says attorney Deborah Sandler, daughter of Title IX “godmother” Bernice Sandler. “I’m very concerned about the Supreme Court,” she adds. “A lot of people don’t realize if we get the wrong people appointed on the Supreme Court, all kinds of horrible things could happen.”
7) Vote to preserve women’s freedoms.
“None of this is static,” says Margot Polivy, former legal counsel to the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women and a former aide to Rep. Bella Abzug. Today’s progress could be tomorrow’s history. “Just because, you know, a child assumes that they’re entitled to go to school doesn’t make the schools available, and doesn’t make it always safe. If you look at the stories about Afghanistan 20 years ago, nobody was wearing a burkha. Girls went to school. I think we just take for granted that progress as we see it, once achieved, is safe.”
8) Vote for public education.
Title IX applies only to educational institutions and programs that receive federal funds of some kind, so politicians who control the purse strings could limit its reach by privatizing schools and cutting public funding, for example. “If and when federal financial assistance shrinks or changes in its formulation in some way, whatever that may be, I think you’re not going to have Title IX protection,” says attorney Margy Kohn, who worked on Title IX cases at the National Women’s Law Center.
9) Vote for the Democrat.
“It’s really important to establish the difference in this history of Democratic Administrations and Republican Administrations. There has been a huge difference,” says Holly Knox, founder of the Project on Equal Education Rights (PEER). “I started PEER because it was obvious to me that the Republican Administration of which I was a part had little interest in dealing with Title IX or getting it enforced.” Things improved for women when President Carter replaced President Ford and got worse under President Reagan, a pattern that has continued with successive Democrats supporting women’s rights and Republicans hindering them, she said. “I can’t imagine that a Republican Administration today would do what the Obama Administration has gone after in all of those sexual assault cases” on college campuses, for example.
10) Vote for her.
If you care about Title IX and fair treatment for women and girls, choose the Democratic candidate for President, Hillary Clinton, and not the hateful, misogynistic, inept Republican candidate, Donald Trump, or third-party candidates who could swing the election to Trump. Preserving Title IX and women’s rights are worthy of votes. If you care about equality, vote Clinton.