Title IX touches nearly every aspect of higher education. As the landmark law celebrates its 50th year, alumnae examine its past, present and future.
Fifty years ago, Title IX became law. A single sentence, it banned sex discrimination in any educational program or activity receiving federal funding. Even though there was no mention of sports—or of women, specifically—the law became synonymous with expanding opportunities for female athletes. Yet Title IX’s reach has been far greater, affecting nearly every aspect of daily life on school campuses around the country. Its influence can be felt in admission practices, hiring and promotions, the handling of sexual harassment and violence cases, rules governing study abroad, and even the curriculum. Meanwhile, our understanding of who is protected by the law is evolving, with calls to include trans and nonbinary people, among others.
Title IX continues to be challenged at every turn by some who argue that its regulations go too far and others who say they don’t go nearly far enough. To understand Title IX’s history, the challenges it faces today and how it might evolve in the next 50 years, Williams Magazine reached out to two alumnae experts. Donna Lisker ’88 has worked on Title IX and gender issues for more than 20 years at schools including Duke University, Smith College and Brown University, where she is now chief of staff in the Office of the Vice President for Advancement. And attorney Ellen Vargyas ’71, who specialized in Title IX enforcement, is the author of the book Breaking Down Barriers: A Legal Guide to Title IX. On the following pages, they share their observations.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and space.
Title IX States:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
Title IX, Tested
Reflections by Donna Lisker ’88
Title IX is 37 words long. The word “sports” is nowhere in there. The people who drafted Title IX in 1972 were thinking about remedies like removing quotas on the number of women admitted to medical or law school. The fact that it instead became associated with sports is something of a curiosity—though it did remove quotas and other limitations on women’s educational opportunities. It’s no coincidence that formerly all-male schools, including Williams, admitted women around 1972.
In subsequent years, Title IX has been interpreted as applying also to sexual harassment and violence. These problems are endemic on college campuses and they, too, are gender issues; you can’t talk about sexual harassment and sexual violence in a gender-neutral way. Let’s say a female college student experiences sexual violence on her campus. Most sexual violence happens between acquaintances, so the most likely perpetrator would be someone she knows on campus. If that is not appropriately addressed—if the person she alleges harmed her is allowed to continue at school without consequences—then she is subjected to discrimination on the basis of her sex.
That’s the basic argument, but the application of Title IX to sexual violence has waxed and waned under different presidential administrations. There have been stretches when Title IX was fairly vigorously enforced, like the Obama and Clinton years. And there have been stretches, like the Trump years or during the Reagan administration, when it was not enforced at all. Part of the dance has been colleges and universities figuring out when there are likely to be consequences for being passive about Title IX and when there aren’t. That’s a fairly cynical way to look at it, and I’d like to think that we have gotten pretty far from that in terms of our understanding of sexual violence and how important it is to address. You saw some colleges respond to the regulations issued by the Trump administration by changing the standard of responsibility in university-conducted investigations from “a preponderance of the evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence.” Groups that advocate for sexual violence survivors saw this as a step backward.
Today, Title IX has developed an even broader scope, as it is being used to argue that equal opportunities need to apply to all people, regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum. This represents the evolution of our understanding that sex is not a simple binary. To illustrate this, I’ll take us back to sports for a minute.
One of the classic early applications of Title IX to athletics had to do with locker rooms and changing facilities. There is a famous story about the women’s rowing team at Yale, which did not have a locker room at the boathouse though the male counterpart did. The women had to sit on the bus after practice, wet and cold, while the men showered. They pointed out the inequity and asked the administration to rectify it, but nothing happened. In 1976, after researching Title IX, they called a reporter from The New York Times and then went to the office of the senior women’s administrator at Yale. With a photographer present, they undressed in the administrator’s office. They had written “Title IX” on their bodies in marker. The Times ran the story with photos, and, soon enough, they got their locker room.
We’ve come full circle back to bathrooms and locker rooms as we look at the application of Title IX to transgender athletes. Transgender athletes argue, among other things, that Title IX protects their right to suitable and appropriate changing facilities. When we understand sex as a spectrum rather than a binary, our classic structure of separate men’s and women’s facilities starts to look inadequate. That legal frontier continues to evolve and apply to issues beyond locker rooms. Title IX was never meant to be all things to all people; it has to work in concert with other civil rights legislation. Title IX does not specifically address racial discrimination or discrimination based on disability, to give two examples. As with any question about discrimination, if you can’t think about it intersectionally, you’re thinking about it incompletely.
Title IX can also occasionally create barriers on the very paths it was initially designed to clear. When I worked at Duke, I co-founded a women’s leadership program called the Baldwin Scholars, a four-year program that includes residential, academic and experiential learning for women. The program and all-female spaces like it provide supplemental skills and support that counteract some of the more damaging messages of patriarchal culture, addressing the socialization specific to that particular gender identity. This is one of the rationales that supports women’s colleges, which were granted an exception under Title IX.
In creating this program, one of the questions we had to ask ourselves was whether we were violating Title IX. We were excluding people who identified as male from the Baldwin Scholars. The general counsel felt comfortable with it, because the same opportunities the program afforded to women were also available to men, though packaged differently. With unlimited funds, I might have created a complementary program for men that addressed the particular set of issues that go with their gender identity. What would it look like to have a program that focused on the challenges of a hypermasculine culture that doesn’t value men’s emotional development? There’s room for all of this.
People think about Title IX as something that only affects women, but the language is gender neutral. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. So that has meant sometimes Title IX applies to male athletes who have felt that their opportunities have been taken away as opportunities for women have risen—and all the attendant lawsuits and complications. It’s a much thornier issue than people realize.
If I allow myself to dream for a minute, I can start to imagine a place where the vision of Title IX is fully realized. I see campuses where every student has the opportunity to pursue what interests them—academic programs, athletics, clubs, study abroad—and their experience is not influenced by gender. The female student-athlete does not feel that she is going to have a lesser experience than her male counterpart. The student studying abroad does not have to spend 50% of her brain space worrying about whether she’ll be safe in the city she’s studying in or back on her own campus in the U.S. The male student going into a nontraditional field for men has a fulfilling experience without encountering homophobia or hurtful stereotypes based on gender. The female student studying computer science does not worry that a professor or other students will make her experience harder by assuming that she’s not as competent or by discouraging her.
Increased freedom and equity are good for everybody. People think about Title IX as something that has been good for women, and there’s no question that it has. It’s also good, broadly, for all educational environments to not discriminate against an entire class of people.
My favorite example comes back to Williams. When I started on the crew team in 1984, both the men and the women were club teams. Despite that apparent equity, the men’s team had a full-time coach. The women’s team had a part-time coach who also had to work another job. New equipment generally went to the men, while the women got hand-me-downs. I don’t think I was specifically aware of Title IX at the time, but it did not feel like equal treatment to me or my teammates.
A group of us wanted to bring greater equity to our program. After lots of research and drafting a petition, we had the team captains meet with Bob Peck, the athletic director, in the spring of 1986. We were very worried that we would get our coach, who did not know what we were doing, in trouble, so we did this in secret. Our captains presented our research, including information on Title IX, and told Bob why we thought women’s rowing should be a varsity sport and receive more support from the college. He looked at it and—in the most anticlimactic moment possible—said, “Hey, you’re right. You should be a varsity sport. And, by the way, the men will be, too.”
That experience taught me about the power of activism and the power of female community. Together we made this happen. If we had waited for someone else to notice, then it would not have changed for a good long while. And, in the end, both the women’s and the men’s programs received greater college support and greater financial resources because of the work we did. What was good for us was good for everybody.
An Interview with Ellen Vargyas ’71
How would you characterize the promise of Title IX when it was first passed?
Back in those days, the men would fly to athletic competitions; the women would take rickety buses. The women’s coaches were way underpaid, they didn’t have access to the fields, and they didn’t have access to the weight room. It was just such blatant discrimination. Title IX was part of a broader sense of the time that it was just enough already.
Tell us about one of the early cases that came to shape the impact of the law as we know it today.
Women had not been part of the NCAA. Those who were on the cutting edge of forming women’s competitive athletics programs were trying to create a somewhat different model of athletic competition—some of the women did not want scholarships. They wanted a true student-athlete model. Once women’s sports got some momentum, the NCAA moved in and tried to impose its model on the women’s sports, although with less of everything. The women’s governing body at the time filed an antitrust case against the NCAA. It was a very bitter case, and the women lost.Then attention turned to trying to think about equity within the NCAA model. It’s a complicated history. Women’s rowing took off in large part as an effort to even up opportunities and balance out the sheer numbers on a football team, because rowing was a sport that could accommodate a lot of athletes, and you didn’t have to have been doing it since you were 5 years old.
What has been the greatest impact of Title IX?
It’s had an enormous impact. Even if you just go to athletics—in our society it’s symbolic of so much. You have, not just at the collegiate level but at the high school level and younger, girls playing sports and nobody giving it a thought. My daughter rowed in high school, and her friends—they were very polite, they would not roll their eyes when I started talking about Title IX—needed to understand the history. They did not get this opportunity because of their sheer wonderfulness. They got this opportunity because a lot of people fought for them to have it. They understood that, but at another level it was not their world, which was a good thing. Additionally, establishing that sexual harassment violated the law was a huge change in terms of what expectations were and how students and faculty were treated. It’s not to say there aren’t still problems. Of course there are. And there are a lot of issues around how far, exactly, Title IX goes, what the due process is, how you navigate a complaint. But I think these were fairly profound changes.
What would it look like for Title IX’s vision to be fully realized on college campuses?
I am not an originalist in any sense. These laws need to evolve to address issues as they evolve. It’s for people who are involved now in schools to try and answer that question. It’s very important not to lose the history but not be hostage to the history either. Things change.
50 YEARS AND COUNTING
Congress enacts Title IX, which updates civil rights law and extends to education an existing ban on sex discrimination. President Richard Nixon signs the bill into law.
Congress approves Title IX regulations put forth by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the area of athletics. High schools and colleges that receive federal funding have three years to comply; elementary schools have one year.
The NCAA files a lawsuit challenging Title IX, claiming that no athletics program receives direct federal funding. The lawsuit is dismissed in 1978.
Alexander v. Yale establishes the precedent that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and thus illegal—the first use of Title IX in a sexual misconduct case.
The U.S. Supreme Court rules in Grove City College v. Bell that Title IX only applies to schools that receive direct federal funding. Because that excludes most athletic programs, newly formed women’s teams see huge cuts.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which under the U.S. Department of Education has primary oversight of Title IX, publishes guidance to help schools to establish a Title IX complaint procedure and designate a Title IX coordinator, both of which are required by law.
Over the veto of President Ronald Reagan, the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987 is enacted into law, reversing Grove City and restoring Title IX’s institution-wide coverage.
In Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that plaintiffs can sue for monetary damages under Title IX. Meanwhile, a gender equity study by the NCAA finds stark discrepancies in women’s sports among Division I institutions at a time when women make up 55% of the student body.
Congress passes the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act, which requires coeducational institutions of higher education to share information about the gender breakdown of their intercollegiate athletic programs.
In Cohen v. Brown University, a federal appeals court upholds a lower court’s ruling that Brown discriminated against female athletes, rejecting the university’s argument—one echoed by many other institutions—that women are less interested in sports than men.
OCR establishes standards for Title IX compliance, emphasizing that institutions are responsible for preventing and punishing sexual harassment of students by school employees, other students or third parties.
The U.S. Department of Education issues a clarification of policy stating that schools are considered in compliance with Title IX if they send a survey to female athletes assessing their interest in and ability to play additional sports and the athletes don’t respond. The clarification is rescinded in 2010.
OCR sends a letter reminding schools that retaliation against a complainant violates federal law.
The U.S. departments of education and justice issue guidance on protecting transgender students under Title IX. It’s rescinded in 2017.
The U.S. Department of Education enacts several changes to Title IX regarding sexual misconduct and harassment that critics say may discourage reporting by complainants and may put stress on school resources.
President Joe Biden signs an executive order stating the administration’s objective to guarantee to all students “an educational environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex, including discrimination in the form of sexual harassment, which encompasses sexual violence, and including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.” The order cites Title IX as the applicable governing law.
Sources: “Title IX Timeline,” National Coalition for Women & Girls in Education; “Title IX Timeline: 50 Years of Milestones, Firsts and Notable Achievements,” Newsweek, June 22, 2022; “History of Title IX Legislation, Regulation and Policy Interpretation,” University of Iowa; and “History of Title IX,” Women’s Sports Foundation.