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Thirty-seven words were all it took

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POSTED June 25, 2012 1:30 a.m.

It was 40 years ago that Congress passed the Education Amendments of 1972. Tucked into the bill was an amendment sponsored by then-Sen. Birch Bayh, which provided:

“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.”

It sounds innocuous. But as Bayh recounts the story, it met with substantial opposition from the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee at the time. “They would say things like giving women equal rights to things like jobs and pay would be disruptive to the home if women were out working instead of being mothers,” he told reporters in a recent interview. “But it didn’t make sense because there were women already that were working jobs to support their families just fine.”

What turned the tide was the testimony of Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to serve in Congress. “Gentlemen, you know that I’m discriminated against all the time because I’m black. But that’s nothing compared to how much discrimination I get for being a woman.”

One year later, tennis great Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the tennis match billed “The Battle of the Sexes.”

This week, 40 years after the passage of what became Title IX of the law, King went to Capitol Hill along with Dr. Mae Carol Jemison, the first woman of color to go into space, Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, and Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy Rear Admiral Sandra L. Stosz to talk about how Title IX changed lives, theirs included.

Before the passage of Title IX, one in 27 girls participated in high school sports. Today, two out of five do. The number of women playing varsity sports in college has increased some 500 times. Title IX, by ending discrimination in athletic scholarships, opened the door to college for countless American girls. It has helped them to develop the strength, confidence and leadership skills that accomplished men with backgrounds in high school and college sports have long pointed to as factors in their success.

Back in 1984, when I was working for presidential candidate Walter Mondale, I always looked for opportunities to insert what we called “women’s issues” into his stump speech. That summer, the Olympics in Los Angeles captured the imagination of the nation. Why not? I wrote a few lines pointing to the great success of the women at the games, and how many of them had played sports in high school and college — thanks in no small part to Title IX. To everyone’s surprise, myself included, it was a huge applause line. I looked at the crowd and realized that many — or most — of the parents in the audience were the fathers and mothers of girls. They got it.

It’s easy to feel skeptical and cynical about almost everything that happens in Washington, to think that it doesn’t matter who wins and loses because nothing really changes. But that’s not true.

Because of the courage of the men in the United States Senate back in 1972, including Birch Bayh and Walter Mondale, because of the courage of Shirley Chisholm, because of those 37 words, the lives of girls and women changed. Yes, there are proponents of men’s sports who claim that the less popular (read: profitable) male sports have been shortchanged as a result of Title IX. But the studies don’t bear it out. If you insist on victims for cutbacks, blame football (which eats up so many athletic scholarships), not women’s basketball or volleyball.

One of my research assistants, who just graduated, is a woman of unusual maturity, strength and character. She is wise beyond her years. She has wonderful parents, but they don’t take the credit. She was captain of the women’s volleyball team at Cornell. No, she’s a lawyer now, not a volleyball player. But if you ask her, if you ask her parents, if you ask me, her years playing sports in high school and college made her the leader she will be for the rest of her life.

Thirty-seven words were all it took.

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