Equality in schools: Title IX and the fight for women’s rights

A civil rights law called Title IX makes sure girls have the same opportunities as boys in schools. Here’s how the 1972 act was passed. 

As a girl in New York City in the 1930s and ’40s, Bernice "Bunny" Sandler wasn’t allowed to be a school crossing guard—only the boys at her school could do that. Running the classroom projector was also forbidden for girls. And though the boys had plenty of opportunities to play sports at school, there weren’t teams for girls—and they weren’t allowed on boys’ teams.

Sandler didn’t think it was fair but told herself that’s just the way the world works. Then years later, she wasn’t hired for a teaching position at a public school because she was a woman.

Enough was enough. Sandler began a three-year-long fight for equal opportunities for all females. Here’s how that struggle led to the passage of Title IX, the 1972 law banning gender discrimination at places that get money from the government.

The fight for girls in schools

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed by the United States Congress to expand the rights of all Americans, especially people of color. It made racial segregation, or separation by race, illegal in public places like swimming pools and buses, as well as in private businesses like restaurants and stores. It also banned discrimination against workers at privately owned businesses because of their race, color, religion, gender, and national origin.

However, the act didn’t include protections for women and girls in public institutions, meaning places that received money from the U.S. government in order to run. This included places like schools, libraries, museums, and government agencies. Women who worked at these places—as well as girls who attended public schools—could legally be treated unfairly because of their gender.

After complaints from equal rights activists, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued an executive order in 1967 to ban gender discrimination at places that receive federal money. (An executive order is rule made by a president instead of Congress.)

Because a new president can overturn executive orders, activists wanted to strengthen and expand the protections for women. Sandler had a plan.

How schools discriminated against girls and women

To draw attention to the challenges facing girls and women in education even after the passage of the executive order, Sandler studied hundreds of schools. Her research found that many universities had quotas, or limits, on how many women could attend. One veterinary school allowed only two women to enroll each year—no matter how many applied or how smart they were.

Other schools required women to have higher test scores and better grades than men to get in. And once enrolled, female students didn’t have equal access to scholarship money to help pay for their education.

Women and girls also didn’t have equal opportunities to play on sports teams because schools spent money mostly on boys’ teams. (For instance, in 1969, one college budget set aside $90,000 for boys’ sports—and $200 for girls’.) Locker rooms, equipment, and training programs for female students were often not as good as what the boys had.

These were all violations of the executive order. Sandler wanted lawmakers to pay attention.

The campaign begins

With the help of like-minded people, Sanders used her research to file official complaints with the government against 250 colleges and universities that had violated the executive order. She encouraged people affected by the unequal treatment to share their stories with their congressional representatives. The protesters created so much mail that several full-time employees were assigned to handle the letters.

Lawmakers noticed Sandler’s complaints about these violations and realized that stronger rules were needed to protect females from discrimination. Representatives Patsy Takemoto Mink of Hawaii and Edith Starrett Green of Oregon, along with Senator Birch Evans Bayh of Indiana, worked to convince their colleagues to support the bill.  After several months of discussion, other elected officials agreed, and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon on June 23, 1972. It 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.”

The impact of Title IX

Even though Sandler’s research was on colleges and universities, Title IX would apply to elementary, middle, and high schools, too. That meant that girls were no longer forced to take classes in cooking, sewing, or typing. They could also learn to build things in shop class and repair cars—just like the boys.

Although the law wasn’t specifically written to address sports, it had a huge impact on athletics as well. With three million more athletic opportunities than they had in the 1970s, girls can now play school sports like soccer, track, and basketball. Some girls even wrestle or play on football teams.

Thanks to equal opportunities in school, today nine out of 10 girls have at least a high school education, up from six out of 10 before Title IX. Women now make up about 60 percent of all college students, often in fields like law and medicine, areas of study that very few women were allowed to enter in the past. And the number of girls participating in sports is 10 times greater since the passage of Title IX. That’s an increase of more than 1,000 percent!

Before her death in 2019, Sandler told reporters she’s proud of the work she and her allies did to gain equality for female students. And she smiles when she sees female athletes walk "with their heads up and feeling like, 'Yeah, I can handle this world.'"