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Long Way Gone, Long Way to Go

Twenty-five years ago, only 18% of all women had finished college, compared with 26% of men. Women now make up the majority of students in America’s universities. Twenty-five years ago, many medical and law schools had admissions quotas for women; female students were not allowed to take certain high school or college courses such as auto mechanics, and except for cheerleading, athletic programs for girls and young women were all but unheard of.

Twenty-five years ago today, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 became law and changed all that. This federal mandate consists of one sentence: “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.”

Today’s anniversary is an occasion to celebrate the sweeping progress toward gender equity this amendment has wrought: the growing numbers of women in professional schools, the jump in college graduation rates among women and the growth of women’s athletic programs. The history of Title IX demonstrates that federal mandates, by changing the law, can also change individual expectations. Girls now imagine themselves as astronauts and athletes--and that’s what they become.

This important anniversary is also, however, the time to consider the distance still to travel. A new study from the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, consisting of 50 major groups including the American Assn. of University Women, finds much room for improvement. Sex segregation persists in vocational education--most women pursue health professions while most men study trades, such as plumbing. Less than 20% of full professors in colleges and universities are women; women’s college athletic programs still receive far less than half of athletic budgets; far fewer women than men study math and science. The report also finds sexual harassment pervasive in schools. Targeted efforts to address these problems should be a priority.

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President Clinton last week extended Title IX to federally run schools for Native Americans and military families and ordered every federal agency to report on enforcement of the act. Congress is considering establishment of a central clearinghouse for information that Title IX requires each college to compile about its athletic programs. These are admittedly modest initiatives. Redoubled efforts by educators to encourage and support women and girls and to eliminate the obstacles to their equal participation are needed too.


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