Column: Before Title IX came along, many people didn’t believe discrimination against women was a problem


There’s a scene in the 1995 movie “The American President” when a man in a green blazer buttonholes the president and asks whether he’s aware that down in Atlanta, women want parity for girls’ softball, field hockey, volleyball. The president says the courts ruled on that law about 20 years before. Yes sir, says the man in the green blazer, but now these women want that law enforced!

Title IX, the law of the land since 1972, made no mention of sports. Its 37 words just say that no educational institution or activity receiving any federal money can discriminate against or deny benefits to anyone on the basis of sex. Gender hadn’t been part of the civil rights laws of the 1960s, and so a woman named Bernice Sandler, who’d felt that gender discrimination in her own career, worked with Reps. Patsy Mink and Edith Green and Sen. Birch Bayh to leverage President Lyndon Johnson’s executive order on gender and hiring into a federal law.

Title IX’s effect on virtually every aspect of campus life — college demographics, scholarships, and of course girls’ and women’s sports — has been nothing short of stupendous. But the Trump administration could be ready to redo the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX’s sexual assault rules — and cut back overall Title IX enforcement budgets at a time when the office has a backlog of complaints. Here is Bernice Sandler’s assessment of her 45-year-old “baby.”

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How did you help to create Title IX and get it into law?

First, we realized that women did not have the same protections against job discrimination and education discrimination as people of color and different national origin and race.

So race was covered and sex was not covered. You could discriminate on the basis of sex. When I went to apply for some financial aid in my grad work I was told, We don’t give too many scholarships to women. And then there was a pause. Then he said, especially the married women, which I was. And then there was another pause. And then he said, Especially to married women with children. And it seemed to me that was really very unfair.

And that was how I got started.

It’s a long way from that to getting President Nixon to sign it in June 1972. How did you do that?

Representative Edith Green, who represented Portland, Oregon, had been very active in getting the passage of Title VI, which prohibited discrimination against African Americans in federally assisted programs, which meant in education. We didn’t have quite the same legislation in place on discrimination against women.

In fact, many people believed there was no discrimination against women. The feeling was women didn’t need to go to college because they were all going to get married and have children and therefore they didn’t need a college education. So we had better give preference to the men because they’re going to be working, and the women will be just sitting at home with their degrees. And that was not uncommon thinking at the time at all.

Rep. Green was the main person behind this. She was very much aware that women did not have as much protection against discrimination in education as African-Americans did. She certainly did not want to lower the protections they had to make them equal but she wanted to expand the protections for women.

In 1972, sex discrimination was hardly an issue, so no one was paying attention, and it got thru because no one was really looking.

There had been hearings held which legitimized the problems. I testified at those hearings and also put the rest of those hearings together, where we documented sexual discrimination in educational programs. And that’s what we were documenting — the need for the passage of Title IX.

Nowadays people think of Title IX, if they think of it at all, as affecting sports. But its reach on college campuses was so much wider, even down to things like different curfews for men and women.

People were surprised later to find, what do you mean we can’t do X? Or, what do you mean, we have to have athletic programs that are substantially equal for men and women, boys and girls? Does this mean we have to spend money on girls’ athletics? We never have done that before! And so a lot of people were surprised because they weren’t watching and they didn’t realize the implications.

Many people believed there was no discrimination against women. The feeling was women didn’t need to go to college because they were all going to get married.

A lot of things changed. In fact, many campuses set up a committee to examine where Title IX did make a difference. For example, you could still have scholarships in honor of “my dear departed son” or “my dear departed daughter”; you could still have single-sex scholarships. But say you had X number of dollars and X number of scholarships for men, but much less for women, the school then had to provide extra scholarships to make it equal or approximately equal. You couldn’t have like $200,000 worth of scholarships for men and only $10,000 worth of scholarships for women. If you had $200,000 for men, you had to have that for women as well.

On many campuses in those days, women had to live in dormitories, in their first year at least, and men could live anywhere they wanted. The theory was that men didn’t need supervision, and women needed to be protected. But it wasn’t fair, because it meant women had to be in at a certain hour and men could stay out — in many places all night, and not come home at all.

What Title IX did just by being passed, it reminded people and it helped people examine what was going on on their campus and what needed to be changed. A campus can decide everybody has to be in at 10 o’clock, or nobody has to be in at 10 o’clock. But you can’t have women required at 10 and men maybe come in at 12. Or nobody cared when at all.

It forced institutions that were getting federal funds — which was every institution in the country with the exception of one or two that were religious and didn’t take any federal funds — it forced them all to look at their programs and find out if there was discrimination.

It sounds like this was a slow-motion earthquake that it may have taken a number of years.

Oh, that’s such a good description, a slow-motion earthquake. It’s had an enormous impact. Sports is a good one to look at. You don’t have to spend the same amount of money for men and for women, because some sports are more expensive — we’re talking about the football problem here. Football is more expensive than, say, women’s tennis.

But you have to provide what’s generically something like equal opportunity for both genders. But they don’t have to be the same sports. You might end up with handball for men and tennis for women, or whatever. There are variations on how that law is applied. But essentially it tries to have equal opportunities for men and women and boys and girls to participate in sports.

The Trump administration is looking at reworking the guidelines from the Obama administration about how colleges and universities handle sexual assault investigations under Title IX. The Education Department’s head of civil rights, Candice Jackson, told the New York Times that 90% of campus rape accusations can be categorized as “we were both drunk” or “we broke up.” She apologized.

The underlying assumption in that is that women are probably lying about that and men are not. Women are not generally lying about that; it’s very hard to get women to file charges of sexual assault against somebody on campus. And many of the cases are handled informally, which is fine if they handle everybody’s agreements; that’s fine when they can do that.

But it is a problem. There’s still is a lot of old prejudice against women that they’re lying, that they really consented to sex but they didn’t want people to think that, so they’re saying it was rape. My experience is that very few women lie about this. It’s very hard to maintain a lie. There is a worry that that could happen, and of course it could happen, but it’s not as likely or as common as people think it is.

If you think the school did not handle the complaint fairly — and this would apply to men or to women — if there was a complaint for or against either gender, one could file a complaint, a Title IX complaint, and get the government to investigate.

At this point, the Trump administration budget proposal recommended 7% budget cut for the Education Department’s civil rights office, which would mean about 27 jobs gone at a time when Title IX complaints are on the rise. So the laws are still on the books, but the enforcement is another matter.

What we advise women when they write a complaint is that they write their two senators and their Congressperson and ask them to please write to the secretary of Education and say this about the following case:

“This is one of my constituents who is suing, who has filed a complaint against Joe Blow. Please keep me informed.” And that’s been helpful. Then they know that somebody is watching.

Did you ever expect there would be a time when we wouldn’t need Title IX, when things were –

Oh that would be nice! I think I naively did think that. I think a lot of us thought, We have Title IX and in five years everything will be solved. Nobody would be filing charges because they wouldn’t need to. But the culture is such where rape and sexual assault and sexual power of males over females is not uncommon. If you look at movies or sitcoms or so forth, there’s a lot of power, sexual power, that’s granted to men, and less to women.

It is still a problem. Not every school does training in sexual assault and sexual harassment. Some schools have posters saying, don’t do the following, or, the following can get you in trouble, or here’s how nice people behave. Some schools have an information program, particularly if they’ve been sued. But it is still a problem.

What Title IX did was make some teachers aware. Some of them who never heard of Title IX, even though they had teacher training or majored in education. They still never heard of Title IX, never dealt with this issue and made others aware of it. So it just varies.

In some schools, if they ever had a Title IX complaint by some students, when the student files a complaint, they’re really saying the school is not paying attention to the way I’m being treated. It’s the school that’s getting complained against. They’re saying Jimmy Smith is harassing me in such a way and my school isn’t stopping him. The complaint is not that Jimmy is doing this, but that the school has a responsibility to stop any kind of sexually harassing behavior against boys or girls.

Do you watch women’s sports now?

Not as much as I should, but I’m so pleased and proud when it do catch it! Girls’ sports was not something that was encouraged at my school. I’m in my 80s, so we’re talking about in the ‘30s. We had a big outdoor playground at my school. The boys had the whole playground to themselves, which was more than a block long in one direction. And the girls had a little corner where we could jump rope.

Now that’s changed, hopefully, in most places. And the other thing is that parents are now aware of this, and particularly fathers of girls are very much aware of their girls being treated fairly or unfairly in terms of athletics.

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