The heel that laid the foundation for profound social change; New York Historical Society

Posted May 22, 2022 at 8:07 am by West Side Rag

Photos courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

By Wendy Blake

On May 18, 2022, the United States Soccer Federation announced a business to pay the US women’s and US men’s national soccer teams equally.

This historic achievement might never have happened if a single paragraph had not been added to the 1972 educational changes. Title IX states:

“No one in the United States shall be disqualified, denied benefits, or discriminated against on the basis of gender from participation in educational programs or activities that receive federal funding.”

The 50th anniversary of the legislation will be celebrated on New York Historical Society (NYHS) in an exhibition called “Title IX: Activism On and Off the Field”, which opened on May 13th and runs until September 4th.

“The focus on gender discrimination in education and on access to education really underscores how fundamental Title IX is to larger societal change,” co-curator Allison Robinson told West Side Rag. “It’s impressive to think how much has changed since that phrase was included in the Education Acts of 1972.”

When Title IX was passed, many universities and colleges still denied women admission and positions on female faculty; Female students had no legal recourse to sexual misconduct; and women’s sports programs have been appallingly overlooked.

In contrast, in 2019, according to NYHS, women earned 57% of all bachelor’s degrees in the US, and the proportion of female college professors more than doubled to 54%. All schools have grievance procedures for people who have been victims of sexual harassment and violence. And more than 190,000 women participate in collegiate sports, six times the number in 1972.

Photo by Wendy Blake.

The progress initiated by Title IX was by no means linear. Hard-fought victories have been won by activists, politicians, students and others working to fend off challenges to the law.

The exhibition highlights groundbreaking events in the fight for equal rights for women. It contains items from the archives of Billie Jean King (an Upper West Sider) and the Women’s Sports Foundation, both housed at the NYHS, as well as from activists’ personal collections. This includes official documents, letters, protest posters, photos, videos, sports uniforms and consumer goods.

One of the items Ms. Robinson is most proud of is an original copy of the Clery Act 1990, which she describes as a “sister act” to Title IX. Named after a murdered college student, it requires schools that receive federal funding to disclose crime statistics.

Another of their valuable items is a sweatshirt worn (and removed) by a female Yale crew member who participated in a 1976 “strip-in” to demand proper shower facilities. Members of the team stripped in the sporting director’s office to reveal the ‘Title IX’ painted on their bodies.

Also of note are the “Take Back the Night” protests, which continue to this day and aim to raise awareness of sexual violence on campus.

Various objects testify to the increasing visibility of professional athletes, including Serena Williams’ tennis dress and gymnast Mary Lou Retton’s shoe. Wheaties boxes feature images of superstar athletes like runner Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and there are Barbie dolls modeled after sports stars.

The exhibition explores the contemporary applications of Title IX for LGBTQ+ students—for example, the successful gender discrimination case of high school student Gavin Grimm, who sued his school board to use the toilet that conformed to his gender identity.

The exhibit also touches on the sensitive issue of trans and non-binary students in sports: on display is the cross-country t-shirt worn by high school student Lindsay Hecox when she was suing in a federal lawsuit against Idaho, the first state Ban testified transgender women and girls from playing on women’s sports teams in public schools, colleges and universities. This case is still pending.

The struggle for women’s equality continues in new forms. One of the most impactful was a 2021 TikTok video in which Sedona Prince, a college basketball player, contrasted her school’s massive men’s gym with a paltry set of weights for the women. “Women are still fighting for a little bit of equality,” she says. Big changes in gender parity were made within the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) after their TikTok — lasting just 38 seconds — went viral.

The oldest museum in New York City, the New-York Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West at 77th Street. For more information, see website.

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