Title IX was passed 50 years ago. Here’s why it still matters.

Illustration for Kelcey's Comic for Title IX
Illustration for Kelcey’s comic book for Title IX (Kelcey Ervick/For The Washington Post)

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When I was a teenage athlete in the 1980s, I believed two things about my sporting experiences that turned out to be not entirely true: First, the reason I became so involved in sport was because my father was an athlete. The second was that my teammates and I were doing something that girls hadn’t done before.

I was born during my father’s senior year of college. I have a photo of him holding me in his cap and dress after he finished his last season as a soccer player. Growing up, he taught me how to throw a football, bat a baseball, and shoot a basketball. He coached my first soccer team. It was almost inevitable that I would be a triple athlete and be voted “Sportiest” by my high school class.

What I didn’t know was that my high school didn’t have a girls’ soccer team just seven years before I became a varsity goaltender. Seven years before I was recruited to Xavier University, there was no women’s football program there either. Both teams were formed amid the wave of programs for girls and women in the late ’70s and early ’80s as educational institutions worked to comply with Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments.

When Title IX was signed on June 23, 1972, I was 1. I wrote mine upcoming graphic memoirs, The Keeper: Soccer, Me, and the Law That Changed Women’s Lives because I wanted to learn more about the law that has shaped my life. I wanted to learn more about how and why Bernice Sandler and former Representatives Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), Shirley Chisholm (DN.Y.) and Edith Green (D-Ore) – along with others – developed this 37-word law. I wanted to learn more about the connection between women’s sport and women’s rights.

A hundred years ago, when women were fighting for the right to vote, they were also fighting for the right to play football. For a while they succeeded. Competitive women’s football teams formed in England and Europe during World War I. One of the most successful teams, the Dick Kerr Ladies, played in front of a total of 900,000 spectators in 1921 and often had more spectators than the men’s teams.

Can you guess what happened next? That year, the British Football Association banned women from playing, calling the sport “unsuitable for women”. Not only did the association want to regulate women’s bodies, but they also didn’t want women to be paid fairly for their time and work.

The ban stayed in place for 50 years and was finally lifted in England when Title IX was enacted in the States, but the Dick Kerr Ladies showed a skeptical world that women were perfectly fit to play sports. I wish I had known about them and Title IX when I was a young girl on the football pitch.

In particular, Title IX was never intended to affect the sport. The key people who worked on the law had all been denied admission or employment in universities and aimed to tackle gender discrimination in higher education. But when the Operational Law was interpreted, extracurricular activities such as sports became an important aspect of the fight for equal opportunities. As a result, girls’ participation in college sports has increased by more than 1000%, from 300,000 in 1972 to well over 3 million today.

We continue to argue about the interpretation and application of this law, which also applies sexual assault and gender identity, and there is still much to be done. Though Title IX was conceived by a diverse group of women, it has white women benefited disproportionately, like me. This applies to academic and sporting opportunities as well as protection from sexual assault. And the law continues to come under attack from governments trying to weaken it, as former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos successfully did with her Regulations 2020 that limit the rights of victims in cases of sexual assault on campus.

New Title IX Rules to Enforce Transgender Students’ Rights

The history of women’s sport has always been inextricably linked to the history of women’s rights. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX, we should also renew our commitment to upholding its protection and fighting discrimination in all forms. In doing so, we can draw inspiration from the creators of Title IX, whose efforts and dedication changed the world. This comic is about that struggle: past, present and future.

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