It's easy to forget just how different things were 40 years ago until you listen to former U.S. Senator Birch Bayh talk about the daughter of an Oklahoma wheat farmer who changed his life.
That girl was Marvella Hern, who'd been a straight-A student, class president and national speech champion in high school when she was denied admission to the college of her choice in 1951. The rejection letter from the University of Virginia was terse: "Women need not apply."
Bayh married that girl and has told her story again and again to explain how he became known as the father of Title IX – the 1972 federal law that forbids gender discrimination at schools that get federal aid and changed the male-dominated culture of American sports.
As the retired Indiana senator recounts it now, Marvella convinced him it was foolish to waste the brainpower of half the population by denying women access to equal opportunity in educational institutions.
"You're not exactly asking anybody to be a profile in courage when you're asking them to support a law that benefits so many people," Bayh, 84, said in a recent interview. "Still, we had no idea just how far it would go."
Championed by Bayh in the Senate and Hawaii's Patsy Mink and Oregon's Edith Green in the House, Title IX was signed into law by President Richard Nixon 40 years ago on June 23, 1972.
What started out as a means to compel equal access to education - especially in medical and law schools - also opened arenas of sport to girls and women in ways Bayh never imagined. There are nearly 10 times as many female players in intercollegiate athletics as there were in 1972; the number of girls in high school sports has jumped nearly 1,000 percent.
Bayh thinks those numbers would have pleased Marvella, who died of cancer in 1979. They also make him think of his father, who coached four sports at Indiana State University and told his son, back in the 1930s, that “little girls need strong bodies to carry strong minds around in, just like little boys do.”
'Fairness to our daughters'
Much has been written about the cultural war over Title IX as schools at all levels across the nation wrestled with how to enforce it. It has been embraced and resisted, even litigated and challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A 1984 decision involving tiny Grove City College, a private Pennsylvania school, and the 1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act extended the law’s reach to indirect federal aid such as student loans and grants.
Thus Title IX remains true today to its original intent, and even those who find fault with how its policy of equality falls short when put into practice still praise it.
"Title IX is about one thing," said Christine Grant, the former athletic director of the Department of Women's Athletics at the University of Iowa. "It's about fairness to our daughters in the same way we have fairness to our sons."
In two generations, it has changed the look of sports. Before Title IX, 1 in 27 high school girls played organized sports. Now it's close to 2 in 5.
The number of women playing intercollegiate sports has risen more than 600 percent since the law's inception, from less than 30,000 to more than 186,000. (That’s still less than the nearly 250,000 NCAA male athletes.)
Title IX's impact on numbers off the field is evident, as well. In 1972, seven percent of the law degrees and nine percent of the medical degrees went to women; now nearly half those degrees are earned by women.
Bayh, who grew up on a farm in rural Indiana raising hogs, chickens and cattle, favors another barometer: Before the law was passed, less than 10 percent of the students in veterinary medicine schools were women. Today it's nearly 80 percent.
Judith Sweet, who pushed for better compliance with the law when she served as president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the 1990s, worries there's a downside to that progress. Sweet cites a recent email from a female student-athlete who said her teammates didn't know the law even existed.
"That's so common when we ask the question to young women: 'How many of you know about Title IX?'" Sweet said. "So many of them don't."
It doesn't bother Bayh quite as much to know there's a generation of athletes who take Title IX, and his role in its passage, for granted. "Maybe that's the way it should be," Bayh said. "Equal rights should be a given."
Knock-down, drag-out fight
"It was a long, hard path," is how Bayh describes the struggle for congressional approval.
Passage of Title IX was relatively easy. Equal access to education seemed less radical, Bayh said, than a companion cause he was championing at the time: a constitutional change to force gender equity through the Equal Rights Amendment.
Still, it took three years to get the regulations to enforce Title IX into final print, and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in 1975. And, in the meantime, the NCAA unleashed a massive lobbying effort to squash it. The organization's executive director, Walter Byers, warned his member schools of "impending doom around the corner" for popular male college sports if the law was enforced.
Bayh still remembers the visit he got in his Washington, D.C., office from two titans of college sports: University of Alabama football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and University of Notre Dame Athletic Director Edward "Moose" Krause.
"They said, 'You better get off this Title IX thing. It's going to destroy our football programs.'"
Bayh didn't buy it. Nor did Ford, a former University of Michigan football player who got a similar message from the athletic director at his alma mater.
Title IX backers also had to rebuff influential Texas Senator John Tower, who wanted to amend Title IX to exempt football and men's basketball – the revenue gold at most big schools.
"It was a knock-down, drag-out fight," Bayh said. "But I used to box when I was a kid, and I grew up wrestling hogs on the family farm. I wasn't going to back down from a fight like that."
'Confidence to face adversity'
Tower's amendment was defeated, but many more fights ensued, in and out of Congress. The guidelines set out to enforce the law were exhaustive in what they covered, but plenty of educational institutions had to be poked, prodded, sued or embarrassed into compliance.
On a March day in 1976, the women's rowing team at Yale University made headlines when they stripped naked in the office of the women's athletic director. Denied access to the warm showers of the Yale boathouse - reserved only for the men's team - they were fed up having to wait a half-hour or more on the team bus after drenching workouts in the freezing cold.
On their chests and backs, written in bold marker, was: "Title IX." The team captain who led the protest was 19-year-old Chris Ernst, who would go on to become an Olympian.
There are quieter stories that tell of the revolution brought by Title IX. When the law was passed, Bob Gardner was both a teacher and the boys' teams coach at rural Milan High School in Bayh's home state of Indiana.
Gardner said he couldn't help but be sympathetic to the Title IX cause. "In the same classes, I had players from the girls' team and players from the boys' team," Gardner said. "I wanted them all to be successful in academics and athletics."
Gardner is still pushing the merits of Title IX as executive director of the National Federation of High School Associations, the umbrella organization for state high school sports.
He sees Title IX as the gateway that has given millions of girls access to the playing field - including his own two daughters who played varsity sports in high school and college. One is now a bio-molecular engineer in Minnesota; the other is a college administrator in New York.
“The lessons they learned playing sports have benefited them as adults,” Gardner said. “It's given them confidence to face adversity."
Maureen Hayden is the CNHI state reporter in Indianapolis. Contact her at email@example.com.