Forty Years and Counting: The Triumphs of Title IX

Over the past century, women have made remarkable strides towards equal rights and equal participation in American society. We now take for granted the idea that a girl can grow up to become a doctor, lawyer, or astronaut -- whatever she wants to be. However, there was a time in our country when we could not envision this kind of progress. Tomorrow marks forty years since the passage of Title IX of the Higher Education Act, which opened the door of opportunity for women in academics, sports, and the workforce.

Title IX states that "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." These thirty-seven words give every American the chance to take the course of study they wish, to participate in athletics, and to attend school or go to work in an environment free from harassment and discrimination. While the phrase "Title IX" is synonymous with women's athletics, it applies to all activities at educational institutions receiving federal funding.

We all benefit from gender equality. The highest-growth, highest-wage careers today -- careers that are critical to America's economic success and national security -- are the same careers that were traditionally off-limits to women before Title IX's passage. That has changed dramatically. For example, according to the U.S. Department of Education, today girls in high school are taking as many science and math classes as boys. And though there is more progress to make, the percentage of women receiving doctorate degrees in all STEM fields has risen steadily since 1972. When Title IX was passed, almost no women participated in career and technical education. Today, one quarter of career and tech students are women. The truth, which seems obvious by today's standards, is that by doubling our potential talent pool in all academic disciplines, careers, and sports, we become stronger as a nation.

On Tuesday, I chaired a hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions where we heard from four amazing women whose accomplishments set them apart as role models for all Americans. Tennis legend Billie Jean King told us how she worked two jobs to put herself through college, despite having already won her first (of twenty) Wimbledon championships, while her male counterparts received athletic scholarships. Today, it seems unthinkable that an athlete of her caliber would receive no scholarship offers from colleges, but even at that time, she said "I knew things just were not right. Things were not equal." She was right.

The three other panelists at the hearing represented some especially impressive success stories of Title IX. Dr. Mae Carol Jemison, a former NASA astronaut, was the first African-American woman to go into space. Nancy Hogshead-Makar won three Olympic gold medals in swimming before going on to become a professor of law. Rear Admiral Sandra Stosz, a member of just the third class of women to attend the Coast Guard Academy, is now the superintendent of her alma mater. These brilliant, talented women were able to achieve their dreams through hard work, perseverance and because they live in a country where women have the opportunity to succeed.

While it is easy to look back and appreciate how far we've come since Billie Jean King was handing out gym equipment at the field house to pay for her books, we still have work to do. Until women's accomplishments are hailed as victories for everyone, and not just for women, we have not achieved the full goal of Title IX. On its fortieth anniversary, we must renew our efforts to fight for full equality for every member of our American family.