It takes a lot to make Olympians like Candace Parker, Jordyn Wieber and Lolo Jones: talent, dedication, effective coaches, a bit of luck. But for female athletes representing the United States in London this summer, it also took the courage of women like Kathy Wagoner.
In 1972, Kathy wanted to play sports at Missouri Western State, but the school offered no programs for women. After the athletic director brushed her off, she met with the president, who dismissed her by saying that women’s sports “just aren’t going to happen here.”
That might have been the end of the story except for two things. First, Kathy did not like being dismissed. Second, she knew about a new law that made what her school was doing illegal.
That law was Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which states, “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.” Although the law is not specifically about athletics, its impact in that area has been profound, as Missouri Western State found out. After Kathy contacted the Office of Civil Rights, the school was investigated for violating the law and began to make changes. As it turned out, women’s athletics happened there after all.
Because of Kathy, women’s athletics also came to Northwest Missouri State. After transferring there, Kathy again filed a lawsuit with the Office of Civil Rights because the school conducted national searches for coaches of men’s teams but assigned an unqualified woman from the community to coach women’s softball. Thanks to the lawmakers who passed Title IX, the educators who comply with it, and the everyday citizens who speak up when schools fall short, women’s athletic participation has increased tenfold in high schools and sixfold in colleges since 1972.
Access to sports is not just about giving girls a chance to have fun. According to the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education’s report on Title IX, “Girls who play sports are less likely to get pregnant or take drugs than those who don’t play sports; they’re also more likely to graduate and go to college.” According to Kathy, who went on to coach college women’s volleyball and whose players have become doctors, pharmacists and lawyers, “A lot of [girls’] ability to act with confidence and not back down from something difficult comes from being on that field or court.”
Along with increasing sports participation, Title IX has had important effects in other areas. For instance, it has enabled more women to study science and math, and protected boys and girls from sexual harassment.
We still have work to do to meet the goals of the law. For instance, The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education reports that “fewer than two-thirds of African American and Hispanic girls play sports, while more than three-quarters of Caucasian girls do.” One step in the right direction is to encourage Congress to pass the High School Athletics Accountability Act. This legislation would give the public access to data that schools must already provide on participation and expenditures for male and female student athletes. With this information, communities can track for themselves how their schools are doing.
With the help of Title IX and the High School Athletics Accountability Act, we can keep doing the work Kathy began that has led to today’s top female athletes. Not every girl will become an Olympian, but every girl deserves the chance to try.
Erika Solberg is adjunct professor of English at Monmouth College and a member of the American Association of University Women.
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