Last month, I hiked out of the Sierra after a week-long backpack with five middle-aged moms and our daughters. We were dirty, sick of trail mix, and exhilarated. On our return to civilization, we learned that the tremors we felt at 11,000 feet came from a massive earthquake—and that the U.S. women's soccer team had won their fourth World Cup title.
That 2-0 win was no less an earthquake than the 7.1 magnitude tumbler. In fact, the after-effects could well be transformative, just like the passage of Title IX decades ago, which arguably made it possible for women to play competitive sports in front of a worldwide audience.
Passed in 1972 and enacted in 1978, Title IX changed everything for women. The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program or activity that receives federal funds. It requires athletic programs to provide women with equal opportunity for athletic scholarships, access to equipment, publicity, facilities, tutoring opportunities, and more.
I have personally witnessed the enormous changes that came with Title IX. In 1970, my senior high school yearbook devoted 30 pages to boys' sports. There was one single, blurry, 2-by-6-inch photo of 16 brave girls, who belonged to a club called Girls Sports.
Leap ahead to my daughter's 2008 SLO High yearbook with 44 pages of athletic teams. Eighteen of those pages feature girls' sports, while four pages represent mixed squads. Equity, at least visually.
From its inception, however, Title IX has been under attack by misguided critics of women's sports. More than 30 years ago, the courts stopped the Reagan administration from gutting the law. Surely you've heard college sports fans complain about women getting in the way of their sacred cow—football.
Despite the harping, Title IX remains a vanguard idea. What did sports equality in schools mean for girls? A national shift in consciousness for at least half the population.
Take Faith Mimnaugh, head coach for Cal Poly women's basketball—a program started in 1974 because of Title IX. She attended junior high before implementation of the law, but itching to play, she joined the boys' team. She went on to a high school where Title IX advances were already felt.
"Our girls' team had only played a couple seasons, but we won the state championship—and drew many more fans than the boys," Mimnaugh told me. "In 1981, I won the first full athletic scholarship given to a woman at Loyola University, thanks to Title IX.
"Happily, I had conviction in my abilities to play and later coach, but only a handful of role models to guide me."
A couple of generations later, Sarah (Grieve) Miller, 6-foot-2 center for Cal Poly from 2002-06, was empowered by many more role models than Coach Mimnaugh had. All-star LA Sparks center Lisa Leslie won four Olympic gold medals. For 15 years, Diana Taurasi starred at guard for the Phoenix Mercury. Pat Summit, head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers (1974-2012), racked up 1,098 career wins, the most in college history, male or female.
Miller, now a professor at Cuesta College, also had her mother as a model.
"Mom played on UCSB's first women's varsity squad, in 1976," Miller told me proudly. "She was a scholarship athlete. And she's still in the record books for most rebounds.
"Like Mom's, my four-year scholarship gave me the opportunity to play college ball. Title IX opened the doors to success."
Both Miller and Mimnaugh emphasized how one law changed the way girls perceive themselves. In my day, female athletes were definitely considered weird. Mimnaugh recounted how the newspaper, of course, described her teammates as "Amazons."
"I'm 5-foot-2," she laughed.
A foot taller, Miller felt stigmatized for both her height and athleticism.
"When are we going to see athletes as simply athletes?" she asked.
Well, maybe the awesome Megan Rapinoe and fellow members of national women's soccer team will jumpstart a new era in which women are equally viewed and valued as athletes. Certainly, they further embolden girls to be self-confident, to be unconstrained by gender stereotypes, and to demand equal pay for equal work.
Wouldn't that be transformative?
But deep-seated bias continues to assert its power.
In March, national women's team members were forced to sue the U.S. Soccer Federation for discrimination in pay, practice time, practice locations, medical treatment, coaching, and travel. After their World Cup win, the women stand to earn roughly 75 percent less than the men, should the men ever play and win a World Cup final. And yet the women's national team is bringing in more revenue and fans to the game.
Obviously it's not all about money, and Title IX made huge strides. I can see its effects in my daughter and her friends. Given such dynamic role models and enforced opportunity, they have already accomplished goals in all aspects of their lives that I could not have imagined. They are fearless: One has her pilot's license, and another hiked the Alaskan wilderness. Another worked as a women's health provider on the Mexican border, while my daughter, now a social worker, did a stint in Rwanda studying genocide.
They are stunning, just like the women's soccer team. Δ
Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at email@example.com.