Why I’m celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX

When I was eleven years old, I was determined to overcome the twelve months of shame which had dogged me since I was ten: I would not, I vowed, come in second place again in my leg of the 60-yard relay at the Yavapai County All-Schools Track Meet. And so it was that, one chilly spring day, I carried the baton to first place.

Yours truly, age eleven. Note the competitive advantage offered by Sears Toughskins.

Preceding that moment were numerous others filled with coaching, practice, a change of shoes from my preferred hiking boots to snazzy Adidas, and the passage and enforcement of Title IX legislation, which forced the Yavapai County school districts to offer girls’ sports on par with those offered boys.

I went on to run track and cross-country all through junior and senior high school. Don’t even try to convince me I could’ve had these opportunities had we relied on voluntary concessions to fairness, or “market forces”–I did not get these coaches, facilities, training, and competitions because they were “the right thing to do,” or because they expanded a sales region. I, and every other girl in Arizona, got them because the federal government threatened our local school districts with penalties if we did not.

At the time Rep. Patsy Mink (just one of a stellar group of righteous, kick-ass female legislators at the time) was drafting a bill that became Title IX, few high schools would trained girls for much beyond cheerleading–one of my coaches recalled never having run on a track before she went to junior college in 1970. Fortunately, the application of Title IX reached beyond university and high school levels, to even right down to elementary schools. Were it not for Title IX, I would not have been just ten years old when I ran in my first track meet. I might have never run in one.

Let’s celebrate how far we’ve come by revisiting some of the arguments against Title IX. A common one was that girls lacked interest in sports. The belief seemed to be that if girls really wanted athletic competition, we’d insist on being included. So why waste all that money on something we don’t want to do naturally?

Another argument focused on how mediocre women and girls were as athletes. Because we didn’t run as fast or jump as high, we didn’t deserve coaching, equipment, nor opportunities to compete–we just weren’t going to inspire with our pokey ways on the track or playing field. Sports competitions, it seemed, would be endangered by admitting female bodies to them. And what was sport but a meritocracy? The winners didn’t have to be men and boys, but that’s just who was best, that’s all. Sport was open to anyone of any gender who could make the grade, wasn’t it?

Uh, unless it’s the Boston Marathon, or the 1500 meters in the Olympics, or the homecoming game played by my high school’s perpetually losing football team.

Title IX didn’t try to counter these rubbish objections, but among its effects was a gradual reduction in their acceptability. Forty years later, it’s hard to find a town in the U.S. without a girls’ soccer league. Female marathon champions are drawing closer in times to their male counterparts. And women now compete at the Olympic level in not just the 1500 meters, but in–get this–boxing.

Still, those nonsense notions exist, and the ignorant still voice them, only now they’re coughed up in discussions about women in computing.

Why don’t more women become programmers? Well, surely it’s because we’re not interested, or because we’re just not good at these computer-y things. After all, the tech industry is a meritocracy–if all you see speaking at conferences or leading tech groups are men, well, it’s because those are the people who are the best. If a woman wants to succeed like they have, all she has to do is work hard and apply herself…

I might sound despairing, but, really, I glow with excitement when I think about how outlandish those smug assertions will sound in forty years. By then, let every girl get her chance to run in an All-Schools track meet. And let every girl have her chance to join an All-Schools hackathon.