You’ve come a long way, baby … but you’ve still got a long way to go
“I’ve often thought there is nothing that makes a man a feminist faster than becoming the father of a daughter.” — Peggy Orenstein
Title IX had its 35th birthday last week. It’s hard to believe that the statute designed to level the playing field by banning sex discrimination in federally funded education programs is now officially middle-aged. From my over 40 vantage point, 35 doesn’t seem even close to middle middle-aged, but that’s another subject for another column.
What I want to talk about today is women in sports, and the maddening fact that despite the past 35 years of progress we’ve made, it was three little words from a radio talk show host that got the most attention for female athletes this year.
The statute itself is only 37 words long, but those three words Don Imus spewed about the Rutgers women’s basketball team managed to generate a lot more ink than the fivefold increase in the number of women participating in intercollegiate athletics today; and the tenfold increase in the number of young women competing in high school sports.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to join the dogpile on Imus. I think he should be free to say whatever idiotic thing he wants–with the exception of yelling “fire” in a crowded room–just as we should be free to throw tomatoes and boycott anyone who advertises on his show.
But here’s the point: without Title IX, it’s doubtful that the Rutgers women’s team would have even had the opportunity to play basketball, let alone make international headlines.
When I was a kid, I remember being mesmerized by Billie Jean King‘s trouncing of Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.” At the time I thought it was just another example of the “Girls Rule, Boys Drool” battle we played on the playground. I had no idea that part of King’s motivation was to inspire the enforcement of the law.
She recently said, “I wanted Title IX to succeed so badly. I was trying to change the hearts and minds of the people about it. This had nothing to do with tennis; it was about social change.”
To a large degree, it’s working. A poll by the National Women’s Law Center shows overwhelming support–with 82 percent in favor of preserving Title IX and 88 percent in favor of girls or their parents utilizing Title IX to legally challenge disparities of treatment of boys and girls.
But the battle for equality has still not been won. “In 2002, women made up 54 percent of college students, but they only comprised 43 percent of college athletes. Meanwhile, men received 36 percent more athletic scholarships than women. Women also receive only 20 percent of computer science and engineering-related technology bachelor’s degrees, and only 39 percent of all full professors at colleges and universities are women,” said Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) in a statement celebrating Title IX.
At the same time, as the mother or a boy — Really? Only 46 percent of college students are men? Maybe my kid’s going to need that athletic scholarship. Although, after watching him barely hold his own during the Fourth of July WWF smackdown with Dr. B’s daughter, I’m not holding my breath. He would have been fine if the other Dr. B’s daughter hadn’t leapt in and put him in an illegal choke hold, the nappy headed… Oh! Sorry. Carried away. Well, he’s good at math and science. Maybe that will carry him.
Besides, it’s not just about scholarship opportunities; it’s also about access to competition, an essential piece of being in the work force, and succeeding in life. By now, research has established beyond doubt that girls who participate in sports have higher self-esteem, lower drug-abuse and pregnancy rates and better odds of attaining a college degree. Then there are the intangibles: lessons in teamwork, winning and losing gracefully, and rebounding from failure.
Girls today assume they have a right to athletic opportunities–even girls who cheat at wrestling just to humiliate my child. Let’s make sure to keep working so that those playing fields are truly level.
Inspired by the women at Wimbledon, and despite her middle-aged knees, Leslie recently dusted off her tennis racket only to brush up on the art of losing gracefully. Share your athletic adventures with her at Leslie@LeslieDinaberg.com.
Originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on July 6, 2007