About 12 years after Title IX passed Congress, my seven-year-old sister joined a co-ed soccer team.
It was not unheard of for girls to play sports, but the leagues for girls were anemic compared to those for boys. The prevailing attitude was still that sports were for boys. Oh, girls might do gym class, and maybe play softball or do gymnastics, but sports were really for boys. Girls should stay home and tend the kitchen.
One of my sister’s new teammates told her that on her first day of practice.
My sister responded by flooring him with a punch.
The participation of women in athletics grew up along with my sister. My sister was 10 when Title IX turned 15, and playing traveling soccer on the one team our hometown fielded at her age group. She was 15 when Title IX turned 20, a freshman in high school and a member of the varsity soccer and varsity track teams. When Title IX reached a quarter-century in existence, my sister was in her sophomore season with the University of Kansas women’s soccer team, going to school on a scholarship that simply would not have existed a generation before.
As Title IX turns 40, both my sister and I have daughters playing soccer; my sister’s eldest daughter is about as old as my sister was when she decked a boy for telling her she should be at home, learning to cook.
All of my daughter’s friends have played sports at some point; all of them see it as something that everyone — girls and boys alike — does. There was nobody to tell my daughter or my nieces that they shouldn’t be playing sports; our daughter’s parents grew up with girls who played sports. It seems like the most natural thing in the world.
People will often point to the big things — the Women’s World Cup, or the WNBA, or sold-out games at the women’s Final Four — and try to talk about them as the legacy of Title IX. No doubt, they are. But the biggest legacy of Title IX is not at the highest level of sport, but the lowest.
The third generation of women to grow up with its benefits are just beginning to play. They will never understand why anyone would doubt that girls could be athletic, never understand why anyone would ever think girls shouldn’t play sports. They will view the idea that athletic exertion is somehow antithetical to being female as the absurdity it is.
Because of this, our daughters will grow up with one less thing to separate them from our sons, one less barrier to transcend. They will be able to take energy that they would have had to put into simply defending their right to play, and instead use it to play better, or learn better, or simply live better.
True, few of the girls who are starting sports now will reach the level my sister did, much less the level of star athletes like Seimone Augustus, or Abby Wambach, or Venus Williams. But then, few of the boys starting sports now will, either. They’re just going to go out and have fun and exercise and compete and learn to play as a team. The girls are, too. That may seem unremarkable. Which is why Title IX has been so remarkable indeed.
Photo Credit: Ted Kerwin