June 21, 2012
Thank you, Winnie. It’s great to be here with you today to celebrate this historic anniversary. And I want to start by pointing out that Title IX has never been just about sports.
When Title IX became law in 1972, gender discrimination was deeply rooted in our education system. Women were discouraged from taking certain classes. Colleges were reluctant to hire women as professors. And most professional schools intentionally limited the number of women they admitted.
In America, education has always been the route to a better life. So with their main path to opportunity closed off, women’s progress stalled in other areas too. In the 30 years before Title IX, the pay gap between men and women barely budged.
By outlawing discrimination in education, Title IX transformed opportunity for women in America. For the first time, it set a national goal, as leading supporter Senator Birch Bayh put it, of giving women “an equal chance to attend the schools of their choice, to develop the skills they want, and to apply those skills with the knowledge that they will have a fair chance to secure the jobs of their choice with equal pay for equal work.”
But from the start, there were efforts to carve out exceptions, especially when it came to sports. We were told that women were too delicate for sports, that we weren’t competitive enough, that we would rather sit on the sidelines and watch. Of course, it was men telling us all this.
But those implementing the law, including your next speaker, Cynthia Brown, resisted these efforts because they knew how important sports can be.
For many young people, sports are a formative experience. They’re where we learn for the first time how to be a good teammate, how to stay cool under pressure, how to win and lose gracefully, and countless other lessons that will help us later in life.
I know the difference sports can make because I’m one of those lucky women who had the chance to play sports before Title IX.
My first piece of good luck was having two brothers who were athletes – one a year younger and one a year older. So I always had a couple playmates around. Even more important was the fact that my family had the big yard and basketball hoop where the neighborhood kids gathered. So when some neighborhood boy would inevitably point at me and say “girls can’t play,” my brothers would quickly respond, “She’s not a GIRL, she’s our sister. And she lives here.”
My second piece of good luck was going to an all-girls school where we learned girls could do anything because we had to do everything. And that included sports.
I started with soccer. When we got old enough that our coaches felt safe giving us a big stick, we moved on to field hockey. I ended up playing almost everything.
And then I kept playing both field hockey and basketball when I came to DC to attend Trinity College. So I like to remind the President that he had an excellent high school basketball career and he should be very proud of that, but I actually made my college team!
I got so much from these experiences with sports. I learned personal lessons about competition and teamwork. I learned how to set a goal and work towards it, and that hard work and practice really do pay off. I gained confidence.
In ways I never realized at the time, sports also helped prepare me for my current role. I constantly remind folks today that getting regular exercise is probably the single best thing anyone can do to stay healthy. And one of the best ways to develop those habits – the way I developed them myself – is through playing sports.
I’m incredibly grateful for everything I got from sports. But I always recognized that my experience was not the norm. Most girls in my generation didn’t have the big yard or a basketball hoop. They didn’t have the brothers to stick up for them when someone said “no girls allowed.”
That meant they had to rely on the opportunities they got in school. And unless they went to a girls’ school like I did, those opportunities didn’t exist before Title IX. After grade school, the closest most girls could get to a sports field was the cheerleading squad.
So Title IX marked a historic shift. It opened the door to new opportunities, not just joining a team, but getting college scholarships, finding coaching jobs, and maybe even playing in a professional league.
It helped spark a new level of excitement about women’s sports in the US and around the world. It’s no accident that the first women’s World Cup was held in 1991, just as the first generation of women athletes to grow up with Title IX were entering their athletic prime.
And most importantly, it’s helped millions of girls get the same opportunity I had to learn lessons and develop healthy habits that are going to stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Of course, there’s still more work to be done. We know that women still get fewer opportunities to play sports in high school and college, fewer scholarship dollars, and often have to settle for inferior facilities and equipment. And especially in these challenging times, we need to make sure that budget cutbacks don’t mean rolling back equality for women.
But even as we acknowledge the challenges ahead, we should also celebrate how far we’ve come. Since the passage of Title IX, the number of girls who compete in high school sports has grown ten-fold. The number of female athletes in college is up a six-fold. Women have gone from 7 percent of medical students to half of medical students. From 9 percent of law students to half of law students. Women today make up more than half of all college students.
We have a long way to go, but thanks to the vision laid out in Title IX and all those since then who have worked to make that vision a reality, women have far more opportunity today than they did when I graduated college in 1972. That’s great news for women and great news for America.