Reflections on Title IX

A young Claire Gebben found that athletics, and the 1973 landmark legislation Title IX, which provided gender equity in academics and athletics, made a big impact on her life

The 40th anniversary of Title IX—landmark legislation banning sex discrimination against women in academics and athletics—is being celebrated this year. Title IX went into effect when I was fifteen-years-old. Only recently, however, have I truly begun to appreciate what a difference that law has made in how I thought of myself as a girl, and in who I am today.

Before Title IX, I was like all girls who loved sports, relegated to sitting on the sidelines. “Why can’t I play Little League,” I asked my dad at age seven. Another summer evening at a Little League game, my parents had come to cheer on my brothers with me in tow.

“Baseball is only for boys,” Dad replied.

His words stung. Only for boys? Such a concept had never occurred to me—girls and boys played baseball together in our neighborhood games. I understood immediately that, when it came to the broader world, boys mattered more.

But his words didn’t stop me from running. I loved to run. I ran everywhere I went, earning me the nickname “gazelle.” Then when I was 10, our P.E. teacher Mr. Lee brought the entire fifth grade class to the playground. He lined us up at a starting line and ordered us to run around the perimeter of the playground as fast as we could go. He blew on his silver whistle, and I bolted out of there running like crazy.

Until that moment, I hadn't realized I could run so fast, but now I was at the front of the pack. On the last lap, it was down to me and Chuck Rimer. I knew Chuck—our families were friends. Now it suddenly felt as if I had to win. It felt for once like my love of running mattered for something. I was good at it.

We pounded out that final stretch giving it everything we had. No one was there to cheer us—just Mr. Lee with his stop watch standing at the finish line. Chuck was a little in the lead, but in the last few seconds I poured it on and barreled over the finish line just ahead of him. What an exhilarating rush! I was the fastest runner in the entire fifth grade!

After that amazing day, inspired by my success, I continued to set high goals for myself, aiming for the President’s Award in Physical Fitness in middle school, and making it. Then came high school, when Title IX forced the school to form a girls’ track team. I joined and ran the 440-yard dash. But as a teen, I had grown into my big-boned Scottish clutziness, making me an average, not a superior, athlete. Still, it felt as if I benefited from Title IX, the first generation of women to do so without suffering through the endless institutional discrimination and legislative battles, as well as personal, spirit-crushing disappointments.

Years later, at a twentieth high school reunion, Chuck Rimer asked me if I remembered that fifth grade race. Of course I did, I assured him. (How could I not? It had empowered me in athletics, and in how I saw myself.)

“Do you remember what Mr. Lee said to you afterwards?”

I shook my head, perhaps to clear my ear drums. “Yes. No. I mean, I remember the race, not much more. What did he say?”

“I’ve never forgotten it.” Chuck looked so serious, I was charmed and worried at the same time. “He said: ‘Girls aren’t supposed to win races against boys.’ ”

Why don’t I remember that? Perhaps the blood was rushing too loudly in my ears and I never heard him. Perhaps I was delirious with joy, lost in the heady exultation of victory, too distracted to listen. That I didn’t hear him makes me profoundly grateful.

With Title IX, girls and women are no longer relegated to the cheering section, watching others race to glory while they're told “no” to their dreams. The ban on discrimination against women was a ban on spirit-crushing. With Title IX, women are encouraged to compete, and suffer, and win and lose, like any man. The most important impression our daughters and granddaughters have of their childhoods will not be the barriers to exercising their rights, but the many opportunities afforded them to pursue their glory.

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