Pat Lipira grew up around sports. Her father played fast pitch softball; her brother played Little League baseball. Lipira would help warm up the pitchers on her brother’s team and play catch with them.
But when it came time to play ball, “there was nothing for me,” said Lipira, who grew up during the 1960s. “All I knew was I wanted to play. My brother was playing baseball, and I was the batgirl, and I wanted to play.”
Lipira began playing summer softball on a girls team just before her teenage years. During high school, she played on every intramural sports team available to her.
No competitive girls teams existed at her school in St. Joseph, so she tried out for and played with the boys tennis team. “But I couldn’t play baseball,” she said.
That would begin to change on June 23, 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed a piece of legislation commonly referred to as Title IX. Its impact wasn’t immediate, and it wasn’t recognized by most people at the time as being historic.
But in the past 40 years it has changed the country’s cultural landscape. Rooted in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it helped pave the way for millions of underrepresented individuals to realize their potential.
Title IX prohibits discrimination or exclusion, on the basis of sex, at agencies that receive federal funds. That includes about 16,000 school districts, 3,200 colleges and universities and 5,000 for-profit schools, libraries and museums, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The law covers a broad range of programs and activities, including admissions, recruitment, financial aid, academic programs, student services, counseling and guidance, discipline, classroom assignment, grading, athletics, housing and employment.
Lipira graduated from high school in 1974 and finally played softball competitively during college. Now the interim vice president for academic affairs at Missouri Southern State University, she said one of the most important aspects of the gender-neutral law is that it protects both sexes.
“It’s not about women,” she said. “It’s about equal opportunity for people.”
Sallie Beard, now retired after several years as Missouri Southern’s athletics director, also highlights that as crucial to understanding Title IX.
“The language in the law is to serve the underrepresented gender,” and that is often — but not always — women, she said.
Beard has seen firsthand the effects of Title IX. In 1974, near the beginning of her career at the university, she was approached by a group of young women who wanted to start a basketball team.
She agreed to help them. Together, they organized a schedule, including practices at 5:30 a.m., and they were given a $2,000 budget that was to cover their travel and uniforms.
“And it all started from there,” she said.
The following spring, Beard helped create the women’s tennis and softball teams. Years later, women’s track and field, volleyball and soccer were also added. She never had trouble putting together a team.
“I think there was a good deal of interest,” she said. “It provided enough inertia on its own to start a program.”
WOMEN’S ATHLETICS EXPANDS
Statistics show that what happened at Missouri Southern was happening at schools elsewhere, making women’s athletics one of the most impacted activities under Title IX.
In 1972, the year the law was signed, only 295,000 high school girls competed in sports — a far cry from the 3.67 million high school boys who were athletes, according to the National Women’s Law Center in a June report.
By the 2010-11 academic year, roughly 3.2 million high school girls and 4.5 million high school boys were playing sports, according to the report.
At the collegiate level, fewer than 32,000 women played sports in 1972, according to the report. Additionally, only 2 percent of schools’ athletic budgets were devoted to women’s teams, and athletic scholarships were virtually nonexistent, according to the report.
Forty years later, more than 193,000 women play collegiate sports. At NCAA schools, women receive about 44 percent of athletic opportunities, according to the report.
Most of Title IX’s media attention, too, has focused on athletics.
In 1976, 19 members of the Yale women’s rowing team, upset that they didn’t have shower facilities as the men’s team did, walked into Yale’s athletics office and stripped off their clothes. On their chests and backs they had written “Title IX” with blue markers. A newspaper reporter and photographer documented the protest; the showers were soon installed.
Nichole Force made local headlines in the early 1980s when she wanted to play football at Pierce City Junior High School. The judge in her 1983 case against the school district granted Force, who was 13 at the time, an injunction that barred the school from denying her the opportunity to play and said she should be judged by the coaches on her abilities.
More recently, a 13-year-old boy who played on a girls field hockey team on Long Island, N.Y., for two years invoked Title IX in appealing the decision by the county’s high school sports authority to bar him from continuing on the team.
County officials had said the teen’s skills were superior to the girls he played against, giving him an unfair advantage. But they reversed their decision last month, allowing him to remain on the team for at least one more season.
Title IX has also increased educational opportunities for women, who are now earning the majority of post-secondary degrees in the country, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Between the 1998-99 and 2008-09 academic years, the percentage of degrees earned by women hovered around 61 percent for associate’s degrees and 57 percent for bachelor’s degrees, the center reports.
The percentage of master’s and doctoral degrees earned by women increased during this time, from 58 to 60 percent and from 43 to 52 percent, respectively, according to the data.
Irene Zegar, an assistant professor of chemistry at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University, said that the proportion of female students in her classes is about equal to that of male students. That wasn’t necessarily the case when she was in school, she said.
“I guess the taboo that our society placed on girls learning science or math has been lifted,” she said.
Since 1997, when she arrived at Pitt State, the number of women taking her chemistry classes has increased, she said. Also on the rise: the number of women excelling academically in her classes.
“Most of my top 10 percent have been girls,” she said. “We’re out there to compete, and we know what it takes, so they’re doing it.”
Gains and achievements by female students in math and science, long considered more appropriate for male students, are evident. The proportion of girls who score in the top 0.01 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders on the math portion of the SAT rose from 1 in 13 in the 1980s to 1 in 3 more recently, according to a report from the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education.
High school girls are now more likely to take biology, chemistry and pre-calculus than boys, although they are still less likely than boys to choose a math- or science-related major at the college level, according to the report.
Additionally, Title IX protects students who are pregnant or who are parents. Under the law, schools cannot force those students to attend separate programs. Schools are also required to excuse absences of those students as long as it is medically necessary.
Ron Lankford, former superintendent of Webb City schools, spent most of his career in education watching Title IX take effect in Southwest Missouri.
Now a deputy commissioner at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Lankford landed at East Newton in the mid-’70s. The district was creating a girls basketball team at the time, he said.
When he moved to Webb City and became the junior high school principal, he successfully recommended to the school board that the district drop its seventh-grade boys basketball program to intramural status and reallocate those resources to the creation of an eighth-grade girls basketball program.
As superintendent, Lankford said he provided government agencies with information showing that the district was complying with the law.
“We didn’t really have to report anything about athletics, but we had to report things educationally,” he said. “So we had to say that girls were given the opportunity in high school programs where ... it had really been assumed it had been for (boys).”
Even language and terminology changed as schools became more inclusive, Lankford said. When he was in school, the home economics courses were largely intended to prepare girls to be homemakers, he said. Today, those courses — renamed Family and Consumer Sciences — attract both male and female students.
“Goodness, everybody knows that men ought to know how to buy things to take care of the household,” he said.
More subtly, Title IX ushered in the chance for increased health benefits, particularly for women.
Girls who had opportunities to play sports because of Title IX had a 7 percent lower risk of obesity 20 to 25 years later when they were in their late 30s and early 40s, according to research cited in the report from the National Women’s Law Center.
The report also notes that female athletes generally have higher levels of self-esteem, a lower incidence of depression, and a more positive body image compared to non-athletes. They are also more likely to graduate from high school and have higher grades than non-athletes, according to the report.
Another study in the report found that female participation in sports leads to an increase in women’s labor force participation and greater representation in previously male-dominated occupations.
Judy Stiles, the general manager of KGCS-TV in Joplin, could fall into the latter category. She played high school softball, basketball and volleyball during the mid-’70s, where she said she learned how to be part of a team and the importance of determination.
“You had the ups and downs like any team,” she said. “You have your wins, you have your losses, but just to be able to try was something for that generation.”
When asked whether the opportunities provided to her by Title IX helped her through undergraduate and graduate studies and obtain her position at the television station, Stiles said she thinks so.
“In the ’70s in broadcasting, there weren’t a lot of women,” she said. “I went the route of being one of the producers. I think having that background of ‘you can try’ helped me make that decision.”