Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Title IX

By Kaitlyn Dunphy, Esq.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the enactment of Title IX, signed into law on June 23, 1972. In the past 50 years, Title IX has had a positive effect on equity in education, and is particularly noted for its impact on sports, admission to higher education, protections for LGBTQIA+ students and procedures for addressing sexual harassment on campuses. 

Title IX was introduced in Congress to address a gap in the existing civil rights laws. At the time, civil rights laws such as Title VII prohibited discrimination in the workplace but did not preclude sex bias in education. The proponents of the law pointed out that in order to remedy inequality in economic opportunities, inequity in education had to be addressed. Without equal access to education, women lacked access to career opportunities and financial stability. 

Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs. It applies to all educational programs receiving federal financial assistance, whether they receive that assistance directly or indirectly through students who are recipients of federal grants. If an institution does not comply with Title IX, the federal government can terminate its financial assistance to the institution. 

Title IX and sports 

After Title IX was enacted, opponents of Title IX focused their energies on limiting its scope, including attempts to exempt sports, especially collegiate sports, from Title IX’s reach. Those attempts failed, and Title IX is perhaps best known for its impact on women’s and girls’ sports. According to the New York Times, there are more than 3 million women participating in high school and college sports today, up from 300,000 in 1972.  

Many observers attribute the increased participation in sports to Title IX, which requires educational institutions to meet athletic equality requirements set by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Those standards look at the rates of participation as well as require equity not just in athletic opportunity, but also in resources provided to men’s and women’s teams. 

Title IX and sexual harassment 

Sexual harassment is also a barrier to equal access to education. In a case decided in 1980—one of the first of its kind—plaintiffs alleged that they were subject to sexual harassment by faculty members at Yale. They sued the institution for failure to have a grievance procedure where students could report sexual harassment. While the case was dismissed by the court, the plaintiffs accomplished their goals. Credibility was lent to the then-new legal theory that sexual harassment was a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX and, because of the lawsuit, Yale decided to implement a grievance procedure. Many institutions of higher education followed Yale’s lead. 

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil published its first Title IX investigation manual in 1990. That office also promulgates regulations that require institutions of higher education to implement sexual harassment reporting and investigation procedures. Most recently, revisions were made to those regulations by the Trump administration that have been widely criticized as discouraging the reporting and investigation of these complaints. As a result, the Biden administration has undertaken a review of the regulations. Revisions were expected to be announced last month, but were not yet available by the time of the Review’s publication in mid-May. 

Title IX and LGBTQIA+ students 

A more recent application of Title IX has extended the law’s protections to LGBTQIA+ students. Under the Obama administration, guidance was released that stated that Title IX’s prohibitions on discrimination based on sex also prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That guidance was rolled back under the Trump administration but reinstated under the current administration.  

The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in June of 2020, Bostock v. Clayton County, found that Title VII, the law that protects against sex-based discrimination in the workplace, also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This finding supports the position that Title IX also prohibits discrimination against LGBTQIA+ students. 

Title IX is instrumental in eradicating the vestiges of sex discrimination in education. While there will always be more work to be done, Title IX lays the foundational groundwork for addressing sex discrimination in education.  

Kaitlyn Dunphy is an associate director of NJEA Legal Services and Member Rights in the NJEA Executive Office. She can be reached at kdunphy@njea.org.