Title IX, the statute that tells today's universities to protect students from sexual assault at college, didn't begin with this intention. It was originally a response not to sexual assault but to sexism within academia. In 1969, Bernice "Bunny" Sandler, a mother of two finishing the University of Maryland's doctoral program in educational counseling. Sandler worked hard and was well liked in the department, but she was rebuffed when she tried to secure a faculty appointment. "Let's face it," a faculty member told her, "you come on too strong for a woman."
At the time, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited employment discrimination based on gender and other categories. Working in conjunction with activist attorneys, Sandler crusaded for a new law. She filed complaints against over two hundred and fifty colleges and universities, claiming that they were violating an executive order that prohibited federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of gender, then mailed copies to Congress. One of those letters landed in the hands of Edith Green, a congresswoman from Oregon, who introduced the legislation that eventually became Title IX, slipped into the Education Amendments of 1972 as a forgettable footnote. She even discouraged Sandler from lobbying for the bill, declaring the less attention it got, the better.
President Richard Nixon didn't want to support Title IX, but he planned to sign the statute in which it was included, one that postponed court orders to integrate racially segregated schools by busing. It's short: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." Few back then imagined its ultimate reach and transformative power. Over time, it would not only protect equal rights for women in sports but act as a shield against sexual harassment and assault. I'm going to note some important moments in its evolution here.
Here's an early one: 1976 at Yale University, an institution that would become a perennial proving ground for the statute's reach. Yale's women's crew team lacked bunkhouse showers and rowed dilapidated shells while the men's team had better facilities and flew by in better boats. Staging a dramatic piece of protest theater, the women's team stormed the office of Yale's director of Physical Education. There, some doffed their sweats. "These are the bodies Yale is exploiting," they said. "We are not just healthy young things in blue and white uniforms who perform feats of strength for Yale in the nice spring weather; we are not just statistics on your win column. We're human and being treated as less than such." And in black marker on their naked backs, they wrote the symbol of the equal treatment they were legally guaranteed as Yale students: IX.
A year later, another university insider sought a more radical application of the statute. At the time, Catharine MacKinnon was a newly minted Yale Law graduate, not yet a prominent feminist legal scholar. An electric speaker, MacKinnon was part of late-stage second-wave feminism, and some of her ideas departed from the movement's mainstream. She not only changed Americans' understanding of sexual harassment but argued forcefully against pornography. MacKinnon worked with Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace (who spoke out against the film years after release, saying "virtually every time someone watches that movie, they are watching me being raped"), and co-drafted a Minneapolis ordinance that would have allowed women to sue pornographers on the basis of a direct link between husbands' domestic abuse and their porn usage. When Betty Friedan and fifty feminists successfully argued that this would "reinforce rather than undercut the central sexist stereotypes in our society," she shot back that they were "fronting for male supremacists."