Isaacson: Title IX was a dream for one generation. Now it’s time to wake up

Melissa Isaacson, Op-Ed Contributor

I had never heard of Title IX in the winter of 1972. And if someone had told me what it meant, as a restless fifth-grader who spent most of my time chasing after my brothers and the other boys in the neighborhood, I probably couldn’t have fully grasped it.

What I did know is that there were tryouts for a new girls’ basketball team at Lincoln Hall Junior High the following year, and I could not have imagined more exciting news. I could dribble like crazy, and at barely five feet tall, I could launch shots from at least 15 feet out, though they were all hip. But none of that mattered.

There was a team, and a team meant real games. In a gym. With a coach. Maybe even something approximating a uniform. And I wanted in.

The problem was that tryouts were for seventh- and eighth-graders, and Miss Schoeller was not particularly interested in my forlorn pleas as I peered through the crack in the gym doors.

“Missy, if I let you try out, I have to let all the sixth-grade girls,” she said as I glanced behind me at exactly zero other sixth-grade girls wanting to flout the rules.

 So I waited. And wow, was it worth it.

To many of my students, Title IX is most commonly associated with the Office of Equity, the place on every college campus that addresses claims of sex discrimination, sexual misconduct and sexual harassment.

As for me, I consider the law responsible for who I am.

Title IX afforded me and the girls of my generation the opportunity to take part in activities like organized sports and gain access to the life lessons that have long been passed onto little boys with their first baseball gloves and Little League teams. With it, I learned to set goals, sacrifice for the betterment of the group and push myself past what I thought were my limitations.

It gave me the foundation and the courage to envision a future in which I could pursue a job traditionally held by men, and to withstand the discrimination that came along with that.

Even when there were clear violations of Title IX at our progressive suburban high school — and countless other schools across the nation — with resources tilted heavily toward the boys with superior uniforms, bigger travel budgets and more advantageous gym scheduling, it was certainly better than not having a team or a uniform or a place to play at all.

My teammates and I began our high school careers sharing the same uniforms worn by multiple girls’ teams and practicing and playing in the tiny dance studio or the “Girls’ Gym.” Playing there introduced an element of adventure, having to stop suddenly after shooting a layup lest you might get concussed running into a wall. Four years later, playing in the “Boys’ Gym” to standing-room crowds with our male peers cheering us on, we won the third-ever Illinois girls state basketball championship, our tournament games in Champaign televised on WGN broadcast to a national audience.

If the words “Title IX” were still not rolling off our tongues, the confidence it instilled in us certainly was. Suddenly, anything was possible. I had watched the 1976 Olympic Games and the first women’s basketball competition; I was mesmerized by players like Ann Meyers Drysdale, Nancy Lieberman and Lusia “Lucy” Harris.

Two years later, the Women’s Professional Basketball League was established, and the Chicago Hustle’s Rita Easterling was the league’s first MVP.

Of course, I could be a sportswriter one day.

I remember the well-worn slogans of the 70’s, one in particular that sprung from Chicago-based ad agency Leo Burnett to promote Virginia Slims cigarettes. It later became the catchphrase of the women’s professional tennis circuit, which the company sponsored: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Fifty years later, NU will recognize the most important law of the last half-century with programming Thursday night through Sunday morning. Gathering top scholars, policymakers, activists, executives, coaches, athletes and journalists, we will look at the impact of Title IX, how it has been administered and more importantly, where and how it has failed.

 Donna Lopiano, one of our panelists whose name is synonymous with Title IX, said this summer that “90% of institutions are out of compliance” at the Division I level. According to a USA Today investigation published in May, among other inequities, top U.S. colleges and universities have cheated women out of their fair share of scholarship money and doctored rosters to make their athletic departments appear more balanced despite limiting spots to women.

Amy Wilson, another one of our panelists and the author of the NCAA’s “The State of Women in College Sports,” will share data that show the inequities in women of color as student-athletes, and as coaches and administrators.

 We have come a long way, baby, and I want every student on campus, both men and women, to learn about and appreciate the 37 words that altered my life and that of so many others. I want them to enjoy the compelling discussions we have planned, and I want them to be as frustrated as I am with how much further we have to go.

Melissa Isaacson is a Medill assistant professor and organizer of Northwestern’s Title IX at 50 conference. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.