40 years after passage of Title IX: leveling education's playing field for women, girls

Kathleen Underwood
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Kathleen Underwood
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Laurie Witucki, associate professor of chemistry, graduated from college in 1989 and didn’t think much at that time about Title IX, the landmark legislation passed in 1972 that forbids sex discrimination in education.

June 23 marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX and presents a good opportunity to look back at history and ahead.

This is how Title IX impacted Witucki and millions of others girls and young women around the country:

Wituck played sports in high school and had equal access to coaches, locker rooms and athletic facilities. She was an exceptional student and earned a full scholarship to a college in Pennsylvania.

Prior to 1972, opportunities for women to earn college scholarships and play sports were limited, a fact that Witucki relays to Grand Valley students enrolled in the Women In Science and Engineering program.

“The students are shocked when we start talking about this,” said Witucki, faculty director for WISE. “But they haven’t experienced any inequities. They think this issue is over, that it won’t be a problem when they graduate.”

Witucki worked as a chemist after graduating. Among the 50 bachelor’s-level chemists at her company, two were women. “It was not uncommon in the ’90s to have one or two women working in the sciences,” Witucki said.

It remains a divide today, but programs like WISE, a living-learning community on the Allendale Campus, are meant to support young women who want careers in engineering, mathematics or the sciences.

When WISE opened in 2006, Witucki said a pre-engineering student returned to the living center after her first day of classes. “She said, ‘Wow, I wasn’t expecting to be the only female in class. I’m so glad to come back to WISE to talk about that,’” Witucki said.

Kathleen Underwood, director of Women and Gender Studies and associate professor of history, was in college when Title IX was approved by Congress. The following year, when UCLA’s graduate program expanded to include more women, she was in that first class. 

Underwood said many people think Title IX only relates to sports. “While the change in athletics was overwhelming, what gets lost is the phenomenal changes to higher education: the ability to apply for scholarships, and the opening up of medical schools and law schools to women,” she said.

In 1972, women earned 7 percent of all law degrees; in 2001, that number was 47 percent. Women earned 9 percent of medical degrees in 1972, and 43 percent in 2001.

Keri Becker, associate athletic director, graduated from college in 1995. Like Witucki, she said she didn’t pay attention to Title IX then. “It resonates with me now from where I sit. I am only here because of those who fought to make sure I was given this opportunity,” Becker said.

Prior to Title IX, 32,000 women played varsity collegiate sports, compared with 150,000 today. Before 1972, only 1 out of 27 girls played high school sports; in 2001, that figure grew to nearly 50 percent of all high school athletes.

Becker said Laker student-athletes have a general sense of Title IX’s benefits, but “they don’t see it as something they need to promote or take action with.”

“It’s a fight we need to continue,” Becker said. “We have to carry the torch to make sure women continue to get opportunities to participate and be at the table when decisions are made.”