Title IX of the Civil Rights Act was signed into law on June 23, 1972, by President Richard M. Nixon. Ask a man about gender equality, and you’re likely to hear the U.S. has made great strides in the 50 years since the landmark anti-discrimination law Title IX was passed. Ask a woman, and the answer probably will be quite different.
According to a new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the National Women’s History Museum, most U.S. adults believe the country has made at least some progress toward equality for women since 1972. That’s the year Congress passed Title IX, a one-sentence law that forbids discrimination based on sex in education. But there are sharp differences in opinion over just how much headway has been made and in what facets of life.
Some of the widest divisions are, perhaps unsurprisingly, between men and women: 61% of men say the country has made a great deal or a lot of progress toward gender equality, while 37% of women said the same, according to the poll.
Women were more likely to point to only some progress — 50% held that view — while 13% said the country has made just a little or no progress.
“We’ve fought a lot, we’ve gained a little bit, but we haven’t really gained equality,” said Brenda Theiss, 68, a retired optician in Vinemont, Alabama. Progress that started in the ’70s seems to have stalled, she said, with continued wage gaps and battles over women’s reproductive rights.
Passed in the wake of other seminal civil rights laws, Title IX was intended to expand protections for women into the sphere of education. Today it’s often known for its impact on women’s sports and the fight against sexual harassment and assault.
As the nation approaches the law’s 50th anniversary, most Americans have positive views about it. Sixty-three percent said they approve of the law, including majorities of men and women. Only 5% did not approve of it, while the rest said they were neutral or not sure.
But Americans are split along several lines when it comes to assessing advancements.
Along with men, Republicans are also more likely to see a great deal or a lot of progress, with 65% holding that view. Among Democrats, 39% said the same.
Among women, those 50 and older are more likely than their younger peers to see a great deal or a lot of progress in specific facets of life, such as in leadership, employment and education opportunities.
Milan Ramsey, 29, said it’s “remarkable how far we have come considering how unequal it still feels.”
She says sexism is hard to avoid in today’s society, whether it’s in unequal access to health care or in everyday slights like getting catcalled. But she knows it has been worse. Once, looking at her mother’s childhood photos, her mother pointed out a pair of pants that she said was her first pair ever.
“She remembers that because they weren’t allowed to wear pants until she was like 7 in public school,” said Ramsey, of Santa Monica, California.
As a young girl growing up in the ’70s, Karen Dunlap says she benefited from Title IX right away. Soccer leagues for girls started springing up for the first time, she said. Her mom rushed to sign her up.
“I really felt the immediate difference as a kid,” said Dunlap, of Vancouver, Washington. “But at the same time, it didn’t stay that way.”
Dunlap went on to compete in swimming and water polo at Pomona College in California, and she credits Title IX for the opportunity. It also ensured the school gave enough money for racing swimsuits and a team van, she said. But in the classroom, some male professors referred to her as a “coed,” and some seemed to look down on female students, she said.
Later, when her daughters went to college, Dunlap was disappointed to see them fighting familiar battles. When one of her daughters applied for a job at a campus dorm, she was told she was too much of a “typical cheery girl” for the position. She ended up leaving the school and graduating elsewhere.
“The push for equality has been around long enough that it should have worked,” Dunlap said. “There should be some difference.”
According to the poll, Americans think the impact of Title IX has been stronger in some areas than others. More than half said it has had a positive impact on female students’ opportunities in sports, and about as many said that about opportunities in education overall.
But just 36% said it had a positive impact on addressing sexual harassment in schools, and 31% said it had a positive impact on protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination.
At the same time, there’s evidence that not all Americans clearly understand the law. About a third said they were unsure whether Title IX has had an impact on them personally, and about a quarter or more were unsure of its impact in other areas.
The law is commonly misunderstood in part because its application is so broad, said Shiwali Patel, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. In addition to its role in sports, it also has been used to protect against discrimination and harassment in college admissions, financial aid, campus housing and employment, among other areas.
“I don’t think people really understand the full breadth and scope of Title IX,” she said. “It’s only 37 words long, but it’s extremely broad. It covers so much.”
Patel said it’s important to acknowledge Title IX has brought meaningful advancements. More women are getting scholarships, participating in college sports and landing faculty jobs. But there has also been resistance to continued improvement, especially in the fight against sexual harassment and violence, she said.
“We are at a moment of real challenge, and we still haven’t gone far enough,” Patel said.
The law’s anniversary approaches as the Biden administration prepares new rules detailing how schools and colleges must respond to sexual harassment. The regulation, which would serve as an extension of the 1972 law, is expected to roll back a set of Trump-era rules and expand the rights of victims of sexual harassment and assault.
Among other findings, the poll also revealed Americans don’t think all women have felt progress equally. About half of respondents said white women have seen a great deal of progress, but only about a third said the same for women of color or LGBTQ women. Only about a quarter said there’s been great progress for low-income women.
Still, to 67-year-old David Picatti, it feels like the push for gender equality has largely succeeded. When he was an engineering student in college, he remembers his program “clamoring” to recruit women, who are underrepresented in many science fields. More recently, he has had female cousins receive full scholarships to play college sports.
“I think there have been a lot of strides and it’s a fairly equal playing field,” said Picatti, of Yakima, Washington.
Sarah Brown says it’s far from equal. The 70-year-old in New Orleans acknowledged some progress — her daughter earned a master’s in business from Harvard University in the 1980s as the program was recruiting more women — but she still sees discrimination.
A retired accountant, Brown has been discouraged by recent battles over abortion rights, and she has been appalled by sexual assault scandals at Louisiana State University and other colleges across the country. It seems like progress made in the past is being eroded, she said.
Still, Brown isn’t surprised that men see it differently.
“Of course not,” she said. “Women know how it really is to be a woman and men don’t. Men think that women have it better than they truly do.”
The poll of 1,172 adults was conducted May 12-16 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.
Title IX timeline: 50 years of halting progress across U.S.
1836: Georgia Female College is the first women’s college to open in the U.S.
1917: Jeannette Rankin of Montana becomes the first woman elected to Congress.
1920: U.S. women gain the right to vote.
1936: A federal appeals court effectively says doctors can prescribe women birth control.
1947: The first Truman Commission report pushes for more equal access to higher education, including ending race and religious discrimination.
1953: Toni Stone becomes the first woman to regularly play professional baseball (Negro Leagues).
1954: U.S. Supreme Court rules “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” in landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision.
1960: Wilma Rudolph becomes the first American woman to win three gold medals in an Olympics. The star Black sprinter becomes a prominent advocate for civil rights.
1963: The Commission on the Status of Women, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, finds widespread discrimination against women in the U.S. and urges federal courts that “the principle of equality become firmly established in constitutional doctrine.” Congress passes the Equal Pay Act.
1964: The Civil Rights Act includes sex as one of the things that employers can’t discriminate against. It also establishes the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Patsy Mink of Hawaii becomes the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House; she later co-authors Title IX, the Early Childhood Education Act and the Women’s Educational Equality Act.
1965: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act gives federal funding to K-12 schools with low-income student populations. President Lyndon Johnson also signs the Higher Education Act of 1965 that gives college students access to loans, grants and other programs.
1966: The National Organization for Women is established, calling for women to have “full participation in the mainstream of American society … in truly equal partnership with men.”
1967: Aretha Franklin covers Otis Redding’s 1965 hit, “Respect, ” and it quickly becomes a feminist anthem.
1969: New York Democrat Shirley Chisholm becomes the first Black woman in Congress. She later becomes the first woman to seek nomination for president.
1971: The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) is founded to govern collegiate women’s athletics and administer national championships.
1972: Congress passes Title IX, which is signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Title IX states: “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.” Congress also passes the Equal Rights Amendment, but it never gets approval from the 38 states needed to become law.
1973: The Supreme Court issues its Roe v. Wade opinion establishing the right to an abortion. Billie Jean King beats Bobby Riggs in straight sets in the “The Battle of the Sexes” tennis exhibition match.
1974: The Women’s Educational Equity Act provides grants and contracts to help with “nonsexist curricula,” as well as to help institutions meet Title IX requirements.
1975: President Gerald Ford signs Title IX athletics regulations, which gives athletic departments up to three years to implement, after noting “it was the intent of Congress under any reason of interpretation to include athletics.”
1976: NCAA challenges the legality of Title IX regarding athletics in a lawsuit that is dismissed two years later.
1977: Three female students at Yale, two graduates and a male faculty member become the first to sue over sexual harassment under Title IX (Alexander v. Yale). It would fail on appeal.
1979: Ann Meyers becomes the first woman to sign an NBA contract (Indiana Pacers, $500,000). She had been the first woman to receive a UCLA basketball scholarship.
1979: U.S. officials put into effect the important three-prong test for Title IX compliance when it comes to athletics.
1980: Title IX oversight is given to the Office of Civil Rights in the Education Department.
1981: Sandra Day O’Connor becomes the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
1982: Louisiana Tech beats Cheyney State for the first NCAA women’s basketball title. Two months later, the AIAW folds, putting top women’s collegiate sports fully under the NCAA umbrella. Cheryl Miller scores 105 points in a high school game to kick off one of the greatest careers in basketball history.
1984: Democrat Geraldine Ferraro becomes first woman to earn a vice presidential nomination from a major political party. The U.S. wins its first Olympic gold medal in women’s basketball.
1987: Pat Summitt wins the first of her eight women’s basketball national titles at Tennessee.
1988: Congress overrides President Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, making it mandatory that Title IX apply to any school that receives federal money.
1994: The Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act is passed. Under Title IX, schools with federal financial aid programs and athletics must provide annual information regarding gender equity, including roster sizes and certain budgets.
1995: Connecticut wins the first of its 11 national titles under coach Geno Auriemma.
1996: Female athletes win a lawsuit and force Brown to restore funding for women’s gymnastics and volleyball after the saying the school violated Title IX when it turned both teams into donor-funded entities. The NBA clears the way for the Women’s National Basketball Association to begin play the following year.
1999: Brandi Chastain’s penalty kick gives the United States a win over China in the World Cup final, invigorating women’s sports in the U.S.
2001: Ashley Martin becomes the first woman to play and score in an Division I football game as a placekicker for Jacksonville State.
2008: Danica Patrick wins the Japan 300 to become the first female victor in the top level of American open-wheel racing.
2014: Becky Hammon becomes the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history.
2015: The United States’ 5-2 win over Japan in the Women’s World Cup final becomes the most viewed soccer game in the history of American television.
2016: Citing Title IX, the Obama administration says transgender students at public schools should be allowed to use the bathroom or locker room that matches their gender identity, the guidance was rescinded by the Trump administration. Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman to win a major party nomination for president.
2017: Serena Williams wins her 23rd Grand Slam title, second-most of all time.
2021: Report rips NCAA for failing to uphold its commitment to gender equity by prioritizing its lucrative Division I men’s basketball tournament “over everything else,” including women’s championship events.
2022: South Carolina’s Dawn Staley becomes the first Black Division I basketball coach, male or female, to win more than one national championship. The U.S. women’s national soccer team reaches a milestone agreement to be paid equally to the men’s national team.