When watching sports today, one can easily find women competing at the highest levels in a variety of sports including the Olympics, professional leagues, and collegiate sports. In today’s world, women have the ability to participate in almost any sport they desire, including sports once considered to be exclusively for men. This is not how it has always been. Until the 1970s when landmark legislation called Title IX was enacted, women had very few athletic opportunities and the available options were confined to sports deemed by cultural norms to be “feminine.” This discrimination of women and limiting of the opportunities available to them can be directly attributed to a larger cultural belief that existed during the time. The impact of Title IX can be seen in today’s landscape where freedom of opportunity is almost unrecognizable from the time before it was introduced. When observing the history of women’s athletic opportunities and the cultural notions that surround them, it is very helpful to examine the situation before and after Title IX was enacted.
How It Used To Be
Beginning in the early 1900s, the athletic opportunities for women were few and far between. People believed that women were inferior athletes and the events appropriate for them were limited to “gender appropriate” sports like gymnastics, dance, cheerleading, and swimming, as the Title IX Info group details. When women were allowed to compete in athletics it was largely considered to be inferior and as LaVaque-Manty illustrates in his book, The Playing Fields of Eton (2009), there were very few people who watched these contests. In today’s environment, the validity of an athletic contest is not measured by the number of attendees in the stands, but rather the competition itself. Again, this lack of opportunity for women could be attributed to the
culturally accepted gender roles during the time period. Women were supposed to be taking care of children and the home and were not physically or socially suitable for athletic competition. This belief is evident when observing them number of females that actually did participate in some form of athletic activity. Many estimates including the Feminist Majority Foundation place the percentage of women among collegiate athletes to be around 15%, while high school athletics were even lower at around 7%. These facts speak to the overall traditional belief that women and their athletic abilities are inferior to men, meaning they do not need as many opportunities as males. In addition to the participation of women, another very important issue regarding women’s athletics during the time was the allocation of scholarship dollars. There were effectively no scholarships available to women, and as the Title IX Info group further illustrates, women and their athletics comprised only 2% of total athletic budgets during this time period. This lack of opportunities could be attributed to the value barriers that women faced when participating in athletics. The false belief about the competence of women and their athletic abilities led administrators and our society as a whole to discount their potential and severely limit their opportunities. These values, and consequently, the opportunities for women in sports, significantly changed in 1972 with the enactment of this landmark legislation.
The Advent of Opportunity
In 1972, Congress passed Title IX of the Educational Amendments, which was intended to even the playing field for men and women with respect to athletic opportunities and resources. The bill addressed the root issues regarding women and sports, and as the National Women’s Law Center summarizes, Title IX required that publicly funded schools allocate participation opportunities in a non-discriminatory way. Women would now receive similar scholarships and participation opportunities as men in interscholastic athletics. As the Feminist Majority Foundation again details, the number of women participating in athletics has more than doubled and the scholarship money they receive has significantly increased. This bill has had an immeasurable impact on both athletics themselves and the cultural notions that surrounded females, their gender role, and their athletic ability. Gone are the days when people think women should stick to the “feminine” sports, as women now participate in sports once considered to be the most masculine sports like mixed martial arts, lacrosse, and hockey,
among many others. This challenge of traditional gender roles significantly helped to break the paradigms of access and availability of resources for women in athletics and has shifted the cultural beliefs towards a more progressive way of thinking; that women deserve equal opportunities in athletics. The rejection of traditional gender roles and the realization that women do have the skills and abilities to deserve similar opportunities was fueled by Title IX, which significantly altered the athletic landscape for both genders.
The New Cultural Norm
In the early 1900s, women were excluded from athletic participation and resources due to existing cultural norms regarding gender and gender roles. These beliefs were forcibly challenged with the adoption of landmark legislation like Title IX and women now have significantly more opportunities. Today, we see just how far they have come with the increased media exposure, the wide array of opportunities, and the increase in resources available. Growing from a spark ignited by the adoption of Title IX, we see tremendous opportunity and one of the great success stories for equality and beliefs about women and their gender role.