For decades in America, women who attained a college degree could find work only as a teacher or nurse. A law degree and a career in the legal profession was something considered unattainable.
But then, 45 years ago this month, Congress passed the Education Amendments Act, the most notable part of the law is referred to as Title IX. The law states that, “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.”
Title IX became not simply a law that protects women’s rights. It became a tool that transformed society’s perceptions about gender.
The majority of Title IX media coverage has revolved around women’s participation in sports and the responsibility of educational institutions to provide those opportunities for them. Certainly, using the growth of women’s participation levels in high school athletics since 1972 as a metric, the law has been a success.
Athletes such as Olympics track and field champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee credit Title IX for their opportunities. It is unlikely that the WNBA and the Women’s Soccer World Cup would exist if not for Title IX, because the increased participation at an early age resulted in more female athletes and more public interest.
A less-examined byproduct of Title IX has been the extensive increase in women receiving college and postgraduate degrees. The percentage of female high school graduates ages 18 to 24 enrolled in college increased from 20 percent in 1970 to 43 percent in 2015.
In the legal field, women made up just 12 percent of those enrolled to receive law degrees in 1972. In 2017, that number is 50.3 percent, the first time in history that more women than men are studying to become lawyers.
Miriam T. Rooney, who served as dean of Seton Hall Law School from 1951 to 1961, was the first female dean at an accredited law school. Today, 31 percent of law school deans are women, and that number is growing.
The lack of educational opportunities for women carried over into discrimination in the professional realm as well. In 1970, there were 13,000 female lawyers, according to the U.S. Census. The treatment of women in the legal community was far from equal, even for the profession’s best and brightest.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor received her law degree from Stanford in 1952, graduating third in her class. The only job offer she received was a position as a legal secretary. She did not accept.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of nine women in a class of more than 500 entering Harvard Law School in 1954. The dean asked her what it felt like to occupy places that could have gone to a deserving man. Ginsberg eventually transferred to Columbia Law School, graduating first in her class. No law firm offered her a job. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter refused even to interview Ginsburg, saying he was not ready to hire a woman. This was in 1960.
The ABA now counts more than 450,000 female lawyers in the country. The expansive growth is not solely due to Title IX, but it was definitely a major contributing factor. Law schools had to increase female enrollment and treat women equally. The greater numbers and percentages of women graduating from law school and entering the workforce required law firms to hire more women if they wanted to fill positions with recent graduates.
After 45 years, some argue that Title IX has run its course and that gender equality has been achieved. The concrete legal protections for women are on the books and educational opportunities have improved so that Title IX enforcement is not necessary.
But Title IX is still needed. Recently, its protections have been used to address the problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses. While some have raised due-process questions over Title IX enforcement in this area, it is not a reason to dismantle the statute. A law that fights discrimination is worth keeping.
Though Title IX has provided more opportunities for women in the legal field, we are still far from equality. But Title IX’s existence makes the road easier and more accessible to the next Sandra Day O’Connor or Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
There’s one more story I would like to share about a woman struggling for educational and professional opportunity.
Patsy Mink earned bachelor’s degrees in zoology and chemistry but was rejected by 20 medical schools because they did not accept women. Mink decided to attend the University of Chicago Law School, which had admitted women since 1902. In 1951, she earned her law degree, but was the only woman in her graduating class. She, too, was unable to get a job at a law firm because she was married, and law firms at the time would not hire married women. She worked in the law school’s library for a while, then started her own firm.
Later, Mink would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Hawaii and go on to co-author the Title IX legislation with Rep. Edith Green of Oregon.
On the 30th anniversary of Title IX in 2002, soon before her death, Mink made a speech in the House of Representatives that summed up the story of the law.
“Title IX is a story of celebration; it is also a story of struggle,” she said. “For 30 years, we have constantly needed to be on guard to defend it.”
Now, on its 45th anniversary, those words still ring true.
Linda A. Klein is president of the American Bar Association. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.