Any parent knows there are few things more fulfilling than watching your child discover a passion for something. And as a parent, you’ll do anything to make sure he or she grows up believing she can take that ambition as far as she wants; that your child will embrace that quintessentially American idea that she can go as far as her talents will take her.
But it wasn’t so long ago that something like pursuing varsity sports was an unlikely dream for young women in America. Their teams often made do with second-rate facilities, hand-me-down uniforms, and next to no funding.
What changed? Well, 40 years ago, committed women from around the country, driven by everyone who said they couldn’t do something, worked with Congress to ban gender discrimination in our public schools. Title IX was the result of their efforts, and this week, we celebrated its 40th anniversary—40 years of ensuring equal education, in and out of the classroom, regardless of gender.
I was reminded of this milestone last month, when I awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Pat Summitt. When she started out as a basketball coach, Pat drove the team van to away games. She washed the uniforms in her own washing machine. One night she and her team even camped out in an opponent’s gym because they had no funding for a hotel. But she and her players kept their chins up and their heads in the game. And in 38 years at the University of Tennessee, Pat won eight national championships and tallied more than 1,000 wins—the most by any college coach, man or woman. More important, every single woman who ever played for Pat has either graduated or is on her way to a degree.
And Title IX isn’t just about sports — it’s about equal access to education generally. As a person who benefited greatly from Title IX through access to higher education and through athletics, it’s tough to overstate how crucial the Title IX legislation is for girls and boys (and women and men) across the country. I’m far from an athlete, but playing sports as a kid helped me to develop not only teamwork skills and good sportsmanship, but a positive body image and sexuality. Seeing my body as something that didn’t just exist for the viewing pleasure of others but that was also strong (and could be made stronger) and capable of all sorts of movement and improvement was crucial in my own psychological development. I wasn’t ever any good at any of the sports I played (and I played a whole lot of them, from soccer to softball to basketball to gymnastics to horseback riding to figure skating to track and on and on and on), but it was a good lesson for a type-A straight-A student that sometimes it’s ok to not be the best at things; sometimes the benefit is just in getting out there and having fun and trying, even if you totally suck (and I totally sucked). But I learned a certain ownership over my own body; I saw how it changed and got stronger or faster, and how it hurt if I pushed too hard, and where to determine the line between working my hardest (and the attendant positive feelings that come with that work) and hurting myself.
These are all lessons that carried over into my adult life. I don’t play team sports anymore, but the enjoyment of physical activity remains. I like trying new things, even if I suck at them. I don’t worry about sweating or looking stupid if I’m trying a new sport or game. If I don’t exercise regularly, I see a decline in my mental health — I feel sluggish and more depressed and less energetic. I try to exercise every day, even if it’s just going on a long Sunday walk. I do yoga or go running with friends to get in some social time and bond over physical activity.
Forty years ago, a woman like me wouldn’t have had the physically active childhood that I did. I wasn’t going to do all of it myself — it took team sports and organized athleticism to get me moving and to ingrain a lifelong commitment to physical activity. It took team sports and organized athleticism to help me come to a mental place where I saw myself as capable and powerful and not simply ornamental. That’s part of the value in Title IX — it doesn’t just help out the athletes among us.
Glad to see the President marking such an important anniversary.