45 Years Later, Three Social Justice Movement Building Lessons from Title IX

People forget how transformative Title IX was—not just for women and girls, but for all of society. We tend to think of Title IX only in its relationship to sports. I get it. But there is a rich history there and we need to remember how Title IX’s implications extend into every other arena of life.

As part of the United States Education Amendments of 1972, 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.”

Think about that. With all of the work our country needed to do, Title IX set women and girls, and our nation, on an entirely new path. Title IX was a win for our society and the 21st century. 

I remind people that Title IX was established so that women could go to college and pursue advanced degrees. This was one of the first ways women gained access to power by drastically expanding their career options. The absolute intent of Title IX is protecting women and girls from sexual harassment, protecting pregnant women from discrimination, and ensuring that women and girls have access to education and training in male-dominated STEM fields. Women can now study medicine, law, or finance, rather than being limited to being teachers and social workers. 

Title IX was then and is today about expanded opportunity, and yes, justice.

Today, on the 45th anniversary of Title IX, with too many Black and Brown lives lost to state violence, justice must be at the forefront of our conversations. In May, Kimberlé Crenshaw, the scholar and critical race theorist who coined the term intersectionality, spoke about the interconnectedness of our movements. She said, “We need to have better ways of talking across movements.” 

Here are three lessons that I’ve learned from a life and career steeped in Title IX and women’s philanthropy that we can put to use in our connected movements for gender, racial and even, dare I say, economic justice.

1) Leadership and justice is never a zero sum game.

We have a president who is obsessed with winning and losing. But athletes know this—you never play just to win. You train hard for years, develop your skills out of respect for everyone involved, and foster a rapport with other players. And winning isn’t always correlated with performance. Mr. Trump may think leadership is about winning, but it’s about something much bigger-excellence, integrity, and sportsmanship to start. Outcomes that matter to people, outcomes that change the course of history, and outcomes that change what is possible. And I for one believe in the potential of the human spirit.

Why does this matter? When you think there is a finite amount of money, power, or justice – aptly reframed as love according to the wise Dr. Monique Morris - to go around, everyone suffers for it. There are still people who don’t support Title IX today, for example, because of the myth that when we invest in women’s and girls’ programs, for example, boys lose out. History proves that this isn’t true. Title IX continues to teach us that there’s enough room for girls and boys to succeed.

What can this teach us about other movements for social justice? That no one movement fights in isolation. We must fight alongside of and for the most marginalized communities among us, just as others have fought alongside the Women’s Movement, Civil Right, Gay Rights, etc. Clearly, we must know by now that publicly supporting Black Lives Matterdoesn’t mean that another community is going to lose.

2) Exercising and using our bodies is a primary tool in the empowerment of voice.

And the more we use our voice, the more we feel at home in our bodies. I call this embodied leadership. I have found this relationship between voice and body to be true through the spectrum of my life – as an athlete, a lover, and a cancer and heart disease patient. This is why with every activist I engage with, I encourage being fully present with your body. Whatever your body looks like, whatever your body can do. You are more powerful than you know.

Women Win’s research tells us that sports assists in the prevention of gender-based violence. Through sports, and I would infer through embodied leadership of all expressions, women and girls:

  1. Learn how to ask for help
  2. Encourage boundary setting
  3. Build courage

Many of the things I see women struggle with as a result of living in this culture—not going to bat for ourselves or others, apologizing too much, competing against women we could and should be supporting—these things live in the body, too. We can transform them using the leadership and teamwork skills we learn through the model from sports. We can transform them by stepping into and standing in our power. Whether or not you play sports now or if you were lucky to grow up playing sports, remember that you have access to using your voice. Leadership at every level is embodied, and we need to start teaching it in an embodied way. Marching regularly works as does using your power stance…daily.

3) We have to find more ways to tap into our empathy.

There are a million reasons to encourage women’s full participation in every sector of society. Again, looking just at sports, we know that when girls play sports, they go on to have more positive experiences in every sphere of life: their home, workplace, and community. Health benefits of movement and sports are crystal clear. Women who benefited from playing sports have an 8% higher wage premium and are 20% more likely to be in the workforce. We know companies are more profitable when women are in leadership positions, and more than half of all top female executives played sports in college. In other words, women’s participation in sports helps women get to the highest levels of leadership and prepares them for success in spaces previously dominated only by men. 

But beyond all of these reasons, making sure women and girls have access to sports is simply the right thing to do. Each time a father goes to bat for his daughter using Title IX protections under the law, he is going to bat for young women everywhere. Each time we throw our support behind a woman colleague who asks for equal funding for her programs or challenges sexual harassment in the workplace, we go to bat for all women. The history of Title IX teaches us what justice and empathy looks like in practice. We demonstrate empathy by fighting for another person’s humanity. By showing up and being willing to do it… because it’s the right thing to do.

We need the lessons of Title IX now more than ever. While there is so much more work for equity, Title IX has helped create the conditions of fairness for women and girls. We have to ask ourselves, what conditions do we need to create now—what laws, systems, and practices do we need to change, to make gender and racial justice, and yes, economic justice a reality?