- Regulating Opportunity:Title IX and the Birth of Gender-Conscious Higher Education Policy
The dramatic increase in women’s higher educational attainment since the mid-twentieth century represents one of the most transformative trends in recent American history. While men earned more degrees than women from the establishment of higher education in the United States through the 1970s, women have outnumbered men as the recipients of bachelor’s degrees since 1981; and during the 2012–13 academic year, women comprised an impressive 57 percent of the nation’s college students.1 In addition to a variety of demographic, social, and economic factors that facilitated the striking increase in women’s higher educational attainment, the federal government played an important role in promoting this trend.2 Since the postwar era, federal higher education policy has emphasized the goal of expanding access to college degrees. Beginning with the G.I. Bill in 1944, American lawmakers used gender-neutral financial-aid programs as the primary mechanism for achieving that end.3 These policies, which grew to include the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) of 1958 and the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965, made no reference to the sex of beneficiaries and made no attempt to consciously alter the gender dynamics of higher educational attainment in the United States. [End Page 157] They simply provided federal student loans, grants, and work-study opportunities to help make college affordable for millions of students.
Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments represents a bold departure from this trend. By prohibiting sex-based discrimination in college admissions, it revolutionized the gender dynamics of American higher educational institutions and marked a dramatic shift in U.S. higher education policy. Occupying a brief paragraph in an otherwise rambling omnibus bill, the pithy statute established 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” (P.L. 92-318). Unlike postwar financial-aid programs that stopped short of attempting to correct for gender disparities in college accessibility, Title IX voiced a full-throated call for gender equality in access to the nation’s colleges and universities. Rather than incremental change at the margins of existing programs, this movement from gender-neutral financial aid to gender-conscious institutional regulation illustrates dramatic policy change at a critical juncture.4 By requiring higher educational institutions to subject male and female applicants to equal treatment in the admissions process, Title IX single-handedly revolutionized how American postsecondary institutions treat women and set the stage for women to outpace men as the recipients of bachelor’s degrees.
In both scholarly and popular conceptualizations, Title IX is largely recognized for having expanded athletic opportunities for women.5 However, our understanding of the landmark amendment stops short of fully appreciating the novelty of invoking federal regulation in higher education policy and Title IX’s dramatic departure from policy precedents. The literature on Title IX has yet to consider its noteworthy deviation from the gender-neutral, redistributive structure of existing higher education policies that expanded access to college by providing financial aid to students.6 Moreover, the successful passage of Title IX, with its revolutionary gender-conscious approach to expanding access to college, is particularly puzzling when we consider women’s marginalization in American politics during the early 1970s and the absence of a highly organized women’s movement advocating on behalf of equal educational opportunity for women.7
This article uses historical analysis to investigate the political factors that facilitated Title IX’s passage in 1972 and the dramatic shift to gender-conscious higher education policy. I draw upon a variety of primary and secondary sources, including author-conducted interviews with lawmakers, [End Page 158] congressional staffers, political activists, and administrators involved in the passage and administration of Title IX; the Congressional Record; oral history interviews; transcripts from House and Senate committee deliberations; and the historical literature on Title IX.
The analysis suggests that, as Frank R. Baumgartner and Bryan D. Jones note, fully understanding dramatic policy change requires that we “not take for granted...