Title IX’s Greatest Achievement Wasn’t Equality. It Was Possibility.
One thing you learn from watching athletes closely is that muscle isn’t power and in fact can be pretty clumsy and useless. Movement is power — mobility. It’s the tremendous sense of movement created by Title IX over the past 50 years that matters. And sometimes the most powerful movements are the stealthiest.
“Would you call yourself a feminist?” I asked Pat Summitt, early in our acquaintance.
“No,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because I’m not a sign-carrier,” she said.
But after a few days of studying how Pat went about her business as the women’s basketball coach at the University of Tennessee, I knew what to call her. Pat allowed me to shadow her through her workday in the interest of writing a book together, and I watched from corners of rooms as she would murmur with ladylike restraint through meetings, charm old-boy Southern male administrators in their offices with her mildness and then turn around and urge her players to thunder up the court with a roaring intensity. One afternoon, I returned to the subject.
“I know what to call you now,” I said. “I know what you are.”
“You’re a subversive,” I said.
She laughed, and then she said, perfectly serious, “That’s exactly right.”
In the half-century since Congress enacted Title IX on June 23, 1972, it has become ever clearer just how stealthily radical that piece of legislation with the Roman numeral really was. On the surface, it was a straightforward sentence, buried in a larger education act, that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded education programs. Conventionally, we’ve assessed its impact in terms of pure numbers, scholarships and budgets, as measures of “equity.” But that was just a petty, superficial, administrative application. Numbers don’t tell the whole story — not even close. Pat was after something much, much bigger than a budget.