Title IX at 50

Photo by Caitlin O'Hara

It’s the first truly cold evening of December and the thump thump thump of a basketball traveling across the court echoes through Williams Arena. The Minnesota Golden Gophers women’s basketball team is playing Nebraska and, despite the pandemic, the familiar game day staples are in place. The pep band plays the rouser as the crowd stands and claps. Cheerleaders arrange themselves into a standing pyramid. The Jumbotron ticks off the seconds.

There’s another constant, although one that’s not widely known to the crowd. Dressed in maroon and gold, Elizabeth Arendt, M.D., one of the team’s physicians, is cheering from her usual seat behind the scorekeepers. Arendt, who goes by Liza, is in her late 60s. That means she has a different perspective on this game than the college-aged fans sitting in the Barnyard section.

She understands that women playing in this storied building—let alone her career as a prominent orthopedic surgeon—are both hard-won victories that wouldn’t have been possible without the Title IX Education Amendments of 1972, a change to the Federal Civil Rights Act that became law 50 years ago this June.

That legislation—commonly known as Title IX— prohibits discrimination based on a person’s sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity, in all educational institutions and for activities that receive federal assistance. Its reach touches every aspect of the American educational experience, from bullying in elementary school to college recruitment, admissions, financial assistance, sexual assault, and treatment of pregnant students and LGBTQIA+ students.

While the legislation is arguably most visible for opening doors for female high school and college athletes, Title IX was originally passed to ensure more educational opportunities for women. In fact, gender equity in athletics was not even debated when the amendment was originally passed.

The impact of Title IX in the world of sports would benefit from the rise of the women’s movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as well as the growing visibility of a few breakout professional female athletes, including Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and Dorothy Hamill. Those two developments helped initially highlight the disparities between men’s and women’s sports opportunities. In fact, the eventual advances in athletics under Title IX started not with policymakers, but with fathers and mothers filing lawsuits under the Act on behalf of their athletic daughters.

As the 50th anniversary of this landmark legislation approaches, it’s time to take stock of both its successes and the work that remains undone, as well as the controversies it continues to spark.

Minnesota Alumni spoke with U of M faculty, staff, and alumni who lived through these historic changes. Their stories and experiences illuminate the dramatic impact of Title IX on not only the University of Minnesota, but on the country as a whole.

“Title IX changed everything,” says Arendt, who completed a fellowship at the Medical School in 1985, and is also a professor and vice chair for the department of orthopedic surgery. “It allowed us to be who we wanted to be. Or at least it gave us the opportunity to try to be the full person that we wanted to be.”

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