Vassar Today

Title IX Turns 40

By Peter Bronski

Four decades after the passage of the landmark legislation, Vassar athletics director Sharon Beverly talks about the successes and growing pains that followed.

Title IX turns 40 this year. Enacted by Congress in June 1972, the legislation included a scant 37 words that would forever alter the landscape of education, and especially the balance of opportunities and resources available to women: that no individual would face discrimination or exclusion, on the basis of gender, from educational programs or activities receiving federal financial aid. Nowhere was this felt more than in athletics.

Sharon Beverly, Vassar’s director of athletics and physical education, knows that impact well. A self-described “Title IX baby,” the talented basketball player enrolled in college in 1975, the same year Title IX took effect. Today, she’s one of the few female—and even fewer African American female—athletic directors.

“When Title IX was enacted, that’s back in the dark ages,” she recalls. “A high school program would have the full gamut of offerings for their boys’ teams—basketball, baseball, soccer—five or more sports, say. But on the girls’ side, they might have cheerleading, and possibly basketball or volleyball.” At Christ the King Regional High School in Queens, New York, she was somewhat insulated from such gender disparity, thanks to parallel boys’ and girls’ schools that fostered equality.

At Queens College, though, it was a different story. “Once I got to college, that’s where I really got to see the differences,” she says. “You might see the boys get into chartered buses, and we might be in a school bus.” Even so, it wasn’t as bad as at other colleges and universities across the country. “I think that had to do with the women [administrators and coaches] who were in place; they were very strong, very vocal. They were the ones who were pushing for Title IX.”

“Once Title IX went into play and schools were really being held accountable for how they divvied up their funds, you saw more opportunities for women,” says Beverly.

She went on to play basketball professionally, both at home and abroad, long before the WNBA—the most prominent professional women’s sports league in the country—came into existence. Next followed a series of coaching jobs in women’s collegiate basketball programs before joining Vassar in 2002.

At Vassar, Title IX introduced an added layer that meshed well with the college’s history of commitment to higher education—and athletics—for women. Founder Matthew Vassar charged his college with providing not just for a “most perfect education” of mind and heart, but also of body. In 1867, he wrote to his Board of Trustees: “While we are expending so liberally for the mind, I would urge that some useful additional arrangements should be made for the well-being of the body.” Hence, Main Building’s halls were built extra wide to allow for indoor exercise. Among American colleges, Vassar boasted the first gymnasium at a women’s college, one of the first departments of physical education for women at an American college, the first women’s field day, the first women’s baseball and field hockey teams, and one of the first women’s tennis programs.

Thus at Vassar, Title IX—traditionally focused on addressing inequalities faced by women—was flipped on its head. “For us, it’s really important that we’re providing equitable opportunities for both sexes, not only our female students athletes, but also our men,” says Beverly.

Of late, however, Title IX has presented unexpected challenges. Consider competition for coaching positions. As Title IX has expanded opportunities for women athletes, it has actually increased the competition for positions in sports leadership. Beverly explains: “One offshoot of Title IX is that when we started to have equity for women, and the salaries were no longer very small amounts of money and real salaries were in place, and those salaries began to mirror those of men’s sports, all of a sudden, men thought maybe that’s not such a bad job.”

Women’s participation in collegiate athletics has increased six-fold since the passage of Title IX; however, a recent National Public Radio report (which quoted Beverly and other experts) noted that in 2012, 57 percent of collegiate women’s sports teams in America were coached by men, and only 20 percent of the nation’s athletic directors were women.

Beverly says maintaining a place for female role models—as coaches, as well as in academia and the workplace—remains critically important. “That’s where our work is glaringly in need—to really make sure that we maintain opportunities for women to lead, and have our young women see women in leadership positions,” Beverly says. “[Young women] need to continue to understand that this is an opportunity for them. And yes, they can do this.”