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50 Years After Title IX, the Struggle for Gender Equity Continues—in Sports and Beyond

The landmark equality law must be protected—and its reach expanded—to build a stronger, more inclusive legacy for the next generation.

This summer we celebrate 50 years of Title IX—a game-changer for women and girls in sports. Before this crucial federal protection, girls made up only 7% of high school athletes. With virtually no sports scholarships available to women, female college athletes taped together uniforms. And they faced blatant discrimination, on the court and off. Indeed, 60 years ago, a young girl playing her first tournament at the Los Angeles Tennis Club was forced to step out of a group photo—because she was wearing shorts, not a skirt.

When she arrived at college, she noticed many male athletes received athletic scholarships, but there was no financial assistance for female tennis players. Nationwide, female athletes received 2% of college athletic budgets.

To make ends meet, she had two jobs—one as an elementary school playground director and another handing out equipment in the locker room—despite being one of the best tennis players in the nation.

Even when she won the U.S. Open, she was still paid less than the male champion—joining eight other women tennis players to sign a $1 contract in protest.

That young girl was me, Billie Jean. Moments like that inspired me to lobby for Title IX and establish the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation, which defends women’s and girls’ access to sports to this day.

King faced blatant discrimination during her tennis career, both as a young girl and at the pro level.

Title IX changed the landscape of sports forever by prohibiting sex-based discrimination in any educational activity receiving federal funding. Pre–Title IX, nearly 300,000 girls and 30,000 women played high school and college sports; today, participation has jumped to more than 3.4 million girls and 215,000 women.

Yet the struggle for gender equity—in sports and beyond—continues. Today, women and girls not only have fewer sports opportunities than boys and men, but also high school girls have fewer sports opportunities than boys had in 1972. Since the passage of Title IX, the proportion of female coaches has plummeted. Women constitute half of the student body of NCAA Division I schools, but their teams and programs receive just a third of athletic and recruiting budgets.

Furthermore, transgender athletes now face a widespread attack on their rights to play and compete. We’ve watched with horror as anti-trans-athlete legislation sweeps the nation. While we can and should have a respectful dialogue regarding evidence-based research and the appropriate standards for elite competition, banning transgender athletes altogether is not the answer.

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Walker currently serves as the 10th president of the Ford Foundation.

As the founder of the Women’s Sports Foundation and the president of the Ford Foundation, we are both committed to strengthening Title IX and extending its protections to all. We were encouraged last year, when the U.S. Department of Education confirmed that Title IX shields all students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In other words, sports equality without LGBTQ inclusion is not equality at all. Discrimination against cisgender women and girls in sports and discrimination against transgender athletes both stem from the very same, unjust place: a rigid, exclusionary notion of femininity. The sooner we dispose of these notions and welcome all athletes into the game, the better. Because when we push for equality in sports, we open the door to diversity and inclusion across fields, and in the very fabric of our society.

Decades of research shows girls who play sports earn better grades, see more success in male-dominated fields and lead healthier lives. These benefits remain, even when they leave their sport—92% of female C-suite level executives are former athletes, and half played sports at the collegiate level.

For trans athletes, who already contend with higher rates of depression or suicide, sports can be a powerful lifeline. LGBTQ athletes report lower rates of depression, and transgender students in states with inclusive athletic policies are 14% less likely to consider suicide.

We must continue working not only to level the playing field, but also to evolve the game. Alongside the National Women’s Law Center and the Women’s Sports Foundation, the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative is leading the Demand IX initiative—so Title IX protections are enforced and expanded. The Women’s Sports Foundation, through its most recent report, 50 Years of Title IX: We’re Not Done Yet, is also urging policy changes that will help to realize the full potential of the law, including girls of color and disabled girls, broadening anti-discrimination protection for all athletes.

And at the Ford Foundation, we know that philanthropy can be a powerful tool against inequality—so we are developing strategies to offer long-lasting and significant financial support to transgender communities. In June, we joined the Trans Futures Funding Campaign Pledge to defend against bans on sports participation and gender-affirming health care.

Our history shows—and our present affirms—that we can never take anyone’s fundamental rights for granted. Only through sustained action will we, together, build a stronger, more inclusive legacy for the next generation of athletes. 

More Title IX 50th Anniversary Coverage:

The Title IX Torch Carriers
• 50 Years of Title IX: How One Law Changed Women’s Sports Forever
These Women Are Setting a New Standard for College Athletes
Title IX Timeline: The Defining Moments of Women’s Sports