In 1969, Bernice Resnick Sandler was a 41-year-old graduate student in education at the University of Maryland, where she was also a part-time lecturer.
But while some of her male colleagues in her doctoral program received job offers from colleges across the country without an interview, Sandler couldn’t even get an interview for a tenure-track position at her own institution, according to 37 Words: Title IX and Fifty Years of Sex Discrimination, a book by Sherry Boschert published earlier this year.
That experience lit a fire under Sandler, who led a campaign with the Women’s Equity Action League to collect data on gender discrimination at universities across the country and filed more than 250 complaints against colleges and universities with the Department of Labor. These efforts served as the beginning of an ultimately successful push to pass Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in any school or educational program receiving federal funding; Under the Biden administration, Title IX was interpreted to include protection of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Fifty years after the passage of the law, a new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society — Title IX: Activism On and Off the Field, on view through September 4 — explores the ongoing impact and limitations of Title IX and highlights the Central roles played by Sandler and other activists have both strengthened the law and challenged its limits.
“None of this was taken for granted, so certainly a large part of the transformative work that Title IX has done is due to the people who both conceived it and genuinely pushed for institutions to deliver on the promises of that law,” Allison said Robinson, a postdoctoral fellow at the museum’s Center for Women’s History and co-curator of the exhibition.
Combining personal stories and objects from activists, as well as objects from the museum’s collections, the exhibition examines Title IX’s five-decade journey through the five arenas in which it is debated and shaped: in Congress and in court, in college -Campus, in sports, in classrooms and in the future.
“The thematic approach really helps us to look at the broad scope of Title IX and the different areas where this work and action has taken place,” rather than just focusing on the more well-known impacts on sport and sexual harassment, Laura Mogulescu said. Co-curator of the exhibition and curator of the museum’s women’s history collections.
In court, activists and their opponents have clashed over the definition of “gender discrimination” and the limits of Title IX’s reach. One of the first cases in these struggles to be highlighted in the exhibition was Alexander v. Yale, the 1977 case which first argued that Title IX concerned sexual harassment in education. Accompanied by a male faculty member, five Yale undergraduate women — some of whom were interviewed by the curators for the exhibit, they said — served as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, alleging that they, or people they knew, were sexually harassed at Yale . They sought an institutional grievance mechanism to deal with sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination on campus — and while the judge dismissed the case, hundreds of colleges and universities across the country had established grievance mechanisms within five years.
Three years later Alexander, In 1980, Rollin Haffer, a varsity badminton player and student government attorney at Temple University, filed a class-action lawsuit against the school with eight classmates alleging sex discrimination in varsity sports against women, the exposition reports. The case was settled by Consent Decree in 1988, with Temple agreeing to improve sports funding and facilities for female athletes and a judge ruling that Title IX applies to all intercollegiate sports programs.
But three decades later, female athletes still face discrimination, according to a viral TikTok video from last year, which can be seen at the exhibition. Directed by Sedona Prince, a University of Oregon basketball player, the video shows a small weight rack used by the women’s team at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament to practice before swinging into an expansive weight room reserved for the men’s team. Subsequently, the NCAA commissioned an external review of gender equity for college basketball, which confirmed that there were “significant disparities” between the treatment of men’s and women’s teams at the championships.
The exhibition celebrates the advances women athletes have made both in their sport and in their culture over the years: competition outfits worn by tennis players and Grand Slam champions Chris Evert and Serena Williams sit alongside Newsweek covers Celebrating Mary Lou Retton, the first American woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal in gymnastics in 1984 and the US women’s soccer team’s victory at the 1999 Women’s World Cup.
But lingering differences, such as those uncovered in Prince’s TikTok, prove that “obviously there is still work to be done – and that Title IX has been an incredibly valuable tool, but it’s limited and doesn’t always meet the needs of students,” he said Mogulescu.
This includes transgender students, both of whom have applied for Title IX protection, and have faced conservative groups and politicians who have tried to argue that the law prevents trans women and girls from playing on women’s sports teams (the Obama administration announced in 2016 a guideline). Title IX protects students who are transgender (which the Trump administration later withdrew and the Biden administration reinstated last year). One such trans activist featured in the exhibit is Lindsay Hecox, a long-distance runner who attends Boise State University and is suing the state of Idaho over its 2020 Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, making it the first state with a law banning trans women from participating in women’s sports , according to the ACLU. Since then, 17 other states have passed laws banning transgender students from participating in sports that conform to their gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project.
While students have continued to wage struggles over the past decade to end and redefine gender and gender discrimination on college campuses, many “have been inspired by past activists of the past,” Mogulescu said. They borrowed a tactic: “Take Back the Night” marches, popular on college campuses since the early 1980s, aimed at raising awareness of sexual violence. The exhibit features more than two dozen flyers and photos from the marches over the past 30 years, showing their continued relevance even as many other aspects of college campus life have changed over time, Robinson said.
“The way people are introduced and brought together has changed over the past 50 years, particularly with the advent of social media, but … there’s this real continuity and centrality to bringing individuals together in a space to demand changes that were really strong and very long-lasting,” she said.
While activists trying to end gender and gender discrimination in education continue to build on and expand on the strategies and legacies of leaders from decades past, many are applying the same approach Sandler took in the ’70s: They use their personal experiences of discrimination as an impetus to advocate for broader change, Mogulescu said.
“It’s this really fascinating story of going from individual institutions to creating an advocacy movement to demand regulations with teeth,” she said.
“These safeguards weren’t set in stone from the start — they were created by activists,” she added.