A federal law that fundamentally changed modern society turns 50 years old on Thursday. Title IX. One singular sentence, 37 words total.
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
The Star Tribune sports staff has spent the past few months chronicling the impact of that landmark legislation, the struggles of female athletes finding acceptance as equals and the comprehensive and far-reaching ways that sports opportunities for girls and women have changed since President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law on June 23, 1972.
The irony is that there is no mention of the word “sports” in those 37 words. That piece wasn’t at the forefront of thought for the man who co-authored the bill and introduced it to Congress, the man who became known as the “Father of Title IX” — late Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh.
Bayh was an avid runner and the son of a college basketball coach, but his principal mission in championing Title IX was education, not athletics, according to his widow.
“Because Birch had the presence of mind to put in that all-inclusive ‘or activity’ it made it, as somebody said, the Magna Carta of women’s education,” Katherine Bayh said.
Bayh died in 2019 at age 91. Katherine said her husband never lost his passion for women’s rights or his resolve in defending Title IX against those who sought to weaken it by arguing that men’s sports suffer by providing more resources to women. Of his Title IX legacy, his wife says that it “laid the foundation for a revolution in the lives of American women.”
In a recent phone conversation from her home near Washington, D.C., Katherine said her husband read the Washington Post every morning and took delight every time he saw a story about women above the fold in the sports section.
“But even more poignantly,” Katherine said, “when he would jog, he would always come home and talk about how the ball fields that he would pass were filled with girls playing and what pleasure he got from that.”
In his memoirs, Bayh wrote that his conviction for gender equality took root as a child. His father, Birch Sr., had transitioned from coaching to superintendent of health and physical education in Indiana and then later Washington, D.C.
In 1940, when Birch was 12, his father testified before Congress on the importance of physical activity for girls. The young Bayh recalled having a conversation with his dad at the breakfast table that morning.
“He said, ‘I’m going to tell them that girls need strong bodies to carry their minds around just like boys,'” Bayh wrote.
Another lesson came from Bayh’s first wife, Marvella, who died of cancer in 1979. Marvella was denied admission to the University of Virginia out of high school because, her rejection letter said, “Women need not apply.”
“Birch’s success as a legislator and advocate for women is because he was a good listener,” said Katherine, who married Bayh in 1981. “He listened and really dug into the inequalities of women in education.”
He remained steadfast even after leaving politics. When George W. Bush’s administration sought changes to Title IX, Bayh took breaks from his law practice to spend many days at the White House meeting with the president’s staff on the importance of keeping the law intact.
Bayh wrote an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case on behalf of a girls’ high school basketball coach in Alabama who filed suit alleging that he was fired because he had complained about being denied equal treatment for his team in violation of Title IX. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the coach.
And whenever a young person e-mailed Bayh while doing research for a school paper on Title IX, Bayh was happy to respond and lend his expertise.
“We see the benefits of Title IX on our flatscreens” when watching sports, Katherine said. “He also took pleasure in knowing that the visual benefits of Title IX are in the classrooms, in the graduate schools, in the boardrooms, science labs, airplane cockpits, military affairs. The benefits are visible everywhere.”
The impact of Title IX is almost immeasurable. The father of that powerful law isn’t alive to celebrate its 50th birthday, but Birch Bayh’s legacy lives in the opportunities that girls and women have within their grasp.
“He really was an amazing man,” Katherine Bayh said as we concluded our phone conversation.