Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Backlash Journalism at its finest...I mean worst

Today was one of those days where I felt like I needed a book of inspirational quotes just to get up off the couch, but I've finally gathered enough steam to write in repsone to John Tierney's New York Times column, "Let the Guys Win One." [TimesSelect subscription required] His opinion piece speaking out against "the myth of" Title IX is a textbook example of specious logic used to promote backlash journalism. His oversimplified, sexist analysis is not only insulting to men and dismissive of women; Tierney also ignores the big picture of all that Title IX has accomplished.

Yes, I think it's time to revive the Backlash argument, that American women are still getting picked on by the media, 15 years after Susan Faludi's famous book. As I blogged about last month, I recently started rereading Faludi's work when Newsweek revisited and recanted its own so-called "Marriage Crunch" trend of 1986.

John Tierney's column was based on the premise that women are now doing better in college than men, so women don't need the incentive, coaching and involvement of team sports as much as men do. From that flawed premise, Tierney concludes that the effects of Title IX that limit the expansion of men's programs out of proportion of women's programs are unfair. He claims that he is not suggesting that sports are a panacea for male education problems, even though the rest of the column does just that. (Strangely though, he doesn't spell out exactly what he hopes will become of Title IX itself--modification? Eradication? It's unclear to me.)

Mr. Tierney seems to have an awfully poor memory for a columnist with such an esteemed position. His bio says he was born in 1953 and graduated from Yale. So he probably entered Yale around 1971, two years after Yale became coeducational (268 years into its 305 year history), and right before Title IX was enacted in 1972. Title IX is usually associated with women's athletics in college, but it's worth remembering that the act's overarching effect was as a civil rights law that prohibited sex discrimination in federally funded education programs.

It is difficult for today's college students to imagine a time when married women were denied college admission; most medical and law schools limited the number of women admitted to 15 or fewer per school; women living on campus were not allowed to stay out past midnight; college athletic scholarships for women were rare to nonexistent; and women faculty members were excluded from faculty clubs and encourage to join faculty wives' clubs instead. (See the Women's Equity Resource Center and "Title IX: 25 Years of Progress" by the US Department of Education.)

And back to sports participation--today we take it for granted that girls can play too. In 1971, before Title IX, fewer than 300,000 high school girls played interscholastic sports. Today that number is 2.4 million. (Title IX: 25 Years of Progress) These programs feed not only into college athletics, but Olympic programs and the rise in women's professional sports.

To get a more personal perspecitve on this, I talked to my own Mom, Ann Bohner, about this issue. She was fortunate to have the opportunity to play many sports in high school, but there were no intercollegiate women's teams offered at Grinnell College in those pre-Title IX days. She would have been interested in joining several teams, field hockey, swimming, track and tennis, if they had been offered to her. She may have even been talented enough to win an athletic scholarship. We'll never know. I can report that at age 64 she still plays a solid, competitive game of tennis. Here's her perspective:

"When I attended college in the early 1960s, there were no organized sports for women at my college and I was not aware of any programs in any college anywhere. It was generally believed that women weren't interested in participating in sports, that women were too 'fragile,' and sports were 'unfeminine.' Thank goodness these myths have been exploded and Title Nine forced colleges to come to grips with their unfair treatment of women. Since Title IX was passed, women have been enjoying the many benefits of organized sports in college - including increased strength and endurance, the satisfaction of acquiring a new skill, learning the importance of teamwork, and earning sports scholarships which had previously gone only to men. Let's keep up these opportunities for our young women and not go back to the 1960s with its rampant discrimination."

I can't predict which elements of Title IX's protection would erode if the statute was weakened now, and I hope we never do that dangerous experiement. Just because a law has worked doesn't mean we no longer need it. What John Tierney calls "special federal protection" I call "equal protection." While the law's precise implementation may need tweaking in ways I am not prepared to analyze, let's not forget the important strides women have made in a single generation under Title IX's civil rights protection. Thanks to Title IX, women of my generation have the luxury of assuming our place on the field, our opportunity to compete for athletic scholarships, the experience of team-building, and the accolades of success.

We are fools if we think that the potential for gender discrimination has magically evaporated. In this day and age I believe that each of us needs all the civil rights protections we can get. We forget the lessons of the pre-Title IX days at our own peril.

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