Title IX was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1972. It reads, “No person in the United States shall, based on 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.”
That 35-word sentence changed the athletic landscape. It banned sex discrimination in education and allowed girls and young women access to sports, and other educational programs, that were previously available only to men.
Ironically, Title IX did not specifically address equality in sports. It sought to fight discrimination against women in federally funded academic settings. Eventually it grew to encompass athletics and helped bridge disparities beyond the classroom.
Title IX prompted an increase in the number of females participating in organized sports at all levels from grade school through college. It also established a clearer path for women to earn scholarships, continue involvement in professional, amateur and collegiate sports and gain access to executive positions
As the 20th century drew to a close, equal opportunities for women in sports gradually moved forward. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, in 2022, 50 years after the landmark Title IX legislation was passed, nearly 3.5 million high school girls were involved in a sport, nearly two of every five females. Prior to Title IX’s passage in 1972, there were less than 300,000 high school female sports participants, just one of every 27 women. In addition, more than 190,000 women were competing in intercollegiate sports—six times as many as in 1972.
According to Neena Chaudhry, general counsel and senior advisor for education at the National Women’s Law Center, research shows that in addition to physical health, girls who play sports are more likely to have higher levels of self-esteem, stronger collaborative skills, and greater academic achievement. But disparate access to athletics, through both community centers and the rising cost of youth sports, makes schools a key place to engage young girls of color in athletics.
Today, Title IX is best known for its legacy in growing athletic opportunities for women.
But just months after Title IX was signed into law, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v. Wade decision granting women the right to choice. Title IX and Roe v. Wade are fundamentally intertwined.
In 2021, nearly 500 female athletes, including soccer star Megan Rapinoe, WNBA veteran Sue Bird, Olympic gold medal swimmer Crissy Perham, and basketball standout Brittney Griner, submitted a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a woman’s right to choice. A major part of their argument was that the success of females in sports depends on having control over their own bodies.
It’s “a deeply-held belief that women’s athletics could not have reached its current level of participation and success without the constitutional rights recognized in Roe v. Wade,” the brief states, and “Without Roe’s constitutional protection of women’s bodily integrity and [decision-making] autonomy, women would not have been able to take advantage of Title IX and achieve the tremendous level of athletic participation and success that they enjoy today.”
Their message was clear. No woman can enjoy the rights provided by Title IX without the ability to make their own choices about their own bodies. But the road to equality has been a long and arduous process. Listed here are some of those landmark moments.
Evolution of women’s sports
1963 – Congress passes the Equal Pay Act after lobbying from Eleanor Roosevelt and the Commission on the Status of Women. They also urge federal courts that “the principle of equality become firmly established in constitutional doctrine.”
1964 – The Civil Rights Act bans sexual discrimination by employers and creates the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
1964 – Hawaii’s Patsy Mink is the first woman of color elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She later co-authors Title IX, the Early Childhood Education Act and the Women’s Educational Equality Act.
1966 – The National Organization for Women is established and addresses the need for women to have “full participation in the mainstream of American society … in equal partnership with men.”
1971 – The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) is founded as a governing board for collegiate women’s sports.
1972 – Congress passes Title IX and it’s signed into law by President Richard Nixon.
1973 – The Supreme Court decides in the landmark decision Roe v. Wade that the states do not have an unfettered right to curtail abortion, effectively protecting women’s right to choose.
1973 – Women’s tennis star Billie Jean King soundly defeats Bobby Riggs in the “The Battle of the Sexes” tennis match.
1974 – The Women’s Educational Equity Act provides financial assistance to institutions struggling to meet Title IX requirements.
1975 – President Gerald Ford recognizes the need for gender equality in sports and signs Title IX athletics regulations. He states “it was the intent of Congress under any reason of interpretation to include athletics.” Athletic departments have up to three years to implement the rules.
1976 – The NCAA files a lawsuit challenging the athletic components of Title IX. It is dismissed two years later.
1979 – UCLA basketball star Ann Meyers signs with the Indiana Pacers becoming the first woman to sign an NBA contract.
1982 – In the first NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game, Louisiana Tech defeats Cheyney State.
1984 – The U.S. wins its first Olympic gold medal in women’s basketball.
1985 – Tara VanDerveer becomes Stanford Women’s Basketball head coach. She has led the Cardinal to three NCAA titles and is the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history. She also is a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
1988 – Congress overrides President Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act, making it mandatory that Title IX apply to any school that receives federal money.
1997 – The Women’s National Basketball Association begins play.
1999 – Brandi Chastain boots a dramatic penalty kick to give the U.S. a win over China in the World Cup final.
2001 – Jacksonville State kicker Ashley Martin becomes the first woman to play and score in a Division I football game.
2014 – The NBA San Antonio Spurs hire Becky Hammon to be the first female full-time assistant coach in any of America’s major professional sports.
2021 – A legal report from New York law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP criticizes the NCAA for prioritizing its Division I men’s basketball tournament over women’s championship events.
2022 – The U.S. Soccer Federation agrees to pay its men’s and women’s national teams equally, becoming the first governing body to promise matching funds for both sexes.
2022 – The Supreme Court overturns 50 years of precedent set by Roe v. Wade in the Dobbs decision.
Brandi Chastain, a San Jose native, provided one of the defining moments in the annals of women’s sports. She earned two Olympic gold medals as a USA soccer player and competed on two FIFA Women’s World Cup championship teams. In the 1999 FIFA World Cup final against China, Chastain drilled home the winning penalty shootout goal then dramatically dropped to her knees and pulled off her jersey.
The resulting Sports Illustrated cover photo of Chastain kneeling on the field in a sports bra with her arms raised in joyful victory became an iconic image. It highlighted a transcendent moment that resonated with both women and men, and captured the attention of Americans and citizens abroad. It showcased a female athlete for the first time globally in the same manner as men: exhausted and victorious on a global stage.
In the leadup to the game, ABC television commentator Robin Roberts tried to describe the electricity that surged through the 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl that day, an event that broke attendance and television records for women’s sports.
“What we are seeing clearly transcends sports,” Roberts said. “This is a moment in American culture … embracing women athletes in this magnitude. And the athletes themselves realize they are part of something special.” However, as images of the moment circled the globe the act of disrobing became an instant flashpoint. Men removing their shirts on soccer pitches was an expression of power and celebration. But a woman? Many saw the identical gesture as provocative and unbecoming.
Chastain embraced being a role model for women and girls around the world. In 2005 she and teammate Julie Foudy co-founded the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative which, among many other initiatives, provides free after school fitness and confidence building programs for young girls, primarily those living or going to school in under-resourced communities. Over 20,000 girls have been served to date. After retiring from soccer in 2010 she focused on coaching and developing young players.
Amy Trask was appointed by Raiders owner Al Davis in 1997 as one the NFL’s first female CEO’s. She began her tenure with the Raiders in 1983 as an intern in the club’s legal department and moved through the front office ranks before serving as the Raiders CEO for 15 years until 2013.
Most recently, in July 2022, Mark Davis, the son of Al Davis and now the controlling owner and managing general partner of the Las Vegas Raiders, hired Sandra Douglass Morgan to be the club’s new president. Morgan is the first Black woman to be hired as an NFL franchise’s president. Prior to taking command of the Raiders, Morgan, a Las Vegas attorney, served as chairwoman and executive director of the Nevada Gaming Control Board.
Davis’s hiring of Morgan was met with approval in Las Vegas and sparked excitement among Raiders players and coaches.
“It’s incredible,” defensive end Maxx Crosby said. “First off, just breaking barriers. Mark (Davis) has done an incredible job and it started with his father. You know, just being transparent and giving everyone an equal opportunity. She’s honestly the best for the job and it’s going to be awesome, we’re excited for the future.”
Mark Davis, continues to support equal employment opportunities for women in other venues. In 2021 he purchased the Las Vegas Aces of the WNBA and installed several Bay Area women to leadership positions. Among them are Jennifer Azzi, a former basketball star at Stanford, the University of San Francisco Women’s Basketball head coach, and now the Aces’ director of business development.
Davis also hired coach Becky Hammon to a league-record salary of over $1 million. Nikki Fargas, the former head basketball coach at LSU is the Aces’ team president.
Katie Sowers, a 49ers assistant from 2017-2020, was the NFL’s second full-time woman coach, and first openly gay coach. She began her professional career in 2016 as an intern with the Atlanta Falcons working with receivers under offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. A year later Shanahan was named head coach of the 49ers and Sowers was awarded a spot on the staff as part of the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship.
“I credit Kyle a lot, “Sowers said. “He’s not the type of guy that’s gonna just hire people just to hire people. He wants quality people regardless of their gender, their race. And so, you know, I was blessed to kind of be in that category of people for him.”
After working as a seasonal offensive assistant for two years she was hired as a full-time 49ers offensive assistant in 2019. San Francisco won the NFC championship that season and advanced to Super Bowl LIV where Sowers established herself as the first woman to coach in a Super Bowl. Those experiences provide her with a unique perspective to observe the difficulty of women breaking into the upper ranks of the sporting world.
“I think that all too often we as women sometimes feel as though there is one seat at the table and we’re all fighting for that seat,” Sowers said. “There should really be room for everyone and we should be pulling up chairs.”
After the 2020 NFL campaign Sowers joined the staff of her twin sister Liz, who is the head coach of the Ottawa University (Kansas) women’s flag football team. After Ottawa won the first ever national championship for women, Sowers decided to remain on the staff and also will teach a college-level class on the methods of coaching football. For Sowers it’s all about the journey.
“Sometimes our dreams, they change, and they evolve with the way the world progresses,” Sowers said. “And for me, that evolution came with an opportunity to actually have more of a voice, more of a presence in the game of football…I felt like this was the path that was meant for me.”
Sowers admits there’s a long winding path ahead for women interested in sports
management careers or coaching but the 49ers are one NFL franchise that is helping pave the way.
“The game of football is evolving and it’s becoming more available for more people,” Sowers said.” Even though we do have a long way to go, you know, in terms of the unconscious and conscious bias that still exists in hiring and all of that. But, it’s really cool to see the steps that are being taken.”
Alyssa Nakken broke new ground in 2020 after being hired by the San Francisco Giants as the first full-time female coach in Major League Baseball. The former Sacramento State softball star and University of San Francisco student posted another MLB milestone on April 12, 2022 when she took the field as the Giants first base coach in a game with the San Diego Padres. She became the first woman to appear as an on-field coach in an MLB regular season game.
“I think people are able to see, not just women, but young men, men, young girls, women, everybody can just see that there are a lot of opportunities in baseball,” Nakken said in a post-game interview. “Not just in baseball. I think that sometimes we limit ourselves to thinking what we could do — at least that’s my experience. I never thought that I could do something like this.”
Before Nakken joined the Giants’ coaching staff, she worked in the baseball operations department, aiding with the team’s health and wellness programs. She also served in several front office roles after earning a master’s degree in sports management from USF.
For more information: