Title IX Turns 50

Decades after the landmark statute prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex was first enacted, affiliates say the work toward true gender equity remains unfinished.
By James R. Jolin and Mayesha R. Soshi

By Camille G. Caldera

When Ruth M. Moscovitch ’69 began her undergraduate studies at Radcliffe College, she was promised a Harvard education, but not the same experience as her male peers.

Standing as the counterpart of Harvard College, Radcliffe enabled female students to receive a prestigious education in the 1950s and 1960s, but excluded them from Harvard’s residential houses, libraries, and athletic centers. Radcliffe women also had to make the lengthy trek between the Radcliffe Quadrangle, also known as the “Quad,” and the Yard to attend classes.

“We were admitted to Radcliffe under the terms that then existed, which was [to] give women a Harvard education, but not make them equal recipients of all that Harvard had to offer,” Moscovitch said. “That was never part of the package.”

The student divide started to narrow in March 1969, when the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — began a merging process to end nearly a century of separation between the two colleges.

Still, many inequities persisted for decades, and the two colleges were not completely integrated until 1999, according to the College’s website.

A milestone piece of legislation signed into law in June 1972 by then-President Richard Nixon, Title IX began the process of bridging the gap between male and female students at Harvard and other higher education institutions.

“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 statute reads.

These 37 words transformed higher education over the past 50 years, paving the way for female athletics, sexual harrassment policies, and much more. Despite this progress, however, alumni, legal scholars, and activists alike agree the work surrounding gender equity remains unfinished.

‘It Was Very Amateur’

“No one ever even dreamed” that female athletes — even high-performing, three-sport high school varsity athletes like Eleanor T. Hobbs ’69 — could be recruited or succeed in collegiate sports.

Despite her achievements in sports, Hobbs said her athletic endeavors never arose in her Radcliffe admission interview.

“It was only the academic part that counted,” Hobbs said.

According to Hobbs, “there really wasn’t much in the way of sports” at Radcliffe College, where informal intramural athletic programs were the only option for female athletes.

“It was very amateur,” Hobbs said. “​​It was like, well, we’re going to play with Wellesley on Thursday, if we can get enough people to come to the game to play.”

“There were no financial arrangements for athletes at all,” she added. “It was all done for the love of sport.”

Women meet in the midst of the Harvard-Radcliffe merger.
Women meet in the midst of the Harvard-Radcliffe merger. By Courtesy of The Harvard Crimson Archives

Despite making no explicit reference to athletics, Title IX laid the foundation for gender equality in college sports, according to Harvard Law School professor Janet Halley.

“When I was a kid, the idea of a woman athlete — what?” she said, reflecting the incredulity of the idea pre-Title IX. “And now, women athletes are all over the place, so that’s a vast change.”

By 2021, the number of female collegiate athletes had increased by nearly 170,000 since the enactment of Title IX in 1972.

In an email, Harvard Athletics Director Erin McDermott lauded the “significant increase in the opportunities for girls and women in sports, both on our campus and nationally.”

For law professor and HLS masters student Dionne L. Koller, the “incredibly effective” impact of Title IX also stems from the normalization of female athletes.

“We definitely have sort of normalized that,” Koller said of female athletics. “We don’t sort of look askance — question whether it’s going to harm women’s fertility, whether girls don’t belong playing sports.”

Despite Title IX’s success, Koller said she cautions against losing sight of “persistent inequities” in athletics, including disproportionate male participation rates and the cutting of women’s athletic programs.

Koller described Title IX as “single access,” meaning it only mandates sex equality, without considering an “intersectional approach” that takes racial disparities into account.

“We need to celebrate where we’ve come, but we need to take stock of the things we need to do,” she added.

‘A Lot More to Title IX’

While Title IX and discrimination attorney Naomi R. Shatz recognizes the significance of Title IX to female athletics, she added “there is a lot more to Title IX.”

Shatz noted the growing awareness of the statute’s prohibition of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and discrimination against pregnant persons.

“If I were to ask folks, probably 10 years ago, when I was practicing law, what do you think of when you speak to Title IX, they would say athletics,” Title IX Coordinator Nicole M. Merhill said. “Now, when I ask about Title IX, people speak of the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

According to Merhill, between 2013 and 2019, the number of disclosures reported to the Title IX Office more than doubled, which she attributes to Harvard’s separation of its Title IX Office and Office of Dispute Resolution in 2017. In 2018 alone, the Title IX Office saw a 56 percent increase in sexual and gender-based harassment disclosures in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

“It’s not an increase in the number of incidents happening,” Merhill said. “It’s an increase in the number of people who feel empowered to share their concerns and seek out resources.”

Still, Merhill said she believes Title IX has a long road ahead despite the strides it has made in the past several years.

“Have we made progress within Harvard and beyond? Certainly. Is there a long way to go? Absolutely. Is Harvard committed to this area of work? Without a doubt,” she added.

Harvard’s Reforms

Harvard has made an array of Title IX reforms in recent years, but many students on campus remain skeptical of the school’s support for survivors of sexual misconduct.

Our Harvard Can Do Better — a student activist group working to end sexual violence at Harvard — has said Harvard has not done enough for its students historically.

“I don’t think that the school has this robust history of trying to make Title IX policies the best they can be for keeping our community safe,” said William M. Sutton ’23, an organizer with Our Harvard Can Do Better.

Two undergraduates — at least one of whom was a member of Our Harvard Can Do Better — filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in March 2014 that led the agency to open an investigation into the College’s sexual misconduct policies and procedures.

In 2014, as the investigation was ongoing, Harvard overhauled its Title IX policies to establish a central office to handle cases of sexual assault and harassment and enacted a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which generally requires more than 50 percent certainty to determine guilt.

The new set of policies remained a contentious issue on campus, with undergraduates calling for increased clarity and transparency. Three months after the overhaul, a group of 28 faculty members at Harvard Law School published an open letter in The Boston Globe criticizing the new policies for being “stacked against the accused.”

In 2017, Harvard reformed its Title IX Office by breaking it into two distinct units: one that investigates sexual misconduct complaints — the Office for Dispute Resolution — and another to provide Title IX support, training, and resources, the Title IX office.

In March 2021, the office underwent another major change when it merged with the Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response to form the current Office of Gender Equity.

According to Merhill, the merger was initiated to “create a single space to streamline access to resources, to better communicate about the resources available, and expand on prevention and education efforts.”

Some students questioned the new office’s ability to provide a safe and welcoming environment for survivors.

“It’s very important that we separate survivors’ support from the processes that make determinations,” said Harvard Graduate Student Union-United Automobile Workers President Koby D. Ljunggren. “Ensuring that those folks feel safe to go to a survivor-centered location on campus — that not only requires spatial separation, but also institutional separation.”

In March 2021, the Title IX Office merged with the Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and
Response to form the current Office of Gender Equity.
In March 2021, the Title IX Office merged with the Office for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response to form the current Office of Gender Equity. By Angela Dela Cruz

The OGE is not involved in conducting or resolving investigations, which are the responsibilities of the ODR. Within the OGE, counselors are confidential and do not share information they receive with the rest of the office staff.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment.

Title IX’s Future in the Biden Era

In March 2021, President Joe Biden announced that his administration would begin an expansive review of all policies on gender discrimination and reverse many controversial Trump-era rules related to sexual misconduct.

In 2020, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released a Title IX rule — now expected to change under the Biden administration — that altered the definition of sexual misconduct to “unwelcome conduct that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” The rule also stipulated that for a complaint to be addressed, the incident must have taken place on campus, or in a location or event over which the institution has “substantial control.”

Some activists, including sexual violence prevention non-profit executive Tracey E. Vitchers, view an update to Title IX federal regulations as an opportunity to reduce the heavy “clear and convincing” evidentiary standard which Trump-era regulations allowed universities to adopt when investigating sexual misconduct.

According to Vitchers, the current evidentiary standards are both out of line with those of other forms of misconduct and reflect the notion that women cannot be trusted to report sexual violence honestly.

But other legal experts worry that the Biden administration will remove some Trump-era regulations that provided individuals with greater protections under sexual harrassment allegations.

“I am very concerned that the Biden Administration may revoke Trump-era rules that provided greater due process protections to those accused of sexual harassment,” HLS professor Elizabeth Bartholet wrote in an emailed statement.

“We need rules that provide fairness both to those charging sexual harassment and those accused of it, and in this connection, the Trump Administration made a major improvement,” she wrote.

Merhill declined to forecast any upcoming changes, but stated that she remains committed to addressing more than the minimum requirements of any new regulations.

“Regardless of what comes out of the regulation, we will ensure that we comply with the regulation,” Merhill said. “I, individually and collectively as the Director of the Office for Gender Equity, am committed to go well beyond the minimum requirements of the Title IX regulation.”

“My hope is that we’ll continue our emphasis on, focus on, effecting change within our culture and climate here at Harvard,” she added. “A proactive approach to truly dedicating our efforts to improving culture and climate for all community members.”

—Staff writer James R. Jolin can be reached at james.jolin@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Mayesha R. Soshi can be reached at mayesha.soshi@thecrimson.com.

Gender and SexualityTitle IX