Ash O’Connor started playing girls badminton during her senior year at Downers Grove South High School. That was the best decision she’s made, she said, because she’s able to do something she loves as she is. But the opportunity wasn’t granted without sacrifices.

In order to qualify to play for the girls team, O’Connor was required to submit extensive documentation, including doctor’s notes, parental consent and personal medical information about whether or not she received hormone treatments and sexual reassignment surgery. As a transgender woman, Ash is allowed to participate in girl’s and women’s sports leagues under Title IX as long as she adheres to this protocol.

“There’s always going to be people that have biological advantages. Look at Michael Phelps, he has a wider wingspan, super big hands and feet, larger lung capacity. He wasn’t taken out of the sport because he was too good or anything,” O’Connor said.

A packed house at Northwestern University’s panel on the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Credit: Annabelle Dowd

O’Connor shared her story in a special report co-produced by Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and WTTW’s Amanda Vinicky that was presented during the Title IX 50th Anniversary Conference on Northwestern’s campus Friday.

Passed in 1972, Title IX allowed girls and women to play sports in schools that received federal funding, granting them protections from gender-based discrimination. The law has evolved to protect survivors of sexual assault, and now, transgender athletes who face discrimination from laws that restrict their ability to participate in school events and culture, like athletics. 

Each panel at Friday’s conference evaluated the expansion of the law since its 1972 passing. Participants shared personal stories and academic research that demonstrate the dynamic application of Title IX.

The morning began with emotional testimony from panelists who praised sexual assault survivors for coming forward while seeking justice. The panel, which focused on Title IX’s evolution, included journalist Sherry Boschert, Wayne State University Professor Nancy Cantalupo and Allison Robinson of the New York Historical Society. All three attributed this era of Title IX expansion to increased communication made possible by social media.

“I cannot overemphasize the power of social media to create change,” Robinson said.

Title IX’s role in the sex lives of students

In the 50 years since Title IX’s passing, students often prevail upon the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to use the law to extend protections. Such action resulted in the use of Title IX to allow schools to intervene in cases of sexual assault.

Washington University law professor Susan Appleton grappled with student culture and pervasive sexual assault on campus. Appleton said Title IX can be extended to promote sexual wellness and education at schools, where students come from diverse backgrounds and varying levels of sexual education. 

While Title IX has greatly increased the opportunities for many female athletes, panelist Kate Lockwood Harris, author of Beyond the Rapist: Title IX and Sexual Violence on US Campuses, shared that many students of color and LGBTQIA+ students that she’s spoken with during her research believe the onus falls on them to hold their cis, white male peers accountable.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 23% of transgender, genderqueer and nonconforming college students have been sexually assaulted. A RAINN study also says 13% of all undergraduate and graduate students have been sexually assaulted or raped through physical force or violence.

“In some ways that the work of reporting is layering on top of already existing inequities on campuses,” Harris said, suggesting Title IX should be viewed intersectionally, and linked with other efforts to combat violence with anti-racist and pro-LGBTQ groups on campus. “It’s gonna be really crucial in terms of interventions that are super effective, especially given that we know that reports aren’t happening.”

Giana Levy, a Northwestern graduate student, said she enjoyed hearing about how far Title IX has come, and felt comforted by the panelists demonstrated compassion for people’s well-being.

“People actually really care and are taking into consideration how society is evolving,” Levy said. “And that does mean when society evolves, you have to involve laws to be able to include everyone.”

A notable absence of a panel addressing the rights of transgender student athletes was addressed by conference organizer and Medill Associate Prof. Caryn Ward, who explained the attempt to coordinate a panel was impossible due to reluctant participants who wanted to stay away from the controversy that often accompanies public discussion of the subject.

A generational gap was present in the perspective on Title IX’s role in gender equality. Whereas older beneficiaries, like sports commentator Christine Brennan, believe the law granted them the opportunity to play sports, she also holds concerns over trans women athlete’s perceived advantages. 

80% of Fortune 500 female execs played sports

After lunch, the mood turned triumphant in Northwestern’s Kellogg Hall, where the brightly lit double classroom featured Northwestern alumni who now hold high-level professions.

“If it wasn’t for Title IX, I would not have had the opportunity to get a college scholarship to go to Hampton [University], which then opened up all of these doors,” Aminah Charles said, crediting her time as a volleyball player with providing her with essential skills to her current role as the Head of North American Sports Marketing for Beats By Dre.

“Another athlete skill I’ve gained is having confidence,” Charles said. “Learning how to turn ‘no’s’ into ‘yes’s’, and really perseverance.”

Other panelists agreed about the transferability of skills that athletes have to strong business acumen. Moderator Danielle Bell referenced a study referenced a study by ESPN and Ernst & Young that found 80% of female Fortune 500 executives played sports at some time in their life, and 61% of those respondents believe playing sports contributed positively to the advancement of their careers. 

Tamara Bohlig, a business woman with a 10-line paragraph of titles and accomplishments, says she developed her ability to communicate and collaborate in sports, and it’s critical to her work now.

“I can tell you about a team: if they don’t communicate with one another, they’re losing games,” Bohlig said. “I think people get confused with collaboration and consensus building. [In] true collaboration, you may have disagreements, [but] you are pushing each other to get to a better place.”

Legacy of two families

Former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh said that modeling respect and support towards women and people of marginalized identities is important for strengthening the influence and legacy of Title IX. His father, Sen. Birch Bayh, was the author of the 37 words that make up Title IX, and one of the key proponents of its passing in 1972.

Evan Bayh, who spoke at the conference via video, reminisced about the instrumental role of his mother, Marvella Bayh, in the passage of Title IX.

Lusia Harris in The Queen of Basketball

The final panel of the day screened The Queen of Basketball, the Oscar-winning short documentary about Lusia Harris, the first woman to be drafted into the NBA, and player who made the first points at the 1976 Olympic’s first-ever women’s basketball tournament. Harris’ daughter, career educator Crystal Stewart Washington, discussed the impact Title IX had on her mother’s life. 

Corinna Christman, who teaches math and coaches the middle school boys soccer team at Kenwood Academy in Chicago, said she felt inspired hearing about the impact of the access gained with Title IX.

“A lot of us tend to complain about how things are – and there’s always room for improvement, but it’s so nice to look back at this. The women who fought for this, how it started, how it’s built. how it’s evolved,” Christman said. “I think it’s really important for me to hear these stories and bring that back to students.”

Annabelle Dowd

Annabelle Daisy Dowd is a California-born Midwestern gal. She a recently completed her Masters at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and believes spring is a season you must earn. If she’s...

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