Speaking of Women's Rights: 06/12

Friday, June 22, 2012

Title IX Pop Quiz

by Amy Shebeck

What do the following have in common?

  1. Application forms for professional schools with colors corresponding to the assumed gender of the applicant: blue for medical school and pink for nursing school.
  2. A women’s basketball team with three players who could dribble down one half of the court, and three who could dribble down the other, because each player was deemed too delicate to handle the full court. 
  3. A girl’s Physical Education grade determined by the number of showers she took, and a monitor standing by the shower stalls to count.
No - the answer is not "these are all part of the plot of Margaret Atwood’s latest novel". Instead, they were the reality for women and girls in school sports and graduate admissions until 40 years ago this Sunday. That's when Title IX was enacted, banning sex discrimination and sexual harassment in educational institutions receiving federal funds.

At a press conference celebrating Title IX’s anniversary at the University of Washington Women’s Center this morning, these were the stories Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Seattle City Councilmember Jean Godden and other community leaders shared from their own experiences to show how much changed as a result of Title IX, not only for women’s sports, but for course enrollments, career counseling and opportunities, financial aid, and non-athletic extracurricular activities. Title IX opened the doors to institutions previously reserved for men, and then demanded that these new environments be free from harassment, allowing women and girls to study and play safely and with dignity.

When I applied to law school three years ago, no one discouraged me, and certainly not because of my gender. I have Title IX to thank for that—indeed, to thank for helping create a society where the idea of being automatically unqualified because of my gender would have never crossed my mind. But would the same be true if I had been applying to engineering school? Or for a college coaching job, where the number of women coaching both men and women’s teams has been steeply declining for decades? What if I were Skye Wyatt, a 16-year old Texas softball player whose coaches staged a fake team meeting, locked her in a room alone with them, yelled at her and threatened her about her sexuality, then outed her to her mother and kicked her off the team?

The anniversary of Title IX means both celebrating how incredibly far we’ve come, and realistically assessing the steep road ahead to ensuring that every person can enjoy the educational experiences that lead to self-fulfillment. We may no longer live in a world where girls aren’t allowed to play the full basketball court, but we mustn’t take for granted how those gains were made—or ever stop imagining and fighting for the successes we’ll be celebrating forty years from now.

Amy Shebeck is a summer intern with Legal Voice and a rising 3L at the University of Washington School of Law. Title IX is directly responsible for her stint as catcher and clean-up hitter on various softball teams growing up, as well as several much-loved scars on her knees.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Forty Years -- and the Race Goes On

It’s gratifying for us here at Legal Voice to know we’ve helped bring about true change, and this week’s 40th anniversary of Title IX means we have plenty of smiles on our faces.  The Seattle Times recounted our historic first case, Blair v WSU , and interviewed Karen Blair Troianello, one of our first clients, as well as our then-director of litigation.  They (and others) reminisced about what it was like in the early years of Title IX, and how much has changed.

Has it?  Well, yes, mostly.  As the numerous  Title IX anniversary stories from all around the country attest, women athletes, women’s athletics, and sports in general have come a long way since June 23, 1972.   As someone who was just a tiny bit too old to have caught the full tide of the Title IX wave, I’m inspired and a little wistful as I read about the amazing accomplishments of girl and women athletes.  The recent French Open, in which the relatively small (5’4 ½”) Sara Errani gave the eventual winner, 6’2” Maria Sharapova, a real run for it, in some ways sums up the progress.  These two vastly physically dissimilar women are the 1st and 2nd ranked women tennis players in the world: anyone – yes, anyone – can excel at sports.

Title IX does not, of course, mean only that women and girls can play sports. It also means they can play their way into college and the advantages that higher education gives people in the U.S.  Indeed, women scholar-athletes graduate at higher rates than men in virtually all sports (overall, 88% to 73%).  

But athletics is about more than school, more than winning money.  It’s about life lessons, lifelong health, and character.   It’s not that you need sports to develop good character, nor that sports automatically leads to good values (are you there, Kobe Bryant, Adam “Pacman” Smith, et al.?)  Nonetheless, it’s heartening to read about athletes who transcend competition in favor of camaraderie, like the young woman in Ohio who helped her rival finish a race, even though both of them were disqualified.  Or the two softball players from Central Washington University who carried the batter from Western Oregon around the bases when she injured herself, resulting in CWU losing the game. 

And yet.   What was the reaction to the runner from Ohio? Rush Limbaugh berated her and decried the loss of “hard  manliness” (no, I would not make that phrase up).  Plenty of people pushed back at him, but the idea that this person would actually use an act of grace and kindness to pick on women and girls shows we are not “there” yet.   

This was brought home to me (again) when I read an otherwise laudable article in Pacific Northwest Magazine about people staying active as they get older.  One was a 65-year-old man who returned to track and field after several decades of inactivity.  His primary goals?  "One, be able to walk away in one piece; two, not get beat by a girl; and three, get a decent distance."  Really, sir? Your “hard manliness” would be at risk if a person with two X chromosomes could compete with you?

Keep at it, girls and women. It’s a long track, and the race is not yet over.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Can We Really Have A Civil Debate on Marriage Equality?

Last week, I was in Olympia to watch opponents of Washington’s marriage equality law turn in petitions to put Referendum 74 on the ballot. In case you haven’t heard, this means voters will have to Approve Referendum 74 in the November election to keep the marriage equality law for lesbian and gay couples that Governor Gregoire signed earlier this year.

The group that collected signatures to put marriage equality to a public vote is called Preserve Marriage Washington (“PMW”). At a press conference, PMW’s spokesperson called for a “civil debate” on Referendum 74.

My initial reaction was that calling for a “civil debate” was bit of a throwaway line; it’s not like most people support having an “uncivil” debate. But it did make me think about what it would really mean to have a civil debate on marriage equality.

If it means not shouting at each other, I’m fine with that – although as Dan Savage has pointed out, it’s not surprising that LGBT folks get a little “shouty” when our rights and our families are at stake. Especially when our opponents include the infamous Westboro Baptist Church,which was also in Olympia last week to spread their message of anti-gay hate.

If it means being polite to each other, I agree with that too. We managed to do that last week when marriage equality supporters and PMW representatives sat together for hours in the same room watching the Secretary of State’s office conduct the extremely tedious task of counting the R-74 petition sheets. We made polite chit-chat without any incident (although I was a little surprised by the response I got when I asked one of the PMW folks where she lived; she responded by telling me that her son is a police officer. In the interest of civility, I assume she meant that as a joke).

But having a “civil debate” on marriage equality should mean more than just minding our manners. When people vote on Referendum 74, they will literally be voting on how lesbian and gay people are allowed to live our lives, form our families, and protect our most important relationships. They will also be voting on whether to keep a marriage equality law that our elected representatives adopted by a bipartisan vote after extensive legislative debate. That should put this debate on a higher plane than most ballot measures, and should demand a higher standard of debate.

So here are some ideas about what I think a “civil debate” on marriage equality should look like:
  • Let’s be clear that this civil debate concerns civil marriage. We’re talking about whether the state may issue marriage licenses to committed lesbian and gay couples. It’s not about religious marriage; no church or religious organization will be required to perform marriage ceremonies or to accommodate marriage celebrations for same-sex couples.
  • Let’s keep in mind that thousands of children in Washington have lesbian and gay parents. There are also thousands of LGBT youth in our state. As a group, LGBT adults are pretty tough; most of us have dealt with anti-gay bullying, harassment, and discrimination at some point in our lives. But I hope my new friends at PMW will be mindful of our kids and LGBT youth during this debate – and how they will be hurt by ads suggesting that LGBT families or youth deserve less respect or protection than others.
  • Let’s focus on whether allowing civil marriage for lesbian and gay couples will actually harm anyone in Washington state. We’re not operating in a vacuum here. Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Iowa, and the District of Columbia have already extended the freedom to marry to lesbian and gay couples. Is there even one heterosexual couple in any of those states who can honestly say their marriage has been harmed as a results?
Normally, I’d be skeptical that we can have this kind of debate. But if I can chat politely for hours with the people who are working to take away my freedom to marry the person I love, maybe anything is possible.