Commentary Human Rights

#TitleIXAt43: How We Talk About the Landmark Anti-Discrimination Legislation

Gloria Malone

Title IX changed the course of history for many individuals when it comes to athletics and being able to partake in programs that discriminate against individuals based on sex. But when we talk about the landmark legislation, people still don't seem to understand what it truly means—and doesn't mean.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marked the 43rd anniversary of Title IX, a landmark law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity, including colleges, universities, and elementary and secondary schools.

Advocates took to Twitter to show their appreciation for the rights reflected in the legislation. While I’m grateful for the conversations that took place, I would have liked to see more talk about the ways in which Title IX covers pregnant and parenting teens, who are disproportionately affected by gender-based discrimination in the country’s education system.

Title IX changed the course of history for many people when it comes to athletics and being able to partake in programs that historically discriminated against individuals based on sex. For many young women, it means that they are not turned away from athletic activities on campuses because of their gender identity.

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So it came as no surprise then that ESPNW and several other sports organizations used #TitleIXAt43 on Twitter this week to share the history, legacy, and their reflections about the law.

Importantly, Title IX goes beyond just providing federal protections for female athletes. In 2000, Title IX was updated to include the Title IX Common Rule, which, among other things, clarified the law to include programs and activities beyond those that are explicitly educational in nature. This change has meant that any program or activity, whether an educational institution or not, cannot discriminate against anyone based on their sex. 

By just looking at the #TitleIXAt43 conversations had by mainstream organizations on Twitter, however, you might not know that the federal law goes beyond protections in sports. In defense of those groups, it makes sense that the conversation mostly included athletics given the genesis of the law. And some people did chime in about the lesser known protections that Title IX provides: The American Association of University Women, for example, brought attention to the fact that Title IX provides protection in areas of education against discriminatory housing, admissions, and recruitment practices; career and technical educational programs; science, technology, engineering, and math; comparable facilities and access to course offerings; financial assistance, which includes student health centers and insurance benefits; harassment based on gender identity; athletics; sexual assault and harassment; and pregnant and parenting and/or married students.

As someone who was a student parent, I would have liked to see more conversations about the ways in which Title IX provides protection to student parents from the hostile environments they have to navigate to continue and complete their educations.

Recent examples of Title IX violations show that we have a long way to go to ensure that the rights of student parents are being observed. In 2013, the National Women’s Law Center filed a complaint against the City University of New York “for permitting each classroom instructor to determine on a case-by-case basis whether to excuse absences related to pregnancy and allow for make-up work and for retaliating against a student who challenged the policy.” And former executive director of Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, Yamani Hernandez, recounted in an article at Ebony.com how many teen student parents had their Title IX rights violated: “In a recent town-hall meeting in the Chicagoland area … many young people talked about how they deferred to the authority of teachers, counselors and principals who told them that leaving school would be best for them. Even well-intentioned teachers can sometimes discriminate against pregnant youth, under the guise of what they think is helpful, even if the law says otherwise,” wrote Hernandez.

In addition, young mom and advocate for young parents Natasha Vianna wrote about her experiences being violated for Rewire. “I remember a moment where I looked at my senior year schedule to see that I was pulled out of all my honors classes. When I asked my guidance counselor why, she told me that girls like me—in other words, pregnant girls—couldn’t handle the workload,” wrote Vianna.

These types of Title IX violations are common for pregnant and parenting students, and yet the conversations about them only happen within small networks of activists and advocates. Here are a few examples showing how these groups talked about teen parents’ rights this week.

But pregnant and parenting teen advocates and their allies cannot do it alone. It is imperative that federally funded institutions make it very clear that student parents have Title IX rights that allow them to be a parent and a student without being pushed out or facing educational penalties.

Especially since, in terms of support for young parents, Title IX only goes so far. For example, I would like to see federal support for lactation accommodations and resources for those who decide to breastfeed and continue to work and attend school like California’s AB 302 bill. AB 302 would require school districts to provide reasonable accommodations to breastfeeding students on high school campuses. The bill accommodations include allowing students to bring a breast pump to school and offering a clean place for them to store it, having private and secure rooms—that are not restrooms—to express breast milk, and providing a reasonable amount of time to express milk and or breastfeed.

Title IX was—and continues to be—a landmark law that provides protection against for various sex-based discriminations, and I hope that moving forward the conversations about Title IX will reflect that diversity.

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