Commentary Law and Policy

How Black Women Shaped the Law Banning Sex Discrimination in Education

Nnennaya Amuchie

Title IX was the law Pauli Murray envisioned and built off both civil rights legislation and Black women's anti-rape activism.

On February 28, 1972—46 years ago on this day—Sen. Birch Bayh (D-IN) introduced Title IX of the Educational Amendments in the Senate. Enacted later that year, the federal law states that “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.”

Title IX, which is perhaps best known for paving the way for women in collegiate sports, has also been critical in giving colleges and universities a legal tool to address sexual violence on campus—or it was until recent Department of Education moves weakened its protections and made clear it won’t extend them to transgender students.

But today, it’s fitting to note the Title IX anniversary also falls on the last day of Black History Month. Title IX stemmed in part from the legacy of civil rights and the organizing spirit of Black women who highlighted the dual costs of racism and sexism they faced, including racialized sexual violence.

Activist and attorney Pauli Murray was one of Title IX’s foremothers. Herself a pioneer who challenged segregation in higher education, public transportation, and businesses, Murray predicted in 1965 that the Civil Rights Act would do nothing for women unless they organized. She was convinced that establishing a “NAACP for women” was necessary. Shortly after, Murray became one of the co-founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which built upon the civil rights movement to push for the Equal Rights Amendment and eventually Title IX. Rep. Edith Green (D-OR), along with Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) (the first Black U.S. congresswoman), stated that she drew Title IX language directly from the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act. Black women have been instrumental in the creation of civil rights laws including Title IX, extending protections to race, gender, and historically marginalized identities.

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Black women also have achieved justice through civil disobedience, mutual support systems, public education, mass communication, coalition building, and storytelling. As race, gender, and class have combined to disenfranchise and disempower them, Black women have made advocacy for civil rights and women’s rights a natural convergence.

In 1944, Rosa Parks was sent to Alabama by the NAACP to investigate the sexual assault of Recy Taylor, a 24-year-old Black mother who was gang raped by six white men. On behalf of Taylor, Rosa Parks created a national campaign under the Committee for Equal Justice for the Rights of Mrs. Recy Taylor.

Unable to appeal to the law, Black women had to create community-based alternatives to deal with sexual violence. Women like Parks had long created community-based systems of accountability and support before they sat down on buses. They organized other Black women and community members to prepare testimonies, provide emotional care for the survivors and their families, pressure district attorney’s offices to indict the assailants, amplify public campaigns to highlight the growing issue of sexual assault, and boycott establishments of the perpetrators of rape.

While no charges were brought against Taylor’s assailants, Rosa Parks and other Black women continued to organize participatory defense campaigns and committees to support victims of sexual assault. Five years later, Gertrude Perkins was kidnapped and raped by two Montgomery police officers in Alabama. Community members organized a public campaign in defense of Perkins, which her minister Rev. Solomon Seay believed helped politicize clergy to their cause. In 1951, Flossie Hardman, a Black teenager, was raped by her employer, Sam Green, in Montgomery, Alabama. Due to the nonindictment of Hardman’s assailant, Rufus Lewis, owner of the largest Black funeral home in Montgomery, led a boycott against Green’s store as a form of justice and accountability. This boycott was successful, leading to the closing of Green’s store.

In 1959, Betty Jean Owens was raped by four white men in Tallahassee, Florida. Again, the Black community organized a defense committee and engaged in public protests and testimony. This would be the first time that an all-white jury convicted white men for sexual violence against a Black woman.

After 15 years of organizing, Black communities were able to intervene in the legal system and shift the cultural norm around who was seen as a sexual assault victim in the eyes of the law. With each of these organizing efforts, more Black people were energized around activism and challenged the different ways people face state violence (including legal impunity for white perpetrators). They created more organizations to carry on the work and build leadership. With Betty Jean Owens’ case and those who came before, Black women and communities had built the power and capacity to implement sit-ins and deliver formidable policy ultimatums, both of which would set the groundwork for a broader movement and the Civil Rights Act itself.

From Rosa Parks to Pauli Murray to Shirley Chisholm, Black women have spoken candidly about racialized sexual discrimination and violence. They have been innovative and creative, using the tools that were available to them even when the legal system continuously failed them. As organizers and as Black people, we know that there is not one way to solve the issue of racialized sexism. And we understand that the law, sometimes an instrument of oppression, can be a vehicle to shift power in favor of Black women.

Title IX has granted schools, communities and other institutions the opportunity to implement innovative and creative mechanisms grounded in due process and the respect and dignity of survivors. Title IX is itself a product of and tribute to Black women’s community responses to support and defend survivors of sexual assault and other forms of violence.

To honor these women, let’s celebrate the groundwork that led to Title IX and urge advocates to continuously expand Title IX using an intersectional framework. Title IX provides a broad blanket for new avenues to prevent sex discrimination in schools and ensure that people feel safe regardless of their gender identity and expression.

We still need Title IX because:

1. Title IX should protect Black girls and gender-nonconforming folks from suspension, expulsion, and sexual harassment and abuse in schools.

In the nation’s capital, Black girls are 18 times more likely than white girls to be suspended. Suspension means that Black girls are forced out of classrooms and prevented from the opportunity to learn. It can negatively affect the emotional, mental, and physical well-being of Black girls who are already experiencing heightened stress in their communities. In fact, 60 percent of Black girls have experienced sexual assault before the age of 18. They are harassed at high numbers to and from school and harassed by educators and other students, with few attempts to protect them.

2. Title IX advocates must fight against mandatory reporting to law enforcement.

Last year, Georgia state Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) introduced a state bill that would prevent schools from investigating campus sex abuse claims unless police were also involved. Black women are sexually assaulted by police officers at high rates. In fact, the second most common police misconduct complaints involve sexual violence. In 2015, a Buffalo News report found that a law enforcement official in the United States was caught in a case of sexual abuse or misconduct at least every five days. Former officer Daniel Holtzclaw specifically targeted Black women and was charged with assaulting 13 Black women—though there were allegedly many more victims. Mandatory reporting to law enforcement institutions that Black women may fear for many reasons may discourage survivors from coming forward and asking for help.

3. Title IX must protect students and professors who participate in the sex trade.

Sex workers are often targeted, harassed, and expelled for engaging in the sex trade. While sex workers choose sex work for a number of reasons, many within the university realm choose sex work to pay for tuition, room and board, and other resources needed to survive in school. So when they are targeted, harassed, or threatened with expulsion, is there room for Title IX to protect them? It is important for Title IX to be a vehicle to fight against sexual oppression while simultaneously fighting for bodily autonomy and sexual agency.

As we end this Black History Month, advocates and organizers should all reflect on how Black women have expanded our organizing toolbox and tried to create a safer world for us all. The best way to honor their contributions is to find more creative ways to expand Title IX protections and include those in the margins every step of the way from analysis to implementation.

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