In the 50 years since Title IX was created, there have been many positive strides, but there’s still work to be done.

By Kaitlyn Wilkes

CW: This story contains discussion of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination.

A few years after Abbie Hillis graduated from Texas A&M, a group of women on A&M’s board of directors sent her a letter claiming the chancellor created a hostile work environment and was sexually harassing them. 

Hillis presented the letter to the governor of Texas, Gregg Abbott. Sitting across from a representative of the governor’s office, they slid the letter over. Hillis recalls that as he read the letter, his face turned red.

“He covers his hands over his face, doesn’t speak to us for a solid couple of minutes. Then he looks up and goes, ‘How’d you get a copy of this?’

We didn’t want to explain because it was people who were silently supporting us at the back end. He said, ‘I’m going to make sure that I submit this to our attorneys.’”

This story, among others, is exactly why Hillis co-founded The 12th Woman as a student at Texas A&M. She saw firsthand how the administration mishandled Title IX cases for female athletes and students. Having experienced her own struggles with Title IX, Hillis co-founded The 12th Woman to advocate for the rights of female students on campus under the law.

“When we finally demanded a seat at the table…we were winked at by the men sitting [across from us],” she says. “We were offered field tickets. And we were also offered front row tickets to Reveille VII’s funeral as a way to get us to shut up and groom us.” 

Hillis’ story is one in hundreds that illustrate both the benefits and pitfalls of Title IX since its implementation 50 years ago.

50 Years of Work

Title IX, a section of the 14th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, was signed into law as part of the Education Amendments of 1972. Overseen and enforced by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Title IX states that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

According to the Department of Education, Title IX not only applies to schools, but also state and local educational agencies that receive federal funding. As of 2021, this included over 5,000 postsecondary institutions, charter schools and for-profit schools, museums, libraries and 17,600 local school districts. 

Fifty years after the creation of Title IX, advocates like Hillis, who now works at Texas Advocacy Project, a nonprofit providing free legal services and access to the justice system for victims of abuse, and Darlene Gordon, former acting director of athletics at the University of Massachusetts Boston, are championing the continued growth of the law and the protection it provides. 

UT Austin’s 1978 Women’s Basketball Team, Photo courtesy of Texas Legacy Support Network

According to Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), since 1972, there has been a significant increase in the number of women who are involved in sports. According to WSF, there are 3 million additional high school sport opportunities for girls than there were before Title IX, with 60% of girls in high school participating in high school sports. Today in the NCAA, 44% of all athletes are women. Of that 44%, 30% are white women and 14% are BIPOC women. In leadership positions, 41% of women’s NCAA teams also had female head coaches in the 2020-2021 school year. Despite the significant increase of women represented in sports compared to 1972, there is still a significant sports gender gap and a lack of representation of women of color.

In addition to added female representation in sports, it is now a requirement for all universities and colleges to have a Title IX office on campus where students can report violations against Title IX, including sexual discrimination. The Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education remarks that in recent years, there has been significant work on college campuses across the U.S. to create “fair and equitable processes to resolve Title IX cases.” Additionally, there has been more education, prevention efforts and an increase in services and support for victims of sexual discrimination.

Personal Experience Drives Motivation

Hillis and Gordon have made careers out of advocating and improving Title IX. Hillis used her childhood experience in gymnastics and time at A&M to be a champion for victims of sexual discrimination. 

“I’m an outspoken survivor, so that’s primarily the first reason why [I’m involved with Title IX],” Hillis says. “I was a competitive athlete in the sport of gymnastics and was heavily involved with USA Gymnastics. When the Larry Nasser case exploded back in 2017, 2018, there was a lot that came to fruition from all of that. That was kind of the start of it all.”

When Hillis was 10 years old, she spent more days of the week at gymnastics than she did at school. She recalls that although her coach never raped anyone, he still sexually assaulted and harrassed multiple members of the team, including her. With 19 former teammates, they filed a case against their former coach with the United States Center for SafeSport. Their case was based on their experiences and the knowledge that while their coach did this for 40 years, the owners of the gym knew about his conduct and never did anything. 

“The U.S. Center for SafeSport couldn’t handle the current [report]loads they were receiving. So they hired an outside firm to help bring in additional investigators to try to take care of the backlog,” Hillis recalls.

Then on Sept. 22, 2020, there was a security breach at the U.S. Center for SafeSport, of which they did not inform their clients. This threatened to derail any progress made on the case.

Hillis said the interviews U.S. Center for SafeSport had access to were very intimate interviews that they were recording. Because the organization was not HIPAA compliant, they fired the external firm that was providing additional investigators to cases like Hillis’. 

“It’s my understanding that each investigator right now has between two and 300 cases, which is unmanageable per one person as it is anyway. We opened this in July 2020. Our case is still open and is ongoing.

In Hillis’ case, U.S. Center for SafeSport tried to tell her and the others gymnasts on her case that USA Gymnastics was responsible, but USA Gymnastics said that U.S. Center for SafeSport was responsible.

“So there’s this back and forth thing for a while; then we finally got it clear that it’s [U.S. Center for SafeSport]. Now they’re dragging it out, because the owners of our gym all have previously been in high authoritative positions in USA Gymnastics. It’s a high-profile case, and they don’t want those people being shamed. They want us to forget and give up.”

Advocates Push for More

Gordon is a former athletic administrator and uses her experience in sports to ensure her teams are Title IX compliant and to champion for more diversity and equity on and off the field.

“For me, it has become kind of my rallying cry,” she says. “I want to lock arms with people who want to make that kind of change. It’s just so disrespectful to me that these are the kinds of things we are dealing with. When you kind of go back into Title IX history, at one point, the NCAA didn’t even have women’s sports.”

Even though there have been many accomplishments in the last 50 years, Hillis and Gordon insist there is still room for improvement. The pair use their respective experiences to work to increase funding, diversity, access to information and create one place for people to go for resources and help. 

Darlene Gordon

“Ninety percent of all colleges and universities are not even Title IX compliant,” Gordon says. “The Office of Civil Rights is the office that actually is overseeing all of this, and they are woefully, woefully underfunded.”

“Funding is a huge issue across the board,” Hillis adds. “[It] doesn’t matter whether it’s K-12. Doesn’t matter if it’s collegiate. The funding is an issue; it’s not being prioritized.”

Another issue Hillis and Gordon raise is the lack of Title IX information for students who are not in college.

“One of the big places that Title IX is consistently failing is K-12. I think part of the reason is because children don’t have voices,” Hillis says. “As a society, we don’t give children voices, so they rely on adults to speak up for them. We’re just now getting through providing voices to college-aged adults. It’s really hard for us to give ground and a voice to anyone pretty much younger than that as a society.” 

Recalling her own experience as a parent with a young child, there is no mandate that requires independent school districts to identify their Title IX representative on each campus or notify parents who they are supposed to go to if they want to report something or have questions about Title IX.

“It’s very inconsistent on who even the point of contact is. Then if they are designating a point of contact, it’s typically by the ISD level, not by the school level,” Hillis says. “Beyond that, it’s typically not someone who’s well trained and well versed in the laws of Title IX. As parents, it is our job and our duty to start speaking up for those younger aged kids because they have no platform.” 

Abbie Hillis

Hillis recognizes the privilege that she has as a young white woman and wants to use the platform she has to speak up for those whose voices are silenced.

“If I don’t use [my privilege]to speak up for children, and to speak up for people of color, and use it to speak up for people with disabilities, then I don’t feel like I am using my privilege to its full capacity, and it’s not exactly fair,” Hillis says. “I know it’s a lot of stress to put on someone and put on yourself, right? But I think if more women recognize their privilege and their platform to speak on behalf of others that maybe don’t have it, it would be monumental in making this change happen in a positive way.”

Gordon suggests that institutions that are not compliant with Title IX have some of their federal funding pulled. This provision is in place to keep institutions accountable, but is rarely used in actuality. Gordon recommends giving the money pulled from noncompliant institutions to the Office of Civil Rights, providing them the resources to work on their backlog of cases.

“The money is the missing piece that gets everyone’s attention, and there’s a zero-tolerance environment around this entire discussion. We’re not going to see any huge successes and huge wins happen. For females, for sexual assault, for any of that. It’s not going to happen until there’s the money speaking.” 

In order to create these changes within Title IX, Gordon and Hillis talk on panels about Title IX and provide insight into investigations to give more education and create discussions about accountability, providing consistent processes and procedures, support, diversity and equity for all levels of education and club sports.

“The beautiful thing about Title IX is it should be bipartisan; it should be something that everyone supports,” Hillis says. “It’s shocking that it’s not always that way, especially in terms of just providing a quality to humans. It doesn’t matter what our color is, it doesn’t matter what our sex is, any of that. On a basic level, we’re all human, and we deserve access to the same things. But I think until it is a cool political thing to stand up for, it’s not really going to get the funding politically that it needs.

“I do think that in the 50 years since Title IX was created, there’s a lot of greatness that has come from it,” Hillis insists. “But it’s been tiny, little stepping stones. It may only impact a small group of people or one person. But there’s a ripple effect that can happen from that.”

Forward With Hope

“What I hope happens is that as women, we begin to do a better job of standing together,” Gordon says. “Title IX talks about all women. If we’re saying all women, then there shouldn’t really be a disparity in who’s getting access to anything. If it’s a disparity at the college level, it’s probably a disparity in the K-12 level. How do we fix that? We all stand together. I think if we lock arms together, there’s nothing we can’t do as a gender.”



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