Forty-four years ago, the United States passed a law called Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, making it very clear: Every student in this country should have an equal shot to participate in sports and other educational programs that train and foster student athlete leaders. In 1998, Congress updated the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act requiring the governing agencies of each sport (i.e. USA canoe, USA judo, etc) to give athletes a leadership voice on the board and the ability to raise disputes on access and treatment.
Since then, the steady climb of success for U.S. women in international sport has risen, with the 2016 Olympics in Rio hitting a high mark. American Katie Ledecky dominated the pool. Her 11-second (and new world record setting) victory in the 800-meter freestyle was the highlight of four gold medals she won at the games. The American women’s gymnastics team captivated the world with a team gold. Emma Coburn won the USA’s first medal in the women’s steeplechase. The women’s rowing eight won a gold medal, capping a run of victories in major international competition since 2005. The women’s basketball team took its sixth straight gold medal. For all the girls who dream big, the 2016 Olympics in Rio has delivered.
Equally compelling at Rio 2016 have been the assumptions toppled about what women Olympic champions look like. Simone Manuel became the first black woman to win an Olympic medal in an individual swimming event when she tied with Canadian Penny Oleksiak in the 100m freestyle. Michelle Carter became the first American to win a gold medal in shot put. African-American gymnast Simone Biles became the first American woman to win the Olympic vault individual (her four gold medals include individual all-around.) Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first American to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, while helping the U.S. win the team medal in fencing with a bronze in the sabre. And Allyson Felix has become the most decorated U.S. woman in track and field history at Rio 2016, winning nine medals over four Olympic games, including six golds.
Women competing in traditional male sports arenas such as rugby, boxing and wrestling help shift people’s gender assumptions for us all, with a nod to Helen Maroulis securing USA’s first gold medal in women’s wrestling and Clarissa Shields defending her gold medal from London.
And lest you think that Olympic glory is not an option for mothers or reserved only for the young, American cyclist Kristen Armstrong celebrated her third Olympic gold in Rio with her 5-year old son, just one day before her 43rd birthday. Kerri Walsh Jennings, mother of three, played women’s beach volleyball with fierce grit in Rio 2016, as she has for the past three Olympics. Kim Rhode takes home to her 3-year old a Rio 2016 medal in skeet shooting, which makes her the first woman to ever medal in six Olympics. These women joined seven others on the U.S. Women’s Olympic team smashing stereotypes about what women and mothers can accomplish in the most demanding of professions. In this way, the incredible achievements of women at Rio 2016 have made a fitting backdrop for a presidential election featuring the very first woman as a major political party nominee, earning herself a gold medal in “perseverance against sexism” along the way.
A host of organizations, including Equal Rights Advocates and the Women’s Sports Foundation, have fought to make opportunities possible for women and girls for over 40 years. We’ve enforced Title IX and other gender equality laws in the halls of Congress and the courts of law while promoting their spirit in the courts of public opinion. In 1976 only 21 percent of all competitors were women; in 2016, it reached 45 percent with a U.S. contingent of 292 women out of 554 total team members. We all owe deep thanks to Anita de Frantz, Donna de Varona, Billie Jean King, Donna Lopiano and many other early activists in the global women’s sports movement, without whom today’s generation of athletes would not be as well-resourced nor as dominant.
As feminists, we embrace firsts for women with mixed emotions. It does not seem possible that barriers still need to be broken after decades of legal protections in place. But they do. And we are doing it, one athletic match at a time. One presidential race at a time. One glass ceiling at a time.
Rio 2016 has captivated what the woman’s movement has accomplished and all we have yet to achieve. It has highlighted important issues still very much holding back women and girls. From the brave testimony of Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison about her coach’s sexual abuse to the incredible role being played by the United States women’s soccer team to highlight pay discrimination infecting sports and other professions, we know our work is not done. We look to the leadership of sport, still overwhelmingly male — with more than 80 percent of the 204 National Olympic Committees leadership teams being all male — as a reminder that the executive offices need to look different for women to achieve equity at all levels of sport.
As athletes ourselves and long-term advocates for women’s rights more broadly, we thank all of the women who have benefitted from Title IX and the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act who are paying it forward in ways transcending athletics. We close Rio 2016 knowing that Title IX has fostered leaders challenging gender based issues impacting all of us. May we move ever closer to that level playing field for which so many have worked for so long. Join the movement today — buy a girl sports equipment as a gift, tell a girl “Yes, she can” and offer encouragement for her boldness in sport activities, and make sure your school or college is compliant with Title IX.
Noreen Farrell is Executive Director of Equal Rights Advocates, fighting for women’s equality since 1974. She is always on the run for gender justice and was captain of her track and field team at Yale University.
Tuti Scott, philanthropy consultant, was co-CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation. She is a lifelong point guard coaching others for the win and was captain of her basketball team at Ithaca College.