Ask a man about gender equality and you’ll likely hear that the United States has made great strides in the 50 years since passing the landmark Title IX anti-discrimination law. Ask a woman, and the answer will probably be very different.
According to a new poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the National Women’s History Museum, most American adults believe the country has made at least some progress toward equality for women since 1972. C t was the year Congress passed Title IX, a one-sentence law that prohibits gender discrimination in education. But there are strong differences of opinion on the progress made and on the facets of life.
Some of the biggest divides are, perhaps unsurprisingly, between men and women: 61% of men say the country has made a lot or a lot of progress towards gender equality, while 37% of women say the same thing, according to the poll.
Women were more likely to report only some progress – 50% agreed – while 13% said the country had made little or no progress.
“We fought a lot, we won a little, but we didn’t really win the tie,” said Brenda Theiss, 68, a retired optician in Vinemont, Alabama. Progress that began in the 1970s appears to have stalled, she said, with continued pay gaps and battles over women’s reproductive rights.
Adopted as a follow-up to other basic civil rights laws, Title IX was intended to expand the protection of women in education. Today, he is often known for his impact on women’s sports and the fight against harassment and sexual assault.
As the nation approaches the law’s 50th anniversary, most Americans have a positive view of it. Sixty-three percent said they approved of the law, including majorities of both men and women. Only 5% disagreed with it, while the rest were neutral or unsure.
But Americans are divided on several flaws when it comes to assessing progress.
Along with men, Republicans are also more likely to see a lot or a lot of progress, with 65% agreeing. Among Democrats, 39% said the same.
Among women, those 50 and older are more likely than their younger counterparts to see a lot or a lot of progress in specific facets of life, such as leadership, employment and educational opportunities.
Milan Ramsey, 29, said it was “remarkable to see how far we have come given the inequality that still prevails”.
She says sexism is hard to avoid in today’s society, whether in unequal access to health care or in the daily affronts like getting called. But she knows it’s worse. Once, while looking at her mother’s childhood photos, her mother pointed out a pair of pants she said was her very first pair.
“She remembers it because they weren’t allowed to wear pants until she was about 7 in public school,” Ramsey, from Santa Monica, Calif., said.
As a young girl growing up in the 70s, Karen Dunlap says she immediately benefited from Title IX. Girls’ soccer leagues started popping up for the first time, she said. His mother hastened to enroll him.
“I really felt the immediate difference when I was a kid,” said Dunlap, of Vancouver, Washington. “But at the same time, it didn’t stay that way.”
Dunlap then competed in swimming and water polo at Pomona College in California, and she credits that opportunity with Title IX. It also allowed the school to donate enough money to buy racing swimsuits and a team van, she said. But in the classroom, some male teachers called her a “student” and some seemed to look down on female students, she said.
Later, when her daughters went to college, Dunlap was disappointed to see them fight familiar battles. When one of her daughters applied for a job at a campus dormitory, she was told she was too “a typical cheerful girl” for the position. She ended up leaving school and graduating elsewhere.
“The push for equality has been around long enough that it should have worked,” Dunlap said. “There should be a difference.”
According to the poll, Americans believe the impact of Title IX has been stronger in some areas than in others. More than half said it had a positive impact on opportunities for female students in sport, and about as many said this on opportunities in education in general.
But only 36% said it had a positive impact on tackling sexual harassment in schools, and 31% said it had a positive impact on protecting LGBTQ students from discrimination.
At the same time, there is evidence that not all Americans clearly understand the law. About a third said they were unsure whether Title IX had impacted them personally, and about a quarter or more were unsure of its impact in other areas.
The law is generally misunderstood, in part because its application is so broad, said Shiwali Patel, senior attorney at the National Women’s Law Center. In addition to its role in sports, it has also been used to protect against discrimination and harassment in college admissions, financial aid, campus housing, and employment, among other areas.
“I don’t think people really understand the full breadth and scope of Title IX,” she said. “It’s only 37 words, but it’s extremely broad. It covers so many things.
Patel said it was important to recognize that Title IX had brought significant advances. More and more women are getting scholarships, participating in varsity sports and getting teaching jobs. But there has also been resistance to continuous improvement, particularly in addressing sexual harassment and violence, she said.
“We’re in a really challenging time, and we still haven’t gone far enough,” Patel said.
The law’s anniversary approaches as the Biden administration prepares new rules detailing how schools and colleges must respond to sexual harassment. The settlement, which would serve as an extension of the 1972 law, is expected to override a Trump-era set of rules and expand the rights of victims of sexual harassment and assault.
Among other findings, the poll also revealed that Americans don’t think all women have experienced progress in the same way. About half of those surveyed said white women had made a lot of progress, but only about a third said the same for women of color or LGBTQ women. Only around a quarter said there had been great progress for low-income women.
Yet for 67-year-old David Picatti, it seems the push for gender equality has largely succeeded. When he was an engineering student in college, he recalls that his program “called for” recruiting women, who are underrepresented in many scientific fields. More recently, her cousins received full scholarships to play varsity sports.
“I think there’s been a lot of progress and it’s a pretty even playing field,” said Picatti, of Yakima, Washington.
Sarah Brown says it’s far from equal. The 70-year-old New Orleans woman acknowledged some progress – her daughter earned a master’s degree in commerce from Harvard University in the 1980s as the program recruited more women – but she still sees the discrimination.
A retired accountant, Brown has been heartbroken by recent battles over abortion rights and she has been appalled by the sexual assault scandals at Louisiana State University and other colleges across the country. It appears that progress made in the past is being eroded, she said.
Still, Brown isn’t surprised that men see him differently.
“Of course not,” she said. “Women know what it’s like to be a woman and men don’t. Men think women have it better than they really do.
The poll of 1,172 adults was conducted May 12-16 using a sample drawn from NORC’s AmeriSpeak probability-based panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 4.0 percentage points.
The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.