The Father of Title IX
"I was delighted to see that, because the last bastion of male chauvinism is in the sports section of the newspaper," Bayh, 84, said with a hearty chuckle. "If women's basketball is getting headline coverage in the sports section, man, we've come a long way baby."
A long way indeed. On June 23, 1972, Congress passed the Educational Amendments of 1972, a law expanding several education opportunities to students all over the country. But tucked inside the amendment was a section called Title IX, which granted equal educational opportunities to women. It reads "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."
"It was just 37 words but it ended up packing a lot of wallop," Bayh said.
With women's sports leagues like the WNBA -- the world's most successful women's basketball league -- and others running strong, it's easy to forget times in this country's history when women weren't allowed to play organized sports, let alone allowed to go to college to begin with. Bayh remembers it all too well. He grew up in Indiana and, during college, entered a national speaking tournament where he met a girl, his soon to be wife, from Oklahoma State. He was shocked to learn why she went to Oklahoma instead of where she'd rather go.
"Her wish was to go to the University of Virginia," he said. "But her college application was returned with a letter that said 'Women need not apply.' That was totally foreign to me."
U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh
Years later, Bayh was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1963 and was vocal on civil rights. In the early 1970s he tried pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would abolish gender discrimination, but faced heavy opposition in Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee at the time was a group composed of only men, and members on the committee tried to stop the amendment from passing.
"I never heard an objection that was sound on merits," Bayh said. "They would say things like giving women equal rights to things like jobs and pay would be disruptive to the home if women were out working instead of being mothers," he said. "But it didn't make sense because there were women already that were working jobs to support their families just fine."
But then, Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, testified in front of the committee and the tide started to change, Bayh said.
"She said 'Gentleman, you know that I'm discriminated against all the time because I'm black,'" he said. "'But that's nothing compared to how much discrimination I get for being a woman.' Now that spoke volumes to the senators."
Since the Equal Rights Amendment wasn't getting traction, Bayh decided to focus on women's education. Nobody disputed women deserved equal access to education, Bayh said, which allowed him to insert a rather innocuous-sounding provision called Title IX into a list of education amendments on the docket in 1972. The rest is history.
Bayh said that today, women make up 55 percent of students that enroll in higher education -- something that should be celebrated as a way to trace how far society has come since Title IX was passed. That extends to women's athletics too, he said.
"Look at the University of Connecticut -- the attendance at the women's basketball games is often more than the men's," Bayh said. "The genesis of all this success comes from TItle IX. It's been a slow process but there have been a number of tenacious women like Billie Jean King and others that have gotten us to where we are today."
Bayh left the Senate in 1980 and is now retired in the Washington, D.C. area. He continues to travel speaking about Title IX at schools around the country. He said he often asks female students what they think of Title IX and they respond with blank stares. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, Bayh said.
"I think that’s a good sign that there’s no question for a girl to feel like she has the same opportunities as her brother does as she grows up," he said.
With the WNBA in full swing of its 16th year of play this season, Bayh said he's happy to see how far women's athletics has come since his legislation was passed.
“There’s a lot of people that say Birch Bayh is the reason we’re having all these successful women’s events," he said. "Well, Birch Bayh had the privilege of opening the door. There’s been a variety of administrators, coaches, players and the public’s response that got us to where we are today."
Bayh said he sometimes looks back and wonders where his passion for women's athletics comes from. And then he remembers a story about his father, then a physical education director in Washington DC.
"I must have been 9 or 10 [years old] at the time and I remember one day my father was leaving the house and I said 'Daddy, where are you going?" Bayh said. "He said, I'm going to testify before Congress. I'm going to tell them they need to spend as much money on little girls for physical education as they do for little boys. Little girls need strong bodies to carry their minds just like little boys do."
"It never occurred to me when I was passing Title IX that maybe I got this drive from my gene pool," he added with another chuckle.
On June 21, the Indiana Fever will honor Bayh during Title IX night on June 21 when the Fever take on the Connecticut Sun. Meanwhile, stay tuned for more from WNBA.com, as the league celebrates the 40th anniversary of the landmark legislation with events all season.