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What Title IX Means to Me: Phyllis Lerner

Phyllis sits on the Hall of Fame walk where each honoree has a brick to represent their accomplishments.

Growing up, my favorite parts of the school day were recess and Physical Education. When it was time for kickball, I was often one of the first selected for the team. I would play Little League Baseball with the boys after school…until the season began. Then I became the team secretary. In high school, I was on five honor teams: field hockey, basketball, volleyball, softball, and tennis. There were no varsity sports for girls. The only time I wore an actual school uniform was when I was a majorette!  

When I graduated high school in 1967, I received the award for Outstanding Girl Athlete. I was handed a plastic box with a pin inside. The boy who got the comparable award received a full college athletic scholarship, a big trophy, and a Rotary Club check. It was the first time I said to myself, “That’s not fair.”  

I attended Springfield College, the home of basketball and volleyball, as a Physical Education major. I also gravitated to the co-curriculum: the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Feminist Movement. From different dorm curfew times for men and women and no access to certain courses, to limited opportunities to travel and excel in competitions, a student’s academic and athletic life were filled with gender disparities.  

These experiences motivated my work with Title IX, the US law prohibiting sex discrimination at schools receiving federal money. In 1972, when the law passed, just 1 in 27 girls participated in high school sports; today, about two in five do. Title IX covers more than access to athletics – it also includes access to courses and programs, admissions, classroom climate, counseling, employment practices, extracurricular activities, financial assistance, sexual harassment, student housing, student rules and policies, and the treatment of pregnant or parenting students.  

There’s still work to do: the gender sports gap remains great in urban schools and among students from low-income families, especially students of color. Site reviews of school athletics programs still find pervasive, structural inequities in education. As the 50th anniversary of Title IX approaches this June, I celebrate that times have changed, but more importantly, people have changed our times. 

For the past fifty years, Phyllis Lerner has worked on addressing racism and sexism in education. In the 1970s, she worked in the California State Department of Education’s Gender Equity Title IX Office, and as national trainer for Gender and Ethnic Expectations and Student Achievement (GESA). Following these positions, Lerner served as the Hurricane Katrina relief project coordinator for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, and as the Public Policy Officer for the Women’s Sports Foundation in DC. Currently, Lerner is a faculty associate for the Johns Hopkins University Graduate School of Education’s Teach For America partnership. She has been recognized numerous times, including admission to her high school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. Phyllis did, after 50 years, finally receive a high school letter! She is also a recipient of Springfield’s Distinguished Alumna Award at the College’s 50th anniversary of Women in Sport. She lives in Bethesda, MD and enjoys an active lifestyle, recently adding pickleball to her repertoire. 

The MAEC blog is designed to engage hearts and minds of school and district leaders across the country to engage in issues that you have identified as being essential in education. Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization.

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