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Reaganism and the dismantling of civil rights: Title IX in the 1980s.


In the 1980s, Title IX and other civil rights laws faced significant challenges within a political climate of Reaganism and the growing strength of the alliance between the New Right and the Religious Right. In the 1980s two major events impacted all civil rights legislation based on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The first was the Grove City College v. Bell (1984) Supreme Court decision and the second was the 1987 Civil Rights Restoration Act passed over the veto of President Reagan in 1988. This article examines the public discourse of these events through a critical media reading of mainstream newspaper coverage throughout the 1980s, highlighting the central role of Title IX in the debate over civil rights. This examination highlights the importance of dominant discourse in the enforcement of civil rights laws, as well as in the resulting lack of opportunity development over time.


In 1980 the political landscape of the United States shifted significantly with the election of Ronald Reagan as President. The Reagan era marked a rollback in the civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s and 1970s--whether in the form of court cases gutting legislation or from a lack of enforcement of earlier civil rights legislation. The lack of funding that came with the Reagan administrations' low priority on civil rights also had an important impact on the Departments of Education and Justice and the ability of officers to carry out investigations and enforcement. Specifically for Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 addressing discrimination against women in education, two major events impacted the law in the 1980s. The first was the Grove City College v. Bell (1984) Supreme Court decision, which relieved educational institutions from their Title IX obligations in areas that did not directly receive federal funding, including nearly all athletic departments. The second was the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, which passed through the legislature over the veto of President Reagan in 1988, restoring the broad meaning of Title IX and other civil rights laws. In this article, I analyze the mediated debates during the 1980s over Title IX and athletics, the Grove City College decision, and the Civil Rights Restoration Act.

Reaganism, the New Right, and the Religious Right

Clearly these debates can only be understood in the context of Reaganism in the 1980s. As Schull (1993) argued, "the American President is the most prominent catalyst for public policies. Presidents can influence the entire policy process, from setting priorities through assessing results (evaluation)" (p. 28). Moreover, the election of Reagan was indicative of a shift in strategy and ideology within the Republican Party. Reagan came to represent the political alliance between the New Right and religious conservatives through careful ideological maneuverings. According to Reeves and Campbell (1994), to understand this we must first take Reaganism seriously as an 'ism.' "As such, the proper name 'Reagan' performs what Foucault terms the 'author function' for a top-heavy economic, electoral, and moral coalition that solidified in the 1970s around the politics of resentment and the worship of mammon" (p. 75). Reaganism centers on and promotes backlash and greed in such a way that it is best understood as "a highly versatile political-moral-ideological-economic-coercive-and-discursive formation made up of a multiplicity of forces and voices, not all of which are compatible" (p. 75). Indeed, one of the strengths of this coalition building was the ability of the movement to bring together groups of people who cared little for the main agenda of the Republican Party related to economic ideologies, but cared deeply for particular religiously oriented causes, such as abortion or the inclusion of Christian teachings in public schools. Others were drawn in via issues of government interference, such as gun control. The focus was not on convincing constituents of core beliefs, but rather to tap into already deeply held beliefs and to strengthen fears that those ways of life were threatened by the social change brought on by civil rights. The coalition between the political New Right and their right-wing army of moral crusaders, the Religious Right, constituted the core of this movement, which was essentially anti-feminist and anti-social welfare. According to Reeves and Campbell (1994), "The driving force behind this mobilization was white-male status anxiety that transcended class location--anxiety that was aggravated by the collapse of the Fordist / Keynesian economic order" (p. 76). Thus, coming out of the economic difficulties of the 1970s, along with several decades of civil rights movements, the traditional race, gender, and class hierarchies were perceived to be under threat.

The New Right formed in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal. The movement, led by Richard Viguerie, and other young, wealthy white men, linked people through social issues, thereby crossing class lines: anti-busing, anti-civil rights, anti-welfare, anti-tax, anti-gun control, anti-affirmative action, and, of course, anti-Title IX. The key figures within the New Right included Senator Joseph McCarthy (of red scare senate hearings fame), Senator Barry Goldwater (one of 8 to vote against the Civil Rights Act in 1964), and Alabama Governor George Wallace (who defied court orders as governor to integrate the University of Alabama) (Schull, 1993). Reagan clearly followed in this line. In fact, he earlier helped build the New Right as an insider in the movie industry by acting as an informer to "weed out" communists.

While the 1960s and 1970s marked great strides in civil rights and government intervention to gain institutional access for those who had been marginalized for centuries--women, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities--the 1970s were also marked by significant economic troubles. With a shift to a peacetime economy and the 1973 oil embargo, Fordism, as an economic system, was destabilized. This led to deindustrialization, high inflation, high unemployment, high taxes, a decline in the power of organized labor, a decline in support for social programs, and a failure to restore steady economic growth. The new economic order that followed, labeled by David Harvey (1999) as "flexible accumulation," brought an increase in a service industry-based economy. The economic order became focused on individualism, entrepreneurialism, specialized market niches, and "overconsumptionism" (Reeves & Campbell, 1994).

Thus, in the new flexible economy, Reeves and Campbell (1994) argued that the labor market became bottom-heavy with a few high-wage jobs, a majority of low-wage jobs, and a 'missing middle.' This created an atmosphere ripe for scapegoating, as "the widespread economic insecurities, status anxieties, and competitive tensions accompanying the polarizations of this 'flexible' labor market certainly contributed to the antifemimst and antisocial-welfare backlash of the 1970s and 1980s" (p. 88). It was within this context that Reagan supported the Grove City College decision eliminating the broad scope of Title IX coverage within universities. Title IX was the targeted civil-rights legislation of the Reagan administration, demonstrating the symbolic importance of women's access to athletics, the most troublesome aspect of the law for the Religious Right. According to T. H. Bell (1988), the Secretary of Education during Reagan's first term, some of Reagan's staff members referred to Title IX as the "lesbian's bill of rights." Female athleticism and access to competitive athletic opportunities worked to deconstruct notions of essential gender differences. With sport viewed as a primary place for masculinity, women's participation caused confusion on two levels, calling into question the essential connection between sport and masculinity as well as female athletes and their femininity. Given that female athletes have been stereotyped as lesbians in keeping with Judith Butler's (1994) gender matrix, whereby sex, gender, and desire are believed culturally to follow one another 'naturally.' Thus women's athleticism flew in the face of many on the religious right who saw women as 'naturally' passive and essentially cooperative, rather than competitive.

The coalition of the New Right and the Religious Right brought considerable power to Republicans. As Reeves and Campbell (1994) noted, "The religious right is perhaps the single most important source of new support for the Republican Party" (p. 79). While the marriage of the New Right and the Religious Right has enjoyed decades of success, this was not always the case. This shift occurred particularly between 1976 and 1984. Reagan's election in 1980 brought more than a decade of Republican presidential power and a reaffirmation of the allegiance between the New Right and the Religious Right.

The election of Reagan over Carter was ironic in many ways, especially in terms of the Religious Right. Carter, a deacon of the Baptist Church and staunch family man, was from the Bible-belt south. Reagan had spotty church attendance, had a personal astrologer, had a divorce under his belt, and was a product of Hollywood--the symbolic den of inequity. Reeves and Campbell (1994) argued, "Where Carter's presidential ministry was a jeremiad of long-suffering, sacrifice, and charity, Reagan's was a carnivalesque tent revival where money changers and astrologers were welcomed into the fold, indulgences were sold by the truckload, and Jesus was privatized as a 'personal savior'" (p. 83). While Rcaganism represented a backlash against advancements in civil rights, there were considerable affirmations embedded in this ideology: "To enjoy the good life; to consume whole-heartedly; to take great pleasure in privilege; to indulge without guilt in the fruits of inequality; to stand tall and take pride in being 'a winner'; and, above all, to see economic advantages and good fortune as the just desserts of those chosen by God to succeed in His holy marketplace" (p. 83).

While Reagan publicly supported civil rights, the early 1980s are marked by administration attempts to curtail the scope of Title IX and all civil rights legislation. Education Secretary Bell wrote, "Since I had heard Ronald Reagan speak out convincingly against all forms of discrimination, I felt my own dedication to enforcement of civil rights laws as they applied to education would have the full support of the President" (as cited in Williams, 1987, p. A16). Yet that was not to be the case. Eventually Bell resigned in frustration shortly after Reagan's re-election in 1984.

The Early 1980s

While the final interpretation policy of Title IX in regards to athletics was passed in 1979, the court battle attempts to exempt scholastic athletic departments were (and are) far from over. The Reagan administration wasted no time in trying to weaken Title IX and other civil rights legislation. Attacks on Title IX came from many directions and were part of Reagan's larger program to "deregulate" the "overly burdensome" federal government. The ideological importance of sport in this plan, which singled out Title IX for federal review, was part of a push to appeal to a nostalgic (although nonexistent) return to 'family values' (Coontz, 1992). Male patriarchy lay at the core of the new 'family values.' The more subtle sexism and racism of Reaganism promoted a celebration of masculinity through sport, which necessarily, then, excluded women.

In 1981, Vice President George Bush called Title IX "vague and excessively burdensome" in announcing a review of Title IX initiated by the Reagan administration. The review, according to Bush was part of an "ongoing effort to lighten the regulatory burden borne by Americans across the country" (Barnes, 1981, p. D5). A spokesperson for the Women's Equity Action League responded, "It hasn't been vague. They know exactly what they need to do. You can't reduce discrimination without regulation. If sports are necessary to develop leadership and character in men and boys, then they are necessary to develop leadership and character in women and girls" (Barnes, 1981, p. D5), leaving no doubt that athletics were at the symbolic heart of the problems with Title IX. Reagan's stated intent in "deregulation" was to stimulate the economy. Labeled "Voodoo economics" by George Bush when he opposed Reagan for the Republican nomination, Reagan's economic plan was to give to the rich so that it would "trickle" down to the poor. Apparently, women and others given legal support by civil rights legislation had an economic duty to give up their civil rights in order to make the economy stronger. This begged the question: make the economy stronger for whom? As journalist Judy Mann argued in 1981, to remove laws barring discrimination of women "is not an exercise in conservative restraint of the federal government. It is an exercise in conservative irresponsibility toward the well-being of women" (p. C1). With executive branch support, the courts continued to take on the issue.

In February of 1981, a federal judge in Michigan ruled that unless an athletic department received direct federal funding, it was not accountable for providing equal athletic opportunities for men and women (Othen v. Ann Arbor School Board, 1981). While only a district court decision, it was the first, and became important in testing the waters for a future Supreme Court case. In a clear foreshadowing of the arguments made in the Grove City College case, Judge Charles Joiner ruled, "The reach of Title IX extends only to those educational programs or activities which receive federal financial assistance" (Barnes, 1981, p. A1). Chuck Guerrier, then director of the Women's Law Fund predicted, "I think the ramifications will be disastrous. A lot of schools will read this decision and say, 'Great! Now we don't have to offer anything in women's athletics if we don't want to.' It gives them legal justification to refuse to be responsive to the needs of women" (Barnes, 1981, p. A1). While the decision itself did not have national weight, its course through the appeals process would. As then director of the University of Iowa Women's Athletic Department Christine Grant noted, "Since we have conflicting opinions on the exact meaning of Title IX, it's important that we have a Supreme Court decision on this matter" (Barnes, p. A1). Unfortunately given her hope to strengthen Title IX, she got her wish with the Grove City College v. Bell decision three years later.

Supporters of the district court decision used business principles as justification for discrimination, just as they did in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, in opposing Title IX (Walton, 2003; Walton, 2008). Robert Frailey, athletic director at American University maintained,
 Philosophically, you've got to agree with Title IX. It's motherhood,
 apple pie and everything else. Title IX has done a lot toward
 raising consciousness about women's athletics. But when you're
 talking about some of these big football programs, they've got to be
 able to plow money back into the program, not distribute it all
 around. That's good business. If you don't do it, the program
 suffers and you lose business. (Barnes, 1981, p. E3)

Charles Neinas, then executive director of the College Football Association put it more simply: "This has put a smile on the faces of athletic directors across the country" ("Judge Alters," 1981, Sec. 5, p. 4).

Not surprisingly, Donna Lopiano, then president of the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), disagreed with this interpretation: "Our contention is that athletics are an educational activity and educational activities are covered by Title IX. If one department in an institution gets federal money, then that frees up money for other departments, so everybody really benefits" (Barnes, 1981, p. E3). Others also pointed to the broader ramifications of such a decision. A narrowing of Title IX coverage would lead to a narrowing of other civil rights legislation, such as discrimination based on age, disability, and race, since legislation in all of these areas were written in similar language based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In 1981, Allen Sack pointed out the discrepancies within college athletics and the NCAA in an article in the New York Times. Athletics programs claimed to be amateur when it came to paying athletes on revenue producing teams or offering them workman's compensation, yet regaled Title IX supporters with business principles when it came to funding women's athletics. The obvious question, according to Sack (1981), was "since when has the staging of mass athletic spectacles for commercial gain become the dominant function of college athletic programs? What about amateurism? ... If one accepts the notion that student athletes are the prime beneficiaries of college sport, how in the world can women's programs receive less financial support than men's?" (sec. 5, p. 2). He maintained that those in control of college athletics could not have it both ways, just as we see in later debates in the 1990s and 2000s (Walton, 2003; Walton, 2008; Walton & Helstein, 2008).

Claiming that sexism was a thing of the past, many argued that Title IX was no longer necessary. At a time when men received 86 percent of athletic budgets and 150 athletic-related Title IX cases languished in the Department of Education (DOE), Warren Brown of the National Federation of State High Schools Associations argued, "Girls' sports were increasing before Title IX was even thought of. We're past the point of needing it" (Terp, 1981, p. 12). Yet as Donna Lopiano and others pointed out, "the federal government became involved in this and other civil rights issues in the first place because change was not happening on a local level" (Terp, p. 12).

The Reaganite language of big government interference with a free market economy clearly made its mark. The "deregulation" of college athletics and an accompanying movement toward "free market enterprise" fit with Reagan's national campaign. As assistant executive director of the NCAA, Tom Hansen, pointed out, "The Reagan Administration has been saying it wants to get government out of our lives, to reduce regulations" ("Judge Alters," 1981, sec. 5, p. 4). Walter Byers, then executive director of the NCAA insisted, "We believe that Title IX regulations and their means of implementation represented far more federal intrusion into the individual institutions than was necessary or warranted by the law" (Terp, 1981, p. 12). Hansen concurred, arguing, in language equating Title IX to rape, that accepting Title IX means "lying down to a federal intrusion that is unwarranted and misguided" (Terp, 1981, p. 12). Along these lines, attempts were continued by conservatives in Congress to weaken or eliminate Title IX, such as Idaho Representative George Hansen's (R) introduction of a "Family Protection Act" in 1981, which would have, among other things, repealed Title IX. Again we see a clear attempt to reach out to the Religious Right for anti-Title IX support. Part of the "deregulatory pruning," as it was called, included trying to limit the scope of Title IX, not only in terms of particular departments, such as athletics, but also to revoke rules banning sex discrimination in hiring by institutions receiving federal financial aid (Slade & Hoffman, 1981, sec. 4, p. 7).

The seesaw in the courts continued in 1981 when a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled that Title IX did apply to athletics at Temple University, despite the fact that the athletic department itself did not receive federal funds (Haffer v. Temple University, 1981). Judith Lichtman, of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, noted the importance of the ruling given that "the Department of Education is trying to cut back Title IX every way it can" (Babcock, 1981, p. A10). Moreover, the Supreme Court decided in 1982 that employees were indeed also covered in Title IX legislation (North Haven Board of Education v. Bell, 1982). In the 6-3 ruling the majority found the language of "no person" within the law to mean "no person," including employees. Justice Harry Blackmun, writing the decision, noted that if the legislature had intended to exclude employees, it would have been written in language clearly naming students as the only persons covered by the law. Justices Lewis Powell, Warren Burger, and William Rehnquist wrote in the minority opinion that the majority conclusion "torture[d] the language chosen by Congress" (Greenhouse, 1982, p. A2).

Grove City College v. Bell, 1984

In 1978 a small private Christian college in Pennsylvania, Grove City College, brought suit against the federal government over the issue of Title IX. In an effort to preserve its religious and academic freedoms, the college had refused any federal aid. But, several hundred of its 2,200 students did receive federal financial assistance in the form of grants and subsidized loans. When Grove City College refused to submit an assurance to the DOE that it intended to comply with Title IX, an administrative law judge ordered, "that no scholarship or loan funds be forwarded to any Grove City students" (Margolick, 1982, p. A17). The ensuing six-year legal battle resulted in a Supreme Court decision that effectively ended the broad legal interpretation of Title IX that the courts had followed in the preceding decade.

Grove City College was in many ways the ideal case for the Reagan Administration to use as a vehicle for dismantling civil rights legislation. The college had its own non-discrimination policy, which included gender. There was no victim of discrimination filing suit against the college, nor had there ever been. Therefore the issue of discrimination was purely hypothetical. Moreover, Grove City College was not arguing for its right to discriminate, as other religious institutions had. It simply argued that it should not be bound to federal interference. It was very uncommon for the Justice Department to pursue such cases in which a university failed to sign an agreement to comply with Title IX. Thus the Reagan administration could take an anti-discrimination stance while maintaining the language of deregulation--with no "victim" for civil rights groups to rally around.

Even as Reagan worked to "deregulate" Title IX, especially through the Grove City College litigation, he continued to express rhetoric in support of women's rights. This inconsistency did not go entirely unnoticed. Margaret Kohn, a lawyer at the National Women's Law Center pointed out, "For the president to say on one hand that he supports the rights of women and then take this position [on Title IX] is inconsistent. The two positions are diametrically opposed" (Thornton, 1983, p. A2). Ralf Neas of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights said, "Such a regressive action would demonstrate once again that the Reagan administration's record on civil rights is a marked contrast to the administrations rhetoric of the past few weeks" (Thornton, 1983, p. A2). Even Republican Senator Bob Dole criticized the Reagan administration and noted, "Congress did not want a piecemeal approach whereby an educational institution could reap the benefits of Federal aid for one program but be free to discriminate in the rest of its programs" ("Dole assails," 1983, sec. 1, p. 32).

In keeping with Senator Dole's sentiments, the House passed a resolution in 1983 "opposing the Reagan administration's attempts to limit the application of Title IX" (Struck & Cass, 1983, p. A17). Republican Representative Claudine Schneider (RI) sponsored the resolution, which passed 414 to 8. As Representative Paul Simon (D-Ill.) argued, "We have sent the crystal-clear message that Congress has invested the law with a vigor that should not be diminished" (Struck & Cass, 1983, p. A17).

Despite the historical interpretation to that point, as well as the legislative intent made clear by the House in the early 1980s, William Smith, the Attorney General, insisted that interpreting Title IX more narrowly was the "best reading of the statute and its history" (1983, Sec. 4, p. 18). Relying on the Supreme Court's 1982 ruling in North Haven Board of Education v. Bell, Smith maintained the courts' position that "Title IX's legislative history corroborates its general program-specificity" (Smith, 1983, Sec. 4, p. 18). The Justice Department approach was to argue for "surgical intervention" in only holding those specific programs and activities that received financial assistance accountable to Title IX. While Smith claimed neutrality in enforcing the laws that the legislative bodies enacted, the New York Times editorial staff had doubts over Smith's impartiality, given that he was the only Attorney General to interpret Title IX in this way:
 It's wholly understandable for Presidents to want lawyers who will
 champion their policies. It's unpersuasive, when those lawyers go
 out of their way to do so, to claim they're only being dutifully
 neutral. Compartmentalized discrimination is not neutral. It is
 wrong. President Reagan may be getting the lawyers he wants, but
 minorities and women are not getting the civil rights champions they
 deserve. ("Compartmentalized Discrimination," 1983, Sec. 4, p. 18)

Ironically, since Grove City College sued Secretary Bell and the DOE, and the government took the side of the narrow interpretation of the law, there was no one to argue for the status quo. As Bernice Sandler pointed out, "Normally, the Federal Government upholds its own regulations. Not this time. There's really nobody to argue the other side" (Cowan, 1983, Sec. 12, p. 17). In essence, the government was arguing that the financial aid department at Grove City College was the only part of the institution required to be in compliance with Title IX. Thus, the most controversial element of the Grove City College v. Bell case was not even entertained by the court except for the supporters of the court briefs filed by women's groups, Hispanic organizations, civil rights attorneys, and representatives of Congress. As one such filer exclaimed, "It's shocking that the government would make this kind of reversal on a policy that was consistent with all prior Democratic and Republican Administrations" (Cowan, 1983, Sec. 12, p. 17).

In 1984, in a major triumph for the Reagan administration, the Supreme Court found in favor of the federal government's new position, thereby limiting not only the scope of Title IX but also Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for race, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 for those with disabilities, and the 1975 Age Discrimination Act. Because all of these acts were similarly worded, all were summarily limited with the Supreme Court ruling in Grove City College.

While the Supreme Court did decide that having students who received federal financial aid made Grove City College responsible for abiding by Title IX, it continued on to state that only specific programs, in this case the financial aid office, were obligated to meet compliance. The Grove City College decision in effect meant that institutions could continue to discriminate in any area that did not directly receive federal funds. An institution could, for example, decide to provide athletic opportunities only to men, give men the better dorms, and keep women out of particular programs as long as none of these areas directly received federal monies. An editorial in the New York Times labeled the Justice Department's tactics in this case "'judicial activism,' a dirty name among right-wing politicians who used to condemn the Warren Court for reaching too far to make policy. But when the issue is anti-discrimination law, the Reagan Administration and its right-wing friends are all for activism. The Administration energetically urged the Court to this excess" ("Judicial Activism in Grove City," 1984, Sec. 1, p. 22).

The immediate response within Congress was to go to work to create another law that made explicit their intent on the far-reaching scope of each of the civil rights laws. The Grove City College decision came out in February of 1984 and by April Senators Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced a bill "designed to restore Title IX to full strength" (Rosen, 1984, p. D2). Kennedy commented, "This legislation will reverse all the effects of the Grove City case. It can undo the quadruple play against civil rights affected by the decision" (age, disability, gender, and race) (Rosen, 1984, p. D2). As Senator Bob Packwood (1984), (R-Ore.) noted in an article published in The New York Times:
 Sexual discrimination in education is subtle but pernicious,
 affecting its victims for their entire lives. Thus, the absurdity of
 the Grove City decision: It is of little use to bar discrimination
 in a school's financial aid program if a woman cannot gain
 admittance to, or participate in, the institution because of its
 other discriminatory policies and practices. It is of equally little
 use to bar discrimination in employment if a woman cannot attain the
 necessary education to obtain that employment. (p. A27)

The decision by the Supreme Court was clearly a victory for the Reagan Administration. Deputy Solicitor General Paul Bator enthused, "We're delighted that the court vindicated our position. We're particularly delighted after all the suggestions in the media that our position was somehow political and irresponsible" (Barbash, 1984, p. A1). As the Washington Post noted, "The decision yesterday was the administration's first important victory at the high court in efforts to cut back traditional civil rights remedies it considers too broad" (Barbash, 1984, p. A1).

While most college administrators argued that the effects of the decision would be minimal on their campuses, they could see how other, less scrupulous administrators might take advantage of the situation. Ronald Calgaard, president of Trinity University in Texas said, "If your athletic department has serious deficits and there is a less than enthusiastic commitment to equity in the first place, it may provide a convenient way to cut back on the number of sports or scholarships or coaches" (Fiske, 1984, p. A14). As this quote points out, most questions about the implication of the ruling pointed to athletics as the biggest area of concern.

Yet because the court decided that Grove City College was indeed accountable to Title IX, if only in a limited way, many saw the victory for the Right as only temporary. Then University of Wisconsin president, Robert O'Neil argued, "I think the people who brought the case won a Pyrrhic victory. I think they must feel now that they would have been much better off without the decision" (Feinberg, 1984, p. C3).

The irony was not lost on the Supreme Court, which chided the Justice Department for pursuing the case, with no accusations of discrimination at Grove City College. As Justice Lewis Powell wrote, "One would have thought that the department, confronted as it is with cases of national importance that involve actual discrimination, would have respected the independence and admirable record of this college" (Barbash, 1984, p. A1). Moreover, since the administration's position supported less government intervention, they were also questioned for championing a cause that would ultimately create more regulation, since the Office for Civil Rights would have to determine the exact flow of government funds in deciding which particular programs were accountable to Title IX.

The fallout of the decision was immediate with the DOE dropping many cases. For example, following an 18-month investigation of the University of Maryland, the DOE dismissed the case, despite the fact that they found discrimination against women athletes. The DOE stated that they had lost jurisdiction since the athletic department did not directly receive federal money. Not only were cases dropped, many cases had already faced a six-year wait, and after the decision, no new cases could be brought forward (Mann, 1984, p. B1). Despite the prediction that a revised civil rights bill would face minimal opposition, no such legislation made it through the political struggle until the 1987 Civil Rights Restoration Act, which passed over the veto of President Reagan in 1988. The four-year struggle to pass this law is evidence of the strength of the Reagan administration's stance against civil rights.

The Civil Rights Restoration Act, 1984-1988

From 1984 to 1988, civil rights restoration bills were introduced in the House and Senate with majority support, only to be stymied in committee or on the floor. For example, the House passed the Civil Rights Act of 1984 375 to 32 only to have it stop in the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, chaired by notable New Right leader, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). Senator Hatch further tied up the bill, sponsored by Senators Packwood and Kennedy, by filibustering on the floor and not allowing a vote. Without fail, most editorials suggested each time that the civil rights bills should pass through Congress quite easily, only to be continually surprised that they did not. Part of this naivete probably came from the rhetoric of support that came from most Republicans. Yet the Reagan administration continually opposed such bills on the grounds that they were "overly burdensome," particularly for religious institutions. The direct focus on undue burden for religious institutions again clearly strengthened the ties with, and support from, the Religious Right.

In 1985 a reporter for the Washington Post wrote about the situation, "There's more than one way to kill a cat. If you're a bit on the devious side, you can smother the poor thing to death while murmuring 'nice kitty.' I don't want to accuse Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of deviousness, but his approach to the Civil Rights Restoration Act has the distinct overtones of 'nice kitty'" (Raspberry, 1985, p. A17). After delaying a vote as long as possible, Hatch's next strategy was to attach an anti-abortion amendment to the bill. In effect he tried to extend the provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to fetuses (Raspberry, 1985, p. A17). This moved the debate from the civil rights based on gender, age, race, and disability to issues of religious rights and abortion, explicitly fostering the relationship between the Religious Right and the New Right. As was to become more and more evident over time, the strategy to focus on contentious religious moral issues worked as a way to sidestep issues of civil rights and to garner support for Republican platforms from contingents focused on diverse issues. As the Washington Post commented, "In the Senate, opponents have threatened to sink the bill with nongermane amendments, a tactic they used successfully last year. Busing, right-to-life and school prayer issues may be raised, not because they relate to the Grove City bill but because they are controversial and would, at the very least, cause delay" ("Roadblocks to Grove City," 1985, p. A18).

Meanwhile, in the DOE's Office for Civil Rights, the number of dropped cases was on the rise with at least 63 within one year of the Grove City College decision (Mann, 1985, p. C3). According to a study by five legal and advocacy groups on the impact of the ruling,
 The decision has created absurd results in many instances.
 Complaints are not investigated because the alleged discrimination
 took place in a building not constructed or renovated by federal
 funds. When complaints are investigated, the whole process takes
 longer because the federal government has to search for federal money
 connected with a specific program. (As cited in Mann, 1985, C3)

Moreover, as the Washington Post noted, "The Grove City Bill ... is urgent, for each week the government turns away discrimination cases that cannot be pursued until the pre-1984 law is reinstated" ("Roadblocks to Grove City," 1985, p. A18). By 1988, the DOE alone closed or narrowed 800 cases (Marcus, 1988b, p. A4).

Many athletic directors used the debate over the Grove City decision as an opportunity to revive economic as well as sexist rationales for eliminating women's athletic opportunities. As one athletic director of a New England university commented, "We're going to drop some women's programs as soon as possible. They don't bring in gate receipts, and the girls don't want to compete anyway" (Tong, 1986, p. 13). These rationales have remained common over the length of Title IX history (Walton, 2008).

Finally in 1987 with a shift to Democratic power, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee approved legislation, 12-4, to restore the civil rights taken away by the Grove City decision. Chair of the committee, Senator Edward Kennedy, observed, "I think the overwhelming bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans, Northerners and Southerners is a clear vindication of the rights of women, the handicapped, minorities, and the elderly" (Williams, 1987, p. A22). Yet, in a case of the fox guarding the hen house, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, William Reynolds, issued a statement firmly opposing the bill (Williams, 1987).

With the passage of the bill through the Senate, many conservatives rang reactionary bells of alarm. Playing on the connection between the New Right and the Religious Right, an editorial in the Washington Post exclaimed that the bill "will lead to widespread erosion of American freedoms. ... Our government is founded upon the principle that freedom is endowed by the Creator, not by the whim of a ruling body. ... Indeed, the new bill is a blueprint for disaster" (James, 1988, p. A27). Clearly this author's trust in his fellow humans to, "do the right thing," without legislation is naive at best and completely ahistorical at worst. Without legislation regarding civil rights we would still have slavery and only white males would have a right to vote--apparently the freedom endowed by the "creator" to which he refers. The Moral Majority, a leading organization of the Religious Right, called the bill "a perverted law" that would make churches victims of "militant gays, feminists and others who have no respect for God's laws" possibly forcing daycare centers subsidized by the government to hire transvestites ("An indecent veto," 1998, p. D2).

Reagan continued to express support for civil rights even as he vetoed the bill passed through the Senate, 75 to 14, in January of 1988 and through the House, 315 to 98, in March. Both votes exceeded the two-thirds necessary to overturn Reagan's veto. According to White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, the Reagan administration planned to offer an alternative bill that "would attract a large number of senators and representatives" (Marcus, 1988, p. A4). However, Neas noted, "It [was] the latest in a long line of efforts to sabotage the Civil Rights Restoration Act" (Marcus, 1988a, p. A4). As House Speaker, Jim Wright (D-Tex) explained, Reagan "may want to turn the clock back on civil rights, but the American people do not" (Marcus & Dewar, 1988, p. A1). Or as another editorial put it, "The sheer absurdity of Mr. Reagan's reasoning ... warrants another opportunity to stare, chin dropped to the floor, at the president's sense of decency in his waning days in office" ("An indecent veto," 1988, p. D2).

Given other current events of the time, it is perhaps surprising that the bill and the veto of it received so much media attention. Reagan's veto came on the same day that newspapers were filled with indictments of John Poindexter and Oliver North for their role in the conspiracy to defraud the United States in the Iran-Contra affair, as well as U.S. military action in Honduras and Reagan's orders to send 3,200 American troops there. Yet civil rights legislation was something the media clearly had its eye on, given the long and embittered battle. In March of 1988, both the House and Senate voted to over-ride Reagan's veto and passed the Civil Rights Restoration Act into law.

Given the results of the 1988 presidential election, which guaranteed another four years of Republican control with the first George Bush administration, it is not surprising that the results of the Civil Right Restoration Act were more symbolical than practical. The pre-Grove City College issues of lack of enforcement, limited investigations, and lack of a clear directive from federal offices such as the Departments of Education and Justice, meant little action for Title IX and other civil rights legislation restored in 1988. Reagan and his supporters argued that civil rights legislation imposed on the personal liberties of citizens and private groups. Yet, as many editorials pointed out, "The liberty that individuals will lose is the opportunity to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, handicap, or age and to have that discrimination subsidized by the public treasury" (Ellis, 1988, Sec. 1, p. 30).

Concluding Remarks

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1980 Title IX was eight years old, but only had one year of policy under its belt in regards to athletics. The Reagan administration carefully chose and fostered a legal case in Grove City College v. Bell that would effectively change the face of most civil rights laws for the decade to come. Once the Reagan administration shifted its stance on the interpretation of Title IX in the early 1980s, all cases were put on hold pending the six-year litigation in Grove City College. Once the Supreme Court sided with the federal interpretation of the narrowed scope of Title IX and other civil rights laws written similarly, thousands of discrimination cases across the country were dropped or narrowed. The expanded power of the executive branch became abundantly clear from the Reagan administration's influence on the Supreme Court to its ties and loyalty within the Senate as legislation set to reverse the Grove City College decision was continually stymied.

The bond between the New Right and the Religious Right became stronger as the rhetoric of the Reagan administration gave lip service to anti-discrimination even as it was dismantling it legally--all on the platform of religious freedom and individual rights. By enmeshing the Civil Rights Restoration Act within arguments over abortion, the New Right was able to rally the cries of the Religious Right, thereby symbolically pitting the civil rights of women, racial minorities, people with disabilities, and the elderly against the religious freedoms of those opposed to abortion. Despite the fact that the Civil Rights Restoration Act had majority support in both the Senate and House, this strategy kept the issue from coming to a vote for four years.

Meanwhile, this political wrangling kept women from being able to focus on moving forward in their effort to reach equality in education and in the educational sport fields and arenas. Rather than spending time, energy, and resources on improving the life of women, Reagan's all-out attack on Title IX meant that women had to fight to even get back to where they were at the end of the 1970s--hardly a reason for celebration. While women had made some progress within athletics in the 1970s, with athletic budgets moving from one percent for women in 1971 to 16 percent in 1979, it was no sigh of relief for the end of sex discrimination. Work to end sex discrimination, especially in athletics, had barely gotten started. And as we see from the battles on this front in the 1990s and the disparities in athletic opportunities that continue to exist today, the overall war is far from over (Walton, 2003; 2008). Indeed, the ideology and framework of 'backlash' so important to the cultivation of allegiances between the New Right and Religious Right have continued to play out in cultural meanings of Title IX in the 1990s (Walton, 2003), and the first two decades of the 2000s (Walton & Helstein, 2008). As Walton and Helstein (2008) noted of men's collegiate wrestling, the very construction of the 'wrestling community' has, to some degree, centered on anti-Title IX ideologies within the last two decades. Thus, we continue to see backlash ideologies as a cornerstone of resistance to Title IX, especially to girls and women's inclusion in competitive athletics.

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Theresa Walton, Ph.D.

Kent State University

School of Exercise, Leisure and Sport

264G Gym Annex

Kent, OH 44266



(330) 672-0234

Theresa Walton, Kent State University
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Title Annotation:Original Research Article
Author:Walton, Theresa
Publication:Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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