After Serena Williams won her fifth Wimbledon title in stunning fashion on Saturday, she was asked a familiar question on the tournament’s storied Centre Court. It’s a question that seems to be posited to every female athlete at every level of competition: “Was it difficult for you to control your emotions?”
It’s true that men are sometimes asked the “emotions” question but this is a question women athletes are always asked. It speaks to a broader sentiment that both predates and transcends the playing field: the idea that women are just too emotional, too hysterical, too mercurial, to be taken seriously in any walk of life. This runs so deeply in the marrow of US society, we rarely - unless male politicians are lobbying for involuntary vaginal ultrasounds – step back and comment on just how destructive it is.
Statistics were released in May that show the United States ranks 78th on earth in female legislative representation. On questions of pay equity, health care, and any semblance of reproductive freedom, women are in a constant state of insecurity, and forced to live a precarious life.
When Serena had to field the “emotions” question on the highest possible stage, it was for me a window into why so many women and men celebrated the recent 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX. There is arguably no piece of progressive legislation that's touched more people's lives than Title IX, which allowed young women equal opportunity in education and sports. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, one in 35 high school girls played sports 40 years ago; one in three do today. Before Title IX, fewer than 16,000 women participated in college sports; today that number exceeds 200,000. All stereotypes about women being too “emotional” to handle sports were answered when the gyms were unlocked, and they arrived in droves.
It is a reform that has improved the quality of life for tens of millions of women around the country. Yet when it was passed, the critiques from the world of sports were ample. Sports columnist Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution expressed much of the conventional wisdom of the sports page when he wrote, "What are we after, a race of Amazons? Do you want a companion or a broad that chews tobacco? What do you want for the darling daughter, a boudoir or a locker room full of cussing and bruises? A mother for your grandchildren or a hysterectomy?"
Frightening though it was, Bisher was representing majority opinion in the United States, but since then public opinion has shifted dramatically. As the 40th anniversary passed, polls showed Title IX holding an 80% approval rating, fitting for legislation that has has touched the lives of so many.
But if we all love Title IX so much, why is it so lonely? Given its popular and unqualified success, shouldn’t we have every right to expect legislation aimed at uprooting sexism in all kinds of institutions beyond the world of sports? The need for this kind of intervention can be seen most plainly if we look at the gender politics that surround who is actually coaching these hundreds of thousands of women now free to play ball.
In 1972, women coached 90% of women’s college athletic teams. Today it’s only 42.9 percent. As journalist Megan Greenwell wrote,“Once universities were required to treat women's sports as serious pursuits and fund them accordingly, men started wanting jobs coaching women. And once men started wanting jobs coaching women, men started getting a disproportionate number of those jobs. It's one of the most obvious, yet least talked-about, forms of institutional sexism out there: Coaching jobs are only for women when men don't want them.”
I spoke about this to Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the great 1984 Olympic Gold Medal swimmer. Today, Hogshead-Makar is law professor as well as the Senior Director of Advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation. She said,
“The drop in women in coaching represents the bias against women, the sexism in sports. When two candidates are up, a male and a female, there is a bias that sports equals male, that the traits sports inculcates are male ones, and that the man would be better for the job. I’ve seen it happen too many times.. Women in coaching is a little glimpse of what would happen if the decision-maker’s bias about girls and boys, men and women in sports were allowed to go unchecked.”
The conclusions we can draw from this state of affairs should be "radical common sense": If we like Title IX, we should also see it as a living breathing argument for a new Equal Rights Amendment that guarantees pay equity, health services, and child care subsidies for all women in need. As Title IX demonstrates, without actual regulation and intervention, the profound biases in this “Great American Melting Pot” are all just allowed to simmer in peace.
If these biases are ever going to be uprooted and challenged, we need real civil rights legislation with actual teeth. As Serena Williams and Title IX show, when the broadest numbers of people have opportunity for success, we all benefit. But if we are going to win this kind of equality in sports and all walks of life, we all might just have to get a little bit emotional.