After defeating the Minnesota Lynx, the 2021 Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) champion team the Chicago Sky celebrated 50 years of educational equality for women and girls and 50 years of having opportunities opened for them that allow them to participate more fully in U.S. society and develop their talents and abilities so they can contribute their gifts to the benefit of the nation as a whole.
They did so by celebrating the passage of the landmark Title IX legislation in 1972 with a post-game panel featuring two-time WNBA champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Candace Parker, Chairperson and Minority Owner of the Sky Margaret Stender, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, and longtime DePaul University women’s basketball coach Doug Bruno. They all discussed in concrete and material ways the impact Title IX has had for women, particularly by opening opportunities for them to play sports in school, and the benefits it has for a democratic society overall.
But, in case you don’t know, let’s start with what Title IX is.
Roughly fifty years ago on June 23, 1972, Title IX of the 1972 Federal Education Amendments, which are part of the Civil Rights Act, was signed into law. It stated that “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Title IX, one might argue, and overall the institution of equality and prohibition of discrimination, constitute important cultural and political traditions, even definitive ones, in American history.
Isn’t equality, and the right not to face discrimination, a basic value Americans tend, or pretend, to hold dear, even if it hasn’t been realized in the nation’s cultural and social practices historically or always expressed and enforced in its laws?
Yes, it wasn’t until 1972 in this land of the free and home of the brave that women and girls had educational equality conferred upon them. But this span does constitute basically two generations of women in America who have been impacted by this legislation.
The Supreme Court of the United States, of course, as we saw in Justice Samuel Alito’s recent majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, clearly doesn’t agree that five decades of legal influence and impact on Americans’ lives substantially root that value and its attendant laws in the history and traditions of the nation.
The original Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade came in January 1973, just six months after the passage of Title IX, and did much to further women’s rights and equality under the law by extending to women the right and ability to control their own bodies and make decisions about their own health, particularly their reproductive health.
Roe v Wade didn’t quite make it to fifty the way Title IX has, which is why this panel was so important in terms of marking and educating audiences on the history and benefits of this legislation for women and all of American society.
While the celebration of Title IX was certainly planned ahead of the release of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court decision nonetheless colored the discussion of the important legislation that advanced women on the basketball court, among other social arenas.
Margaret Stender, who was the founding President and CEO of the Chicago Sky, in particular highlighted the countervailing context of Alito’s and the Supreme Court’s assault on the very rights and opportunities for women the Sky were celebrating that evening.
And all panelists, though especially Parker and Stender, highlighted the importance of the WNBA as an important and powerful social force for civil, human, and democratic rights in American culture and society.
Indeed, as I wrote about recently after attending a Sky game where the organization celebrated Juneteenth, the WNBA in its very existence forwards women’s rights and LGBTQ rights and functions as a powerful cultural and social counterpunch to the white male supremacist and anti-democratic politics and values that are becoming dangerously and increasingly mainstream.
Stender emphasized how the Sky and the league as a whole functions according to and forwards its values, which are very clearly the egalitarian values of democracy which eschew assigning to any people or identity the status of second-class citizenship, whether they be people of color, women, or members of the LGBTQ community.
Walking through Wintrust Arena, the Sky’s home court, on game day, the presence of images and symbols in the arena itself and sported by the fans asserting the dignity and value of women, LGBTQ people, and people of color abound. It’s not a matter of protest or controversy; it’s a matter of course; it’s the everyday culture of the WNBA and the Chicago Sky, a culture that exemplifies, that models, democracy.
As I said in my previous piece, in this moment when democracy seems so under fire and forces of repression and hate so powerful and surging, having models of actually existing democracy and humanity, where we see civil and human rights enacted, is absolutely crucial.
As Candace Parker talked about, someone like her, of her achievement, wouldn’t have been possible without Title IX, as it required the schools, including colleges and universities, offer equal opportunities for women to participate in sports. Many schools didn’t even feature girls’ and women’s sports teams prior to Title IX, and there certainly weren’t games being shown on ESPN.
And we should be able to see from the WNBA how granting all people equality under the law helps all of us.
We can see what a tremendous talent Parker is. So just think what women have been able to receive the same support as men in cultivating their talent and support are able to contribute, and have been contributing, to our society because of legislation such as Title IX.
While the Supreme Court turned back 50 years of progress represented by Roe v. Wade, let’s recognize, celebrate, and support the efforts that continue to move us forward—and the organizations such as the WNBA and the Chicago Sky that do so—and that show us in concrete and lived ways the value of actually existing democracy and democratic culture such as one experiences in the WNBA.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.