The life-altering moment that turned the father of Title IX into a champion for women

Senator Birch Bayh in Nov. 8, 1968, two years before he began working on laws that would codify gender equality.
Senator Birch Bayh in Nov. 8, 1968, two years before he began working on laws that would codify gender equality.
Image: AP Photo/Henry Griffin
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It was February 1970. Senator Birch Bayh, 42 at the time, was leading hearings for the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments to inform what would become the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18. Women concerned with gender discrimination found their way into the hearings; their protest signs, not relevant to the conversation, caught Bayh’s attention. To avoid disruptions, Bayh went to remove the protestors from the chamber. But at the last minute, he instructed his aide to find out what the women wanted.

“Those were women wanting equality. That’s the first time it ever came to my attention,” Bayh told me in 2011. “And I just about screwed it up by saying ‘get ‘em out of here.’”

That moment changed Bayh’s life—and the lives of millions of women. Bayh, who died in March at age 91, introduced the landmark federal equality law Title IX, which prohibits federally-funded educational institutions from sex-based discrimination, and spearheaded the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which, had it been ratified by enough states, would have secured equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender.

Bayh was proud of his role in the fight for women’s equality—indeed, it defined his legacy. “Getting women equal education was more [important] than anything else except perhaps giving them the right to vote,” he told me.

The action that made all the difference? That Bayh stopped to listen to women.

An uncommon awakening

Bayh spent his early years around strong women. Bayh, born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1928, had a childhood that differed from many of his peers—his mother died when he was 12 and his dad was stationed in China during WWII. Bayh was raised by his grandmother, who worked as a laborer and business partner on the family’s successful farm. Then in 1951, when he was 23 years old, Bayh met his first wife, Marvella, when they faced off at a speech competition. She beat him en route to becoming the first woman to win the national title.

But Bayh had blind spots, too. The women around him were living in a profoundly unequal world that limited their income and career options—his grandmother, had her husband died, would have lost the family farm due to unequal inheritance laws, and Marvella’s application to her first-choice university was returned with the note “Women need not apply.” But for a long time, Bayh didn’t understand their realities were different than his own. “I didn’t realize women weren’t equal, because all the women in my life had been fully equal,” he told me.

That day in the Senate lifted his blinders. The more he listened, the more he truly heard. “When we [later] held hearings [for the ERA], it was painfully clear that there was a lot of discrimination that went on.” Even so, Bayh never strongly identified as a feminist. “I am a person who’s for equality for women. If that makes me a feminist, that’s fine, I’m proud of it,” he explained. “But I’m also for equality for men. I don’t know what you call that.” Label or no label, once he was aware of the second-class status of women, he couldn’t turn away.

Laws promoting gender equality needed Bayh’s help. In 1970, there was just one woman serving in the Senate, which meant legislation to advance women’s rights, paradoxically, needed male champions to become law. Bayh rose to the occasion. Democrat colleagues like Ted Kennedy supported legislation Bayh brought to the Senate floor, while Republican colleagues helped rally votes across the aisle.

Not all men in the Senate shared Bayh’s perspective. Bayh’s first attempt to bar sex-discrimination in higher education, a provision added to a larger higher education bill that came before the Senate in 1971, was overruled when 50 senators agreed Bayh was out of line. “This was the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard—that we had a higher education bill and I couldn’t… require equality of opportunity between men and women.” The next year Bayh and a select few other male senators presented the bill again, taking extra precautions to ensure it would pass this time.

Bayh acted on information and advice he received from concerned women, politicians and otherwise, who became “good friends and allies.” To become law, Title IX needed to pass in the Senate and the House of Representatives, where Congresswoman Edith Green was leading the charge. Green was having trouble even getting her bill out of committee, so she and Bayh spoke regularly to develop strategies that would help them both be successful. They suspected that if Bayh could get the Senate to pass Title IX, Green would be able to use that as leverage in the House. In Bayh’s words, he was simply “carrying [Green’s] torch in the Senate.” Their strategy worked: The Senate passed the bill and the House followed suit. President Nixon signed Title IX into law on June 23, 1972.

Though Bayh is best known for Title IX, starting in 1970 his real goal was passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have added a Constitutional amendment establishing full equality of rights for women in the US. A version of the ERA had been unsuccessfully introduced in every Congress since 1923, and though both houses of Congress approved the amendment in 1972 under Bayh’s leadership, not enough states voted to ratify it, so it never became law.

A legacy of allyship

Title IX made it possible for me to interview Bayh. I spoke to him as part of my research into the pre-history of Title IX for my undergraduate thesis at Duke University, where I was also a manager for the top-ranked women’s basketball program and briefly competed on the women’s rowing team. Title IX opened these doors for me—it enabled me to grow up as an athlete, to study on equal footing with my male peers, and to chase my dreams working in sports.

The results of Bayh’s leadership continue to make waves. Title IX signified the government’s recognition of women’s full citizenship, argued Duke political scientist Deondra Rose in her book Citizens By Degree. It was the legislation that set the stage for recent elections in which record numbers of women ran for office. Nearly 50 years after women needed a male ally like Bayh to lead efforts for women’s rights, there are 25 of them in the Senate. Today, there’s more opportunity than ever for women’s voices to be at the forefront of conversations about women’s rights.

That’s not to say Title IX fixed everything. Women are using their newly amplified voices to fight the inequalities that persist—to close the pay gap, to end to sexual harassment and assault, to carry no more than their equal weight of chores at home, to finally establish a constitutional right to full equality. Still, one of Bayh’s lessons persists—that women can’t break through glass ceilings alone.

Luckily, Bayh showed us a way. A more equal future doesn’t require men to make grand gestures. What it takes is listening, then doing something.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of the fight for gender equality. Read more stories here.