Go ahead and thank Richard Nixon for helping the U.S. women’s national team bring home the World Cup.
The 37th president left office in disgrace in 1974, long before Megan Rapinoe and company took their first kicks on the soccer field.
Before leaving office, on June 23, 1972, Nixon signed legislation that paved the way for the U.S. team’s run of dominance. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act includes these 37 words: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Designed to increase educational opportunities, Title IX doesn’t specifically mention sports. But its application opened the doors for increased participation for girls and women. At the high school level, female participation in sports has grown 1,057 percent since 1972.
Title IX didn’t change things overnight. A 1984 court challenge removed athletics from Title IX enforcement, but Congress passed legislation — over the veto of President Ronald Reagan — that reversed the impact of that ruling. The women’s World Cup was actually once called the “FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup,” which shows that acceptance doesn’t come overnight.
Today, the United States leads the world in the acceptance and promotion of women in athletics, with global results that more than back up this claim. Not only have U.S. women won four World Cups in soccer, three U.S. women have won a Grand Slam tennis tournament since Andy Roddick hoisted the U.S. Open trophy in 2003 (Serena Williams has won multiple times), and U.S. women won more medals than men in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. A 15-year-old American girl made it to the fourth round at this year’s Wimbledon.
Now, for women’s soccer, the debate shifts to questions of equal pay, appropriate level of celebration and whether to visit the White House. These are all fair points, but they also are leaps and bounds from just trying to get on the field four decades ago.
It would be incorrect to assert that Nixon’s signature represented a more collegial time of bipartisanship in American politics. This was, after all, the era of Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War and stagflation.
But it is remarkable, just as remarkable as the U.S. team’s World Cup run, to think that a Republican could once sign equality legislation just as a Democrat two decades later could put his signature to welfare work rules. What are the chances of something like that happening today?