Birch Bayh: A lasting legacy of advocating for women’s educational rights
The former senator will be remembered for his tremendous contributions towards eliminating gender discrimination in schools and universities, as well as several other constitutional reform legislation.
Birch Bayh, the former three-term U.S. senator from Indiana, who served from 1963 to 1981, passed away last week at the age of 91.
While the former senator’s name may not immediately ring a bell to most individuals, Bayh was a trailblazer and one of the most important, impactful and influential U.S. politicians of the late 20th century.
Shortly after winning the 1962 U.S. Senate election and taking office in early 1963, Bayh became the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments, one of six subcommittees within the Senate Judiciary Committee. In that role, Bayh authored two constitutional amendments, the 25th amendment—which states the transition of power should a sitting president become unable to fulfill their duty, and the 26th amendment—which lowered the voting age in the U.S. from 21 years of age to 18. In the process, Bayh became the only non-Founding Father to author multiple constitutional amendments.
Perhaps his greatest achievement, however, was championing and introducing Title IX as part of the Education Amendments legislation and Higher Education Act. Title IX prohibits gender discrimination as it relates to educational opportunities. The law reads: “no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
Then-Sen. Bayh wanted women to be afforded equal opportunities in the public educational system. In past interviews, Bayh often credited his wife for inspiring him to fight for women’s rights. In 1951, his wife Marvella was denied the opportunity to attend the University of Virginia because she was a woman.
“One of the great failings of the American educational system is the continuation of corrosive and unjustified discrimination against women,” Bayh said on the Senate floor in 1972, around the time he introduced the Title IX legislation. “It is clear to me that sex discrimination reaches into all facets of education — admissions, scholarship programs, faculty hiring and promotion, professional staffing and pay scales. Because education provides access to jobs and financial security, discrimination here is doubly destructive to women.”
In addition to many women being denied admission into certain schools and universities simply on the basis of their sex, prior to Title IX, many schools and universities had separate entrances for male and female students; female students weren’t allowed to take certain courses; many medical and law schools limited the number of women admitted each year; and some colleges and universities required women to have higher test scores and better grades than men in order to gain admission.
However, after Title IX went into effect, women in education saw a huge shift. In 2009, approximately 87 percent of women had at least a high school education and approximately 28 percent had at least a college degree, up from 59 percent with a high school education and 8 percent with a college degree in 1970, according to a 2012 report by the United States Department of Justice. Additionally, enrollment in higher education has increased at a greater rate for females than for males. Since 1968, the percentage of women between the ages of 25 and 34 with at least a college degree has more than tripled. These statistics are all likely to continue increasing, due in large part to Title IX.
The fundamental basis of Title IX applied to the wide range of opportunities given by educational establishments, including including admissions, financial aid, student services, counseling, athletics and much more. As the years went on, however, Title IX expanded to include the reporting of sexual harassment on school and college campuses, and had more recently provided protections for transgender students, as well.
Those provisions under Title IX are also largely responsible for the increased success of women’s sports on both the collegiate and professional level.
In addition to the reforms he successfully made to Constitution, Bayh was a huge advocate for additional reforms that weren’t successfully implemented. As a way to help strengthen the women’s rights movement, Bayh authored the Equal Rights Amendment, which would ban any unequal treatment under the law for both men and women. However, it was not passed. He also attempted to pass an amendment that would abolish the Electoral College system that allows candidates to be elected president, also to no avail.
Fast forward to 2019, and talks of equal rights and abolishing the Electoral College is still very prevalent today. While the name may not sound familiar to many, Bayh leaves behind an impactful legacy that has reverberated throughout American life, and will continue to reverberate for a very, very long time.