For Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who won three gold medals and one silver in the 1984 Olympic swimming competition in Los Angeles, success has often required a large dose of persistence.
As an elite swimmer, she was undefeated in dual meets throughout her high school and college competitive careers and she qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. But the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics because the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and it was four years before she could feel the thrill of standing atop the Olympic podium.
As International Women's Day marks its 100th anniversary Tuesday, Hogshead-Makar is reaching for another goal that has seemed even more elusive – equal access for girls and women to competitive sports in schools.
Enacted in 1972, Title IX bans sex discrimination for any education program or activity receiving federal money, and it is credited with bringing girls' and women's sports into the mainstream of scholastic and collegiate athletics.
Even though the law is closing in on its 40th anniversary in 2012, Hogshead-Makar notes that girls have 1.3 million fewer slots or opportunities on high school teams than boys have. "The differential between boys and girls has stayed fairly steady for the last 15 or 20 years," said Hogshead-Makar, the advocacy director for the Women's Sports Foundation
"Sports is the only sex-segregated area in the whole school," she said. "That's exactly what makes it so important to treat boys and girls the same way."
Part of the problem, she said, is that there is no requirement for schools to report to the federal government the number of slots they have for boys and girls.
In January, U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter
of New York, a Democrat and longtime women's rights advocate, did something she has done repeatedly since 2004: introduced a bill called the High School Athletic Accountability Act, which would require high schools to report basic data on the number of female and male students in their athletic programs and the expenditures made for their sports teams. Federal law already requires colleges to report information about gender equity in athletics.
"While we have made significant strides towards equity in athletics, we must continue to monitor our progress and ensure that our nation's young women have the rights and opportunities they deserve," Slaughter said in a statement last month. "I want to remind everyone that ... high school girls still receive 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play sports than high school boys. It's high time we corrected this inequity."
Slaughter added: "Better information can help high schools and parents of schoolchildren foster fairness in athletic opportunities for both girls and boys. Ultimately, this is about expanding the opportunities of girls and women to play sports and live physically active lives."
Hogshead-Makar cited studies that indicate that girls who participate in sports are more likely to reach higher levels of education and higher levels of pay in the workforce. She also noted that the teenage pregnancy rate is lower
for girls who participate in sports. "The more we know about what sports experience does for kids, the more that his becomes a more urgent public policy message," she said.
Slaughter's bill, which has 26 co-sponsors, including one Republican, was sent to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which referred the measure to its subcommittee on early childhood, elementary and secondary education.
Whether the bill will make it out of committee is questionable, considering that it failed to do so when Democrats controlled the House. Now, with Republicans in control of the House and tea party supporters looking to reduce government, the prospects of the bill may be even more daunting.
Eric Pearson, chairman of the College Sports Council
, a group that advocates reform of Title IX and opposes "gender quotas in high school athletics," said that especially at a time when school districts are facing financial problems, requiring them to report more information to the federal government is imposing an unnecessary burden.
He said that most of the information the law would require is already reported at the state level and to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Pearson emphasized that his organization supports the basic goal of Title IX. "We don't think anybody should be discriminated against on the basis of gender," he said. But in the current financial climate, he said, if a school is required to provide equal numbers of slots for girls and boys, it is likely to decrease the number of slots for boys instead of increasing the number for girls.
"We're concerned that administrators will pull down the number to 50-50 rather than expand the opportunities for girls," Pearson said.
So far, he said, he has not been made aware of any high schools eliminating a boys' team to even the number of slots, but he has heard of cases in which a community wanted to add a baseball team or a soccer team but couldn't do so without adding a softball team or a girls' soccer team.
Hogshead-Makar said that what she has seen is that the addition of sports for girls has often led to an increase in the sports opportunities for boys and that the "unmet demand for sports
is enormous for both boys and girls."
She said that she can easily see the lasting benefits that sports provided in her life. A tenured professor of law at the Florida Coastal School of Law and the mother of a son and two daughters, Hogshead-Makar said, "I learned a lot on the days that I did not want to get into the water with every cell in my body but that I was committed to something other than being in a good mood." She said that kind if discipline developed through sports translated to the kind of discipline it took to become a tenured professor or to be "a good parent at 3 o'clock in the morning."
She said she wants to make sure that "other kids get to have this thing called sports in their lives."