Holly Knox

Collectively We Saved Title IX

Interviewed by Jill Westmoreland, January 2019

JW:  We are recording and it’s January 19, 2019. Tell us a little about your background, and how you got involved in the women’s movement.

HK:  I think it started growing up. I think I got a basic sense of fairness from my parents. Then I went to a women’s college where of course all the people in leadership positions were women. Then I got an internship to go to Washington before my senior year – and that led to my being offered a job in the United States Office of Education. Today it’s a department – but it was just an office then – in the legislative office – so I went to work there. One of my responsibilities was to go to the Hill and cover congressional hearings – and write reports on them for everybody in the U.S. Office of Education.

I was first assigned to cover hearings that a Congresswoman of Oregon, Edith Green, was holding on sex discrimination in higher education. She was chair of the Higher Education Subcommittee and she had a series of hearings on this. I covered those hearings and I was the person assigned to write the administration’s testimony on that bill. I did the research for that and I read about all the horrific kinds of blatant discrimination, which then existed against women in higher education.

Schools Like Harvard Were Giving PHD’s to Women But Not Hiring Them as Professors.

Zero women are full professors at Harvard for example. Zero athletic scholarships for women – at a time when there were gobs of them for guys.  There were hardly any women admitted to law school and medical school. I knew that from my own experience, because I had very few classmates that did apply to those schools and less got in. It was much harder for women if they did admit them. So I learned about all those things. I documented them in the draft administration testimony, and then I had to go to the White House to get approval and discussion on whether the administration would support legislation to do something about it.

And to my horror all the men in the room – I was the only woman there – basically decided no. The Nixon administration would not support that bill. So I was forced to go with the Deputy Commissioner of Education [who] presented that testimony. I was with him. He explained all these things that were in my testimony about terrible discrimination against women. And then the last line was – however we do not feel that this legislation is necessary at this time. So that was what really got me started.

JW:  Title IX, the law against sex discrimination in education passed in 1972. What impact did that have on you?

HK:  I was witness to its passing. It was actually just tacked on as a little noticed in a big education bill.

By the way – sometimes President Richard Nixon is given credit for signing Title IX into law. He didn’t do that. He really signed this big education bill, which had to pass, had to be signed, and Title IX was a little known part of [it]. He signed that big bill into law. It’s not that he liked Title IX – as I said, his administration had already decided not to support Edith Green’s bill, which was the precursor to Title IX. And so I saw that pass, and after it passed, I was assigned to chair an internal task force in this United States Office of Education to study the impact of what this law would mean for programs that the agency funded – and how much discrimination was in the actual programs that the agency funded.

I Was Lucky Enough that My Boss Saw this Was Important – My Male Boss by the Way.

And just let me go out of my job (just shows how critical I was, right?) to spend six months of my time with another person in the agency – Mary Ann Millsap – to do that research and write a report on what the problems were in the agency’s programs. Of course, we found sex bias in elementary and secondary education rife in the agency’s programs. We submitted that report with recommendations – and that got me some visibility. In fact, the report got out – it’s a public report, of course.

I actually had a visit from a woman from the Ford Foundation, Terry Saario, who just came to see me. I was really surprised and [she] wanted to know whether I was interested in doing some kind of work in that realm. I really didn’t even think about it, and I just went on with my work. So I headed up that task force and was very involved in that. Title IX had passed – and I also was assigned to the internal task force assigned to develop the regulation to implement Title IX.

Now a law like that is very general. It just says “thou shalt not discriminate.” Nothing happens until a regulation is written, and it actually tells the school districts and the universities what they can and can’t do. So they don’t do anything until there’s a regulation.

I was on the internal task force. I was one of two feminists then on the task force – nobody else – mostly men and one woman – who really wasn’t a feminist. I saw that this administration really did not want to implement this law. They were dragging their feet. They really didn’t want to write this regulation.

They wanted to make all kinds of exceptions, which my feminist friend and me tried to fight. It became really clear to me that this administration really did not want to do anything about sex discrimination in education under Title IX. So that’s what mobilized me.

JW:  So how did you wind up outside the government working for NOW’s nonprofit arm, The NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund?

HK:  Well that was just a little funny thing that happened. There was a meeting at a conference house outside of Washington D.C. on women in education and naturally because of this background I was the person sent by my agency as a representative to cover the conference. And so there was a bus organized from downtown D.C. to go out to this conference center, and all the people piled on from Congress and agencies to go out to this conference and probably private organizations as well.

I’m on the bus going out an hour out of town and it just happened – sitting next to me was a woman who was the Education Task Force Coordinator of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Her name was Anne Grant. And that was just a volunteer thing that she did. So she and I were sitting together and I was telling her –

Listen: This Administration Does Not Want to Implement Title IX.  

“I know. I’m on the inside. They don’t want to do it. You guys are going [to] have to do what the civil rights groups have learned to do.” Also the same administration didn’t want to implement the civil rights laws and integrate schools. And I’d seen that. And I said, “You guys have to do what the civil rights groups have done to get out there and publicize that they’re not doing it and lobby and make it public and put public pressure on them to enforce this law.” And she said to me, “Well why don’t you do that? And we can help you find some money to do it – we can help you get a grant.” So that’s where it started. I said, “Oh OK, well maybe.”

And so they made the connections for me with the Ford Foundation and the executive director and a member of the board of directors went with me to meet with the same person: Terry Saario at the Ford Foundation, who was in the process of looking for and funding a series of women’s rights programs – to the great credit of the Ford Foundation.

I had a boyfriend at the time that was running a nonprofit advocacy group for children and he knew how to write foundation grants. So he told me how to develop a proposal – he didn’t write it for me, but he showed me how to write a proposal for a foundation grant and I went with the NOW Legal Defense Fund people to visit the Ford Foundation and ask for money – and we got it.

That’s how I left – I quit my job in the government and went outside to start the Project on Equal Education Rights (PEER) as part of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

JW:  So once you had this grant, how did you get started?

Mythical Marching Millions 

HK:  The first thing I did was get an office and hire some people. I hired three people including a secretary, because this was the days before the Internet and somebody had to type – I wasn’t much of a typist. We were a very small staff and it was clear to me – having been around Congress a lot in the government – that in our little small group, we would not be able to get very much done – that we needed to work with other organizations.

So the first thing I did, was I contacted Bunny Sandler, who had started a similar project in higher education – an organization focused on higher ed. We were focused on elementary and secondary schools. I got together with Bunny and together with somebody from the National Education Association, and a couple of other people; we started meeting. We called ourselves The Education Task Force, and I was the first chair – and we started pulling in people from other education organizations, basically groups that are in Washington to lobby the government.

We started pulling in mostly women – young women – often a staffer –  a junior staffer from many [of] those organizations, but some men too. And we formed this education task force. It became the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education. That eventually became – we had over 30 organizations that participated in that representing an estimated 3 million women. The number two person at PEER, Clelia Steele called us the “Mythical Marching Millions.” So when we went to Congress and we represented all these different organizations, we represented millions of Americans across the country – we had some clout.

JW:  What were some of the challenges that you and other organizations involved in Title IX faced?

HK:  There was almost a constant stream of challenges.  In those early years of Title IX, there were so many attempts from the institutions that felt threatened by having to provide equality on the basis of sex, to either amend Title IX, weaken it – or prevent enforcement of certain things. There was a steady stream of attempts to weaken Title IX, and we had to fight them all. I started PEER – that was in the summer of 1974 – right about that same time HEW finally issued its proposed regulation under Title IX.

The regulatory process has really basically three stages:

  • First, the government issues a proposed regulation.
  • Second, there is a public comment period, and anyone can file comments on that proposed regulation.
  • And third, the government then issues – taking into consideration comments, presumably – they will issue a final regulation.

Now there’s also a fourth possible part of this action, and that is because Congress has the authority to disapprove. Writing regulations is an executive branch function, and Congress can’t amend a regulation or try to change a regulation. But Congress does have the power to completely disapprove a regulation – in effect sending the whole process back to Go. So that’s the possible number four.

So we were in that first stage of the proposed regulation when I set up PEER. And our first challenge as PEER, was to generate as many comments from feminists and people around the country who wanted Title IX to be strong – and wanted a strong regulation. So that was the first thing we set out to do, along with other groups that wanted to see Title IX come into a reality.

Collectively, we did generate many comments from women’s groups around the country – local NOW chapters, etc. – in support of the strongest possible language in the regulation. I think there were 10,000 comments filed – and that was a lot for that time.

The second stage of course is – now the public comment period is over, and the government has to produce its final regulation. Fortunately, in this case someone on the inside leaked to the women’s groups – us – a draft of the final regulation. And to our horror, we saw that they had slipped in – probably as a result of comments from universities and colleges – slipped in a new requirement that before you could file any complaint under Title IX – you felt you’ve been discriminated against illegally – before you could file a complaint asking for government action, you would have to exhaust all the internal grievance procedures that the institution provided.

That meant that universities and colleges (which all had grievance procedures) could drag out this process. They could drag it out for months – possibly years -before you would have even the right to go to the government, to file a complaint with the government and say – please intercede, we need to change something here in this university.

That was potentially a catastrophe – and the final regulation hadn’t quite come out. What do we do?  PEER and other organizations that we had begun to work with got together, and we demanded a meeting with the White House. And we got it.

A bunch of us went to the White House, and we met with the senior person in charge at the White House, and we made a strong argument that this really wasn’t fair. That if I’m discriminated against as a young female college student, I should be able to go directly to the government and not get dragged out for months or possibly years in some internal procedure. We did succeed with that. We convinced the administration that they should drop that provision – and the final regulation came out without it.

So that was another challenge early on. But the challenges in terms of the regulatory process weren’t over yet – because of that fourth possibility. Congress had the power to disapprove the whole regulation – sending the whole thing back to go. And sure enough, because the institutions – the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the men’s athletic directors at the university level – were so worried that Title IX was going to end up taking money away from the big football programs and the big basketball programs, that they got a move introduced in Congress to disapprove the whole regulation.

It had taken HEW three years to issue this final regulation.  Who knows – it could have set it back another three years. Meanwhile, there wasn’t going to be any enforcement – and very little action at the local or university level, because there wouldn’t be a regulation. So this was a potential catastrophe.

We mobilized – we and the other organizations that we had begun to work with. And we got local groups to lobby their congressmen and senators. We showed up on the Hill in force – many different organizations that we were then working with. We did succeed in killing that move to disapprove the regulation.

Those were just examples of the challenges that we had in the early days, before there was an established regulation and really before there was any enforcement. Then the challenges became – later on – to press the government to actually enforce the law. But that’s another subject.

JW:  What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

How to Implement Title IX in the Real World

HK:  First of all, none of these accomplishments were mine alone. Among the most important things I did was to start putting together this coalition and realizing that we had to all work together. So any of the accomplishments that we made were made by a wonderful and always expanding group of activists, mostly inside Washington.

We also recruited people from all around the country from local communities. So that was like a second great accomplishment I think that we had at PEER. We realized when the administration finally came out with this regulation, that it was all in kind of legalese. So in a local school district – those were my concern – the school board might really not know what all that meant. And then definitely parents and students wouldn’t know what all that meant, and what the school district was supposed to do. Such as they have to let boys and girls take shop, they have to have a sports program for girls.

There were two whole states before Title IX that had no inner interscholastic sports competitions for girls. So there were going to be big changes.

The first thing we did was to issue a side by side version of the regulation with the legalese on the left hand column, and then plain English in the right hand column – and we got that out around the country through local NOW chapters, etc. So we provided something that people at the local level could use and say, “Oh, OK, we’ve got to have a sports program, but we’ve got to have sports programs for girls and we’ve already got sports programs for boys. And I can knock on my school district’s door and say – you’ve got to make those changes. Also for school boards and for teachers who knew what they had to do – to let them know that. So that was I think a terribly important thing that we did.

Empower Local Groups

And another critical achievement was to empower local groups in local school districts through the National Organization for Women, of which we were a sister organization – so we had good access. And to publicize Title IX and what had to be done across the nation to these local groups – so they became lobbying groups at the local level. They went to their school boards and said, “Hey, we’ve got to have sports programs for girls. We’ve got to have women principals here, etc.” And that’s what really made a difference at the local level.

Interestingly enough, some of the people who got active at the local level, I found, were dads, because they grew up playing sports. And so maybe they had a daughter and they really would love for their daughter to play basketball but there wasn’t anything for her to do at the local school.

So some of those advocates at the local level – while most of them were local NOW chapters and groups of women – were dads. And that was all-important, and I think – empowering those groups. We actually did set up a state organization in the state of Michigan, which we got funded. That was a state PEER – and there were other groups. For instance, in California – we didn’t do this, but we were in close connection. Phyllis Cheng setup a state Title IX advocacy organization in California. And so we were working with all those local and state groups to feed them information – and then we had them as forces that could lobby.

JW:  What advice do you have for people working on similar issues today?

HK:  First of all, don’t be afraid to jump in on something just because you don’t have any experience and you might think you don’t know what you’re doing. I mean we were ordinary people. We weren’t people with Ph.D.s and huge experience or anything.

We Got Things Done Because We Saw What Had to Happen.

So that’s one thing – just jump in. If you see something wrong – jump in. Second thing is get other people with you because as I said, one of the first things I realized was, hey, us four people aren’t going to get much done. We’ve got to find other people who will help us work on this. So get other people involved. Numbers really count – and also, to be strategic. Figure out if there’s somebody who is a key person who will affect whether or not something good or bad happens. Figure out what their interests are and address it.

I’ll give you an example of that. When we wanted to influence the Title IX regulation, it occurred to me at some point, that even though we now had a regulation, the government still wasn’t enforcing the law – because they didn’t want to. And so there were all these complaints piling up in the US Office of Education.

We went in and we got permission from the government – these are public things – to go into all the files. And we staffed it up and we sent people and we opened up every single file and every complaint filed under Title IX. And the truth was they just weren’t sending out people to do anything on those complaints.

We found out and documented that they were investigating three-tenths of one complaint per investigator per year. And the reason – back to my thing about “figure out the people you want to influence” – by this time we had a Democratic administration. They still weren’t doing anything.

And the head of HEW was a guy named Joseph Califano Jr., and he was making building his reputation as head of HEW on being really great and cutting out red tape and really getting things done. We saw that that was his claim to fame – kind of. And so when we wrote a big report documenting this with illustrations and real examples of people – the girl who wanted to take shop and she submitted a Title IX complaint and, I forgot the year exactly, but three years went by. They never did anything. And then they closed her case three years later with zero action.

Stalled at the Start

She just wanted to take shop. We found examples like that and we documented them in a big report called “Stalled at the Start” – and we got front page coverage in The Washington Post – which focused on this issue of what is HEW doing? They’re wasting all this money. They have all these investigators, but they can’t seem to get anything done more than you know three tenths of one complaint per year. They are really wasting money. And that was aimed at Joe Califano’s claim to fame that he’s such a great administrator. So it really did have an effect and he did implement some of our recommendations and he did start stirring things up in that agency and they did start moving on complaints.

Be Strategic

So again that’s a third thing that I would recommend – be strategic. Figure out whom you are trying to influence and really what makes a difference to them.

I have one more example of that. First of all, there was a wonderful piece of legislation enacted called the Women’s Educational Equity Act of 1974 (WEEA) and that was a couple of years after Title IX. And that was a funding program that was designed to fund some sample programs that would expand opportunities for women and girls in education. So there’s a title on the law that says “thou shalt not discriminate.” But what do we do? So the WEEA program came along to fund some sample programs which other school districts and colleges could say – oh, OK we can do that here too. This was a wonderful program.

Well, at some point the Republicans who were in control of Congress decided – they came out with their annual budget proposal and it had zero funding for WEEA. They were going to cut off funding. The Republicans didn’t want all this women’s rights stuff, I promise – still true. So they were going to cut the funding, and we saw that the administration had come out with this. The Republicans in Congress had come out with a budget. It had zero funding for WEEA. Well again to be strategic, we thought – all right whom can we get to?

There were two women Republican congresswoman at the time and one of my colleagues in this coalition worked for another organization – Pat Reuss, who said, “Hey one of the women members of Congress is having a fundraiser and we could go to the fundraiser because the important people in the Republican Party in Congress will be at a fundraiser. So why don’t we go and we can probably talk to the majority leader and tell him to fund WEEA?”

This seemed like kind of a crazy idea, but I put on the one silk blouse that I had, and we went to that fundraiser. It was a one- or two-hundred-dollar fundraiser and we said, “We don’t have that much money. Can we just give ten dollars or fifty dollars?” And they said. “Oh sure. C’mon in.” So we went to the fundraiser and sure enough the chief Republican in the House of Representatives was there at the fundraiser.

So we buttonholed him and we gave him the sad story about this wonderful program for girls and women – it was doing great things and there was no money in their budget for [it] and they just had to fund it. And we also got the congresswoman -we gave her the pitch too so that she would talk to him and make sure that this program got funded. Bottom line: it did.

So we went to where there was somebody who could make all the difference, and we figured out how to appeal to them and their terms – and we got a victory there. So that’s my third bit of advice. Figure out who’s the most important to get to, and figure out a good way to get to them.

JW:  Is there anything you would like to add?

HK:  Yes.  As I think about it – I think overall, the greatest accomplishment for all of us who were working on that issue back in that day, was to keep Title IX virtually intact. You can see the importance of that today, because it seems like almost every week, I see something in the news about some case of sexual harassment or sexual assault being brought under Title IX and acted on – or not acted on. Usually that’s at the university level. You can see how important this is today because in late 2018 – just a couple of months ago – the Trump administration put out a proposed new regulation on that issue alone – on sexual harassment and sexual assault under Title IX.

And as I mentioned before, when the government puts out a proposed regulation, the public has a chance to comment. Now normally, that’s a minor thing. But in this case, the government got over a hundred thousand comments on this draft regulation! I’ve never heard of such a thing. That’s extraordinary. It shows how important Title IX is today. And it also shows – I think – that the voices of women today are strong, and they are numerous – and they will be heard. And that is a joy to see.