When it's her long-awaited turn to play an inning behind the plate, I rush over to my daughter and help her strap on her leg guards, chest protector, and mask and then watch as she does her best imitation of Jorge Posada, crouched unsmiling behind the batter. When there's a chance of a play at the plate, she whips off the mask and positions her glove exactly where it's supposed to be.
It still brings a tear to my eye. I didn't expect to be much of a Little League dad -- I never played organized baseball myself and don't have much of a competitive streak. But I'm very much a Title IX dad. My 8-year-old is the only girl on her team this year, but that's mostly a trivial fact. She's hardly conscious of it, and the only time I've ever heard any of her teammates mention it was to worry about whether she was going to switch to softball, as other girls have done -- something she has no intention of doing. She was thrilled when she learned that there was no actual rule or law against women playing Major League Baseball, just that it hadn't happened yet. Her aspiration to play for the Yankees is not measurably less realistic than any other 8-year-old's.
Her routine participation in Little League still seems something of a miracle. It's certainly more than was imagined by the authors of Title IX, the 1972 amendment that did not even mention athletics in its requirement that federally funded education programs not discriminate by gender (with extensive exceptions for single-sex colleges, fraternities, sororities, and beauty pageants). A year later, the National Organization for Women launched a case that would ultimately lead Congress to change the Little League's congressional charter to refer to "young people" instead of "boys" and to eliminate its reference to promoting "manhood."
As one watches these kids round the bases and cheer one another on, it's also obvious that there's a lot more to it than just athletics. This generation of children is unfailingly decent to one another, respectful of one another's different personalities, and attentive to and proud of one another's successes. The petty cruelties of childhood are rare. Political scientists have marveled at the distinctive attitudes of "millennials," born roughly between 1982 and 2003. (Thus, a single generation seems to encompass both my daughter and many of my co-workers!) They are characterized above all by tolerance but also by cooperation, liberal political views, and respect for public institutions. They form the basis not just for the Obama Democratic coalition but for the hope of a progressive politics in the future. And the kind of equality promoted by Title IX surely has had something to do with that.
What can we take from these moments? First, that small gestures toward equality and fairness can have vast implications into the future. Title IX, with all its limits, was a nudge that set off a chain of social transformations. We often think that big changes can only come from big actions -- this magazine co-sponsored a conference last February calling on the administration to "think big" -- but more than one social transformation has been spurred by a change whose implications seemed modest at the time.
Second, many liberals have become wary of getting too far ahead of the culture. We know that same-sex marriage will eventually be legal everywhere, and we fight efforts to ban it, but many of us are also hesitant about pushing the point too hard in areas of the country that don't seem ready. Sensible liberal legal scholars worry that Roe v. Wade (1973) got ahead of changing attitudes on reproductive rights. If we were transported back to 1972, some of us might worry that schoolchildren and their parents weren't ready for such an abrupt transformation as Title IX. Most people "accepted baseball as a male prerogative of some sort," complained a Little League vice president in 1974.
But as I watch my daughter do something that would have been unlikely for a girl of my generation, and see all that goes with it, I'm endlessly thankful to those litigators and legislators of the early 1970s who weren't at all afraid to give the culture and its assumptions a shove in the name of fairness. And so should my daughter be. Although for now, it's more exciting that last spring her coach declared her the team's Most Valuable Catcher.