Whatever else history places on the Bush administration's legacy list, "concerted booster of women's rights" is unlikely to merit a mention. But the administration launched a curious effort this week to counter its normally woman-neutral posture. This summer, the U.S. Department of Education will probe, in depth, how colleges and universities are treating female and male students and faculty in science and mathematics departments.
The government's weapon? Title IX, the 1972 law barring sex discrimination in educational programs. Title IX is best known for prying open university coffers and prodding schools to spend equally on women's and men's athletics.
Funny thing, though. The administration recently significantly weakened Title IX enforcement in this arena, much to the dismay and protest of women's-rights groups.
The administration first floated the idea of neutering Title IX enforcement in college athletics in 2002. That proposal was so widely decried by the public, it looked more like used skeet than a trial balloon. Seven in 10 Americans told pollsters that they wanted Title IX sports enforcement left alone or toughened, not weakened. Title IX is widely credited with boosting women's participation in professional and Olympic sports. Nonetheless, the Bush administration waited a couple of years and then quietly ushered in similar changes to Title IX enforcement.
So why would the administration use the law to boost women's participation in math and science while cutting support for women's sports? One conservative commentator explained it to me thusly: There's a shortage of women in math and science, while women's sports programs are draining money from men's college sports.
Oh! Now we understand!