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Margot Polivy, dauntless advocate for women in sports, dies at 85

A lawyer and former physical education teacher, Margot Polivy became a key figure in the enactment and enforcement of Title IX.    (Manuel A. Palau/Handout)
By Emily Langer Washington Post

Margot Polivy, a dauntless lawyer who played a key role in the enactment and enforcement of Title IX, the landmark federal legislation of the 1970s that vastly expanded opportunities for women in the formerly male bastion of college sports, died Oct. 7 at her home in Washington. She was 85.

Her sister, Gail Polivy, confirmed her death and said the cause has not yet been determined.

Ms. Polivy had been a high school gym teacher - and earlier, a college tennis player - before she graduated from law school and embarked on a legal career that would put her at the center of the battles over Title IX.

The legislation, formally Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, banned sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs. It quickly became known for its provisions designed to level the playing field, so to speak, for men and women in college athletics.

Before Title IX, many universities lavished funding on men’s sports and scholarships while allocating little if any money on women’s programs. Female athletes sometimes received “$0,” Margaret Dunkle, an early Title IX advocate, recalled in an email, and were left to fund their travel “by bake sales, literally.”

The women often had to buy their own uniforms and were allowed to use fields, pools and other facilities only when they were not reserved by men’s teams. Women’s coaches worked on a volunteer basis, while their male counterparts were treated as campus royalty.

“There was no pathway for me at all,” Donna de Varona, a champion swimmer who was 13 when she won her first gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics and 17 when she won two more at the 1964 Tokyo Games. “There was no pathway for me to [receive] a scholarship to have an education, nor was there a pathway for me to go to the next Olympics because there were no training grounds for people like me because there were no college sports.”

“You just had to make a decision to hang up your swimsuit or your track shoes or your leotard,” said de Varona, who later became a well-known sportscaster and advocate for Title IX, working closely with Ms. Polivy.

From the start, Title IX’s application to college athletics was the subject of intense controversy. The legislation was resisted by the NCAA and opposed by some members of Congress and university administrators who argued that the measure would drain funds from football and other men’s sports that contributed significantly to university revenue.

“The problem is that you’re thinking in terms of equality for men and women,” Ms. Polivy recalled one university leader remarking to her. “Well, I’m all in favor of equality for men and women. But it’s not just men and women; there’s men and women and football players.”

As general counsel for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, Ms. Polivy worked alongside Title IX advocates including Bernice Sandler and became a linchpin of the many women’s organizations that had joined in support of the law.

Ms. Polivy readily conceded that misogyny was not to blame for all opposition to Title IX. Many university administrators are “at worst basically indifferent to women’s needs, and often favorably disposed in theory toward increased athletic opportunities for women,” she wrote in a commentary published in the New York Times in 1978. “The root of their opposition is money.”

In 1974, U.S. Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.) proposed an amendment to Title IX that would have exempted revenue-producing sports from compliance. The amendment did not advance, and Ms. Polivy was credited with helping draft new language that served to protect what she and other activists regarded as the spirit of the law.

In the hubbub of activity on Capitol Hill, Ms. Polivy had no desk and scribbled her proposed provision on the back of U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.). The amendment, successfully introduced by U.S. Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.), called simply for “reasonable provisions considering the nature of particular sports.”

“In essence, it reassured colleges that they wouldn’t have to spend the same money on gymnastic equipment as they did on football equipment, nor have equal event-management budgets for games attended by 100 people as games attended by 100,000 people,” sportswriter Michael MacCambridge wrote in the 2023 book “The Big Time: How the 1970s Transformed Sports in America.”

“It was both obvious and suitably vague,” he continued, quoting Ms. Polivy, who said of the amendment: “It was a word salad.”

Ms. Polivy, reflecting on the impact of Title IX, wrote in the Times that thanks to the law, “all the old arguments about the preference of ‘normal’ girls for passive pursuits have come to be universally recognized for the foolishness they are.

“Indeed,” she continued, “equal opportunity in athletics has come to symbolize for many women the larger recognition that it is both right and rewarding to compete, to achieve and to excel. “

Margaret Polivy - always known as Margot, the name she later legally adopted - was born in New York City on April 25, 1938. She grew up in the Bronx. Her father owned a paint and wallpaper store in Manhattan, which her mother, formerly a homemaker, took over after his death in 1958.

Ms. Polivy received a bachelor’s degree in physical education from Hunter College in New York in 1958 and taught gym at Hunter College High School before enrolling at New York University’s law school.

After her graduation in 1964, she moved to Washington, D.C., working for the Federal Communications Commission and then as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.), a prominent advocate for women’s rights. Ms. Polivy later formed a private legal practice, Renouf & Polivy. Her clients included the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.

Ms. Polivy’s life partner, Katrina Renouf, who was also her law partner, died in 2009. Her sister, Gail, is her only immediate survivor.

Much like the female athletes she championed, Ms. Polivy challenged ideas that prevailed in some circles about how women should behave.

“She was not deferential,” MacCambridge, the author, wrote in an email. “She had a formidable intellect, and was not someone who was going to observe all the niceties of protocols at that time. While she was thoroughly professional, she was not afraid to be confrontational in a way that was exceptional for a female lawyer at that level” and in that era.

Even in her outward style, she was unusual in Washington, sporting corduroy pantsuits and driving around town in a sporty Datsun 240Z, MacCambridge wrote in his book.

“I think I was ahead of the times,” Ms. Polivy told him. The others, she added, “were behind the times.”