Title IX was not tremendously popular with everyone when it first passed in 1972. The legislation, which bans sex-based discrimination in schools and sports funded by the federal government, was originally opposed by the NCAA, which lobbied against it. It was ignored or minimized by athletic departments at many state-funded schools and universities. But Title IX found ardent support in the funny pages.
Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, passionately believed in girls' and women's sports. Arguably the most popular cartoonist of his day, he used his platform to promote Title IX, with characters such as Lucy, Marcie and Peppermint Patty cheering on the legislation — and top women athletes of the era.
Schulz started Peanuts in 1950. When he died in 2000, his strip was syndicated in thousands of newspapers and read by more than 300 million people in 25 different languages across the world. His characters adorned everything from clothes to school supplies. And the CBS Peanuts specials, which started in the 1960s, became treasured TV classics.
"I think it was actually Billy Jean's influence," said Schulz's widow, Jean, of her late husband's advocacy of Title IX. A tennis devotee, Schulz met Billie Jean King in the early 1970s, and the two quickly became fast friends.
"It was a horrible time for me," King recalled in a talk at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, C.A. in 2012. King said her brand new organization, the Women's Sports Foundation, was just getting off the ground, and she was not seeing much success. King asked Schulz if he'd serve as a trustee.
"And he said absolutely. He was so excited. Holy Camoly, he'll do it!" she said.
Schulz brought more than backstage clout to Title IX. In 1966, he'd introduced a pioneering character: a confident girl jock with freckles, sandals and swagger. Easily the best athlete of all the kids, Peppermint Patty managed her own baseball team, played hockey and raced motocross. The sporty girls in Peanuts, who ice skated and enjoyed throwing balls, helped normalize something as simple and positive as girls playing sports, said Jean Schulz. Still, she cautioned against giving her late husband too much credit.
"It still took women pushing legislation and complaining and keeping it on the agenda," she pointed out.
Many of those women loved Peanuts, including Olympic gold medalist Jeanette Bolden, who sprinted to victory in Los Angeles in 1984. She became a leading coach who developed dozens of top-ranked NCAA athletes. Much like Billie Jean King, Bolden said she never identified with Peppermint Patty, even though she was the jock.
"Lucy was probably the one who stuck out to me more than anything," Bolden said. "Because she was always on Charlie Brown. Didn't give out many compliments, you know?"
Female coaches and athletes still have to fight for resources and equity in spite of the accomplishments made possible by Title IX. Peanuts gave us a sweeter glimpse of a world with a level playing field for everyone.