DeSantis, who has never encountered controversy that he did not want to take to court, issued the proclamation because Thomas is transgender. It wasn’t DeSantis’ first foray into anti-trans politics: Last year, he signed a law banning transgender girls and women in public schools and colleges from competing on women’s and women’s sports teams. At the time, he said, “As the father of two daughters, I want my daughters, and all the girls in Florida, to compete equally for opportunities for young women in sports.” More recently, he signed a bill banning education involving sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade (popularly known by his opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay”).
The proclamation builds on a national campaign against trans women playing sports. This campaign forced a number of conservatives to do a 180 on women’s sports. Long a subject of derision and defunding by many on the right, these sports have now become sacrosanct.
This flip-flop comes not because conservatives have discovered the value of women’s athletics, but because they have discovered its value in the larger realm of anti-trans politics and the culture wars fueled by those policies. Although the new legislation goes by names like the “Equity in Women’s Sports Act” that DeSantis signed into law, the goal has nothing to do with ensuring equal resources, opportunities or compensation for women athletes – issues the right has opposed for decades.
In his proclamation, DeSantis insisted that he was acting “to preserve equitable opportunities for female athletes” and that “women have fought for decades to have equal opportunity in athletics.” What he failed to mention is that in these battles, historically, the right has often been on the other side.
This has been especially true with respect to Title IX, an amendment enacted 50 years ago. Title IX was intended to extend the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to education. When it was first adopted, it contained no mention of sports. That changed in 1974, when conservative Republican Senator John Tower of Texas sought to amend Title IX to exempt athletics from prohibitions against sex discrimination. The Tower Amendment failed, but it sparked a decades-long battle over the relationship between Title IX and women’s sports.
In the years that followed in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s (before DeSantis, now in his early 40s, came into the picture), Title IX became a focal point for conservatives who felt that equal opportunity for female athletes, rather than being a cause for celebration, actually robbed men of their opportunities. The pages of conservative magazines like National Review were full of articles attacking the law as an affirmative action program that harmed male athletes. As Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote for National Review in 2002, in a review of the anti-Title IX book “Tilting the Playing Field”, “Title IX…leads to a clearly unfair result. Women today Today have the upper hand in just about every area of education – with the exception of sport, feminists now demand special privileges in this area as well.”
This mention of “feminists” was important. For decades, efforts to achieve equal access to sports have been seen as the work of wild-eyed feminists. Pushing for equal opportunity for women was not the laudable work of conservatives seeking to protect the rights of female athletes, but rather the act of so-called “feminist gender warriors”.
Title IX wasn’t the only site of contention either. As recently as the past few years, when the United States women’s national soccer team began demanding equal pay, the right was met with ridicule. The idea that women should not only have equal opportunities but equal pay seemed laughable. It doesn’t matter that the women’s team had a better record and brought in more revenue than the men’s team. If they were worth more, the market would already have paid them more. As right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh said in 2019, “It may seem cruel, it may seem unfair, but the market is the market.”
It wasn’t until the right realized that women’s sports could be a useful cudgel in anti-trans politics — nicely framed as a rallying cry on behalf of American girls — that they began to argue that this long fight for equality was, in fact, an honorable fight, and that access to sports was key to women’s ability to thrive in both high school and college.
Yet those arguments have not led to calls for, say, more protections from predatory male coaches and doctors, or more funding for women’s athletics programs. On the contrary, he offered only one solution: to purge trans women from sports competitions. Once they do that, nothing will stop them from returning to the long-running attacks on Title IX, leaving female athletes – both cisgender and trans – behind.