Athletic competition builds character in our boys.
We do not need that kind of character in our girls.
~ Connecticut judge, 1971

Last month the Women's Sports Foundation held its annual Salute to Women in Sports at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg attended, as did actor Holly Hunter and dozens of athletes, including figure skater Michelle Kwan, softball star Jennie Finch, and New York Jets kicker Nick Folk.

Founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King 31 years ago, the foundation seeks to "advance the lives of girls and women through sport and physical activity." It's well known that girls who play sports reap many off-the-field benefits, including better grades and higher self-esteem. "Eighty percent of the female executives at Fortune 500 companies identified themselves as former 'tomboys' and having played sports," the foundation's website states.

When I was a girl, organized sports belonged to the boys. If a girl played, she was without question a tomboy. At my brothers' baseball games, I sat in the grass, picked at the scabs on my knees, made dandelion chains, and ran into the woods to retrieve foul balls. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s, I knew only one girl who played baseball. Katie was quiet and tough and came from a large Roman Catholic family. Like her bevy of siblings, she had straight brown hair, dark blue eyes, and a scattering of freckles over her nose. I could spot her coming down the sidewalk just by her swagger.

Sometimes during recess, the whole class would play kickball. I secretly coveted Katie's approval and, sure enough, when I'd make a good play—catch the red playground ball on the fly, for instance—she'd turn and nod at me, her eyes narrowed. She was a pocket Clint Eastwood on the school grounds. People said Katie was a tomboy. The first time I heard the word was when a boy used it to insult her: "Tomboy. Weirdo."

Meanwhile, across the country from our blacktop kickball game, members of Congress, led by the late Patsy T. Mink, were at work getting Title IX passed. In 1972, they succeeded. The law states that no one in the U.S. may be excluded from participation in any federally funded educational program or activity on the basis of sex. The Women's Sports Foundation reports that since the enactment of Title IX, "Female high school athletic participation has increased by 904% and female collegiate athletic participation has increased by 456%." In other words, Title IX, now officially the "Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act," worked.

My 10-year-old daughter is on softball, basketball, and volleyball teams. At recess she plays soccer on the field with two boys—when she's not at reading club or playing make-believe games with her friends. She loves playing Mommy and sits quietly in her room, rocking her baby dolls to sleep. She's grown up in churches with women clergy. Her heroes include Eleanor Roosevelt and soccer star Mia Hamm. When we watched the movie Avatar, her favorite character, hands-down, was Trudy the helicopter pilot. Whenever Trudy came on screen, she grabbed my arm and sat up straight. My daughter is neither a tomboy nor a "girlie girl."

She also likes to draw. One of her works has been hanging in our kitchen the past few years. "I can't wait to show you what I made in art class," she said the day she brought it home. "It's an astronaut." My mind flashed on Neil Armstrong, head tilted, helmet in hand. She then presented me with her picture. Before me, on a black construction paper background, standing confidently on the surface of the moon, was a woman. She wore lipstick and a spacesuit with the requisite headset and globed helmet. Her suit was also embellished with a flower patch.

I wonder in what tangible ways the effects of Title IX have rippled through our culture. Names matter, labels matter, and that it did not occur to my daughter to describe her drawing as a "woman astronaut" shows me how much things have changed since I was a girl. I am thankful for all the "tomboys," for Patsy Mink, and for all the men and women who continue to push the doors open wide for girls in our culture. Their efforts not only account for the growing presence of women's sporting events on ESPN, but also contribute to a more equitable society in which women can use their God-given gifts whether running down the soccer field or exploring the galaxies.

Jennifer Grant is a journalist and freelance writer who has written for Her.meneutics about mid-life callings, multitasking, and Lady Gaga. Her book, Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter, will be published next summer.