Marvella Bayh was Title IX's secret weapon: She died at 46, never seeing the impact it had

·11 min read

INDIANAPOLIS -- Marvella Bayh made the usual trivial headlines that the wife of a senator made in the 1970s. The articles about what length dress she wore to a ritzy Washington, D.C., fundraiser, how she styled her hair and how she stayed so trim.

"In a city where important decisions are often made between bites of chocolate souffles -- and dramatic announcements are delivered over calorie-filled plates of chicken a la king -- one of its most active residents, Marvella Bayh, has managed to remain a Twiggy," read an article in the Indianapolis News in 1971.

Titled "Marvella: Calorie Counter," the article went on to talk about how the "attractive Capitol wife" miraculously managed to decline, or just take a bite or two of, the rich food at Washington's political soirees to "keep her weight in the low 100s."

Another reporter wrote in awe at how Marvella seemed more at ease on the political front than with an omelet pan. As a recent hostess for her husband Sen. Birch Bayh Jr.'s friends, she hadn't cooked the meal, the report said, she had catered it.

But behind what some saw as simply a beautiful face, a token on the arm of a U.S. senator from Indiana, was a fierce woman with her own political views. A woman who had a man she sat with at the dinner table each night who would listen.

Marvella Bayh was the little-known secret weapon behind some of her husband's most groundbreaking legislation, the 25th Amendment, the 26th Amendment and, especially Title IX.

Senator-elect Birch Bayh Jr. and his wife, Marvella hoist a first edition of The News proclaiming his narrow victory over incumbent Republican Homer E. Capehart on Nov. 7, 1962,
Senator-elect Birch Bayh Jr. and his wife, Marvella hoist a first edition of The News proclaiming his narrow victory over incumbent Republican Homer E. Capehart on Nov. 7, 1962,

Birch Bayh is known as the "Father of Title IX," a bill he authored which was passed 50 years ago to ban discrimination based on gender in education, athletics and activities that receive federal financial assistance.

But if Birch is the father of Title IX then Marvella is certainly its mother.

"In many ways, my mother was a big inspiration for Title IX," said Evan Bayh, the couple's son and former Indiana governor and U.S. senator. "My father really listened and took to heart what she had to say."

More: Evan Bayh was 16 when his dad became father of Title IX: 'He was offended for women'

Marvella fought as hard as anyone for Title IX, which was passed in 1972. She died from breast cancer in 1979 at the age of 46.

She died never getting to see the true impact of the monumental legislation she inspired. There was no way she could have known that a bill passed with little fanfare would so dramatically change the landscape of academia and athletics for women.

'Women need not apply'

Marvella grew up in "borderline poverty," Evan Bayh said, in a tiny house in Oklahoma. She was the only child of Delbert and Bernett Hern. Her father was a farmer and active in local Democratic politics.

While the family didn't have much, Marvella's parents doted on her and encouraged her academics. They told her again and again that she could be anything she wanted to be.

Marvella was the first girl at Enid High to be elected president of the student body. She was elected governor of the American Legion Auxiliary Oklahoma Girls State. When she became president of the American Legion Auxiliary Girls Nation in Washington, she was greeted by President Harry Truman.

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After high school, Marvella's dream was to attend the University of Virginia. But that wasn't allowed. "Women need not apply," the university said in 1951. Marvella instead went to Oklahoma State University.

By that time, Marvella had become a skilled public speaker. She had won a statewide speaking contest sponsored by American Farm Bureau. Later that year, she went to Chicago for nationals, the first woman to compete in that contest.

Marvella won.

Among the contestants she beat was a college graduate named Birch Bayh. He decided Marvella was a woman he'd like to get to know.

Birch was impressed by her charisma and talent, her aggressive drive. The two began dating and married in August 1952.

They went to live on the 340-acre Bayh family farm near Terre Haute and Marvella attended Indiana State University. Two years later in 1954, Birch was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives. In 1958, he was elected speaker of the house, the youngest person to hold that office in the state's history.

Meanwhile, Marvella studied at Indiana University and graduated with a degree in education in 1960. Two years later, her husband won his first term in the Senate.

Indiana Senator Birch Bayh and wife Marvella prepare to enter a voting machine booth in Fayette Township, New Goshen, near the senator's farm in Shirkieville, Indiana, in 1968.
Indiana Senator Birch Bayh and wife Marvella prepare to enter a voting machine booth in Fayette Township, New Goshen, near the senator's farm in Shirkieville, Indiana, in 1968.

Reporters started writing about Marvella. "With a blithe spirit, a small carefully-chosen wardrobe and new off-the-cuff speeches," the Indianapolis News wrote, "Marvella always is ready to move into a campaign if her husband is running."

Evan Bayh said his mother, had she been born in another era, would have been running for her own campaigns.

She had tenacity and the kind of mesmerizing charm that can't be taught. She was brilliant.

"She was a woman, who, in another time, would have been a senator or governor," he said. "She was so smart."

'She had wrapped her life in his'

Marvella gave eloquent speeches for her husband on the campaign trail and, as cancer spread through her body, she gave talks as a national spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society.

But some of her most impactful speeches happened around the Bayh family dinner table.

Evan Bayh remembers those meals. His dad would come home, after a long day in Washington, D.C., talking about the inner workings of upcoming legislation. His mom would listen and then make clear exactly what she thought.

As Title IX emerged in 1971, Birch Bayh was reminded of his wife's experiences. As a high school graduate looking for colleges to attend, she battled discrimination. She talked to her husband about being turned down by the University of Virginia simply because of her gender.

"This was imprinted in his mind," said Jay Berman, Birch Bayh's director of legislative affairs when Title IX passed, who later became his chief of staff.

Birch Bayh Jr., left Democratic candidate for US senator, at campaign headquarters with his wife, Marvella, and his father Birch E. Bayh Sr on Nov. 7, 1962.
Birch Bayh Jr., left Democratic candidate for US senator, at campaign headquarters with his wife, Marvella, and his father Birch E. Bayh Sr on Nov. 7, 1962.

Evan Bayh remembers his parents discussing Title IX. He was a teen at the time.

"My father thought it was just an injustice that my mother hadn't gotten to attend Virginia," Evan Bayh said. "He would say, 'It ought to be based on merit and character. We ought to try to level the playing field in life.'"

Marvella would help her husband strategize and gave him the inspiration and confidence to push harder for the legislation.

"She was an incredibly talented sounding board," said Evan Bayh. "And he trusted her judgment because he knew she was 100% loyal to him."

Marvella was so loyal that when President Lyndon Johnson asked her to be vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, she turned the opportunity down.

"The guys in Birch's office then told her that wouldn't be a good thing to do because, 'We need you for the 1968 re-election campaign," said Berman. "They said, 'We can't have you going out doing things on your own. You have to do them for Birch.'"

Years after Marvella died, Birch Bayh said that was one of his biggest regrets, his biggest mistakes, was not fighting harder for his wife to take that post with Johnson.

"She had wrapped her life in his," said Berman.

But Birch Bayh had wrapped his life in Marvella's too, and that would become crystal clear in October 1971 when Marvella received a devastating diagnosis.

Cancer ends presidential dreams

As Title IX was gaining steam and her husband was gaining steam as a likely Democratic candidate for the 1972 presidency, Marvella noticed soreness in her breast. After a mammogram and a biopsy, she sat stunned as the doctor told her she had breast cancer.

Marvella, then 39, was sent the next day to Columbia Hospital for Women for "critical surgery for a malignancy," newspapers reported. A week later, Birch Bayh made an announcement in the Senate caucus chamber.

"I am giving up my run for President of the United States," he said. The Bayh-For-President office in midtown Washington was closed and its 35 paid staff members were let go.

Birch Bayh was apologetic but adamant he was making the right decision. "Her complete recovery may require a lengthy period of recuperation," Birch Bayh said. "During this time, I want to be at her side. My son and wife are more important to me than seeking the presidency."

Dropping from the presidential race was a decision, probably the only major decision, that Birch Bayh, who died in 2019, didn't consult Marvella about.

"He came to the hospital and he told me," Marvella said in a 1972 Indianapolis Star article. "He let me read the statement he had written. He told me it was the easiest decision he ever made."

Marvella made her own decision as she faced 18 months of chemotherapy --  to fight once again for women.

"She was one of the first women to speak out about the importance of mammograms and early detection," said Evan Bayh. "At the time, breast cancer wasn't talked about."

More on Evan Bayh: Cancer took his wife and mother, now Evan Bayh opens up about his own melanoma scare

Especially not the way Marvella talked about it. After she had a mastectomy, one breast removed, she made her first public appearance at a black tie dinner with Birch.

"I looked at my formals in the closet and pulled out the one with the lowest cut," Marvella said in 1972. "I never have worn very low cut formals, but I picked out the most revealing formal I had. Birch was laughing at me because I did that, but I got away with it."

In her autobiography published in 1979, the year she died, Marvella wrote that she worried how Birch would feel about her mastectomy.

One day after surgery, she looked at Birch and asked him: "Are you going to feel differently now that I only have one breast?"

Birch looked at his wife and said: "Sweetheart, of course not. I've gotten through life without any breasts."

'I dropped to my knees'

Title IX passed June 23, 1972, as Marvella continued chemotherapy. She and Birch were thrilled the legislation was enacted, but there wasn't any huge, formal celebration.

"In all honesty, we were glad it passed," Berman said. "But no one could have known at the time the impact it would have."

Sen. Birch Bayh, in tears: 'I had no idea that Title IX would have this kind of impact'

Marvella celebrated something else months later in April 1973 -- the end of her chemotherapy treatments. 

The Bayhs' busy lives returned to normal. Birch Bayh entered his second decade as U.S. senator and Marvella traveled the country as a national spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society.

Then in 1978, Marvella's cancer returned "widespread and inoperable," doctors said.

Marvella Bayh, who died in 1979, was a driving force behind Title IX.
Marvella Bayh, who died in 1979, was a driving force behind Title IX.

"When they told me there was treatment but no cure at this time, I dropped to my knees," Marvella said in an Indianapolis Star article months before her death. "And it also came to me how, even if we live to be 100, how really short life here is. And therefore, it's important to enjoy it and not rush so fast and take time to smell the roses."

Smell the roses, that was the epitome of his mother, Evan Bayh said. She always said "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade."

Marvella did that. She did it with her rejection from the University of Virginia. She turned that into Title IX.

She did that when she declined an offer from President Johnson. She turned that into fighting vehemently for her husband's nearly two decades in the senate.

She did it when she had terminal cancer and reporters wrote she was dying of cancer. She turned that around, saying, 'No, I'm living with cancer."

When Marvella died, she was called "her husband's chief political advisor through the years" and "often regarded in Washington as brighter than her husband, the driving ambitious force behind him, who really wanted to be President herself."

Instead Marvella would say, "Birch is my career."

"It's a story of generations, really," said Evan Bayh." She grew up at a time women didn't have opportunities."

So she fought behind the scenes, a secret weapon for Title IX, for a law that would change all of that.

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email:

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Title IX: Marvella Bayh inspired bill passed by husband Sen. Birch Bayh