Bernice Sandler, the “godmother of Title IX” who died Saturday at the age of 90, is being remembered this week for her lifelong fight to reverse decades of institutional bias in U.S. schools and open new paths for women and girls.
It all started in an elementary school in Brooklyn, N.Y., when Sandler was a determined little girl nicknamed Bunny. She was offended by the way the boys got to do all the classroom activities.
“For example, running a slide projector,” says Marty Langelan, who was Sandler’s friend and colleague for nearly 50 years.
“You know, simple everyday things. You know, ‘Oh, we’ll have the boys do this.’ If it was important, the boys did it,” Langelan says. “And she told her mother back then, when she was a schoolgirl, that she was going to change the world, that this was wrong.
“And boy, she sure did.”
Langelan, who runs a business helping corporations and agencies prevent harassment, says she never saw Sandler angry at anyone but that her friend had moral anger about injustice.
In 1969, Sandler was teaching part-time at the University of Maryland and was vying for one of seven full-time teaching jobs in her department. She was shut out. Writing about the incident in 1997, Sandler said that when she asked a friend on the faculty why she had been passed over, he said her qualifications were excellent.
“But let’s face it,” he said, “you come on too strong for a woman.”
“My reaction? I went home and cried,” she wrote, describing the regret she felt at having spoken up during meetings.
Sandler didn’t see herself as being part of the feminist movement — it was her husband who first described the school’s rejection as “sex discrimination,” she recalled.
Sandler wrote that she had been “somewhat ambivalent” about the feminist movement. But that changed when she searched and was rejected for two more jobs, including one where she was told she was “just a housewife who went back to school.” It was too much to rationalize.
“I began to think about the ramifications of discrimination and the burgeoning women’s movement and to explore how the law treated sex discrimination,” she wrote. “Knowing that sex discrimination was immoral, I assumed it would also be illegal.”
Back then, discrimination in education was rampant, with academic departments refusing to hire women, grad programs denying admission to women, and offering scholarships to men only. So Sandler researched the strategies of black civil rights activists, hoping to apply them to women’s rights in academia.
Finally, she found a small opening she could use to pry open U.S. discrimination laws — it was in just one small part of a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report.
The report was about a presidential executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin.
“There was a footnote, and being an academic, I quickly turned to the back of the report to read it,” Sandler wrote.
The footnote said that in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson had amended Executive Order 11246 to include discrimination based on sex. And because most universities and colleges had federal contracts, the order applied to them, she reasoned.
“Even though I was alone, I shrieked aloud with my discovery,” Sandler wrote.
Sandler called the Department of Labor’s office of federal contract compliance. “I was immediately connected to the director, Vincent Macaluso, who had been waiting for someone to use the Executive Order in regard to sex discrimination,” she wrote. “We met, and together we planned the first complaint against universities and colleges, and the strategies to bring about enforcement of the Executive Order.”
As her efforts gained momentum, Sandler helped the Women’s Equity Action League start a national campaign to file complaints against widespread sex discrimination at universities. Early in 1970, they filed a class-action complaint against all universities and colleges in the country.
To bolster their case, Sandler asked women in academia to share details about their departments, particularly the status of women and their ratio to men. She collected pages and pages of documentation about an unfair system.
Sandler formed alliances with members of Congress, including Rep. Martha Griffiths of Michigan, who gave the first speech in Congress about discrimination against women in education. Another key ally was Rep. Edith Green of Oregon, who chaired the subcommittee that dealt with higher education.
In the summer of 1970, Green held congressional hearings on women’s education and employment, setting the foundation for what would become Title IX. As The New York Times reports, Green “hired Sandler to join her subcommittee staff to put together the written record of the hearings.”
Since it was signed by President Nixon, the law known as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has charted the evolution of sex equality in America. Initially intended to shatter gender quotas for hiring and admissions, it became a vital weapon against limits on opportunities for women and girls.
“That’s the power of Title IX,” Sandler told NPR’s Tovia Smith in 2014. “It’s a hammer that’s there, and schools know this and are busy scrambling to change their policies, and that makes me smile.”
Title IX has often been associated with college sports, but the statute has a much broader scope. As the Department of Education states, Title IX “applies to 16,500 local school districts, 7,000 postsecondary institutions, as well as charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries, and museums.”
Under the law, schools and other organizations are barred from discriminating in a wide range of areas, from recruiting and admissions to financial aid and employment. The legislation covers sexual harassment on campus, how pregnant students or those with children are treated, and even bars potential employers from asking about a job applicant’s marital status.
Sandler has said she didn’t initially anticipate the impact of the law she helped bring about. As she recalled in 2012, “I remember saying, ‘Isn’t this great news? On field day [when schools let students compete in athletics rather than attend class] … there’s going to be more activities for girls. Isn’t that nice?’ ”
Even after Title IX took effect, Sandler remained a force for gender equity, filing complaints against hundreds of institutions. And she helped schools hew to the rules, delivering thousands of speeches about sex discrimination on college campuses. She was a consultant for The Citadel when that military school sought to integrate women into its corps of cadets.
In recent years, Sandler said she was happy with the changes for which she and her allies fought. She told NPR that she beamed with pride to see female athletes walk “with their heads up and feeling like, ‘Yeah, I can handle this world.’ ”
For 20 years, Sandler was the director of the Association of American Colleges’ project on women’s status in education. She was also a senior associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Women’s Research and Education Institute.
In 2013, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Bernice “Bunny” Sandler leaves behind two daughters, three grandkids and countless girls and women in sports and academia who are forever indebted.