Remembering “Godmother of Title IX” Bernice Sandler

Sandler, often known as “Bunny,” played an important role in creating the landmark legislation

Bernice "Bunny" Sandler Getty Images/MCT / Contributor

Bernice Sandler began to realize something was deeply wrong in 1969 when she was passed over for a job at the University of Maryland. Sandler, who had recently earned a doctorate in education, had been working part-time at the university and knew there had been several job openings. When she asked for an explanation on why she wasn't hired, a colleague told her she came on “too strong for a woman.” At other schools, she lost out on more opportunities because she was told women stay home too much caring for sick children or that she was “just a housewife who went back to school.” Her husband verbalized the frustrations swirling in her head: This was sex discrimination.

That realization set Sandler on a path that led to the nationwide implementation of Title IX, which halted institutional discrimination in schools and led the way for women in academia and sports. That legacy lives on past Sandler, often known as “Bunny,” who died at the age of 90 on January 5, reports Tom Goldman and Bill Chappell at NPR.

Reflecting on her journey in 1997, Sandler said that at the time she knew discrimination was immoral, and believed it was likely illegal, too. But there was a problem: statutes barring sex discrimination in employment excluded educational institutions.

Being an academic, she dove deep into research on the subject, ultimately finding the tool she was looking for in Executive Order 11246. The order was issued by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968, and barred discrimination by federal contractors based on race, color, religion or national origin. In a report on the order, she read a footnote saying that Johnson had amended the order to include gender as well.

“It was a genuine ‘Eureka’ moment,” Sandler wrote. “I actually shrieked aloud for I immediately realized that many universities and colleges had federal contracts (and) were therefore subject to the sex discrimination provisions of the executive order.”

She contacted Vincent Macaluso, the branch director of the Department of Labor’s federal contract compliance office. He had been anticipating just such a call. Together, they got in touch with the Women’s Equity Action League, which organized a class action lawsuit on employment discrimination against all the colleges and universities in the country.

The issue made it to Congress, and Sandler was hired to become a staffer for Representative Edith Green of Oregon, who chaired the subcommittee on higher education. In 1970, hearings on women’s education and employment were held, culminating in Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, which was signed into law by President Richard Nixon.

The law states that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” meaning all aspects of educational life, from employment to extracurricular activities, including academic clubs or sports, were now open to women.

“Title IX turned out to be the legislative equivalent of a Swiss Army knife,” Marty Langelan, sexual harassment expert and longtime friend of Sandler, tells Katharine Q. Seelye at The New York Times. “It opened up opportunities in so many areas we didn’t foresee, and Bunny laid the essential groundwork for it all.”

NPR reports the law now applies to 16,500 local school districts, 7,000 postsecondary institutions, charter schools, for-profit schools, libraries, and museums. Supreme Court rulings that followed in the 1990s obligated schools to respond appropriately to reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment under Title IX, Brandon Griggs at CNN notes; prior to the act, only one in 26 girls participated in high school sports. That number is now two in every five.

After the passage of Title IX, Sandler realized she had been naïve to think that real change at universities would take place in one or two years; the fight around Title IX was to continue on beyond her lifetime. To foster the work of Title IX, she became the director of the Project on the Status and Education of Women at the Association of American Colleges. After two decades on the job, she went on to become a senior scholar at the DC-based Women's Research and Education Institute, where she worked with various groups to advocate for women’s rights. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013.

In an article published in The Cleveland Law Review in 2007, Sandler called the Title IX movement a "social revolution with an impact as large as the Industrial Revolution."

She knew real gender equity had a ways to go, however, concluding, "We have only taken the very first steps of what will be a very long journey.”

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