Bernice Resnick Sandler
Dr. Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, the “Godmother of Title IX,” died peacefully at her home in Washington, DC, on Saturday January 5, 2019. She was 90. A high-spirited and highly effective advocate for women’s equality for more than 50 years, Dr. Sandler was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013.
She was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1928. As a schoolgirl, she objected to the way girls were excluded from the class activities the boys did. She told her mother that she was going to “change the world.” And she did.
In the late 1960s, teaching part-time at the University of Maryland after earning her doctorate, she learned that her department would not consider her for a full-time position because she “came on too strong for a woman.” She was passed over for several open faculty positions.
At the time, there were no laws prohibiting sex discrimination in education. Many departments refused to hire women faculty members. Colleges and graduate programs routinely denied admission to female students. Many scholarships went to men only; women were explicitly excluded.
Sandler decided to take action. In a report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, she found Presidential Executive Order 11246 prohibiting federal contractors from discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin. She discovered in a footnote that it had been amended by President Johnson in 1968 to include discrimination based on sex. “Eureka!” she said. Most colleges had federal contracts.
From 1969 to 1971, Dr. Sandler served as the Chair of the newly founded Action Committee for Federal Contract Compliance of the Women’s Equity Action League. Using the Executive Order, she filed 250 federal administrative complaints against colleges and universities across the country, documenting pervasive sex discrimination and demanding that the federal government begin enforcement action.
The evidence convinced Representative Edith Green (D-Oregon) to hold the first Congressional hearings on sex discrimination in education. Dr. Sandler, hired by Rep. Green for the Special Subcommittee on Education, lined up women to testify. The hearings led to legislation – as chair of the House committee on education, Rep. Green introduced Title IX, which was signed into law by President Nixon in June 1972.
When Title IX was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, the focus was on access to academic hiring, admissions, educational resources, and financial aid. But the impact quickly spread to other areas of discrimination. After Margaret Dunkle’s landmark 1974 report on the rampant sex discrimination in college athletics, Title IX blew open the doors for women and girls in sports. In 1980, when Catharine MacKinnon established in Alexander v Yale that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination, Title IX became the main vehicle to address harassment and assault on campus.
“Title IX turned out to be the legislative equivalent of a Swiss Army knife,” said Marty Langelan, an expert on harassment and longtime friend of Dr. Sandler. “It gave us tools to tackle all kinds of discrimination. Bunny Sandler was such a powerhouse – she changed the lives of millions of women and girls, LGBT students, and boys and men as well.”
“It was perhaps the most important legislation for women since the 19th Amendment right to vote,” said Dunkle, “Every woman who has gone to college, gotten a law degree or a medical degree, was able to take shop instead of home-ec, or went to a military academy really owes her a huge debt.”
In 1975, President Ford appointed Dr. Sandler to chair the National Advisory Council on Women’s Educational Programs. President Carter reappointed her, and she served on the Council until 1982. As Director of the Project on the Status and Education of Women at the Association of American Colleges and Universities from 1971 to 1990, Dr. Sandler produced cutting-edge reports on issues such as sexual harassment of students by faculty, peer sexual harassment, campus gang rape, and the chilly classroom climate for women and minorities, along with strategies to improve institutional policies and practices. She gave more than 2,500 presentations, served as an expert witness, and authored several books and many articles. Dr. Sandler was also a Senior Scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute for many years.
Dr. Sandler is survived by her daughters, Deborah Sandler and Emily Sanders, and three grandchildren. The family plans to hold a memorial celebration in Washington, DC, later this year. Contributions in memory of Dr. Sandler may be sent to the National Women’s Law Center, Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, or the American Civil Liberties Union.