You Come on Too Strong for a Woman, Bernice Sandler, Godmother of Title IX

Bernice Sandler, Godmother of Title IXMy mother, Dr. Bernice Sandler (“Bunny”), was a crusader for women’s rights. By the time she died in 2019, she was known as “The Godmother of Title IX,” a small but mighty piece of legislation that revolutionized how girls and women were treated in academe, and in athletics. Although she never became a lawyer, her impact on the law as it affects women’s rights was enormous.

Bunny was born in Brooklyn, just before the Great Depression. Although neither of her parents attended college, Bunny was encouraged to excel in school. She loved research and writing. Sex discrimination was widespread and legal. As a young girl, she was not allowed to clean the erasers, open the windows or fill the inkwells because she was a girl, and she resented it. Though she graduated with high honors, she was expected to stay home. She married my father in the early 1950s and then my sister and I were born. My mother was quiet and conscientious, working as a nursery school teacher, guitar teacher and caring for her daughters. On the surface, she seemed like all the other quiet women: relegated to the house and denied interesting or high-paying work because they were women.

When my sister and I were older, Bunny got her Doctorate in Counseling from the University of Maryland. She had to convince the department to let her in because they rarely accepted women. She planned to become a professor, having done extremely well in the program. However, she was rejected for every job. One interviewer said they didn’t hire women because women have to stay home when their kids are sick (my sister and I were in high school at the time). Another told her she was “just a housewife who went back to school.” One told her she didn’t need the job because she was married. When she asked a colleague why no one would hire her, she was told “Let’s face it, Bunny – you come on too strong for a woman.”

Bunny went home and cried. She blamed herself. My father asked her, “Are there any strong men in your department?” She said, “Of course there are.” My father replied, “Then it isn’t you. This is sex discrimination.”

Bunny was shocked, but she realized he was right. Then she got mad. Being an excellent researcher, she assumed sex discrimination in education was illegal, and she started researching it so she could do something about it. Bunny was dismayed to discover that sex discrimination in academe was legal. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 exempted professional and educational women. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 excluded employees of educational institutions. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected against discrimination based on race, color and national origin, but not sex. The Fourteenth Amendment had never been considered applicable to sex discrimination.

Bunny read further and found a report regarding enforcement of civil rights legislation, which had an obscure Executive Order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating based on race, color, religion and national origin. She found a footnote in the order, and literally shrieked aloud. The order had been amended to outlaw discrimination based on sex for institutions receiving federal funding. She realized at that moment that most colleges and universities had federal contracts, so this Executive Order could be used to fight sex discrimination in academe.

Bunny joined the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) and became Chair of the “Federal Action Contract Compliance Committee.” With Bunny’s help, WEAL filed the first administrative class action complaint in 1970 against all colleges and universities that had federal contracts. Following that milestone, my mother filed administrative charges of sex discrimination against about 250 colleges and universities. Other women’s organizations began filing charges.

My mother then began collecting data about sex discrimination in academe, comparing the percentages of female students to the percentages of female doctorates. Letters and stories poured in. The numbers were stark and showed pervasive sex discrimination. This formed the basis of the administrative complaints. In the 1960s, 22% of the doctorates granted in psychology were to women. By 1970, the last woman hired by the Department of Psychology at UC Berkeley was in 1924. Of the 42 members of the Cal faculty, all were male.

Complainants were requested to contact Congress and ask for enforcement of the Executive Orders. Their letters were also sent to the Departments of Labor, Health, Education and Welfare. So much mail began arriving that the departments had to hire several full-time employees just to deal with the letters and the complaints.

Within a few months, the first federal investigations of sex discrimination in academe began. The floodgates were opened, and more investigations would follow.

Congresswoman Edith Green was on WEAL’s advisory board and my mother sent her copies of all the complaints. Representative Green was the Chair of a Subcommittee on Education and she introduced legislation that eventually became Title IX. She also convened the first Congressional hearings on sex discrimination at colleges and universities. My mother testified at the hearings and suggested many of the witnesses. She was also hired after the hearings to assemble the written record, becoming the first person appointed to the staff of a Congressional Committee to work on women’s issues.

Title IX provides: “No person shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program receiving Federal financial assistance.” Just 37 words, but they would have a gigantic impact.

Representatives of educational institutions were invited to testify, as the legislation would affect their work. They knew of no sex discrimination on campuses so they did not think this legislation would be a big deal.

Similarly, very few people expected this legislation to have any impact on athletics because the amount of sex discrimination in athletic programs in academe was not widely known.

Surprisingly, very few people had any idea of the impact Title IX would have. There was no mention of sports in this legislation, or at these hearings, yet Title IX drastically changed the world of sports, opening up countless opportunities for women to have equal funding and equal representation. My mother’s initial understanding of the impact of Title IX on athletics was that on Field Day, girls might participate in a few extra games. My mother had no idea of what was coming.

As the legislation neared passage, several people offered to lobby for it, but Representative Green counseled against that, because if people paid too much attention, they might realize the impact this legislation would have, and oppose it.

Title IX was shepherded through Congress by Representative Green, Senator Birch Bayh, and Representative Patsy Mink. President Nixon signed it into law in June 1972. Very few people noticed. There was one sentence about it in the Washington Post.

After Title IX became law, regulations were released which made clear the impact that the new law would have on educational institutions and athletics. The male athletic establishment suddenly became aware that Title IX was poised to upend the system and require that women be treated equally – and they fought back hard, trying to weaken or overturn Title IX, or at least exempt football. These efforts failed.

In 1974, my mother and her colleague Margaret Dunkle conducted the first national study of sex discrimination in athletics in academe. The disparities between men’s and women’s athletic programs were huge – some men’s departments had over a million dollars in funding while the women had zero. Most men’s programs had supplies, locker rooms, clean fields, and paid staff. Most women’s programs had nothing. And women were getting angry about it – One example was the 1976 protest by the Yale Women’s Crew, which painted “Title IX” on their bodies and appeared nude before the athletic director, after being denied showers and changing rooms in sub-freezing weather.

The Government adopted a three-pronged set of criteria schools could use to develop more equitable athletics programs: (a) accommodate the abilities of the discriminated group, (b) have a continuing pattern of increasing the athletic opportunities of the discriminated group, or (c) provide proportional numbers of opportunities based on the percentage of the discriminated group in the school’s population. Schools began to struggle with these criteria and began to change.

Title IX’s passage in 1972 gave millions of girls and women the opportunity to compete and excel in athletics. The numbers of female athletes is growing at every level. By 2007, my mother observed that participation of girls and women in athletics had skyrocketed by 800% or more. The numbers have risen since then.

Title IX also applies to sex harassment. Bunny began speaking and writing about the “chilly climate” in classrooms, some of which came from sex harassment, and some of which came from discrimination against women students and women faculty. She became an educational policy expert, traveling all over the country to give speeches at colleges and universities, and to advise on anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. She frequently served as an expert witness, gave over 2,500 speeches (two to the CCCBA), received many honorary degrees and awards, and in 2013 was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Near the end of her life, she said that at first she thought it would only take a year or two to get rid of sex discrimination, but finally realized it would take many lifetimes to get it done. Her work continues.