Dr. Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, the “Godmother of Title IX,” died peacefully at her home in Washington, D.C., on Saturday January 5, 2019. She was 90.
Sandler was born in Brooklyn 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, and women were often explicitly excluded from consideration for scholarships.
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—and 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, 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-Ore.) to hold the first Congressional hearings on sex discrimination in education.
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.
Title IX’s focus was on access to academic hiring, admissions, educational resources and financial aid, but the impact quickly spread to other areas of discrimination. After a landmark 1974 report by Margaret Dunkle on 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 vs. Yale that sexual harassment is a form of discrimination, Title IX became the main vehicle to address sexual misconduct and violence 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.” Dunkle agrees: “It was perhaps the most important legislation for women,” she told Ms., “since the 19th Amendment right.”
In 1975, President Ford appointed Sandler to chair the National Advisory Council on Women’s Educational Programs. President Carter re-appointed 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, 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.
During her lifetime, Sandler gave more than 2,500 presentations, served as an expert witness and authored several books and many articles. Sandler was also a Senior Scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute for many years. “Bunny Sandler was such a powerhouse,” Langelan said. “She changed the lives of millions of women and girls, LGBT students, and boys and men as well.” A high-spirited and highly effective advocate for women’s equality for more than 50 years, Sandler was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013.
Sandler’s pivotal role in making Title IX the law of the land was a major milestone in the fight for equality—in education and beyond. “Every woman,” Dunkle asserted, “who has gone to college, gotten a law degree or a medical degree, took shop instead of home economics or went to a military academy really owes her a huge debt.”
This piece was authored collectively by Bunny’s family and friends. 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, D.C., 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.