by Elizabeth "Betty" Hale, Senior Fellow, IEL
On January 5, IEL’s first female board chair, Dr. Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, the “Godmother of Title IX,” died peacefully. She was 90.
Title IX was perhaps the most important legislation for women since the 19th amendment gave them the right to vote. According to Sandler’s colleague and friend (and former IEL staff member), Margaret 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.”
Sandler, a highly effective advocate for women’s equality for more than 50 years, was also a masterful board chair.
During her tenure, Sandler oversaw major changes at IEL, notably an expansion of programmatic focus beyond the Beltway, an emphasis on the leadership development needs of women and minorities, and a policy and practice role in the nationwide implementation the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. Most notably and in her final year as the chair of IEL’s board, Sandler helped guide IEL’s transition from a policy center at The George Washington University to a stand-alone, nonprofit organization.
Sandler was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1928. As a schoolgirl, she objected to the way girls were excluded from class activities that boys did. She told her mother she was going to “change the world.” And she did. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013.
In the late 1960s, teaching part-time at the University of Maryland after earning her doctorate, Sandler 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. Discrimination against women was the norm at colleges and universities across the country. Many scholarships went to men only; women were explicitly excluded. And, it was all perfectly legal.
Sandler decided to take action. In U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, she found a footnote about presidential Executive Order 11246, which prohibited federal contractors from discriminating in employment on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin. President Johnson had amended the executive order in 1968 to also prohibit discrimination based on sex. This was Sandler’s “Eureka!” moment.
From 1969 – 1971, Sandler chaired 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 enforce the executive order that forbade sex discrimination in schools with federal contacts.
The evidence convinced Rep. Edith Green of Oregon to hold the first congressional hearings on sex discrimination in education. Green introduced Title IX, a federal civil rights law that was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and signed into law by President Nixon. Title IX’s focus was on access to academic hiring, admissions, educational resources, and financial aid. Almost immediately, however, Title IX’s impact quickly spread to other areas of discrimination in education. After a landmark 1974 report on the rampant sex discrimination in college athletics (with Margaret Dunkle), Title IX blew open the doors for women and girls in sports. In 1980, 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 Sandler. “It gave us tools to tackle all kinds of discrimination. Bunny Sandler was such a powerhouse—she changed the world for millions of women and girls, for LGBT students, and for boys and men as well.”
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 sexual harassment of students by faculty, peer sexual harassment, campus gang rape, and the chilly classroom climate for women and minorities. These reports also included recommendations to improve institutional policies and practices. Sandler gave more than 2,500 presentations, served as an expert witness, and authored several books and many articles. She also served as a senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute for many years.
In 1994, IEL presented Sandler with a leadership award, which she graciously accepted. She made a few comments and then exuberantly hoisted the award in the air and said, “When I was growing up, I was never allowed to win something like this.”
“Bunny never missed an opportunity to keep us aware of gender discrimination—in all its many forms,” said Elizabeth “Betty” Hale, a former president of IEL.
A memorial celebration of Dr. Bernice "Bunny" Sandler will be held in Washington, D.C. this summer.