Bernice Sandler died this week at the age of 90. She is not a household name and my guess is most people don’t know who she is. That’s unfortunate because there are so many women in this country that owe so much to her strength and determination.
She was a schoolgirl in the 30’s and 40’s when she was told she couldn’t do some of the things that boys do, like be a crossing guard, fill an inkwell or operate a slide projector. When she was older and teaching part-time at the University of Maryland she was denied a full-time position because “you come on too strong.” Others suggested she was just a housewife who should be at home with sick children.
That past fueled her desire for change, which led to her becoming the face, voice and force behind the development, passage and implementation of Title IX, the civil rights law of 1972 that barred sex discrimination by educational institutions that received federal funding. It required that male and female students have equal access to admissions, resources and financial assistance, among other things.
To fully appreciate Dr Sanders, you have to go back to the dark ages of 1972, where many universities had limits on the number of female professors they would hire. Salaries for female faculty members were well behind men and while men’s varsity sports received millions of dollars in federal funding, female athletes held bake sales to pay for their uniforms, had no lockers and were forced to dress in their dorms.
Back in those dark ages of my lifetime, sex discrimination was not illegal in education. But Dr. Sandler found a reference to an unheralded executive order amended by President Johnson that barred organizations with federal contracts from discriminating on the basis of sex. She understood that most universities received federal funding so she went to work, beginning a class action lawsuit in 1970 on behalf of all women in higher education. She found that some schools had no woman faculty and that women were often denied scholarships if they were married. She proceeded to file complaints against more than 250 institutions.
Title IX applies to every aspect of education, including enrollment, courses, financial assistance, housing and student services. But its impact has probably been most visible in college sports. Where resources for, and participation by women, lagged behind men prior to Title IX, participation exploded in the decades following implementation. Before Title IX, one in 27 girls participated in sports. By 2016, that number was two in five.
Sadly, after all these years, Title IX still has a long way to go before it eradicates decades of entrenched sexual discrimination. In Dr. Sandler’s own words, “I was extraordinarily naive. I believed that if we pressed Title IX it would only take a year or two for all the inequalities based on sex to be eliminated. After two years, I upped my estimate to five years, then to ten, then to twenty-five, until I finally realized that we were trying to change very strong patterns of behavior and belief, and that changes would take more than my lifetime to accomplish.”
Unfortunately, like all forms of discrimination and inequality, ignorance and distorted beliefs hinder real change.
Still, there are tens of thousands of women over the last forty-five years who owe so much to Dr. Sandler’s courage and determination. Women who have positions of power on college campuses, who have equal pay, who share the same educational and athletic resources as men, are all indebted to her sacrifices.
Bernice Sandler is a name and life that should be remembered by everyone.