(February 8, 2019 / JNS) “There’s a word for that,” Bunny Sandler told me when describing her family’s Judaism. “To fix the world and make it better.” Tikkun olam, I thought on the other side of the phone from my dorm at Duke University, where I was researching the pre-history and early years of Title IX.
Thanks to Title IX—the federal law Sandler spearheaded that prohibits discrimination based on gender at federally funded educational institutions—girls and women are learning about ourselves and preparing for our futures in unprecedented numbers. As of 2017, women comprise 56 percent of those pursuing post-high school degrees, and more than 3.3 million of us play sports in high school and college (compared to just 40 percent and 310,000, respectively, pre-Title IX).
Sandler, who passed away from cancer on Jan. 5 at her home in Washington, D.C., left a legacy in a world that if not fixed (she would say it’s not) is at least better (indisputably).
Bernice Resnick was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., though her parents called her Bunny, based on her Yiddish name Bunya. Jewish immigrants from Russia and Germany, they instilled in her a “love of social justice.” She wanted me to know this—that her passion for leaving the world better than she found it came from her roots, just as she wanted me to know the stories that followed.
As a girl, Sandler loved school. And she excelled. “I knew I was going to college before I knew I was going to high school—before I knew what high school was,” she told me. As a teen, she knew education was her future. After summers working on a farm during World War II, she thought, “I would be better off doing something more intellectual and less physical with the rest of my life.” And that’s what she did. After skipping grades to graduate from New York City’s public Erasmus Hall high school at age 16, Sandler went off to Brooklyn College, New York City’s first public co-ed liberal arts college.
Sandler’s educational career continued. She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1944 with a psychology and education degree, and went on to earn a master’s degree in clinical and school psychology from City College, which when she graduated in 1950 was not yet fully co-ed. At the University of Maryland, she earned an Ed.D. in counseling and personnel services, which she received in 1969. She had accomplished much and was poised to achieve her goal of becoming a professor, working with kids in schools and teaching people how to be good counselors. But that’s where it stopped.
And where Title IX started.
Sandler would retell her story to anyone who would listen: She applied for a faculty position at the University of Maryland. She asked a friend on the hiring committee why she wasn’t even considered, and he remarked unremarkably: “Let’s face it. You come on too strong for a woman.”
She went home, cried and blamed herself, not yet convinced of sexism. “I thought ‘I never should have spoken up in graduate school. … I probably came on too strong.’ ” Quick to explain further, “in those days I was much more ladylike … I certainly was not what I would consider a strong woman or abrasive.”
She told her then husband what happened. After discerning that there were “strong men” in the department, he knew it wasn’t about Sandler at all.
There’s a word for that, her husband told her: sex discrimination.
A lightbulb went off. “It was the first time I had ever thought of myself as having been discriminated against,” she recalled. The new perspective prompted her to remember two similar experiences. She was previously declined a position because she was a mother, which at the time was an occupational hazard. Shortly afterwards, an interviewer insulted her with: “You’re not a professional. You’re a housewife who went back to school.”
She could see the pattern of discrimination. And she assumed it was illegal.
Sandler used her research training to learn what recourse she had. She found a report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that included a footnote about a federal executive order prohibiting organizations receiving federal contracts from job discrimination. It was intended for factory and construction workers, and initially excluded sex as a protected class. A recent amendment made it apply to gender. “I literally screamed. I was alone in the house. It was a eureka moment,” she remembered. Sandler had made the connection: universities and colleges had federal contracts and could not discriminate against women.
It was only a matter of time before the executive order would be enforced as such.
Sandler first filed a class complaint against every college and university in the United States with federal contracts. The complaint specifically mentioned the University of Maryland, though that wasn’t a priority for Sandler, who never filed against the university on her own behalf. “That wasn’t what I was interested in. I just wanted things to get better and to be fixed.”
She would go on to file more than 350 complaints, implicating more than 2,500 schools.
For the next two-and-a-half years, between 1970 and June 1972 when Title IX was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, Sandler and a handful of motivated citizens and members of Congress undertook at times a widespread effort and at other times a set of stealth strategies. “We’re trying to figure out … how do you change things? One way is you change laws.”
The goal was a cultural shift, and it was a success. Today, girls and women can choose intellectual and physical futures. And when we come up against sex discrimination in education—when we are denied access to the same opportunities as our male counterparts in the classrooms or on the sports fields, when we face sexual harassment and assault on campus, when we are left out because we are pregnant or already mothers, and when we are looked over for faculty positions or not paid comparably to our male colleagues—we have more than a word for it.
Thanks to Bunny Sandler’s tikkun olam, there’s a law for that: Title IX.
Risa Isard is a Washington, D.C.-based expert in sports policy, with a focus on the intersection of sports, gender, sexuality and social issues. You can follow her on Twitter at @RisaLovesSports.