Dr. Sandler is no stranger to gender and sex discrimination in collegiate academics. After graduating in 1969 with her PhD in Counseling and Personnel Services, Dr. Sandler applied for various tenure tracked jobs with a variety of academic institutions but with no success. She was told everything from “Coming off too strong for a woman” to being degraded as “just a housewife who went back to school.”
Facing such a blatant level of sexist discrimination, Dr. Sandler joined the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) which was an organization dedicated to utilizing legal action and lobbying to enhance the status of women throughout the country. She was also hired as an education specialist for a subcommittee on the Committee of Education and Labor for the U.S. House of Representatives which she used as her platform to support hearings related to gender discrimination in education and employment.
At the time, there were no federal laws that prohibited discrimination against women in any kind of educational fields. Upon learning about a 1965 executive order signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson which prohibited sex discrimination by organizations with federal contracts. Dr. Sandler knew that the executive order which could be used to fight sex discrimination in education.
“It was a genuine ‘Eureka’ moment,” she later recalled in an account of her work. “I actually shrieked aloud for I immediately realized that many universities and colleges had federal contracts, were therefore subject to the sex discrimination provisions of the Executive Order, and that the Order could be used to fight sex discrimination on American campuses.”
With her role on the Women’s Equity Action League, Dr. Sandler started to challenge over 250 education institutions on sex discrimination and coordinated a massive letter writing campaign that “generated so much Congressional mail that the Departments of Labor, and Health, Education and Welfare had to assign several full-time personnel to handle the letters.”
As a result, her efforts led to the first real federal investigation into sex discrimination on college campuses. With Representatives Edith Green (D-OR) and Patsy Mink (D-HI), they were able to gather the material needed to hold hearings on gender discrimination in education and to draft legislation to address the issue. The resulting legislation that was passed is known as Title IX.
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” — Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute (20 U.S. Code § 1681 – Sex)
Title XI is best known, but not limited to, its impact on high school and college athletics. While there is still much debate regarding Title IX’s effect on women’s sports, Title IX is credited for a significant increase in participation and representation of women in sports and exercise.
Dr. Sandler continued her work and activism for gender equality in academics. Including the unpredicted after effects of Title IX’s impact on sex discrimination. In a 1982 paper she co-authored with Dr. Roberta M. Hall, they described the “Chilly” classroom environment for women. Including the increased incidences of female professors’ credentials being challenged more than their male counterparts. Female Doctorates not being addressed as “Dr.” and even female students receiving less engaged responses for their classwork from professors compared to males.
“When Title IX was passed I was quite naive,” Dr. Sandler said. “I thought all the problems of sex discrimination in education would be solved in one or two years at most. When two years passed, I increased my estimate to five years, then later to ten, then to fifty, and now I realize it will take many generations to solve all the problems.”
Her work and legacy include advocacy and activism for minority populations, using her experience in sex discrimination as a foundation to advocate for the rights of others. She was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013.
Dr. Bernice Sandler passed away on January 5th, 2019 but her impact and legacy will always live on.
By Dirk Smith