The Real Story Behind the Passage of Title IX 35 Years Ago

“Called the ‘godmother’ of Title IX’ by the New York Times, Dr Bernice Sandler was an integral part of its creation and passage.

More than any other federal legislation, Title IX has dramatically changed the course of education for women students and leaders in academics and athletics in the United States.

Called “the godmother of Title IX” by the New York Times, Dr. Bernice Sandler was an integral part of its creation and passage. She filed the first lawsuits against more than 250 schools back in the 1970s, when there were no laws prohibiting sex discrimination in education. She also invented the terms “gang rape” and “chilly climate” while making more than 2,500 presentations, writing more than 100 articles and serving as consultant and expert witness.

At the annual conference of the National Association of Collegiate Athletics Administrators (NACWAA) in St. Petersburg FL in October, she provided an historical context to her five-decade career; she is now senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in DC.

Session presider Judy Sweet noted that Sandler’s presentation brought three types of reactions by NACWAA participants. Younger women were wide-eyed with an “I don’t believe it” look on their faces. Older ones recalled “I’ve read about it” while the real veterans said, “I remember it.”

Pull up a comfy chair and read all about it.

It was the late 1960s, the women’s movement was just a few years old and the terms “sex discrimination” and ”sexism” did not exist, Dr. Bernice (Bunny) Sandler began. There were no newsletters, conferences or listservs devoted to women’s issues, nor was email available to help women communicate with each other.

Women needed much higher grades than men to get into a college and grad schools set a limit on the number of women admitted. Some 21,000 women were denied admission to state universities in Virginia, but no men. The veterinary school at Cornell University NY admitted just two women a year, unlike today when 70-80% of vet students are women.

Women applying for faculty jobs routinely heard, “Your qualifications are excellent but we already have a woman in this department.” Some departments had neither women nor plans to hire any. Nobody would hire a married woman.

Bunny Sandler felt the discrimination. As a part-time lecturer at the University of Maryland, she applied for a tenure-track job but was told by a colleague to forget it, because “You come on too strong for a woman.” She went home and cried.

Her then-husband understood. “Are there any strong men there?” he asked. “All of them,” she answered. “It’s not you, it’s sex discrimination,” he told her.

Eschewing the nascent women’s movement, Sandler continued to apply for jobs and got two more rejections, including being told, “You’re not really a professor, just a housewife who went back to school.” Three times she got on the short list, but didn’t get the job.

Bibliotherapy to the rescue

Having been denied opportunities many times because of her sex, Sandler began to read about legal issues and sex discrimination. “I naively thought that since sex discrimination was wrong, there must be a law against it,” she said.

But the 1963 Equal Pay Act covered women and men, but exempted education. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination based on race, origin, color and religion, but not sex. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act exempted educational activities at schools. And the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not apply to women.

Finally, Sandler related, she found a footnote to a law on federal contracts that prohibited discrimination based on sex. “Eureka!” she said. She’d found the needle in the haystack of federal regulations that would support women!

In January 1970, she and a small band of women (and a few “men of goodwill”) filed the first complaints against every college with federal contracts, about 250 of them. “It was very easy to do,” she recalled, but it went unnoticed except by the Saturday Review of Literature, which listed it under the heading of “Women’s Activities.”

Sandler encouraged other academic women to compile data on the number of women in each department in their schools, and learned the percentages were dismal. “At the time women received 22% of the doctorates in psychology, so you’d expect the number of women faculty to be comparable,” she said. “But in Harvard University’s graduate school of humanities and sciences, the last time they’d hired a woman was in 1924.”

She advised faculty women feeling the discrimination to contact their Senators and Congressmen, and the secretary of the Department of Labor, Health and Welfare, demanding enforcement of the executive order forbidding sex discrimination in schools with federal contacts. Staff members learned about the new issue, as did their bosses.

Within four months, many women had filed complaints, and the universities of Michigan and Harvard had been called on the carpet. “The U.S. government became directly involved in investigations related to sexual discrimination in higher education,” she said. “Pandora’s Box had opened.”

Congresswomen to the rescue

Representative Edith Green (D-Oregon) had long been interested in women and education, and in fact had proposed an equal pay act eight years before it became law. As chair of the House committee on education, she introduced a bill requiring gender equity in education, on which her committee held hearings. Sandler lined up women to testify about not getting hired—or receiving lower pay, no benefits or offices—even one who was not paid because her husband worked at the same school!

“The American Council on Education was the main player in higher education,” Sandler recalled. “But the president at the time declared there was no sexism in higher education—and even if there was, so what? Their reaction showed higher education wasn’t watching.”

Few members of Congress were aware of the bill, and they certainly didn’t imagine its later effect on college athletics. “It was easy to get data. We had 1,200 pages of data on sex discrimination in higher education,” she recalled.

After passage in the House, with the strong support of Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), Title IX went to the Senate, where Sen. Birch Bayh (D-IN) finessed it through with assurances that beauty pageants could still award scholarships “based on skill” and women would not be allowed to play football. After Mink’s death in 2002, the law called Title IX was re-named to honor her.

What about athletics?

Sandler was involved in a 1974 study that revealed some strong anecdotal evidence that in the 1970s, women in athletics got only a tiny sliver of the pie.

For example, the University of Michigan had a $1.4 million budget for athletics, and none of it went to women’s programs. Sandler listed these examples:

  • Women sold apples at football games to pay for their uniforms.
  • Male athletes flew to contests first class, while women drove their own cars or rode with coaches.
  • In gymnastics, men saved their used tape for the women’s team.
  • Women athletes got negative messages, including a coach telling an injured player: “Put your foot in a toilet and keep on flushing.”

It was no secret that men got newer and better uniforms, locker rooms, exclusive use of an intramural pool at certain times, better-trained coaches, academic credit for participating in athletics events and exemptions from taking physical education classes.

Why didn’t alarms go off about Title IX and athletics?

“Awareness of sex discrimination was so limited that nobody expected the impact,” Sandler recalled. “In my 1970 testimony, I didn’t even mention athletics. A year later, I mentioned athletics in just one sentence. After it passed in June 1972, five or six of us realized that Title IX would cover athletics as well, but we never considered its effect. I thought that maybe on Field Day, there would be more activities for girls.”

Representative Green knew it would have great impact, but discouraged Sandler from enlisting women to lobby Congress. “She said nobody should know about the bill or we’d get lots of amendments to it,” Sandler said. Green wrote the bill to follow the style of Title VI, with “grand language like the Constitution and Bill and Rights,” Sandler said, adding sex to the list of prohibitions against discriminating by race, religion and national origin. Since the NCAA covered only men’s sports at the time, it did not oppose the bill.

When President Nixon signed the bill into law, she said, “A new era had begun, but few knew this would change education and schools forever.”

How is ‘gender equity’ defined?

Having declared that educational programs needed to be gender equal, the federal government needed to establish criteria for measuring equity, especially in athletics.

“I and others spent endless hours with brilliant attorneys, coaches and administrators trying to establish the criteria,” Sandler recalled. Finally the three-prong test proposed by the NCAA and a football coaches’ association won acceptance over complaints by women’s groups. A program complied with Title IX if it:

  1. Accommodates interests and abilities of the underrepresented group. “Since women showed little interest and even less ability in athletics,” that section “seemed harmless,” Sandler recalled.
  2. Demonstrates a continuing pattern of advancing opportunities for the underrepresented sex. “Now 35 years later, and it seems that slow progress is OK,” she quipped.
  3. Provides playing opportunities for each sex proportionate to their number among undergrads. “That was OK then because fewer women went to school. They got married and were subject to quotas in admission,” Sandler said. Now that women are 57% of students and just 40% of athletes, the provision has gained much greater importance.

Effects of Title IX

“Title IX did more than encourage women. It acted like a shock wave” in changing social values in the United States, Sandler said, listing some major effects:

  • An increased awareness of sex discrimination has occurred by both women and men.
  • “It gave hope and courage to women to organize for change,” she said. “Women became a new advocacy group and learned the politics of change.” Of course, women were labeled “women’s libbers” and some lost their jobs.
  • Most policies of outright discrimination were abolished, due to women’s organizations bringing awareness to those in power, those in denial and attorneys. Examples include equity raises to women (one received $22,000) and the end of male students receiving maid service and career day events while women students got a fashion show.
  • The personal confidence and self-esteem of women increased, enabling them to seek and excel at a wide array of vocational and academic careers as doctors, lawyers, politicians, firefighters and police officers, to name a few.
  • Women’s issues have become institutionalized, including prevention of violence against women and reporting of campus crime statistics, attention to the recruitment and retention of women faculty, and the legitimizing of research on women and the issues affecting them.

Miles to go

Unfortunately enforcement of Title IX has been spotty, Sandler said, and major inequities remain, especially for girls in K-12 schools and in athletics. She called for increased training on Title IX for lawyers and judges, and increased training on student-to-student sexual harassment especially toward lesbian and gay students.

The current administration’s support for single-sex education is “the most dangerous attack on Title IX” because it reinforces stereotypes and almost always disadvantages women, she said.

After the passage of Title IX, “I thought all the problems would be solved in one year. Then maybe five years and certainly in 10 years,” Sandler said. “We didn’t fully understand how pervasive, how subtle” gender bias can be. “It will take many generations—a social revolution with an impact as big as that of the industrial revolution—to change the roles of women and men. We have taken only the first steps of that revolution,” she said.

Noting that making overt changes in policy like the passage of Title IX is easier than effecting major changes in cultural roles, Sandler observed that today four of the eight Ivy League schools have women presidents, and at least two major athletics programs have female directors.

“With the politics of change led by women and men of good will, campus, society and the world will never again be the same,” she concluded.


How ‘Dr. Bernice Sandler’ Became ‘Bunny’

Sandler’s mother and her mother’s best friend were expecting at the same time, and each wanted to name her daughter “Bernice.” They agreed that the first to deliver a girl would win that right.

Born a week too late, she was to be named “Beryl.” But the doctor, a family friend, instead wrote “Bernice” on the birth certificate, which translated to “Bunya” in Yiddish and then became “Bunny.”

Not until her first day of school did she learn her real name was “Bernice,” after the teacher called all the names on her class list and she spoke up about not being called. Informed that her name was “Bernice,” she cried and insisted her name was “Bunny.” After that, her mom spoke with each teacher before the first day of class.

Some Practical Solutions


In response to questions about how to deal with here-and-now issues, Sandler offered this advice:

Q: How can I handle a male administrator who rules by temper tantrum and has told me I’m “too strong for a woman” and should “stay in my place.”

A: If he’s creating a hostile environment for everyone, it’s not sex discrimination. If it’s only for you, then it’s actionable. Sandler suggested she document his outbursts, spoken to whom and on what day, as a written record. Then find a very prestigious, tenured professor who believes you, gather other like-minded supporters and meet to plan a strategy. Go to the university’s president as a group to make your case, and send a letter as a follow-up. Ask for a second meet-ing, and demand to have him fired.

Q: What strategies do you use to make change?

A: Sandler ticked off these ideas: Look for allies in your endeavors, send money to any women’s group, develop data and fact sheets to document the issue, send articles on sex harassment and other issues to your Congressional representatives, get prestigious people involved, make people uncomfortable by giving them data, make friends in the media, get organizations to support you, and use the Web, listservs and email to connect with others.

Q: How can we get the word to the younger generation who think everything is equitable now and they needn’t worry?

A: We’ve made progress and some think it’s OK now, Sandler said. But today’s students don’t realize that college is the last bastion of equality, and when they go out into the workplace they’ll face discrimination in hiring and promotion.

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