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News & Ideas

The Fight of Her Life: Gender Equality

This 1974 portrait is among the personal photographs in the Bernice Resnick Sandler Papers.

A footnote put Bernice Sandler on the path to making headlines as a pioneer for women’s rights—“the godmother of Title IX,” as described by the New York Times

“I was reading a report evaluating the enforcement of civil rights legislation prepared by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights when I came across a little known Presidential Executive Order, which prohibited federal contractors from discriminating in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin,” Sandler wrote in an article for the Cleveland State Law Review in 2007.

The note explained that the order had recently been amended to include gender discrimination. Sandler had found a powerful response to the gender-based rejections she’d experienced as a lecturer looking to climb the ranks at the University of Maryland in the late 1960s. 

“I was alone at home and it was a genuine ‘Eureka’ moment. 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. 

Working with the Women’s Equity Action League, Sandler, who died at 90 on January 5, would go on to file administrative complaints with the US Labor Department against more than 250 colleges and universities. The research behind those complaints helped to set in motion legislative efforts by US Rep. Edith Green, a Democrat from Oregon, that in time would produce Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972: “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.”

The Schlesinger Library, which holds Sandler’s papers, mourns her loss while celebrating her legacy. 


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