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date: 29 September 2022

Sandler, Bernice Resnickfree

(3 Mar. 1928–5 Jan. 2019)

Sandler, Bernice Resnickfree

(3 Mar. 1928–5 Jan. 2019)
  • Susan Ware

Sandler, Bernice Resnick (3 Mar. 1928–5 Jan. 2019), psychologist, educational consultant, and feminist activist, was born Bernice Resnick in Brooklyn, New York, the younger of two daughters of Abraham Hyman Resnick and Ida Ernst Resnick, who owned a women’s sportswear store in Rockaway, New Jersey. Known as “Bunny” to family and friends since childhood, in 1944 she graduated from Erasmus High School (whose student population, like Resnick, was overwhelmingly Jewish) and enrolled at Brooklyn College, where she received a B.A. in psychology in 1948. She continued her studies in that field, receiving a M.A. in clinical psychology in 1950 from the City College of New York. In 1952 she married Jerold Sandler, who worked in educational broadcasting and later was a key advocate for public radio funding. The couple had two daughters: Deborah (1954) and Emily (1956).

In the early years of their marriage, the couple moved around a lot due to her husband’s military service and career. Sandler worked at a variety of part-time jobs, including guitar instructor, nursery school teacher, and vice chair of her children’s coop pre-school. When living in Bloomington, Indiana, she was hired as a research assistant in the Department of Psychology at Indiana University but denied admission to the graduate program, despite her excellent credentials, because of a quota limiting the number of women graduate students, then a common practice.

In 1964 the family relocated to the Washington, D.C. area, which would be her home for the rest of her life. Determined to pursue graduate training, she applied to the University of Maryland psychology department, only to be told they did not take older women (she was then in her thirties). She was admitted only after arguing that she was as highly motivated as returning veterans. She received her Ed.D. in counseling and personnel services, with a minor in psychology and social work, in 1969, but when she applied for one of the seven teaching positions in her department, she was passed over. When she queried a colleague, he answered bluntly that she came on as “too strong for a woman.” She went home and wept, but it was her husband who helped her see that it wasn’t her fault but the product of sex discrimination. Her career as a feminist was launched.

That year Sandler joined the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL), an advocacy group that had split from the National Organization for Women to focus on economic and legal issues. Casting around for ways to combat the discrimination that women faced in employment and education, she discovered that a 1965 executive order covering racial discrimination in federal contracts had been amended to include women in 1967. She called this her “eureka” moment because it meant that it could be used to challenge sex discrimination in colleges and universities, which were not covered by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In her role as the chair (and only member) of WEAL’s Action Committee for Federal Contract Compliance in Education, she proceeded to file more than 250 grievances against universities and colleges alleging an industry-wide pattern of unequal treatment of women, especially when it came to admissions, financial assistance, and hiring and promotion.

Spurred in large part by Sandler’s research and activism, in June and July 1970 Representative Edith Green (D-Oregon) held seven days of hearings on sex discrimination in higher education. She then hired Sandler to edit the written record of the hearings. To the naysayers who doubted that sex discrimination was a problem on campus, the two volumes of testimony and appendixes (full of what Sandler called “horror stories” of quotas, limits, and unequal treatment) established sex discrimination in education as a legitimate and pressing issue. A direct result was the passage of the Education Amendments of 1972, co-sponsored by Green and Senator Birch Bayh (D-Indiana) and commonly referred to as Title IX, which outlawed discrimination based on sex in all educational institutions receiving federal money. Sandler was so instrumental in the passage of this pathbreaking legislation and its subsequent implementation that she is often—rightly—called “The Godmother of Title IX.”

Sandler’s career now focused fulltime on feminist activism. From 1971 to 1991 she served as the executive director of the Project on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW) of the Association of American Colleges. PSEW’s remit was to circulate information about federal regulations of relevance to the nation’s educational institutions, and Sandler used this platform to raise awareness about sex discrimination on campus and nurture feminist action to combat it. She and her colleagues also published groundbreaking reports that identified (often for the first time) issues such as sexual harassment, date rape, unequal access to intercollegiate athletics, and “the chilly campus climate” as key factors limiting women’s advancement. In addition to her work with PSEW, from 1975 to 1977 she served as chair (a presidential appointment) of the National Advisory Council of Women’s Educational Programs and attended the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston as a delegate from Maryland, where she had raised her family and lived after her divorce in 1978. She was also active with the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education and lobbied for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1991 the Association of American Colleges restructured the PSEW and Sandler found herself out of a job. Long used to getting grants for her projects and relying on lecture and consulting fees to support herself, she continued her activism as a senior associate at the Center for Women Policy Studies (CWPS) in Washington, where she created and edited About Women on Campus, a quarterly newsletter jointly sponsored by the CWPS and the National Association for Women in Education (NAWE). Affiliated with NAWE from 1994 to 2000, she then became a senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute. A woman of boundless energy (she was an avid runner and hiker, as well as an inveterate collector of feminist buttons and memorabilia from her travels), she continued her advocacy of feminist issues until her death in Washington, D.C.

Bunny Sandler took an accidental route to feminism, but once she signed on, it changed her life. In the heady early days of the 1970s, she grasped that collecting and sharing information was a critical first step in challenging the deeply ingrained patterns of discrimination against women. Her advocacy not only identified the problem but helped to legitimize it. Her crowning achievement was her role in the passage and implementation of Title IX, a truly transformative law which fundamentally shaped the lives of women on campus and off in the decades to come.

Bibliography

Bernice Resnick Sandler’s extensive papers at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University include correspondence, reports, publications, and memorabilia, as well as an oral history about the passage of Title IX taken by Julia Lamber and Jean Robinson in 2004. The papers of the Project on the Status and Education of Women at Schlesinger also contain significant material related to Sandler. Also of interest are Bernice R. Sandler, “‘Too Strong for a Woman’ – The Five Words That Created Title IX,” Equity and Excellence in Education 33 (2000): 9–13;Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat and Sandler, “Title IX: How We Got It and What a Difference It Made,” Cleveland State Law Review 55, no. 4 (2007: 473–489.Find it in your libraryGoogle PreviewWorldCat Obituaries appeared in the Washington Post on 7 Jan. 2019 and the New York Times on 8 Jan. 2019.