Women Who Carry Their Baskets: Bernice Sandler

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Bernice Sandler earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1948. Two years later she earned a master’s degree in the same field. Two years after that she married her husband Jerrold Sandler, and proceeded to produce 2 daughters in two year intervals. During this time she worked on, and ultimately earned, a Ph. D. in education (awarded in 1968). After earning her degree she was denied a full time teaching position at the university level because “she was just a woman who went back to school.” In another case she was denied an academic job because “she came on too strong for a woman.”

As a child Bernice had always wanted to do things that boys could do, but she was denied participation. So, she became a woman’s advocate. By 1971 she was serving as the deputy director of the Women’s Action Program within the Department of Health and Human Services. That same year she became the Director of the Project on the Status of Woman. She served in that capacity for two decades. Over that time she consulted extensively with colleges and universities on their admission policies and the assimilation of women into the campus community. In addition, she became the chair of the National Advisory Council on the Status of Women in 1975, an associate in the Women’s Institute for the Freedom of the Press in 1977, and following her retirement from the director position, she served as a senior associate at the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Over her professional career she wrote three books and earned numerous awards.

But, Bernice’s most important contribution was filing a class action lawsuit in 1970 in conjunction with the Women’s Action Equity League. Over the years she would file more than 250 complaints against numerous institutes of higher learning with respect to their treatment of women. In her preparatory research,  she discovered that President Johnson had signed legislation that barred organizations with federal contracts from discriminating on the basis of sex. She used this information and her collaboration with Representative Edith Green on congressional hearings on discrimination in higher education to lay the foundation the legislation that would become Title IX. That legislation required that male and female students be given equal access to college admissions, resources, and financial assistance. It prohibited sexual harassment. Later, it was extended to add equal opportunities with respect to athletics.

Bernice’s tireless advocacy on the behalf of women was the bag she carried all of her professional life. Over the years her load was diminished, but never was she able to put down her bag entirely. She noted at the end of her life, that while women had come far, they still had further to travel with respect to the issue of gender equality.

Lori LeachmanComment