Woman's National Democratic Club

The Indomitable Bunny Sandler

By Marty Langelan, Past President of the National Woman’s Party

Photo of Bunny Sandler (right) with Margaret Dunkle at WNDC Event, 1977

Bernice (Bunny) Sandler was the Godmother of Title IX. In the 1960s, there were no laws against sex discrimination in education. Many college departments denied admission to female students and refused to hire female faculty. Women faced restrictive quotas, exclusion from libraries and research labs, daily sexual harassment, and countless other barriers. There seemed to be little or nothing we could do about it. But in a report by the US Commission on Civil Rights, Bunny Sandler found an obscure reference to Presidential Executive Order 11246. It prohibited federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin, and Bunny discovered in a footnote that President Lyndon Johnson had amended it to include discrimination based on sex. “Eureka!” she shouted. Universities had federal contracts.

From 1969 to 1971, Sandler led the new Action Committee for Federal Contract Compliance at the Women’s Equity Action League. She filed hundreds of federal administrative complaints against colleges and universities across the country, documenting the pervasive discrimination and demanding that the federal government take enforcement action. When Rep. Edith Green (D-Oregon) decided to hold the first Congressional hearings on sex discrimination in education, Sandler lined up scores of women to testify. The result was Title IX. President Richard Nixon signed it into law in June 1972. 

The original emphasis was on academic hiring, admissions, and financial aid, but after Margaret Dunkle’s 1974 report on inequality in college athletics, Title IX blew open the doors for women and girls in sports. In 1980, when Catharine MacKinnon succeeded in defining sexual harassment as discrimination (Alexander v Yale), Title IX became a legal toolkit to tackle harassment and assault on campus.

Sandler built a powerful national network of Title IX Coordinators and developed the administrative procedures to address educational discrimination. Her “Uppity Women Unite” buttons went coast to coast, knocking down the barriers for every young woman who can now be an athlete, take shop class, attend a military academy, win a fellowship, or get a medical or law degree. Bunny was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013.

MARTY LANGELAN, past president of the National Woman’s Party and the DC Rape Crisis Center, is an expert on harassment and a 2018 National Women’s History honoree. As a young student, she filed one of the first successful nationwide sex discrimination cases, using Bunny’s Executive Order. They became lifelong friends.


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