Sandra Feldman was born in 1939 in Coney Island, New York, the daughter of a milkman and a bakery worker and the granddaughter of immigrants. Sandra’s commitment to the New York City public schools grew out of her own experience. Because her mother was often ill, Sandra frequently cared for her two younger siblings. School provided an escape, and she credited Miss Bezman, her second-grade teacher at Public School 188, with expanding her horizons by encouraging her to read.
Feldman graduated from James Madison High School in Brooklyn and, at the age of sixteen entered Brooklyn College. Her political education began when she heard Bayard Rustin, the civil rights activist, speak about organizing a march to integrate schools. Rustin became one of her mentors. In 1963, she helped organize Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was arrested for working to integrate restaurants in Maryland during her trip to the March.
Feldman earned a master’s degree in English literature from New York University in 1963, and began teaching first and fourth grades on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At first, she was one of only two members of the teachers’ union there, but within a year she had helped organize the entire teaching staff. In 1966, on the recommendation of Rustin, she was hired by United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president Albert Shanker as a full-time field representative. Working her way through the ranks to executive director, she was elected secretary in 1983 and, in 1986, succeeded Shanker to become the first woman president of the union.
In 1997, when Shanker died, Feldman was immediately considered a leading contender to be his successor once again, this time as president of the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Her supporters believed her experience in leading a large union, her expertise on political reform, and her innovative success in forming alliances with community and parent groups made her qualified for the position; others questioned whether she could successfully serve as president of the UFT and AFT simultaneously (although Shanker had done so from 1974 to 1986); some quarreled with her stand against school vouchers. She was elected AFT president unanimously by the union’s executive council on May 6, 1997. Upon her retirement for health reasons in 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring her for “her outstanding contributions and leadership in improving the quality of teaching and learning.”
In her position as president of the AFT (she left the UFT in 1998), Feldman pushed for reducing class sizes, for quality preschool programs, and for higher teacher salaries. During her tenure, the organization considered ideas that did not always conform to traditional union tenets, including public charter schools and new work rules for teachers designed to raise the academic achievement of low-income pupils. AFT membership swelled during her presidency, topping the one-million mark in 1998.
Feldman’s organizational affiliations reflected a concern for educators, children, women, and workers, as well as interest in her own Jewish heritage. She worked with the United States Committee for UNICEF, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Executive Committee of Education International, the New York Chapter of the NAACP, the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, the Jewish Labor Committee, and many other groups. She was a powerful and influential voice in the politics of education, in New York City and nationally.
Sandra Feldman died of breast cancer on September 18, 2005.
This biography is adapted from Rona Holub’s article on Sandra Feldman in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.