Bernice "Bunny"Sandler

Feminist Activist
1928 – 2018

by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

I do not recall how or when I first met Bunny. In those days–Washington, D.C. of the mid-1960s–feminist activists somehow got to know each other. Sometimes we worked alone; sometimes we worked together. We certainly networked and shared information. Bunny was among that group of feminists, as was I.

I had joined the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) on October 4, 1965, three months after it had commenced operations, as the first woman attorney in its Office of the General Counsel. Its mandate at that time, which was subsequently broadened, was to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin by covered employers, employment agencies, and labor unions. When I saw that the EEOC was not vigorously implementing the sex discrimination prohibitions of the Act, I became a feminist activist and have remained one ever since. My work focused on gender discrimination in employment, while Bunny specialized in gender discrimination in education.

Bunny and I quickly became good friends: we were both short, Jewish women; both born in the same year—1928—she, in March; I, in May. Through the many decades that I knew Bunny, I teased her about being my senior. “You’re three months older than I am,” I’d say, “and you always will be.” She’d respond by saying that, in that case, I owed her some respect.

Bunny's passion for changing the field of education's treatment of women was spurred by her own experience in academia. In 1969, after earning a doctorate at the University of Maryland, she hoped to secure one of seven open teaching positions in her department at that university.  When she learned that she had not been considered for any of them, she asked a male colleague why. His reply was, “Let's face it. You come on too strong for a woman.” For Bunny, those were fighting words, and battling discrimination in educational institutions became her lifelong passion.

The range of her activities in one lifetime was phenomenal. And she was essentially a one-woman band.

In seeking ways to attack gender discrimination at colleges and universities, Bunny had a eureka moment. She realized that when President Lyndon Johnson signed Executive Order 11375 in 1967, amending Executive Order 11246, which he had signed in 1965, he had paved the way for her to bring lawsuits against institutions of higher education that discriminated against women. The two orders together prohibited employment discrimination in the federal government, by covered federal contractors and subcontractors, and on federally-assisted construction projects on the basis of race, creed, color, sex, or national origin. Since colleges and universities, by and large, received federal funds, she had an instrument to use against educational institutions that discriminated against women. She began to file class action lawsuits against colleges and universities nationwide, resulting in a barrage of more than 250 lawsuits.

Bunny was principally known for the major role she played in the development and passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination against students and employees in federally-funded educational institutions from kindergarten through graduate school. That act extends to athletics, sexual harassment, and employment discrimination. It has had a significant impact on female collegiate athletics throughout its 46-year history, dramatically increasing the number of women in college sports. Bunny was widely known as the “Godmother of Title IX” for her pivotal role in the creation and implementation of that law.

Bunny’s accomplishments are too numerous to delineate in full, but include the following: She served as chair of the Action Committee for Federal Contract Compliance for the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL), and was an education specialist for the Special Subcommittee on Education, Committee on Education and Labor for the U.S. House of Representatives. She was director and executive associate of the Project on the Status and Education of Women, which she helped found. She held roles at the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, the Center for Women Policy Studies, and the Women’s Research & Education Institute. Both Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter appointed her to the National Advisory Council on Women’s Educational Programs, where she  served in various capacities, including as chair.

While all this was going on, Bunny was a prolific giver of speeches; wrote and co-edited books; served as an expert witness in gender discrimination and sexual harassment cases; and consulted with The Citadel, the Military College for South Carolina, on its female assimilation plan. Among the many honors and awards bestowed on her, Bunny was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2013.

During these very full years, Bunny remained a generous friend. In 1973, I left the EEOC for other employment. At the end of 1985, I planned to return to Washington, D.C. for a new job in the General Counsel’s Office at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). My future boss at HUD told me that I needed to start work immediately. So I flew to Washington, D.C. to look for housing and stayed with Bunny in her condo in Bethesda, Maryland. In short order, I found a development I liked in Potomac, Maryland and bought a townhouse there. I excitedly told Bunny about it when I got back to her apartment.

That night, I awoke at 4:00 a.m. and realized the folly of what I had done. I had to start work at HUD immediately but the townhouse I bought wouldn’t be finished for another six months. I began to pace around the condo trying to figure out what to do. My pacing awakened Bunny, and she asked me what the problem was. When I told her, she immediately said, “You’ll stay here.”

“For six months?” I asked.
 
“Sure,” she said. “I’ve had people stay here that long and longer.”
 
And so, I started my job at HUD and lived with Bunny. Towards the end of my stay with Bunny, I planned to visit former classmates and needed to buy a hostess gift for the couple with whom I’d be staying. I decided to go to the Torpedo Factory Art Center–a former Navy Torpedo factory that now housed professional artists who worked, exhibited, and sold their wares–and Bunny offered to go with me.
 
I found nothing I liked on the first floor of the Factory, or on the second floor, but on the third floor I found a beautiful sculptured plate in a shop that sold ceramics and pottery. I was about to pay for it when Bunny came up behind me, took the plate out of my hand, told the sales person that she was buying it, and did. I was flabbergasted, but figured I could buy another plate of the same kind. But there was no other plate of the same kind. Bunny left with the plate, and I left empty-handed. I didn’t feel I could tell her of my shock at her behavior; after all, she had taken me into her home for six months.
 
A week later I was celebrating my birthday, and when I opened my gift from Bunny, there it was: the plate Bunny had taken out of my hand.

On May 6, 2018, I flew in to Washington, D.C. from my home in Sarasota, FL with a friend for the book-launching of a book in which I am featured. My great-niece picked us up at the airport, and the first place we went to was Bunny’s condo. I knew Bunny’s health was failing and didn’t want to miss a chance to see her. The four of us had a wonderful time together.
 
On the evening of January 6, 2019, I received an email from one of Bunny’s two daughters, relaying the sad news that Bunny had died on the preceding evening. I will miss her for the rest of my life.

Topics: Feminism
2 Comments

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

I just wanted to say that Sonia is a trusted friend. I read her article because of our friendship. I'm sharing this article with my husband and other friends because Sonia is one hell of a writer! Read this article, and you'll feel like you knew Bunny as well as Sonia did. 

Beautiful tribute, thank you for sharing your friendship with Ms Sandler with us.

Bunny Sandler (right) and Sonia Pressman Fuentes, May 6, 2018. Photo courtesy of Sonia Pressman Fuentes.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, 1928 - 2018." (Viewed on August 21, 2019) <https://jwa.org/weremember/sandler-bernice>.

Donate

Help us elevate the voices of Jewish women.

donate now

The JWA Podcast

Can We Talk?

listen now

Get JWA in your inbox