Bernice Sandler’s daughter was learning to drive and increasingly interested in cars, which Sandler said led to a decision to take a course in auto mechanics at Northwood High School. Her daughter’s attempts to register for the class were rejected, she said.
At that time — prior to 1972, though Sandler can’t recall the exact year — those courses, and other similar stereotypically masculine activities, weren’t for girls in Montgomery County.
Not pleased with the restriction, Sandler said she called the instructor to ask why her daughter couldn’t join the class. According to Sandler, he said there was no place for her to change clothes. She countered that her daughter could use the same bathroom she always uses.
“The guy then said, ‘Ma’am’ — you know something is going to happen when they say ‘ma’am’ to women — and he said, ‘You don’t understand. These boys’ language is absolutely awful,’” Sandler said. “And I wasn’t smart enough to say, ‘You should hear my daughter’s language.’ But there was no law. There was nothing else I could do.”
That experience, and others like it, Sandler said, spurred her to take steps that eventually culminated on June 23, 1972, when President Richard Nixon signed Title IX into law.
The seminal event occurred a few years prior, when Sandler was teaching at the University of Maryland, College Park. She was employed part time even though she had received her Ed.D. in counseling and personnel services from Maryland and the school had openings. She said she asked a colleague why she hadn’t received a full-time position.
“Without skipping a beat, he said, “Let’s face it. You come on too strong for a woman,’” Sandler said. “So, I went home and cried.”
Then, she read up on the law and found an executive order that banned sex discrimination in institutions such as Maryland that have federal contracts, she said. Sandler filed administrative charges with the Department of Labor, which drew attention to the issue and eventually led to Edith Green, a congresswoman from Oregon, proposing a bill that would become Title IX.
Contrary to popular belief, Title IX makes no direct mention of athletics. Its purpose is much broader.
The law declares: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
“Athletics became much more visible than anything else,” said Sandler, who now lives in Chevy Chase. “Because the others, for example, if you let young high school girls take auto mechanics, you’re not going to get a national headline on it, and most people don’t even want a headline. They just quietly change.”
The change in athletics has not always been so quiet. To alleviate some of the difficulties in interpreting the vague law, the Office for Civil Rights instituted a three-prong test in 1979. To comply with Title IX, an institution must have an affirmative answer to at least one of the following three questions:
1. Are participation opportunities substantially proportionate to enrollment?
2. Is there a history and continuing practice of program expansion for the underrepresented sex?
3. Is the Institution fully and effectively accommodating the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex?
The proportionality provision has been used as justification by some universities to eliminate men’s athletic teams, thereby increasing the ratio of female athletes.
Title IX compliance is still a concern today, but Sandler said she can look back at her daughter’s auto mechanics class and know at least some progress has been made.
“Certainly, this wouldn’t happen now,” Sandler said.