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Telling the story of one of the biggest civil rights leaders in the history of the U.S. is no easy feat. Being able to tell that story in a fascinating, digestible way for young teenage readers can be even more complex. However, author Jen Barton was up to the challenge. She delivered the new book “Bernice Sandler and the Fight for Title IX,” which tells the story of Sandler, who is known as the “Godmother of Title IX,” and the importance Title IX plays in our society 50 years after the law banning discrimination on the basis of sex in education was passed. MenLiving’s Patrick McKenna got to ask Barton about Sandler’s life and legacy, the magnitude of Title IX today and the work still to be done in dismantling gender inequality.

Patrick:

What were your biggest motivators behind writing this book and focusing on Bernice Sandler’s life?

Jen:

In Jan 2019 an article in the NY Times caught my eye. It was about the passing of the Godmother of Title IX, an extraordinary woman named Bernice Sandler, or Bunny, to those who knew her. Bunny’s discovery of a little-known footnote had led to the passage of the groundbreaking law in 1972.

Until this project I had a loose understanding of TIX, something about sports maybe, I’d have guessed. But I was only one when TIX passed and I grew up basically unaware of the benefits and protections I enjoyed—benefits others had fought hard for. I took for granted things like being allowed to take Shop class instead of Home-Ec or having access to a decent uniform and locker room if I chose to play sports (I didn’t), or for it to be illegal to have been discriminated against if I’d been pregnant during any of my schooling. So, when I saw the long list of achievements recounted in Bunny’s obituary, with such far-reaching impact on women’s equity in education, I wondered why I’d never heard of her. Here was one of the people responsible for a law that had literally given me the legal right to access equitable education and I didn’t know her name. I’d never heard of her! It seemed wrong.

I’d been exploring ideas for a new project at the time, and a quick Google search confirmed that while Bunny Sandler had been instrumental in the passage of TIX, and was mentioned in histories of the law, I couldn’t find any books specifically about her, especially for young readers. I was ambivalent. The gap was good for me—it meant an opportunity, but it also meant that like so many important women, Bunny’s story had been sidelined. It was impossible to go back and have Bunny’s story for me, when I was young. So instead, I decided to write it, hoping younger readers might know her name sooner than I did.

Patrick:

The book was powerful and very informative. How did it feel writing it knowing you were representing the story of someone so integral to American history and dismantling discrimination in education?
Jen:

It was humbling! I felt a lot of pressure to do justice to Bunny’s life and legacy, not just as it related to Title IX, which is definitely the focus of the story, but also with details about her personal life. One of the first things I did was reach out to Bunny’s daughters, Deborah and Emily. They were very receptive, and I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with each of them. Because of their involvement, we were able to include personal details and family photos that offer readers a fuller picture of Bunny’s life.

Patrick:

The magnitude of Title IX on society and Bernice Sandler’s work is huge. What are the challenges of fitting all the history you’d like to fit in when writing a book like this?

Jen:

As I was researching, compiling material, and forming a rough outline it was helpful to remember that even though the book is largely about Title IX—and you’re right, there is a lot of history there—ultimately, it’s about Bernice Sandler and her involvement with the law. Having that theme front and center helped keep me on track. We also included lots of sidebars that help contextualize some of the information in Bunny’s story.

For example, one gives background on notable politicians who were part of the struggle to pass TIX, like Representative Edith Green (Oregon), known as the Mother of TIX, Senator Birch Bayh (Indiana), who’s the Father of TIX, and Patsy T. Mink (Hawaii), who the bill is now named after. Another discusses the terms Gender vs Sex and how those words are used differently now than they were in Bunny’s day, while another outlines myths about women and sports that were common around the time TIX was passed. The sidebars cover various topics, but all add texture and touch on some of the wider history we couldn’t address more deeply.

Patrick:

What do you think activists today could learn from Bernice Sandler?

Jen:

One of my favorite parts of the book and a theme I took from Bunny’s personal story is that it doesn’t take a person with power to make a difference, more often it takes determination. If you’re on the stinging end of injustice, it can make you feel small and very specifically without power. In fact, injustice is kind of designed to do exactly that. And telling the story of someone who was not powerful but still managed to accomplish amazing, groundbreaking things through hard work and determination feels especially meaningful and timely right now.

Additionally, I think sometimes activists get painted with a broad brush and are thought of or seen as outspoken people who are loud and forward and ready to knock doors down in the name of justice. Which is great and absolutely necessary, but not everyone is like that. And civic engagement or fighting for what you believe in takes many forms—and we need all of them. Bunny wasn’t an activist when she began her fight. At that point, she wasn’t even a feminist. She was just a person, a very determined person as it turned out, trying to get a job. When the door was slammed in her face simply because she was a woman, she didn’t do the easy thing or even the normal thing and walk away and find another job. She dug in and found a way to change an unjust system.

So, two things, I guess. First, it doesn’t always take a person with power to make a difference, more often it takes determination and second, activism comes in many forms and we need all of them!

Patrick:

Going off that, what were some aspects of Sandler’s legacy that you see directly applied to activism in 2022 around sexism and gender inequality?

Jen:

Title IX remains at the heart of current social issues and policy. From gender-neutral bathrooms, LGBTQ+ rights including pronouns of choice, the #MeToo movement, to sexual assault and harassment violations in sports, schools, and workplaces, TIX is front and center. For example, it’s hard to imagine the “Don’t Say Gay” law recently enacted in Florida not facing a future Title IX challenge of some kind. Can a child who identifies as LGBTQ+ or has same sex parents have an equitable educational experience as a child who doesn’t when the law effectively silences instructors on LGBTQ+ history and culture?

Whatever happens with the law in the coming years, all people were meant to benefit. And though the law was primarily passed to stop discrimination against females, it does protect males too. Bunny called it an “organizing tool, to get people to think about gender.” My guess is it’ll be part of the conversation around these issues for years to come.

Patrick:

With the 50th anniversary of Title IX being passed into law happening this year, what to you are some of the biggest strides made because of Title IX? And what are the biggest ways progress has yet to happen?

Jen:

Title IX made it illegal for any organization that received federal funds to discriminate on the basis of sex. Gender was no longer a deciding factor in what school students were admitted to or what classes they could take. This led to more women in higher paying fields of study and jobs. It meant pregnancy wasn’t an immediate disqualification or cause for expulsion or dismissal. It meant sports programs had to be equitable, regardless of gender. And girls’ sports skyrocketed. With that, came increased confidence, leadership skills, and other positive impacts that sports and equitable opportunities can provide.

That said, sexual harassment and sexual assault in schools is still rampant. Title IX may make it illegal, but we have a long way to go before we reach true gender equality, including the fight for trans rights to be recognized.

To learn more about Jen Barton and order her new book about Bernice Sandler, click here

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