Bernice Sandler, 'Godmother of Title IX,' helped establish women's sports without realizing

April is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ fourth-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world. We will also be highlighting some of the best stories from the past year as well as featuring some of the trailblazers. 

About 10 years ago, the “Godmother of Title IX” Bernice Sandler was the keynote speaker of an event at Louisville. She couldn’t believe the packed crowd was standing and applauding her work to bring equality in women’s sports.

With her was Chris Voelz, the Women’s Sports Foundation ambassador and executive director of the Collegiate Women’s Sports Awards.

“She was taken back by this filled house at Louisville, and she was unabashedly both embarrassed and tickled pink that she got this standing ovation from thousands of people,” Voelz said. “She would just turn to me and say, ‘Who knew?’”

Sandler played an integral role in the passage of Title IX, the law that forbids the exclusion from athletics – among other things – in education programs on the basis of sex. She died on January 5 at the age of 90.

“She was of diminutive stature physically and this kind of understated presence, and then when she started telling her stories to young or old, they really were taken,” Voelz said. “And you couldn’t help by be taken by this very small, at that time, gray-haired woman, who had so much life she had lived.”

But “Bunny” Sandler didn’t begin the movement with the goal of affecting sports participation. Her fight was about discrimination in the education and job market.

Sandler wasn’t initially accepted into college because she was a woman, Voelz said. She then couldn’t find a job after receiving her Doctorate of Education from the University of Maryland in 1969 and heard the same reasons:

“Just a housewife who went back to school” … “We already have a woman in this department” … “Let’s face it, you come on too strong for a

So she got to work fighting the laws that allowed inequality in the academic system.

A footnote in Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 amendment to Executive Order 11246 stated federal contractors could not discriminate on the basis of sex.

“Even though I was alone, I shrieked aloud with my discovery: I had made the connection that since most universities and colleges had federal contracts they were forbidden from discriminating in employment on the basis of sex,” Sandler wrote on her website.

The rest is history. But she didn’t even realize it would affect the sports world.

“I thought, well, they’ll just maybe have two days of sports days instead of just one. They’d end up having more oranges and drinks,” Voelz recalls Sandler saying.

Bernice Sandler (middle bottom) with a group of women including Chris Voelz (top, second-from-right) (Photo courtesy of Chris Voelz)

While Sandler wasn’t an athlete as a kid, Voelz was. Now 69 years old, she played basketball, volleyball and softball, often doing so illegally.

Voelz pretended to be a boy and played in unaffiliated leagues, something that would get her kicked out of the official Girls Athletic Association sports if discovered.

The GAA didn’t have game schedules in high school. There would be one day a season where they would get to play with a different school, but it wasn’t against an opponent – the teams would be mixed up because competition between girls was frowned upon.

“Many of the people, the older generation at the time, would say, ‘Well we don’t want them to fall into the same kits that the men have.’ You know, in colleges where there’s cheating, or there’s overemphasis, or you’re not being a student,” Voelz said. “We would say, ‘Well give us a chance!’”

As Title IX began shaping the sports world, Voelz went on to serve as the head volleyball coach and assistant athletic director at Oregon and then spent 15 years as the athletic director at the University of Minnesota – the same school whose woman’s basketball team was discontinued in the 1920s after the University of Wisconsin president’s wife said the sport wasn’t “lady-like,” Voelz said.

“I really rode the wave, the crest of Title IX, having just been there at the right time,” Voelz said. “Not timely enough to have some benefits in high school and college, certainly, but timely enough to be able to make a difference throughout my career as I rode the crest and became an advocate for Title IX.”

She is one of an uncountable number of women whose lives have been changed by Sandler.

The Women’s Sports Foundation cites 1,062 percent growth in girls high school participation from 1972 to 2018. In that 1971-72 school year, only seven percent of participants were girls; now, that number is much more closely split with boys at 42.8 percent.

A 2015 EY Women Athletes Business Network and espnW study showed 94 percent of C-suite women have some sports background. Fifty-two percent played at the collegiate level.

On that day “Bunny” and Voelz met in Louisville, which sparked a relationship between the two for the rest of Sandler’s life, Sandler got a tour of the campus. She saw all the facilities that had been built for the women.

“She was appalled in a very wonderful way. In an absolutely exhilarating way that she had played any part in getting the women … to see them get that,” Voelz said.

Even some high school-aged girls have started achieving celebrity status, such as Mo’ne Davis, who threw a shutout in the Little League World Series in 2014; Chloe Kim, who became the youngest woman snowboarder to win an Olympic medal in 2018; and Fran Belibi, who won the McDonald’s All American dunk contest last month.

Without Sandler, there’s a chance none of these women would be known today.

Without Sandler, there’s a chance that generations of women would have missed out on the sports they love.

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