“If the cure for cancer was in the mind of a girl, we might never discover it.”
~ Myra Sadker
This year’s Women’s History Month theme is “Nevertheless She Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” An honoree of this year’s National Women’s History Project is Margaret Dunkle, who was instrumental in putting Title IX into effect in 1972. Later, in 1992, as Director of the AAUW Educational Foundation, Margaret Dunkle commissioned the study, How Schools Shortchange Girls, which became one of the benchmarks used to eliminate gender bias in education. A contributor to that watershed study was Myra Sadker, a woman who persisted in bringing the issue of gender bias in schools to light, and the woman I honor today.
In 1995, my daughter was 10 years old and in the fifth grade. As someone who had fought since my twenties for equity and fairness for women in and out of the workplace, I was alert from the time my child took her first step for any signs of gender bias that might affect her development. By the time her first decade of life passed, I was beside myself — not only for the signs I saw as she grew up but also because of the history of gender bias in past decades. One terrible moment I remember in particular: we were studying together the list of U.S. Presidents, which were all men. What kind of message was that sending to my young daughter? It was frustrating enough that I couldn’t change history (although if I could have figured out a way to do so I would have gone for it), but I also felt like a voice in the wilderness in her school district as my concern turned to outrage, not just for my daughter but for all young girls. After all, I was a young girl once myself, and had experienced the confusion and frustration of gender bias.
Thus, it was with a feeling that the cavalry had arrived when that year Myra and David Sadker’s monumental and groundbreaking book, Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls, hit the bookstores. A few years prior to that, the Ms. Foundation had launched its Take Our Daughters to Work Day, but the event had not caught on yet at my Fortune 500 company, despite my efforts to promote it. But when the Sadkers’ book came out, I knew I had real ammunition to do something for not only my daughter in her school district, but for the daughters of my colleagues in my workplace.
According to Myra Sadker’s biography, she noticed when she was quite young “that the world in general, and schools in particular, did not treat boys and girls the same.” I believe that we all — female or male — have realized this phenomenon on some level while growing up. Of course, as time goes on the circumstance we call, “gender bias,” intensifies. Myra discovered that intensity when she was in college and lost out on a much-needed scholarship to a well-to-do male student because he “would one day need to support a family.”
The situation worsened; despite Myra’s work and ideas, professors consistently deferred to her male counterparts. That was back in the 1960s, when the feminist consciousness was just beginning to be raised. Women were still in the early stages of discovering that the world held more for them than housework, cooking, taking care of their husbands and households, performing volunteer work and bearing and rearing children.
By the late ’60s, Myra’s particular situation came to a head when she and her husband, David, were working on their doctorates in education at the University of Massachusetts. David was becoming a star and Myra was becoming invisible. At a meeting of students and professors, Myra presented an idea that was ignored by everyone, until a male student repeated it and the room erupted in praise for the man who had presented the game-changing suggestion they had been seeking. (The entire maddening story is documented in the Preface of Failing at Fairness.) Millions of girls and women have ground their teeth over similar occurrences they themselves have experienced in the workplace, in the community and in the home.
But Myra persisted in getting her voice heard. She wrote an editorial for her college newspaper, entitled, “The Only Acceptable Form of Discrimination,” and followed up in 1973 with a textbook for teachers entitled, Sexism in School and Society. In forging this path in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Myra Sadker was a true pioneer. Her experiences inspired her husband, David, to join forces with her to expose and eliminate gender bias in education.
Myra’s Life and Writing Partner
David Sadker has been a strong supporter of Myra’s goal to bring about gender equality in the classroom and on the campus. They have published — separately and together — a number of books and articles, which are listed on the Myra Sadker Foundation website.
The fact that Myra’s husband supported her so strongly indicates that there are some men who understand, appreciate and work to remedy gender bias. Watch here a very dated copy of a Dateline special that focuses on gender bias in the classroom and features Myra and David Sadker. And here is another vintage video (in slightly better shape) that shows David demonstrating to an audience how gender bias in the classroom works.
David has carried on the work that Myra inspired. Many years ago I was fortunate to meet David Sadker at a book signing and asked him to autograph a copy of Failing at Fairness for my daughter, who like millions of girls benefited from its publication. He wrote, “…to a future fighter for fairness, from Mom and David Sadker.” It saddens me greatly that I did not get to meet Myra.
Tragically, Myra Sadker passed away before she could accomplish more good work on behalf of girls and women in schools and on campuses. But while she might be gone from our lives, Myra Sadker’s spirit is alive in everyone who strives for gender equality in education, and her legacy lives on in every schoolgirl.
Before we can eradicate sexism from the workplace we first must eradicate it from our classrooms. So far it hasn’t been easy; there have been backlashes, and obstacles still remain. Nevertheless, we shall persist.
Until next time,