Season 1

Feminist Files: Episode 1 – Great Aunt Bunny

What happens when nobody is left who remembers a story? We bridge the generational gap to resurrect a lost part of the history of Title IX.


Leigh: On June 23rd, 1972, a piece of legislation quietly made its way to the desk of president Richard M. Nixon for signatures. The bill was a mere 37 words: part of a larger omnibus education bill, one of those typewritten thousand-page tomes that Congress is famous for that not very many people even read. Only a handful of women knew what was in this bill–this, according to the women who lived it.

They didn’t even lobby on behalf of the bill because they knew if they did, people would find out what was in it and they’d move to get it killed. So the bill passed under the radar while nobody was looking. And it was only this handful of women who knew the eventual scope and long-term implications of this new law. That it would impact millions of women’s lives, requiring gender equity in hiring and admission practices on every college campus in America.

It would revolutionize women’s sports. It would make room for women, who were pregnant or planning to be pregnant, to teach college or to go to school. And it would become the mechanism for supporting victims of campus sexual harassment and sexual assault–terms that didn’t even exist in 1972. Armed with typewriters and telephones and mimeograph machines, they had the patriarchy itself in their crosshairs.

And these are women whose names you’ve probably never heard of. It was only after the bill passed in 1972 that opposition to it began to build. It heated up, and it heated up fast as the men in power began to realize what had happened–that these nerdy revolutionaries had, in fact, outsmarted them. The good old boys’ networks and academia were starting to crack. Time was up.


Leigh: This is the story of how such a powerful bill came to pass and how these women behind the scenes and Washington DC created a movement, a movement that one of them would call the academic sex revolution. This is the origin story of Title IX and the underdogs who created it–the unlikely nerdy revolutionaries who changed the world.

From Frequency Machine and Leigh Fondakowski comes the story of the 1972 landmark legislation for women’s equality in education: 37 words that would change the world.


Leigh: Join me and an ensemble of actors as we discovered the stealth politics of Title IX. This is Feminist Files.

My name is Leigh Fondakowski. I’ve spent the better part of 20 years interviewing people and making art from their actual words: The Laramie Project about the murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, The People’s Templeabout the 1978 Jonestown tragedy, and Spill about the BP oil spill. I tell the stories of these watershed moments in American history, using the words of the people who lived them. Theater created from real events.

This series will be constructed from actors, reading bits of history from the archives, interviews, as well as other found texts. It’s an audio theater: a theater that will take place in the space between us.

I was just a kid in 1972, but it’s become clear to me after looking into this story that every female doctor, lawyer, professor, or coach I’ve ever had owe their careers in part to Title IX. And it all started with a footnote.

Our story begins three years earlier with Bunny Sandler. Born and raised in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Now living a quiet middle-class life with her husband, Jerry, and their two daughters in a Maryland suburb, just outside of Washington, DC, Bunny is about to graduate from the University of Maryland with her PhD in psychology–not a small achievement in 1969. Her husband, Jerry, is one of the early founders of what would become National Public Radio. Bunny and Jerry are kind of, well, boring in a good way. They both love listening to folk music. They support one another professionally. They’re living a happy, quiet domestic life. I guess we’d call it the calm before the storm, because events will soon conspire to draw Bunny out of her insulated middle-class life and into the political fray, a fight she will fight for the rest of her life. In 1969, Bunny would accidentally stumble upon the legal basis for Title IX. A bill so powerful it would change the course of women’s history.

I had always known about Title IX. To me, it was about equality in women’s sports.


Leigh: But I had never thought much about its origin story until I met Rora Brodwin.

Rora: My name is Rora Brodwin, and I am the great niece of Dr. Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, the godmother of Title IX. She’s technically my first cousin twice removed, but I’ve always called her my great aunt Bunny.

Leigh: Before Title IX, it was perfectly legal to not admit or hire women simply because they were women; or to admit fewer women to colleges requiring higher grades; or to fire women faculty, because they might get pregnant; or pay them less because their husbands would make the real money anyway. This was all commonplace practice. Great Aunt Bunny was determined to do something about it.

Rora: You rarely see feminist heroes who are just completely ordinary. I mean, everyone is ordinary and extraordinary. That’s absolutely true.

Leigh: Bunny’s dream was to become a college professor. And she began to figure out that something was amiss.

Rora: You know, the nerds, the wonks, the people behind the scenes, the people who are actually really uncomfortable with fame–like how can they be heroes?

Leigh: Here’s what happened. In 1969, there was a huge expansion in the psychology department at the University of Maryland. Seven new positions, and Bunny Sandler was not considered for any of them. So she went to one of the faculty members she knew well, and she said, “Hey, why was I not considered?” And she was told:

Alex: Well, let’s face it, Bunny. You come on too strong for a woman.

Leigh: That was actor Alex Grubbs as Bunny’s colleague. And these 13 words are the start of the academic sex revolution.

Rora: For Bunny to realize that there were patterns of sex discrimination that were not personal–that no matter what she did–she wouldn’t have the opportunities that men had. I think it was a profoundly hard thing for her to accept, because it meant that she didn’t have as much control over her life, as she liked to think that she had.

Leigh: When Rora Brodwin was in the seventh grade, she interviewed her great aunt Bunny for a school report for Ancestor Day.

Rora: My dad sent me–he saved the recording of our interview. So I have that recording from seventh grade that I got. Just a couple months ago I didn’t have it. And I listened to it, and I’m like: Oh my God, I have the same vocal path. Like I have the same polite laughter. I have the same like pausing to just higher pitch.

Leigh: Higher pitch.

Rora: Just higher pitch.

Leigh: Oh, will you let me hear that?

Rora: Yeah. But it’s just wild for you’re like, wow, I’ve–it’s the same.

Leigh: This is Rora Brodwin when she was in the seventh grade, explaining to her great aunt Bunny that she’d like to talk to her about Title IX.

Rachel: I’m going to be making a poster on that, and I’m going to be writing a five-paragraph essay on that.

Bunny: You know what I should send you? And I haven’t, I haven’t done this, but I definitely will do it. Let me make myself a note. I can send you some, uh, two Title IX buttons.

Rachel: Oh.

Bunny: Yeah.

Leigh: That’s Great Aunt Bunny who has agreed to be interviewed by her great niece. Rora Brodwin was still called Rachel when she was in the seventh grade.

Bunny: And while we’re talking, Rachel, stop me anytime and ask me to repeat what I’m saying, because I tend to speak quickly. And I’ll have a lot to say, more than you really need.

Rachel: Okay.

Bunny: You’re not going to be able to write everything down. So I want you to be comfortable saying, “Hold on a sec,” or “Just a minute,” or “Let me get this down,” or “Could you say that again?” And that’s just fine.

Leigh: The family resemblance is immediately clear. The family dynamics too.

Rachel: Okay, I’m actually recording it right now.

Bunny: You are recording it.

Rachel: I am. We just figured out how it works.

Bunny: Well, now just let me tell you that what you’re doing is absolutely illegal, because you’re supposed to have a little beeper when you record something, and you’re supposed to ask someone’s permission. However, I am now officially giving you permission to do it.

Rachel: Thank you.

Bunny: So it’s not likely you will be arrested.

Rachel: I appreciate that.

Bunny: Yes.

Rachel: All right.

Bunny: Okay. So where do we start?

Rora: Bunny has always gone by Bunny–first of all–since she was a baby, because there was another Bernice that was in her building. And so her parents were like, we’ll nickname you Bunny. She’s been that way her whole life.

Super short. By the time I knew her, she was like, her head was well below my chin. So I don’t know how, like less than five feet tall probably. And so much energy, a great laugh, really funny. Even when she started to lose her memory, she would make jokes about it so that it wasn’t, you know, it was never a sad thing.

Bunny: After Title IX was passed, no one knew it was going to cover athletics except a few of us. And people then found out it was going to cover athletics. And the big athletic interest of collegiate athletics people got very upset so they tried to weaken Title IX to change the law so that it either wouldn’t cover athletics or wouldn’t cover it as well.

And I had printed up–I don’t know–several thousand buttons. One of which said, “God, bless you, Title IX.” And the other one said, “Give women a sporting chance.”

Leigh: This homemade recording contains a tiny slice of the history of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s in America: how women organized and how the opposition organized against them. A child’s recording uncovers a blueprint for social change.

Bunny: And people gave them out to a lot of people on–I’ve been in the Congress. And everybody wanted the buttons, because they were kind of fun to look at. But I’ll send you the two buttons. I’ll just save myself a mess.

Rachel: That’s so cool.

Bunny: Send to Rachel.

Rora: She was the smart one. Her sister was the pretty one. That was a big tenet of early Bunny’s life.

Bunny: And did you get my email where I answered two of the questions?

Rachel: I did.

Bunny: Those were the longest answers, and I figured they would be good to write out.

Rora: I’d always known that she was the godmother of Title IX. I’d grown up knowing that. But I’ve always felt, you know, oh, how cool. Like I have a feminist celebrity in my family without understanding what that means. And I only thought that Title IX was athletics.  

Bunny: And in those days, Rachel, there was very little in the newspapers about women other than–you know–how to be a good housewife, how to clean your house, or how to wear pretty clothes. And that was about it. Most of us had no idea how bad the discrimination was, how rampant it was. And, when I started, I didn’t know any of that. And a lot of things, you just sort of settle that’s the way it is.

Rora: It’s so easy, especially nowadays, especially as a young person, to feel like your feminist journey is different than your parents’ feminist journey. And so man, screw them. You know, my mother never learned how to sew or cook really, because that was rebellion against her mother. And I’ve been always annoyed at that because I’m like, I would love to sew and cook. Like those would be helpful skills to have.

Bunny: When I was getting my doctorate, which is an advanced degree, I wanted to do some research on how young women make decisions about what kind of work they want to do, which I thought would be an interesting topic. And my advisor looked at me and he said, “Research on women. That’s not real research.” And when he said that, I mean, I didn’t see it as discrimination.

I think: Well, the man’s an idiot. Which is very different than saying that’s sex discrimination.

Rora: And it wasn’t until stepping into adulthood myself and deciding to learn my own family’s history. And like the tremendous battles that they faced. And the parallels between today. That I’m like, oh no, I am a feminist and this is a mantle that I’m proud to hold and not something that I’m rebelling against.

Bunny: There were a number of things like some schools, they had like Career Days for boys. And they’d bring in, say an engineer, to talk to the boys. And the girls wouldn’t be allowed to attend literally. They were given a fashion show.

Rachel: Wow.

Bunny: Yeah.

Rora: I think that that’s such a personal journey of when you, as a young person, decide that learning your history is important. People can tell you that forever and ever, but it’s up to you at some point to be like, no, wait, it does matter.

Bunny: So it’s, it’s, it’s a long story, but I had no idea how important this would be. I mean, just this last year, someone wrote to me and said that they thought Title IX was the most important law passed for women since women got the right to vote back in 1920. And I had never thought of it that way. And that person was absolutely right. I had no idea it was that important. Not for many years.

Rora: It wasn’t until I sat her down in 2017, my senior year of college, and started to ask her about her story–that I realized she laid the foundation for arguably one of the most important pieces of legislation for women’s rights and education in the last hundred years. I didn’t realize the scope of her story at all. And I also didn’t realize the scope of Title IX.

Bunny: Rachel, if anyone had said to me before I got started in this, you know, you’re going to change this whole country. You’re going to be giving speeches all over the place. I just would’ve giggled.

Rachel: Yeah.

Leigh: It’s a wonderful scene: the duet between young Rachel and her great aunt Bunny. And of course, young Rachel has no way of knowing it, but this interview foreshadows her future.

Bunny: We didn’t even have a word for sexual harassment when Title IX was passed. Title IX covered sexual harassment, but we didn’t even have that word. We didn’t even have the word sexism. Well, it’s hard to think about something if you don’t have a word for it. Many people didn’t have a word for it. If you don’t have a word for it, you don’t think of it as a pattern.

Rachel: Yeah.

Leigh: When Rora was in the seventh grade, life was already dropping hints. We can look into the past, and we can also see the future from right here.

Rora: It wasn’t until I started interviewing her that I realized how much, like how drastically she changed my world.


Leigh: Hold that thought a moment while we take a brief intermission.


Leigh: I’m someone who makes theater. So I would like you to imagine that we are sitting in a room together talking, as sometimes happens in the theater when there’s no separation between the actors and the audience, when everything turns out just right. If we were in the theater right now, the house lights would go to half.

And then a few seconds later, you would be sitting in the dark. The lights would come up on the stage in front of you. And you would see Great Aunt Bunny circa 1969 with a broken typewriter on her kitchen table in her middle-class home in a Maryland suburb. And now imagine young Rachel enters. She crosses the space-time continuum, walks right over to that table, and watches her great aunt Bunny work. Great Aunt Bunny started a revolution, and this innocent seventh grader doesn’t know it yet. But the work that began on that kitchen table–those typewriter keys forging a new way of looking at the world–will collide with her future in ways unimaginable to her now, as a seventh grader, writing a school report for Ancestor Day.

Great Aunt Bunny comes from another time and place. A time when women couldn’t work a night shift or serve on a jury or run a marathon. A time when married women did not have access to birth control. They also needed their husbands’ signatures to get a credit card or open a checking account. A time when husbands could legally rape their wives in all 50 states. A time when education was not something society valued for women. And Great Aunt Bunny was determined to do something about it.

 Okay. Fast forward from 2009 to 2017. 13-year-old Rachel is now 21-year-old Rora. Oh, my God. Do I have the math on that, right? Rora is a college student at Yale, probably too cool to be wearing a Yale sweatshirt, but that would be the best way to theatrically signal where she is.

Rora: I’m an American Studies major, specific about, you know, American heroes.

 Leigh: Rora is an artist, an actor, and a writer in her senior year. She is as studious now as she was at 13.

Rora: To find histories within America–to embrace, to feel proud of–that are intersectional, that are, you know, passed down orally between, you know, family members. The lore. People define themselves by lore and by stories.

Leigh: She’s a storyteller, and she’s honing in on a different kind of school report, her thesis project to graduate from Yale.

Rora: So I knew that I wanted to do a project on women in history. Originally I was going to do a theater show where I took women historical figures in America and made them into myths for the audience. I felt a lack of mythic women figures in America. You know, like I know suffragists as kind of dowdy little old ladies. There’s no one that I felt like I could pray to. So I was like what would it be like if I took someone and I took an audience. And I said, you know, by the end of this, you’ll feel like this person is real and that you can pray to them. And I was like, oh well, there’s someone in my family that I like is a cool woman in history.

Leigh: Which brings us to the second time that Rora interviewed her great aunt Bunny, searching for an American mythic figure that was real to her. Someone that she could pray to.

Rora: And then an advisor told me:

Ronald: Drop the whole mythology thing.

Leigh: Ronald Peet as Rora’s academic advisor.

Ronald: Don’t have an agenda. Just go talk to her, just go have a conversation.

Rora: So I went down to DC, and I took out my phone and started recording.

Leigh: The travel time on the Northeast Regional corridor train from New Haven to Washington, DC is just under six hours: five hours and 59 minutes. I never asked, but if I had to guess, I would say that Rora Brodwin is the type of person who sits in the quiet car.

Rora: The first time that I called her that fall of that year, I was like: Oh my God, she just asked me the same thing over and over and over again. And you know, people do that sometimes. There’s a certain level of repeating yourself that’s just normal. But this was, I remember exactly where I was walking around New Haven and talking to her and just being like: something’s, you know, we’ve passed a point.

 Leigh: But even with the memory loss, Rora decided to go.

Rora: It’s certainly hard to talk to an older family member or anyone that can’t, that doesn’t have great short-term memory. It’s certainly hard. You can’t let your energy fade because then, she would pick up on that. And then that would make her feel bad, even though she didn’t know why.

But I did when I was, you know, deciding whether or not to tell her my own story. The feeling of her forgetting it certainly was one of the big reasons why I didn’t want to tell her.

Leigh: Rora is a private person. That’s both an observation and a self-description, but she wanted me to understand, to give me more context for her visit to see Great Aunt Bunny.

Rora: I was still reeling from an experience of sexual assault that I had had that summer, before the fall of that year. That I didn’t talk about with a lot of people. It was something I was kind of dealing with privately.

At the same time that I was talking to Bunny, I was also, you know, going into the Title IX office at my school. The Title IX office is in the Yale health building, on the basement floor. And there’s a door with glass, but the glass is covered. Right. And I’ve walked past it so many times and I’d never gone into it. When I walked into the Title IX office, I like couldn’t sleep. I was really struggling in my schoolwork. I needed to not have to explain to every professor why I was struggling. I just needed, I just needed help. I think at that time I was looking for means of empowerment, without realizing that that’s what I was doing.

Leigh: When thirteen-year-old Rachel interviewed her great aunt Bunny for her seventh-grade school report, she was too young to really understand Bunny’s place in the women’s movement. And now with Bunny’s memory loss, the stories that Rora is craving, the story she needs to make sense of her life are just out of reach.

Rora: I think I’m fine. And then for a week, I can’t look anyone in the eye, like very visceral. I don’t feel safe. That’s the me that goes to see Bunny, right, that is the quality of the person that’s like I need answers. Like I need help.

Leigh: When she arrives in DC, Bunny offers her orange juice and yogurt.

Rora: So at that point, she had had chemotherapy for multiple myeloma. And it had, it can make your brain foggy. And that’s what happened to her.

Leigh: She couldn’t have the conversation she wanted to have. Rachel was too young, and now Rora is ready, but Bunny is too old. They’ve missed each other.

The one clue that Bunny left Rachel that might allow Rora to complete the puzzle is this:

Bunny: Can you send me a copy when you’re finished?

Rachel: Of course I will. And I’ll take pictures of the posters.

Bunny: Oh, that would be lovely. Because you know what I’ll do with it. All of my papers–which means, you know, the things I’ve written and emails and things like that, like the email you wrote me–they all go to Harvard University’s library, the Schlesinger Library, which is a library on the history of women.

Rachel: Wow.

Bunny: So when you’re all grown up and if you’re ever in Harvard, you could go. By then my papers will be organized, and you’ll find this there.

Rachel: So cool.

Bunny: Yeah! So you can say your stuff is in the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.

Rachel: Yay!

Bunny: Yeah, I think that would be good.

Leigh: So Rora followed that clue and headed out on her search to find her great aunt Bunny.

Rora: I took a bus up to Boston in the snow that Christmas, that Christmas break. And I went through her papers at the Schlesinger Library.

Leigh: The Schlesinger Library at Harvard is home to one of the largest collections of women’s history in America. The other is at Smith College. Of course it is.

Now imagine through the magic of theater that there’s a large wooden table with a small gray archive box on it. The box is beautiful. Rora goes to the table. A librarian enters wheeling a book truck and parks it beside the table. She hands Rora a pair of white gloves, and Rora puts them on. The white gloves are for handling historical documents so that the oil from the skin doesn’t cause the paper to age more quickly. Rora opens the box, takes out a paper, and begins to read.

Rora: She had kept notes like meeting notes. And she had a ton of letters between her and other women. Really, really cool things.

 Leigh: Rora is looking at the papers, identifier number MC558: The Bernice Sandler Papers. She finds among the papers letters exchanged in the fight for Title IX. Letters from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That’s right, that’s RBG.

Rora: There are so many geek out moments. [Laughs.] I really wish that I had a picture of me with my white gloves and the papers. I felt so much like an archeologist.

Mercedes: I’m Mercedes Herrero, and I will be playing the notorious RBG.

 Leigh: This is Mercedes Herrero. She’s a very good stage actor, a good character actor.

Mercedes: Of course, I’ve seen Kate McKinnon do her. Okay. But McKinnon really does, you know, she really goes all Brooklyn on her. I’m going to try to do a more realistic version. [Laughs.] I’m gonna Ginsburn ya.

Leigh: Feminist file: letters from Ruth Ginsburg to Bunny Sandler.

Mercedes: Dear Dr. Sandler. I have heard from a number of sources about the complaints that have been filed under your direction against colleges and universities, charging discrimination against women. Your project is of particular interest to me in connection with a seminar I plan for the spring of 1971 on women’s rights. I would very much appreciate any information you could give me concerning the complaints. Sincerely, Ruth Ginsburg.

Leigh: When Bunny Sandler started her life of activism in 1969, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a young law professor. When law professor Ginsburg learned about Bunny Sandler, she reached out to Bunny. Within five months of their correspondence, they seem to have become friends addressing each other simply as Bunny and Ruth.

Rora: There’s a whole folder on RBG that, you know, I was just shocked. You know, it wasn’t one letter. There were quite a few letters like they had quite a correspondence. And this was when our RBG was just teaching.

Leigh: Before there were women’s studies classes or equal protection or Title IX, there was a quiet activism afoot. Women concerned about discrimination on the basis of sex, writing to one another, connecting with one another through letters.

Mercedes: Dear, Bunny. I was pleased to see that The New York Times has finally reported on your work. In our correspondence this summer, I mentioned that Rutgers planned to offer a seminar this spring on women and the law. At this stage in your work, would law student assistance be useful? If so, I would be happy to talk to you about the cooperation of seminar participants. Best regards, Ruth.

Rora: To see two women both seeking more information and giving more information in moments before pivotal shifts in their careers, it was just, quite fun.

Leigh: On one of the letters, Bunny underlined professor Ginsburg’s name and wrote in the margin of the letter: “ACLU lawyer. A good, important woman.” This was years before law professor Ginsburg became RBG. So you see, Bunny never missed a beat.

In addition to the letters with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there are many other consequential feminists that Bunny is writing to. Many of whom I had never heard of until now.

Rora: There’s correspondence between her and Pauli Murray, who’s this incredible activist. Pauli Murray’s a very interesting figure. She was gender queer before we had a term for that. She was a lawyer and a civil rights activist and became a spiritual leader.

Leigh: All of these letters filed away in beautiful gray archive boxes at the women’s library, just waiting for someone to find them.

Samira: I’m Samira Wiley, and I’m portraying Pauli Murray: author, activist, and consequential feminist.

Leigh: This is actor Samira Wiley, reading from letters exchanged between Bunny Sandler and Pauli Murray.

Samira: July 28th, 1970 from the desk of Pauli Murray. Dear Bunny. It’s a great time to be alive and to be associated with women like you and so many others who are in the movement today. When you’re written up in the history of this era, they should refer to you as the little woman who started the academic sex revolution. Here is completed official testimony. Cheers. And in sisterhood, Pauli.

Jodie: I’m Jodie Foster, and I’m playing Dr. Bernice “Bunny” Sandler.

Leigh: This is Jody Foster reading Bunny’s response.

Jodie: Dearest Pauli. Life is busy, busy, busy. Since I entered the women’s movement about a year ago, everything has changed so much for me. I think I will be busy like this for the rest of my life. For the problems of women will take generations to resolve fully. I keep thinking of something Ann Scott said, that all her life she had been fighting against something, but never knew what it was. I think that is true for me too. There was a kind of internal freedom that comes with all of this and that philosophy. One of the nicest things that has happened is the truly wonderful and remarkable people I am meeting now–women like yourself. I find myself wondering where all these good people were before and why I never met them. Well, got to hit the sack, have to write an article on sex discrimination in academia. Take care of yourself. The women’s movement needs you. Write on.

Leigh: Spelled W-R-I-T-E, a play on words. Write on.

Jodie: Affectionately, Bunny.

Leigh: Rora doesn’t have a lot of time in a library. And there are thousands of pages of material, 70 boxes. So she begins taking pictures on her phone as quickly as she can before her time runs out.

Rora: I did that over break and then I came back and I just started writing things down. To try and figure out how to make a play of all this.

Leigh: Rora is an artist. And as an artist, she’s trying to figure things out.

Rora: There was a part of me that was like I’m writing for the person that comes to you that just said that they’ve experienced a terrible thing. Like a friend that comes to you and just says, “Hey, I was just raped.” And there’s nothing that you can say or do to make it better. So what do you do? You say, “Can I tell you a story of this really tiny woman who changed the world one brave step at a time?”

Leigh: Vice President Kamala Harris was quoting civil rights icon John Lewis when she said that moment in your life, when the activist in you shook loose, something happened and you realized you had to do something about it. This is a series about those moments, about women who did something about it. History is still unfolding.

This is an audio series meant to inspire at a time when we could all use a little inspiration and a prompt to discover your inner activist. Because remember all of this happened with a broken typewriter and a light and a book truck and Rora’s phone and her need for a patron saint, for someone to pray to.


© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.