David Sadker

“Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns that she is worth less.”

The VFA would like to thank Sheila Tobias, Convenor of the Tucson-Based group of activists; Dean J.P. Jones, Univ. of Arizona, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences; Jennifer Croissant, Chair, Gender and Women’s Studies; David Sanchez, Videographer and Editor; and Graduate Student Ruben Ernesto Zecena. Interview conducted in March 2019.

My name is David Sadker. I guess I’m now a veteran feminist. I’m also a veteran of the Army, so I’m a double veteran. I’d like to tell you my story. But to understand my story you really have to go in a time machine and know what the world was like, because I don’t think when you watch this tape you will have any clue as to how different the world was.

So, I’ll tell you my story. I was born in the Bronx in a Jewish Shtetl, a Ghetto in a Bronx neighborhood populated mostly by survivors and first-generation Americans and immigrants. I learned early on that sexism is a two-edged sword. When I was eight my father died. Countless people explained to me that I was now the man of the family. That is not a good feeling if you’re 8 years old. It doesn’t give the family much hope or me much hope.

I survived my childhood. I grew and I eventually ended up in a master’s program in Harvard where I met my wife to be, Myra Sadker. At that point she was Myra Pollack. And together we began a relationship that lasted three decades until she passed away in 1995. So, let me tell you a little bit about our world.

Myra and I were both in the MAT program, Master of Arts and Teaching. We took half of our courses in the subject we were teaching at Harvard and the other half in the School of Education. The School of Ed had an honorary society. But it wasn’t exactly a society, it was an honorary fraternity. Although I had a GPA lower than Myra I was initiated into PDK, Phi Delta Kappan the honorary education fraternity. Myra was not. There wasn’t an equivalent society. And so, our first battle was getting Harvard to disassociate from that honorary fraternity – which we accomplished.

Years later Maya became one of the first female alumni to get into that society. Then we went into the army together. And there was a war. I was invited. I said please no, but they insisted. Myra ended up teaching in the job corps in the States for a year – an anti-poverty program under the Johnson administration –  and I ended up being in the army.

She wanted to come to Thailand, and she did. I was at a B52 base in Thailand and she started a school in our house. At the end of our service we applied to teach in Massachusetts. I got two years of teaching credit, which meant my salary was about eight hundred dollars higher than Myra’s. I didn’t teach. I was in the army. Myra got zero credit for teaching in the job corps and teaching in her own school that we created because it wasn’t a public school. So, there you have a second experience of sexism.

This was all normal. Male only honorary groups. Credit for male activities, like being in the military, not for female. We both taught and then we went to graduate school for our doctorates at UMass Amherst. And that was an exciting program led by a guy named Dwight Allen who came from Stanford with half a dozen faculty and doctoral students and a carte blanche to recreate a School of Ed.

The first year we were there, all classes and programs were suspended. The doctoral students, everyone being financially supported, were charged with planning an ideal School of Ed. It was a very exciting three years. About a third of our students in that program were graduates of historically Black institutions. Another third were graduates of Ivy League institutions. It was a dynamic mix. Very committed to rectifying racist policy.

We fell upon something that few others saw. And we fell upon it because we were married. We would take classes together. We’d do our assignments together. We’d write articles together. And when we’d finish writing, people would have the strangest reaction. They’d say, “What a great article David wrote. What a great proposal David put together.” And for reasons I’ve never fully understood this bothered Myra.

So, she wrote an editorial in the school paper. We had a revolving – Tabula rasa  was the paper  – gives you an idea; and she wrote an editorial called “The Only Socially Acceptable Form of Discrimination,” and she talked about how it felt to be female and invisible in a doctoral program. Especially in a school so committed to making sure racism did not raise its ugly head.

There was a professor at the school who was a part time editor at Harper and Row and said what a great idea for a book. What happens to girls in school? You have to realize that this period and by this point [it was] the late 60s, the books about sexism in school dealt only with boys. Why Johnny Can’t Read. The Feminization of Boys in School. Girls theoretically were doing great. They weren’t discipline problems, they weren’t dropping out as much, or so they thought. And their grades were good. It’s just that life wasn’t good after their grades. And their treatment. Their treatment was not great.

Ted Sizer, a Dean at Harvard wrote some books, one of the first one of which is called Horace’s Compromise and he talked about the deal students and teachers make. Teachers might make a deal – I won’t give you too much homework if you don’t give me a hard time in class. And there is like a quiet pact. Let’s make each other’s lives ok. That was part of the pact that girls were involved in and didn’t know. I’ll be nice. I won’t create problems, you give me an A.

There is a terrible cost to being invisible. Myra wrote her editorial and lo and behold it became a book from Harper and Row. She was a co-author of the book. It came out in 1973, which was after Title IX was passed but before it was implemented. The book was called Sexism in School and Society. To our knowledge that was the first book about sex bias in elementary and secondary schools as well as college.

So, there we were, we had a book out. I say “we,” because I was in charge of babysitting while she was writing the book. Later we would write more things together. This was really her book with another co-author. The first year the royalty checks were not so great. The second year they disappeared. We asked the editor what happened. He said, “Well we have a problem. A lot of the books are being returned.” Being returned, why? It seems like they were bought by pornography stores.

Back in 1973 the word sexism was translating to many people as “sex” in school and society. Imagine their disappointment and their frustration when they opened the chapter on curriculum and it’s all about curriculum. They must have gone out of their minds. But that places you in the period.

Let me talk about when we graduated, and we had to find two jobs together. This is now 1971 when we  graduated. And here’s how we found our jobs together. The advice we were given by the dean was David should find a job in a city. And then Myra should look for another place in that city to work. The idea that Myra should find the job first, we should both find the jobs together, did not exist in this progressive school.

Remember this is not old school. This was new frontiers in education. We applied, we had 18 job offers. Only three were geographically doable. The reason for that was a clause that existed then called the nepotism clause. Which you didn’t hire to family members in the same institution. This was created during the depression when there weren’t enough jobs to go around. The depression was long gone in 1971 and the clause was very intact.

I remember sitting in a full hotel, on the hotel floor – it was the Hilton in Chicago, and I was waiting for a job interview, knowing that we had to juggle two jobs somehow. I sat down with my little pad, pre computers and wrote an article, which eventually came out in the Phi Delta Kappan – which was at one point only male – called, Nepotism a Clause for Concern.

And we got a job together, not because of the article, but we got our first job at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside a new campus in Racine, Kenosha. And why did Parkside except a married couple? Was it incredibly progressive and  thoughtful? Well it wasn’t bad, but the reason was, it had been sued years earlier for denying a wife tenure when she clearly had credentials and would have gotten tenure if she wasn’t a wife. As a matter of fact, she passed all the hurdles for tenure until the last hurdle when the Provo signs off on it and then she got married and then she was fired. U of Wisconsin set the precedent.

Myra and I worked there together for two years and then American University in Washington – one of the places we had interviewed at – and their response was,  “We’ll hire either of you two, you decide.” They called up and they said they’d hire both of us. We were very excited. We were making change. We went there and we interviewed, and this is what the Dean said. “Well we usually start people at $12,000. And that was a reasonable salary back then. But since there are two of you, what do you think about we start you both at $11,000? Even when they made a barrier and they overcame a barrier; they created another one.

The quote I gave the Dean then was we’re two for the price of two. And we ended up working there – most of our career was there. At this time there was a federal agency that was created called the Women’s Equity Education Act and we began applying for funds. The first grant we got was to look at teacher Ed textbooks and see how gender issues and gender bias and Title IX and everything else was being covered. Guess what? It was virtually no coverage.

Book after book, had a paragraph out of hundreds of pages on gender concerns. More likely on things like sex differences than any other issue. We issued a report and we sent out guidelines. Publishers promised to do better. But ten years later when we called up again, they didn’t remember there were guidelines.

We then began writing chapters that were missing from these books. What do we know about how boys and girls learn? What do we know about different ways they’re treated? What do we know about the history of women and education? That women were denied education. It was a quiet revolution. It wasn’t really until the Civil War when male students ended up dying in the war and the universities and colleges needed students that women found their way into many colleges. Including by finding their way into what was called then the “ladies courses,” less valued, by filling seats and paying tuition.

As a matter of fact, the integration of women into colleges went on for a century. Columbia was the last Ivy League to integrate around 1980. And in the 1970s the others. You couldn’t go to Harvard. You could go to Radcliffe, but you couldn’t go to Harvard. We were uncovering the missing chapters – missing links. It was as though civil rights could apply to race, but it couldn’t apply to gender. That somehow didn’t work.

Finally, we got a grant from the National Institute of Education which is a research grant to look at what we wanted to look at. The heart of education. How teachers teach boys and girls differently. It was a three-year grant. It was in five states over a hundred classrooms. It was the late 70s – 78 when we started the grant. We were finding amazing things. We were finding that males got more attention in class. Males got more praise. Males got more help. But males also got more discipline. They were penalized more in class.

We discovered that students often segregate themselves when they sit down in the class. When you looked at a classroom, there were male sections and female sections. All around the classroom world, there was a gender world. And people didn’t see it. People didn’t teach for it. That really summarizes chapter one of our research. Identifying the issues and publicizing the issues. We were very committed to publicizing it.

Then we hit a speed bump. The speed bump was Ronald Reagan. When Reagan became president, he worked very hard –  his administration worked very hard – at stopping all programs that had words like equity, ecology and gender. We had gender in our title. We had help from our project officer who quickly changed the title a bit, but they still found us. They decided to stop our research looking at how teachers were teaching boys and girls differently.

And by the way, that research also had racial implications because the person getting the most attention in the classroom was a white male. Second most attention was a male of color. Third was a white female. And the least attention in the class was a female of color. That’s also the pay scale in society. So, the currency of the classroom was the teacher’s time and talent. It was the same rank order that was dealing in the world that appeared in the world of work.

We began getting political. This is when what we thought was a very American idea, equity for all, proved how naive we were. People have a lot invested in unequal treatment and we didn’t realize that. They tried to stop the grant and we called up the senators in the states where we had our grants. Some were Republican some were Democratic. They didn’t know much about our grant, but they knew it was money going to their state.

What we got was almost silence on valuation. We were supposed to stifle our evaluation findings and they cut a lot of the budget. But we kept our findings. We began publishing them in places that people read, not academics. Redbook, Parent Magazine, Psychology Today. And we loved the idea of writing in popular journals. Some academics looked down upon that. We thought the public pays for these schools. The public deserves to get the results of the research.

We began getting calls from TV programs. We went on the Today Show and that was a great experience. I’ll tell you how we had to work the Today Show to give you an idea of how much forethought was needed to survive when you were now a target of politicians. We pointed out that in classrooms boys get the most attention. So, if we went on The Today Show and Jane Pauley asked me all the questions and I answered them all, Holy cat! They learned nothing from their research. What’s wrong with this couple.

If we go on the Jane Pauley Show on the Today Show and she asks Myra all the questions. Guess what? What do they talk about? Males get all the attention. This woman doesn’t shut up. We decided we would control the flow of questions no matter who Jane Pauley was directing the question to – we would take turns. Myra would do the first question, I would do the second, Myra would do the third and I would do the fourth. We’d make sure it was equitable. Because the world had to see that. It was a lot of thought.

Jane Pauley got a little whiplash going back and forth, but it worked out. When we timed it, it was only nine seconds difference in how long Myra talked and how long I talked. And we thought we had it made. Wrong! The thing people said when they saw that show is why did Myra talk so much? Because people were so used to seeing male or hearing male voices dominate. That when it was equal, it seemed unfair.

Someone once said, if fish were anthropologists the last thing they would detect would be the water. Well the last thing we often detect are the micro inequities that envelop us with sexism and racism. Quiet little floaty things like perception.

We began training teachers and had to pick out how to talk equally and teach equally to boys and girls. And even that needed a lot of work and a lot of psychology. Myra and I developed a program where we would show a five-minute classroom. We actually developed [it] as a protocol in good teaching. And we asked teachers in the audience to rate the teacher. Was the teacher fair, some bias or terribly biased? Most people said some bias.

They were there for a workshop on bias. Not surprising. Then during the course of the day, we taught them how to objectively code the classroom. Count who the teacher talks to. Identify what reaction the teacher gave. Was it praise, was it criticism, was it help, who’s getting the discipline, etc.? Then we replayed the same video at the end of the workshop and we asked them to code it. They could see that in fact males got two and a half times the number of interactions as females and four times the praises. Yet these experienced teachers looking at it didn’t see it. That’s the world they swim in. 

Secondly, when we had them code it, they didn’t lose face or ego in front of peers, because they coded it for themselves. They knew what they said. They knew what they missed. That sounds subtle or small, but it’s key. Because if you have to convince people that they quote have “bias”, people aren’t ready to admit to that. Teachers above all in that. They go into teaching to be fair. The last thing they want to do is be biased. You have to work with them suddenly and objectively. And that’s what we did.

We were political figures at this point. We didn’t realize that. Myra always wanted to write a popular book about gender bias. Myra was an English major and a popular book really appealed to her heart. She wanted to write a popular book. We wrote a proposal together. We sent it around in the late 80s to 40 publishing houses. One house had a slight interest, I believe it was Ballantine, in publishing it. Myra said, “Oh my goodness. One out of 40. Forget about it.” 

We had a textbook that does very well that we had to revise. We went back to the textbook. Few years later AAUW published a landmark monograph on how schools cheat girls called How Schools Shortchange Girls. Myra and I were asked to write the chapter on teacher interaction and how that was biased. And guess who liked the chapter? Our friend from the Today Show, Jane Pauley. Only this time she had a new show – it was called Dateline.

She asked if we wanted to be on Dateline. And we said sure, because that has a huge audience. We went on Dateline, we showed her what we did, and they did a really marvelous job of going over the research. We said, you know now that we’ve been on TV again maybe we should get back to that publisher who is interested in the book. So, we called up the publisher and guess what? That Editor was gone. Nobody else there cared about the book.

We asked where did that editor go? She’s now a literary agent. And then the very sophisticated David and Myra say – “What’s a literary agent?” We didn’t realize, because in the textbook world you talked to the publisher. In the trade world a Literary agent is very helpful. We found her. She put the video of our Dateline show together with our proposal that we had sent them years earlier.

She sent it around and the book that nobody would publish three years earlier went to auction. It meant six publishers were in a bidding war for that book. And the bids, I won’t get specific because I still pinch myself, well into the six figures. So, what changed? Publishers didn’t have vision as to what was going to happen. But the publicity, the TV appearance, a topic catching on was what they were interested in. We wrote it in a year. That book was called Failing at Fairness. And we did another Dateline show later when the book came out.

Then I discovered how much backlash you could get. Phyllis Schlafly was all over TV talking about how if David and Myra had sons instead of daughters they wouldn’t do this. Rush Limbaugh said, I heard they did no final report. It’s in the library, we sent the call number, nobody looked. They were interested in targeting us. That’s something that happens in fields like education. It happened to Dewey, when people characterized his work negatively. The whole language movement was brought down.

People politicize education. This was super political. We didn’t even realize it. We went on a book tour. We did a number of shows. But the biggest book tour show to do is Oprah. The Oprah Winfrey Show sold the most books. When we got on that show we were very excited. Then we got a call from one of our students at American University saying a faculty member, who shall go nameless for now, who we had voted not to give tenure to was just flown out to Chicago to be the advocate against us. – to say the research didn’t exist.

The charges were amazing. One was we had an 800 number to solicit business. It’s a good idea, but we didn’t have an 800 number. He was flown out to Oprah and we found out the night before. Myra was very upset with this. She was the dean of the College of the School of Ed. And he knew nothing about the field. He was just trying to get back at us for being denied tenure. We told the producer we’re not going on. Holy cow.

The producer called the publisher. The publisher said – you have to go on, we sell books. The public relations person working for the publishing house, Scribner’s, also tried to talk us into it. We would not be moved. We’re there to talk about the research and to help parents understand it. We’re not there to get into a skunk fight with a faculty member. This gives you a little insight into how they handled the problem.

That morning the faculty member went down and got into the limousine was supposed to take him to the show. The limousine took him to O’Hare Airport, and he was flown home. Evidently that was a big deal and it hurt us in the long run, because we got a reputation for being difficult. But we weren’t about to be in a mud fight. We wanted something better than that.

Shortly after that book tour Myra discovered she had breast cancer. And nine months later she died, not from the breast cancer, but from a bone marrow transplant to treat the breast cancer. One, I’m sorry we ever did it.  

When I look back upon our work, there are things we discovered that I’m glad we did. We discovered the dimensions of micro equity as well as macro equity. What is the experience of each student in that class? Is that student getting fair attention? Balanced attention? We looked at gender. But then we looked at race as did others and at ethnicity.

In West Virginia, where everybody in the school was white, we looked at welfare children and non-welfare children. Economics really affected how kids were treated in the class. Now today, think about who you are, what is your special gift, what is your difference? Are you gay? Are you transgender? Are you really quiet, are you boisterous? How were you treated in the class as an individual?  

What bias or prejudices exist in our culture? And then [what bias of] the teacher is being exhibited in your education? What is that doing to you? And for me the bottom line is, when we began opening up this gender Pandora box, all of a sudden women began taking math and science classes and going to medical school; taking a look at salaries and seeing what was going on.

We opened the world for greater talent. I used to say then ironically, that if the cure for cancer were in a girl’s mind, we may never get it. Now we can say it more broadly. What ideas, what insights are in everybody’s mind that the outside package they’re living in is preventing us from getting? I think we could be so much richer if we learn to have a balance, instruction, expectations and compassion.