(CNN)To fully appreciate Bernice Sandler's seismic impact on equality for women in higher education, you have to go back to the dark ages of the early 1970s.
You may not know her name. But Bernice Sandler, 'Godmother of Title IX,' changed women's rights forever
In those days, many universities had limits on the number of female professors they would hire. Salaries for female faculty members lagged behind those for men. Men's varsity sports received millions of dollars in funding while female athletes held bake sales to pay for their uniforms. Some women's teams had no locker rooms and had to dress in their dorms.
All that began to change in 1972 when Congress passed Title IX, the federal law that bars gender discrimination in education.
But the landmark legislation may not have happened -- at least not as soon as it did -- if not for the grassroots efforts of Sandler, who died January 5 of cancer at her home in Washington. She was 90.
Through exhaustive research, legal action and testimony before Congress, Sandler was instrumental in the passage of Title IX, which has helped level the playing field for millions of women -- especially athletes -- at colleges and universities across the country.
"My mother always said, 'I wanted to change the world, and I did.' She was a big believer in people having equal opportunity to do what they wanted to do," said daughter Deborah Jo Sandler, a family-law attorney in Northern California.
"She was stubborn and tough and just a true inspiration," Sandler said. "People would come up to her all the time and thank her."
For Bernice Sandler, then a part-time teacher and budding women's rights activist, it was a long, unlikely fight.
"I had no idea what I was getting into," she wrote in a bio on her website. "I had no legal, political or organizing experience and had no idea that the political and legal action I began would force open the issue of sex discrimination on campus."
The catalyst for her activism came in 1969. Sandler had just earned a doctorate at the University of Maryland and although there were seven teaching openings in her department, she was not considered for any of them.
When she voiced her frustrations to a male faculty member, he told her she was perfectly qualified.
"But let's face it," he said. "You come on too strong for a woman."
Sandler, known to her friends as "Bunny," went home and cried. Then she began to read whatever she could get her hands on about sex discrimination.
During her research she came across a little-known executive order signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson that prohibited federal contractors from discriminating in employment on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin -- and it had just been amended to cover sex discrimination as well.
"It was a genuine 'Eureka' moment," Sandler later wrote. "I actually shrieked aloud for I immediately realized that many universities and colleges had federal contracts (and) were therefore subject to the sex discrimination provisions of the executive order."
By then she had joined a small women's rights group, the Women's Equity Action League, which helped her file a class-action lawsuit against some 250 colleges and universities, alleging "an industrywide pattern" of discrimination against women in hiring.
Women in academia shared their stories with Sandler, who urged them to write their elected representatives. At the same time, Sandler began compiling data on hiring discrepancies and other inequities in higher education.
Later she testified at congressional hearings and helped Reps. Edith Green and Patsy Mink and Sen. Birch Bayh draft the legislation that would eventually become Title IX. In doing so she became the first woman ever appointed to a congressional co