Most of the time, I don’t think about gender equity. Along with millions of other American women my age and younger, I’ve benefited from those who spent their lives enduring countless humiliations and setbacks, to achieve for their daughters and nieces and friends what I now enjoy – the luxury of not thinking much about gender equity.
On Saturday, about 300 people gathered to pay tribute to one of those women whose work broke ground for the rest of us: Jean Ledwith King. The event was hosted by the Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan, which has been renamed in her honor.
As a former board member for the center, I expected to see some familiar faces – staff, volunteers and donors I’d known from my relatively short tenure there. But the turnout for Jean went far beyond that. Judges and attorneys, university administrators, elected officials from across the county and state, business leaders and many others came to say thanks for her years of dogged work on behalf of equal opportunity for women. She calls herself a bomb thrower, but on Saturday she was recognized more for the foundation she’s helped build, particularly through her work on Title IX issues related to high school and college athletics.
Jean’s life story is inspiring, as were reflections by the event’s keynote speaker, Olympian Micki King. (Though they aren’t related by blood, they certainly are in spirit.) Their stories made me think of other histories, too – we all have them, closer to home and less notable, perhaps, but also worth honoring as a reminder of how it’s possible to make dramatic societal changes within a lifetime.
Pressure to Conform
My maternal grandmother was born in the late 1800s, before women had the right to vote – a right granted by the U.S. Constitution’s Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, just four years before my mother was born. (Even as I type those words, the timeframe still strikes me as incredible – less than 100 years ago? How is that possible?)
Neither my mother nor her three sisters went to college. It wasn’t until my mother was in her 70s that she expressed regret about this to me. She told me that one of her older sisters had offered to pay for her education, but that her mother wouldn’t allow it – she was supposed to get a job until she found a husband and started having children, and there was no room for debate.
My mother did what was expected of her, and suffered bouts of depression and anxiety her entire life. Her insecurities over her lack of a college education must have been especially difficult to manage, given that she worked among educators – first as executive secretary for the president of Butler University in the 1950s, then as a secretary at the grade school that my sister and I attended. She was sensitive to even a hint of perceived condescension, and had no patience for people she thought were “too big for their britches.”
It took great force of will to combat society’s pressure to conform. That’s what makes Jean’s own story all the more remarkable. Her mother did go to college, and after Jean was born she went back to earn a Ph.D in psychology. That set the stage for Jean’s own experience – graduating in the 1940s from the University of Michigan, where she met her husband, John King. She then had three children before deciding at age 41 to enroll in law school – that was in 1965. Jean credits her mother with setting an example of how a woman could manage both a family and a profession, and she credits her husband for supporting her desire to pursue that goal.
On Saturday, Jean recalled how she was one of only 10 women attending UM’s law school at the time – today, nearly half of UM law students are women. And of course there were no female faculty members then. You could walk through the law quad for days – even weeks – without seeing another women, she said. It’s hard to imagine now, the isolation that must have permeated her experience.
Challenging the Status Quo
After graduation, Jean built a career out of challenging the status quo. (Many of her stories are described in a booklet by Stephanie Kadel Taras, based on interviews with Jean and distributed at Saturday’s event.) A political activist, Jean was a Democratic Party chair for Ann Arbor’s Fifth Ward, was elected to the Michigan Democratic Party’s state central committee, and co-founded the party’s state women’s caucus in 1970. She fought against the discrimination of women in Michigan’s delegate selection process to the Democratic National Convention – a fight that led to the party requiring that half its Michigan delegates be women. The national party adopted that same rule a few years later.
On the national level, in the early 1970s Jean was also among the founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which worked to promote female candidates. She was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for vice president on a major political party ticket. At Saturday’s dinner when the emcee, Carol Cain, announced the news that Ferraro had died earlier that day, an audible gasp rose from the crowd.
Jean was involved in litigation for women’s equality in many venues, but she’s perhaps best known for advocacy on behalf of female student athletes. Much of her work regarded compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments, which was passed by Congress in 1972. It’s a very simple statement, with far-reaching consequences:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…
The same year that Title IX was enacted, Jean’s family had a breakthrough of their own, which eventually led to Jean’s involvement in gender equity issues related to athletics. Her daughter, Sally, decided to try out for Little League baseball that year. Though unusual, that decision wasn’t challenged by league organizers – Ann Arbor had an ordinance then that prohibited sex discrimination in public schools.
But it wasn’t the norm in the state or nationally, and Jean was contacted later that year and asked to help out in a gender equity lawsuit against the Little League in New Jersey. She got an affidavit from Sally’s doctor, attesting that playing baseball hadn’t harmed Sally physically. Word got out that Jean was sympathetic to these issues, and clients came calling.
Over the years, the cases that Jean litigated touched on dozens of sports, from track and wrestling to football and basketball. One of her highest profile cases was brought against Michigan State University, involving the unequal treatment of the women’s varsity basketball team. It took seven years before MSU finally settled the case out of court. The lead plaintiff – and a member of that women’s team – was Carol Hutchins, who’s been head coach of the UM women’s softball team since 1985.
Of course, these are just brief glimpses of Jean’s decades-long work. The Bentley Historical Library has archived 24 boxes of documents from her career, from 1964 through 2004 – it’s a formidable corpus, as formidable as Jean herself. (And I speak with some authority on this, having been on the receiving end of her formidable opinions when I was opinion editor at The Ann Arbor News.)
The stories about Jean’s work with female athletes in particular hit home for me. In the 1970s my own sister was a varsity athlete – in her senior year of high school, her basketball team won the citywide tournament in Indianapolis. If you’re a Hoosier, you know this was a very big deal. I asked her about it recently, and she reminded me that at the time, there was no statewide tournament for girls – even though basketball is nearly a religion in Indiana.
She also told me it never occurred to her to pursue sports in college. There were no role models for her, no one who encouraged her to do more with her athleticism. And I should note that we weren’t living in rural Indiana – my graduating class in high school had nearly 1,000 students. Even so, athletics just wasn’t something that most people took seriously for girls, regardless of their talents.
A Future Built on the Past
So as I listened to others on Saturday describe Jean’s impact, I thought about how the lives of my sister, mother and grandmother might have been so very different had they lived in different times. And how the girls born today will view those past experiences as quaint. Their challenges will be different, but I hope they don’t forget how far we’ve come.
In her remarks to the crowd on Saturday, Angela Costley Harris – chair of the Women’s Center board – described how her young son had asked why the Women’s Center isn’t called the People’s Center. Wasn’t that sexist? She told him that someday, she hoped, they could change the center’s name in that way. But for now, many women still face obstacles that places like the Women’s Center help them overcome. I would add that we need look no farther than the massive sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart – being heard this week in the U.S. Supreme Court – to see that there’s still work to be done.
In fact, it’s remarkable to me that we’re still living through so many firsts, even now. Debbie Stabenow, the first female U.S. senator from Michigan, was among those who sent a videotaped message of congratulations to Jean that was played at Saturday’s event. Hired nine years ago, Mary Sue Coleman was the University of Michigan’s first female president – and UM’s business school just hired its first female dean, Alison Davis-Blake, this year. Dave Brandon, UM’s athletic director, attended Saturday’s dinner – that job hasn’t yet been held by a woman.
Still, it was heartening to see so many women leaders on Saturday – female judges like Libby Hines and Melinda Morris, politicians like Ann Arbor city councilmember Sabra Briere and former state legislator Alma Wheeler Smith, entrepreneurs like Alicia Torres, business owners like Patricia Davenport, nonprofit leaders like Debra Polich, university executives like Cynthia Wilbanks.
In this context, it’s fitting that March is women’s history month. And though I’m generally more inclined to look ahead than to spend time thinking about the past, I was grateful to bear witness on Saturday to a deserved show of thanks for Jean – and, by extension, to all our foremothers who’ve waged this battle, often without accolades. We are deeply indebted to them for their vision of a better world.
About the writer: Mary Morgan is publisher and co-founder of The Ann Arbor Chronicle.