Gender equality lawyer Jean Ledwith King dies

Jean Ledwith King, an Ann Arbor lawyer who has championed gender equality for millions of women in education, employment, politics and sport, and helped lay the groundwork of Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law, died on October 9. She was 97 years old.

In 1970, King filed his most significant educational action against the University of Michigan, a co-author of a complaint filed with the United States Department of Labor for sex discrimination in admissions, financial aid, employment and l ‘Athletics.

The complaint sparked a federal investigation and led to reforms at many colleges and universities across the country. When the UM refused to comply with the demands of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to increase the number of admissions of women and ensure gender equality in athletics, it became the first university in the country to be denied federal grants.

This effort triggered nationwide reforms for the hiring and recruitment of female faculty and staff. It was also the start of salary improvements, promotions, maternity leave, athletics and scholarships for women at UM.

In 1972, the creation of Title IX, the federal civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination by educational institutions that received federal funding, made these policies the law of the land.

His petite stature and curly hair belied his fierce confrontational style and enormous intelligence. She has fought battles for equality from her kitchen table, living room and in beauty salons. She used her family’s grocery budget and often recruited her three young children to fill envelopes and carry sandwich boards to support her various causes.

“I’m a bomb thrower,” King once said. “You cannot negotiate when you have nothing, neither power nor respect. I have often gathered women who were afraid and taught them to represent themselves. Women are afraid of confrontation. They were punished so much for standing up for themselves.

King faced gender discrimination early on. Working as a secretary at UM while a student in the 1940s and 1950s, King saw low wages and unequal treatment of female employees.

Jean Ledwith King in court speaks with opposing counsel in a 1999 case.

As an activist for the Ann Arbor Democratic Party, she was frustrated by the lack of women delegates to party conventions. She decided that a law degree would help level the playing field and enrolled in UM Law School in 1965 – one of 10 women in a class of 320 students – where she faced more discrimination.

“The law professors were all men,” she recalls. “In civil proceedings, I would sit in the third row every day and always raise my hand to answer a question. I have never been called once.

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After graduating from law school in 1968, at the top of her class, she opened a small law firm on Liberty Street in downtown Ann Arbor, where she spent decades using lawsuits, speeches, letters and phone calls to remove barriers for women in employment, education, politics and 33 sports – from water polo to weightlifting.

“She had a strong sense of outrage and we were taught to never put up with things that were wrong,” said Nancy King, Jean’s eldest daughter.

King filed a Title IX complaint in 1974 against the Kalamazoo School District for gender stereotyping in public textbooks. Two months later, after reading an article in the Boston Globe about the complaint, the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Co., published a 135-page supplement reviewing the books.

That same year, a call from a Grand Rapids-area dad, whose eighth-grade daughter wanted to be on a track team, launched King’s career as a champion in women’s participation in the sports. She filed a Title IX complaint in federal court which led to the formation of a joint team.

In 1979, King challenged Michigan State University’s practice of providing female basketball players with substandard accommodation for travel and meals and obtained a restraining order in federal court that required the ‘university to provide equal accommodation.

Ann Arbor's attorney, Jean Ledwith King, co-chaired the committee that drafted the Glass Ceiling Commission report.

Carol Hutchins, MU Women’s Softball Head Coach since 1984, the most successful coach in MU history and most successful softball coach in NCAA history, was a member of this MSU team.

“Jean King was a pioneer of the pioneers,” said Hutchins. “She has left a huge mark on women’s athletics, and we are all indebted to her forever to her and her quest for fairness for women. As John taught us, at the start of the Title IX fight: the law only works if you use it! She has taught many of us to use the law and we are compelled to continue her passion.

As his reputation grew, a phone call to a coach or administrator replaced lawsuits.

King’s political activism also led to sweeping changes. In 1970, King and five other women founded the Women’s Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party. It was the first women’s caucus in a major party, and by 1976 it had achieved an equal division of men and women in the Michigan national delegation. The National Democratic Party adopted the rules for gender equity four years later.

From 1992 to 1995, she co-chaired the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, which documented the shortage of women and minorities in leadership positions.

“We have pointed out the downside of not being a white, heterosexual, right-handed Presbyterian,” King said of the commission’s findings.

Angered by the lack of adequate sanitation facilities for women in schools and concert halls, including UM’s legendary Hill Auditorium, King has also run successful ‘potty parity’ campaigns over the years. years using medical studies linking the higher rate of bladder infections in women to lack of toilets. While targeting inequalities in sport and education, she has also fought gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, addressing issues ranging from dress codes to breastfeeding.

“Jean King’s legacy is huge and it’s not just about the business she’s won,” Bernice Sandler said in an interview in 2011. “She’s educated a lot of women, girls, men and parents on what sex discrimination was. ”

Sandler, an educational psychologist who was turned down for a professorship at the University of Maryland in 1969, conducted research into the gender discrimination that inspired King’s complaint against UM and created the framework for the Title IX.

Sandler became known as the “Godmother of Title IX”. She died in 2019.

Lynn Rivers, a former legal assistant who was encouraged by King to run for Congress successfully in the early 1990s, was impressed by her generosity.

“I watched her take case after case for groups and individuals who couldn’t pay,” Rivers said. “She has repeatedly risked the financial viability of her practice in order to remedy an injustice. Jean has an impressive list of accomplishments and a humble intellect, but it’s her heart that makes her so special.

Lawyer Jean Ledwith King, going to court with Linda Nimke, left.  King has fought for equity in education and athletics since the 1970s.

King was the first female lawyer Lore Rogers met while working as a paralegal while pursuing law school in the early 1980s.

“She was blunt in her speech and tolerated no nonsense,” said Rogers, attorney for the Michigan Council for the Prevention and Treatment of Domestic and Sexual Violence. “She both scared and inspired me. When standing up on principle and pursuing equal rights seemed fraught with pitfalls, John’s work served as a cornerstone. Doing the right thing and fighting hard is what she stood for. She has inspired so many other female lawyers to do the same.

“We cannot measure the contributions she has made as it still happens today through the threads of social justice that come down to her.”

King was born March 16, 1924 in Chicago, the eldest of two daughters. Her intelligence and independence were fostered by her mother, Nettie, a teacher, female athletic trainer and chief psychologist at the Pittsburg Child Guidance Center, and her father, William, director of the Young Men’s Christian Association.

At UM, she met John King, a naval architecture student. In 1943, she was suspended from school for hitchhiking in Pittsburgh with him for Thanksgiving weekend. The couple married, forming a partnership that would last a lifetime, and she was allowed to return to school. King received a BA in English in 1948, an MA in History in 1953, and a Law degree in 1968 from UM.

She was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989, received a Michigan State Bar Justice Champion in 2005, in 2008 was one of 30 women honored by the Veteran Feminists of America, and in 2020 was one of 10 Michigan Women featured by USA Today for Outstanding Achievements in the Previous Century. The Michigan Women’s Lawyers Association of Michigan presented her with an annual award.

Her husband John died in 2011. She is survived by her son Andy King, her daughters Nancy King (Timothy Babb), Sally Wilson (John Wilson), four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Memorial services will be held in private for the immediate family. Anyone wishing to celebrate John’s life is welcome to make a donation on his behalf to the University of Michigan Law School, the National Women’s Law Center, or a non-profit social justice organization of your choice.

Maryanne George is a former editor of Free Press.

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