Women’s History Month features: Jean Ledwith King!

In addition to Giving Blueday, Wednesday March 16th is also the birthday of Jean Ledwith King, a renowned Ann Arbor attorney who fought for women’s rights. It’s worth noting that, sadly, King died in Ann Arbor last October at the age of 97. She never worked on The Michigan Daily, but as a political tactician, she appreciated the important role that the media play in highlighting social injustices — and for that reason, I dedicated a plaque to her in front of the women’s bathroom on the ground floor of the Stanford Lipsey Student Publications Building. It reminds me of an important lesson she taught us all: when she was advising low-paid women employees and students on strategies for challenging the University in 1970, she said to post the leaflets publicizing their organizational meetings on the inside of women’s bathroom stalls, low enough that they would be easy to read when sitting on the toilet. That, she reasoned, was a better approach than putting the leaflets on the departmental bulletin boards that were then controlled by mostly male administrators.

King earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in history from the University of Michigan before becoming one of only ten women to earn degrees from the U-M Law School in the Class of 1968—and at the age of 44. Although she made the Law Review and received an award from the American Trial Lawyers Association when she graduated, King, like many women lawyers of her era, had trouble finding a job commensurate with her credentials. She eventually built a practice in Ann Arbor—and become a go-to lawyer for women who wanted to pursue sex discrimination complaints, including major cases in the sports world.

King had observed sex bias at U-M as both a student and an employee. In May 1970, she and Mary Yourd, a Republican feminist and widow of a Law School administrator, filed a complaint that charged the University was violating federal regulations that prohibited federal contractors from engaging in discrimination based on sex. After conducting an investigation, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) agreed that the University had violated the rules, and in October 1970, it ordered U-M to modify its existing affirmative action plan to set goals and timetables for hiring women. All of this happened before the passage of Title IX—a milestone that took place fifty years ago this summer.

When she received a tip that HEW had actually made good on its threat to hold up a federal contract, she relied on The Daily to confirm the story—and it did, under an eight-column headline. The first contract to be withheld was one awarded to U-M by the U.S. Agency for International Development for $400,000 worth of family planning consulting services to the government of Nepal.

When the University worked out a settlement with the government, it became a template for dozens of similar complaints that had been filed against other universities at that time. I covered this episode when I worked on The Daily from 1970-73, and it is the subject of my book Conquering Heroines: How Women Fought Sex Bias at Michigan and Paved the Way for Title IX. (The book draws on the work of many of my Daily colleagues, stories that are now easy to access and reread on the Bentley Historical Library’s Daily Digital Archive, thanks to a substantial gift from the Kemp Family Foundation.)

I was grateful that I was able to reconnect with Jean about 15 years ago when I was working on another book about a feminist politician she had known, and she was invited to attend a panel discussion at The Daily where Leslie Wayne, Laura Berman and other Daily alumnae joined me in sharing our experiences as journalists with students. I hoped it gave her a small measure of pride to know that she had helped to open up professional opportunities for all of us.

In “the old days,” the “ladies room” on the ground floor of 420 Maynard was larger than it is now, with an outer room that had a small, utilitarian couch. (To be honest, I know that back then, a few tears were shed there for one reason or another.) But after Jean King’s savvy promotional advice, I hoped that the plaque that is posted there will encourage more people, no matter their gender, to take time to learn more about her story.

--Sara Fitzgerald, Editor-in-Chief, Class of 1973