Jean Ledwith King is a national treasure whose relentless efforts for women’s equality in education, employment, politics and sports continue to benefit women today.
A grassroots activist, with a keen sense of outrage against injustice, she organized women in living rooms, on the phone and in beauty parlors. She financed many of her early efforts out of her grocery budget and often pressed her three children into stuffing envelopes and wearing sandwich boards to march in demonstrations. Her devoted husband, John took on household tasks and child care duties to support her efforts.
After graduating from the University of Michigan Law School in 1968 — one of only 10 women in a class of 344 — she began her legal battle for women’s rights, opening doors and kicking down barriers.
In 1970, she co-authored a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor against University of Michigan for sex discrimination in admissions, financial aid, employment and athletics. The federal investigation sparked nationwide reforms for hiring and recruiting of women faculty and staff and was the beginning of improvements in salaries, promotions, maternity leave, athletics and scholarships for women at U-M.
That same year she co-founded the Women’s Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party, the first women’s caucus in a major party. By 1976 the caucus had achieved an equal division of men and women on the Michigan national delegation. The model was adopted four years later by the national party.
She was an early advocate of abortion rights and succeeded in eliminating sexist stereotypes in public school textbooks.
To some she is best known for her efforts for gender equity in athletics, representing women and men in more than 33 sports from water polo to weight lifting, winning equality in scholarships, equipment and accommodations.
One of her most famous cases was the seven-year battle she waged against Michigan State University beginning in 1979, for giving women basketball players inferior travel and meal accommodations. She eventually won a restraining order in federal court that forced MSU to provide equal accommodations.
From 1992-1995 she co-chaired the federal Glass Ceiling Commission, a 21-member group that documented the shortage of women and minorities in top management positions.
“We emphasized the disadvantage of not being a white, straight, right-handed male Presbyterian,” she said of the commission’s work.
Her efforts have earned her many awards from the Veteran Feminists of America, the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, the State Bar of Michigan’s Champion of Justice and the gratitude of many high school and college athletes.
Known for her fearless confrontational style she was often described as a walking talking support group.
“I have many times assembled women who are afraid and taught them how to represent themselves and made them stronger,” she said. “Women are afraid of confrontation. They have been so punished for standing up for themselves.”
But Jean King was not afraid to make people mad.
As her reputation grew, a phone call to a coach or an administrator replaced lawsuits. One of her notable battles was for equal restroom accommodations or “potty parity” for women in schools and auditoriums.
“I’m a bomb thrower,” she said of her no-nonsense style. “You can’t negotiate when you have nothing, no power and no respect. If a whole lot of people are mad at you, you must be doing something right.”
Jean’s successful campaigns for gender equity will benefit women and men for generations. She is an example for us all.
To honor her example we have created an award in her name. And who better to receive the very first award than Jean Ledwith King.
Tribute Authored by Maryanne George