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Jean Ledwith King, dedicated champion of women's rights, is dead at 97

woman wearing glasses and a blue shirt in front of a brick wall
Courtesy Andrew King

Jean Ledwith King is not a household name. But she was a force in changing the rules and culture around gender equity, in Michigan and across the country. King died over the weekend at age 97.

She fought tirelessly against sex discrimination in education, politics, employment, and sports. In the process, she pioneered changes many of us today take for granted.

Lynn Rivers, a former member of both the Michigan and U.S. House of Representatives, worked in King's law office at the beginning of her own legal career.

Rivers said King was driven by a strong sense of right and wrong.

“She wasn’t content with the status quo because a lot of times, she saw the status quo as unfair, unjust,” said Rivers. “And yes, she was willing to be a disruptive force, and ended up being a transforming force.”

Rivers described King as smart, strategic, and dogged.

“Not the kind of person who would take ‘no’ for an answer,” Rivers said. “And certainly willing to go into the boys' club and throw some pretty sharp elbows.”

King became active in Democratic politics after earning a B.A. and M.A from the University of Michigan. She also worked as a secretary and editor.

In 1968 at age 44, King earned a law degree, again from the U of M. She had three children at the time, all of them younger than 12. There were only ten other women in her law school class of 344 students.

Just two years after becoming a lawyer, she took on the University of Michigan for discriminating against women in admissions and employment.

She co-authored an administrative complaint, using a then-obscure executive order that prohibited sex discrimination by federal contractors.

A government investigation followed and found unequal treatment of women.

In a 1999 interview with the University of Michigan Academic Women’s Caucus, King said, “The University at that time had $65 million in federal contracts. Never dreamed that anybody could use anything against them for sex discrimination. It was quite a surprise.”

To avoid losing federal grants, the university, after initial resistance, raised the pay of female faculty. And the complaint marked the beginning of some improvements in recruitment, hiring, salaries, and promotions.

King said the fight also woke up other universities around the country to the need to address sex discrimination.

King's activism extended beyond education and into politics.

In 1970, she co-founded the Women’s Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party – the first of its kind in the country.

And King successfully fought for women to make up half the Michigan delegation to the 1976 Democratic convention.

Alma Wheeler Smith, a former member of the Michigan House and Senate, said before then, women had been scarce.

“It certainly had a dramatic impact because the sight of an equal number of women in a state caucus in a convention was stunning,” said Smith. “It looked very diverse, very strong, very attractive politically across the country.”

Four years later, the national Democratic Party adopted the same rule.

King’s imprint can be found seemingly everywhere.

She took on cases of sexual harassment and job discrimination.

She fought for abortion rights and against sexist stereotypes in school text books.

She helped push the Michigan Secretary of State to allow women to keep their maiden names on driver’s licenses.

She served on the 21-member Federal Glass Ceiling Commission that was created by Act of Congress in 1991 to make recommendations aimed at eliminating barriers to career advancement for women and minorities.

But King is best known for her persistent efforts to achieve gender equity in high school and college sports.

She fought for the chance for girls and women to play a sport where there had been none. She challenged unequal facilities and lack of varsity status.

“The fact that women are now excelling in volleyball and basketball and have a right to play at the key times of the year when they can be seen by scouts and recruited is Jean King's work,” said Smith.

In 1979, King brought a high-profile case against Michigan State University. A federal court ordered MSU to stop giving female basketball players inferior food allowances and travel accommodations.

As a student player, Carol Hutchins was the lead plaintiff in the MSU case. She went on to become the legendary head softball coach at the University of Michigan with more wins than any coach – male or female – in the university’s athletic history.

Hutchins said King gave her and her teammates courage to bring the lawsuit.

“It was painful at first because athletic departments were resistant and reluctant, and they were mean,” Hutchins said. “They didn’t want to do what was right. They thought only men should get to play sports.”

For King, the battle was not just about giving girls and women an equal chance to compete in sports. It was about getting them educated in sports culture, which she viewed as important for job success.

“There's nothing that's more appealing to the employers out there than strong female athletes,” said Hutchins. “People who have learned how to manage time, to fight through adversity, how to work hard at a whole new level.”

Former Michigan state senator Lana Pollack worked with King on various political initiatives.

She said King woke up women to forms of sex discrimination they hadn't always been conscious of.

“When somebody fills in a piece of you that you didn't even know was missing, when somebody opens a door that you didn't even realize was closed, they’re making a difference,” Pollack said. “And that was Jean King.”

King was preceded in death by her husband of 67 years, John C. King, an automotive safety engineer. They had three children: Andrew, Nancy and Sally.

Virginia Gordan has been a part-time reporter at Michigan Radio since fall 2013. She has a general beat covering news topics from across the state.