Me Too, Circa 1970

At Michigan, I have had a claustrophobic sense of living in a man's world.
– Mary Maples Dunn, visiting professor of history
  1. Chapter 1 Just a Little Joke

    In 1964, Jean Ledwith King — a 40-year-old secretary, mother of three and active Democrat — attended the Democratic National Convention, the one that nominated Lyndon Johnson for a full term in the White House.

    At the convention, in Atlantic City, N.J., King happened to overhear a male delegate from Michigan, a well-heeled man in his mid-40s, make a patronizing joke about a female delegate, a woman named Millie Jeffrey, who was in her mid-50s.

    The male delegate was a lawyer from Ann Arbor. In recent years he had supported civil rights for African Americans and worked for affordable housing in Washtenaw County. Now he was active in the local party organization.

    Millie Jeffrey had a little more experience.

    As a white student at the University of Minnesota in the Great Depression, she and a black friend had fought the racial segregation of Minneapolis restaurants. After college, she organized clothing workers in southern textile mills. During World War II she was a consultant to the War Labor Board. After the war, Walter Reuther tapped her to start the Women’s Bureau of the United Auto Workers. In the 1950s she helped to forge the UAW’s alliance with the civil rights movement, ran the union’s radio station, and became head of its community relations department. She helped elect John F. Kennedy president, marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., and registered black voters in Mississippi under the nose of the Ku Klux Klan.

    So when Jean King heard the lawyer make his little joke about Millie Jeffrey, a major figure among American progressives — but not a lawyer and not a man — it was one of those moments of clarity. Later she remarked: “That was when I knew I would never be taken seriously as a woman unless I earned a law degree.”

    And she did. That set her up to initiate one of the great sea changes in the University’s history. It started early in 1970, when King and a handful of other women asserted that Michigan should treat women the same as men.

    “That was when I knew I would never be taken seriously as a woman unless I earned a law degree.”
    – Jean King
  2. Chapter 2 “Individually Angry”

    When she was a student in the Law School, Jean King worked part-time as a secretary in several academic departments. She learned the rules, saw the standard practices, and generally developed a sense of how the place ran and who ran it. In the Psychology Department, she got to know Elizabeth (Libby) Douvan, one of the few full professors among women on the faculty.

    King was elected to the Law Review three straight years. At her graduation in 1968, the American Trial Lawyers Association recognized her as “the outstanding student in her class for her ‘scholarship and academic achievement, responsible leadership in student affairs, and demonstrated concern for the problems of American society.’”

    Upon graduating, she hung out her shingle as a lawyer in Ann Arbor.

    Early in 1970, she went to New York for a conference. She heard a talk by a woman named Bernice Sandler, an educational psychologist who had been rejected for a faculty position at the University of Maryland.

    Sandler was looking for help. She had discovered an obscure federal regulation forbidding sex discrimination in hiring by federal contractors. Sandler thought she had a case to make against universities that depended heavily on federal research grants. But she needed allies.

    Jean King went home, called Libby Douvan and a few other women friends from around the campus and said: “Would you come by my house on Saturday?”

    * * *

    “Maybe the hardest thing to understand about 1970,” King reflected many years later, “was the lack of contact between women at the university — staff as well as professors. So they couldn’t share with each other what was happening to them. They just sort of individually got angry. It wasn’t a movement at all.”

    But a movement of sorts began that day at King’s modest house on the far west side of Ann Arbor, where — by a cosmic coincidence — the terrain slopes down to two ponds called First Sister and Second Sister Lakes.

    The discussion began. The women talked about a fact that each of them knew on their own — that they were not paid what men of comparable qualifications were paid. But now, perhaps for the first time, they began to see the pattern, and that it amounted to systematic and illegal discrimination on the basis of sex.

  3. Chapter 3 “A Feeling in Our Bones”

    Interviewed in 1999, Libby Douvan remembered how, in the 1950s and ‘60s, women on the U-M faculty tended to take their second-class status for granted.

    “Because there were so few women and because the atmosphere was chilly,” she said, “we were just glad to have a place where we could do our work.”

    She recounted a chat she once had with two “dear friends,” a married couple, one of them later “a world-famous historian,” who were both on the faculty. (Douvan didn’t give their names in the interview, but this was almost surely the prominent historian Natalie Zemon Davis and her husband, the mathematician Chandler Davis, fired by U-M in 1954 for past Communist ties. The Davises were close friends of Douvan’s.)

    Douvan remembered the conversation this way: “He said, ‘Doesn’t it really get you that you don’t get paid what your male colleagues get?’ And she and I looked at each other and laughed and said, ‘Not really.’ It didn’t bother us. I mean, we were so grateful to have a place where we could do good work and enjoy our students and do our research that the fact that we didn’t get paid very much didn’t really seem to count for much with us. Now, that does seem really crazy…

    “We were so used to it being so bad that we didn’t really see it.”

    Also at Jean King’s house that Saturday was Mary Yourd, the wife of an administrator in the Law School but not herself a U-M employee. Douvan remembered Yourd as “the most charming, warm, loving — and angry — woman. I mean, she was pissed off!”

    The group decided to file an administrative complaint with the federal government, alleging systematic discrimination by the University against women on its staff. But it would be signed only by Jean King and Mary Yourd, neither of them officially connected to U-M. They all believed that U-M employees might be vulnerable to retaliation if their names appeared on the complaint.

    They declared themselves an organization and took the name Ann Arbor Focus on Equal Employment for Women — FOCUS, for short.

    * * *

    FOCUS quickly found an important ally in Kathleen Shortridge, a graduate student in journalism who’d been collecting data on the status of women at U-M.

    Just as King and Yourd were planning their strategy, Shortridge published her results as a long article in the magazine of the Michigan Daily. She found, among other things, that:

    — Thirteen percent of U-M Ph.D.s were earned by women, but only 7 percent of the faculty were women, and the hiring trend was going down, not up;

    — An undergraduate taking a random assortment of 40 courses over four years was likely to encounter only two professors who were women;

    — The Office of Admissions deliberately skewed its offers to ensure that women students, despite higher grades and test scores overall than men, would not exceed 45 percent of the student body.

    Even more revealing were Shortridge’s conversations with male faculty and administrators, who were unabashed about their bias in favor of male scholars.

    “We considered hiring a woman,” a professor of political science told her, “but in the crunch, it came down to: ‘Do we really want to do this to the Department?’”

    A high-ranking administrator in Admissions told Shortridge that concerns had arisen when, about 1960, it became clear that a good many more qualified women than men were applying to U-M.

    The College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, in particular, wanted to guard against an “overbalance” of women in each entering class. So men with worse grades and test scores were given the nod to keep the split at about 55 percent men, 45 percent women.

    Shortridge took her questions about this to John Milholland, a professor of psychology on LSA’s admissions committee.

    “We just felt maintaining parity was a good policy,” Milholland told her. “It was just a feeling in our bones. I don’t know that we ever discussed it at all.”

    He reflected on this, then added that men applying to U-M were at a disadvantage. They matured more slowly than girls, didn’t do as well in high school, and didn’t please their teachers as much. So they deserved a leg up.

    “Men need the education more,” Milholland said. “They’re more likely to go into jobs that require a college education. They’re the breadwinners.”

    * * *

    Jean King and Mary Yourd salted their complaint with the data that Kathleen Shortridge had gathered. On May 27, 1970, they sent it to the U.S. Department of Labor. It was soon rerouted to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The women also sent the complaint to the newspapers. Eventually it landed on the desk of Robben W. Fleming.

    Fleming, president of U-M since 1968, had just weathered a tortuous encounter with students of the Black Action Movement, who had brought off a highly publicized shutdown of many classes for two tense weeks. He had engineered a settlement by promising, among other things, to allot enough financial aid to bring the percentage of blacks to 10 percent of students. Now he was weathering political blow-back from conservatives around the state, and he was in no mood for another fight.

    This complaint about sex discrimination was nothing to worry about, he told his staff. It would blow over.

    We were so used to it being so bad that we didn’t really see it.
    – Professor Elizabeth Douvan
  4. Chapter 4 “The Preference of the Market”

    It did not blow over.

    Twice that August, the Chicago office of HEW sent investigators to Ann Arbor — a response that came at “the speed of light in federal investigations,” Jean King remarked. They held a series of talks with administrators and gathered reams of files.

    Fleming, who said he was “not alarmed” by the HEW inquiry, gave the Ann Arbor News a chilly evaluation of the FOCUS complaint.

    “It is clear statistically,” he said, “that in professional fields the personnel is overwhelmingly male, and that is the preference of the market. The question arises whether in a supposedly free economy, market preference should have any weight.”

    That sounded more like an analysis from a labor economist than a humane response from a sympathetic leader who meant to right a wrong. After all, “the preference of the market” for men was precisely the problem that women were pointing out.

    More women working for U-M began to speak up, and a number of them formed a group called PROBE to support King and Yourd’s complaint.

    In make-up and tone, PROBE was much more moderate than bra-burning students demanding “women’s liberation.” Yet “the deeper any of us got into this,” one PROBE member said later, “the more radicalized we became.” They soon published a fact-filled booklet titled “The Feminine Mistake: Women at the University of Michigan.”

    * * *

    The feds quickly demonstrated they had been entirely persuaded by King’s and Yourd’s case.

    Just weeks after visiting Ann Arbor, HEW’s lead investigator, Don Scott, sent Fleming a 12-page letter listing multiple ways in which U-M was violating federal executive orders forbidding discrimination on the basis of sex.

    He liberally cited the data that Kathleen Shortridge had provided to Jean King, combining it with his own analysis of individual personnel files.

    Scott documented these facts, among others:

    — Men on the faculty were paid more than women with comparable training. (One table pointedly showed that the male members of 11 married couples on the faculty enjoyed significantly better status and pay than their wives. In Forestry, for example, Henry Townes, a professor, earned $20,000 a year while his wife, Marjorie, a “research associate,” earned just $10,950. In Geography, John and Ann Kolars, both associate professors, earned $17,900 and $14,600, respectively.)

    — Discriminatory hiring practices handicapped women who applied for faculty positions, resulting in hugely lopsided male-female ratios all across the campus. The letter blamed academe’s habit of hiring via the “grapevine” used at male-dominated professional conferences.

    — Far fewer women than men were studying for Ph.D.s, with academic advisers actively discouraging women applicants.

    — Differences by gender were at least as obvious in the non-academic staff. Of more than 300 job classifications, full- and part-time, that HEW reviewed, 20 were made up almost entirely of women, with an average wage of $595.49. In the 25 classifications held almost entirely by men, the average was $1,049.52.

    — Women made up two-thirds of the non-academic staff, yet there were no women on the non-academic staff’s grievance committee.

    — The University advertised for low-level jobs with such headlines as “Attention: Student Wives.”

    HEW’s letter concluded with a bracing list of orders.

    Among other steps, Scott said, the University must equalize the hiring and pay of comparably qualified men and women; award back pay to women who had been discriminated against; improve gender ratios in all Ph.D. programs; and give priority in promotions to women on the non-academic staff.

    And the letter demanded action within 30 days, or the University would face the cancellation of millions of dollars in federal research contracts.

    Fleming’s response was brief and cold. “We do not differ with respect to the principle of equal treatment for women,” he said. But “there are extraordinarily difficult problems in establishing criteria for what constitutes equal treatment, and we believe they are quite different from the now familiar problems in the field of race.”

    And even if U-M accepted all of HEW’s analysis — which it did not, Fleming said — the administration could not possibly comply with the department’s order in just a month.

    * * *

    A stalemate ensued. HEW demanded immediate action. The Fleming administration stalled and refused to make HEW’s findings public.

    Watching this play out in the press, more and more Ann Arbor women found their consciences aroused by the sight of a few gallant women challenging a massive male bureaucracy.

    Ann Arbor women found their consciences aroused.
  5. Chapter 5 “Living in a Man’s World”

    In his settlement with the Black Action Movement, President Fleming had acknowledged the University’s past wrongs in the treatment of black students and faculty, and he had promised to make things right.

    Yet now he seemed unmoved by claims of bias against women.

    That perceived discrepancy awakened a new sense of grievance among women at U-M. And they began to speak up about what their lives on the campus were like.

    * * *

    One of them was a Bryn Mawr College historian named Mary Maples Dunn, later president of Smith College, who was just finishing a year as a visiting professor at Michigan. Departing Ann Arbor, she wrote to Fleming about her experience. It had been fine overall, she said.

    “[Yet] at Michigan, I have had a claustrophobic sense of living in a man’s world, despite the fact that the Department of History has been generous but not patronizing. I have missed the companionship of women who share my professional commitments and the problems they bring, and I have become defensive about the professional potential of women who should not need my defense any more than men do…Until there are more of us, women may not be entirely comfortable on this faculty.

    “My relations with students have also been interesting to me, and I think more important than my personal reactions to the University as a man’s world. In the first weeks of the summer term, many girls came to talk to me. Most of them volunteered the information that I was the first woman professor they had met and studied with, and they were intensely curious about me. They wanted to know how and why I had decided on such a career, whether I am married and have children, whether I neglect my children, how I cope with these multiple roles. It was a novel experience, and I concluded that at Michigan the students have far too few models to suggest to them the wide range of intellectual and professional choices they can make. Furthermore, my conversations with them led me to think that beyond a narrow range of acceptable professional training (principally…teaching and social work) they have only the vaguest ideas about the purpose of women’s education in general and their own educations in particular.”

    Libby Douvan remembered older women professors who, like herself, had once written off discriminatory treatment as simply the way of the world, to be accepted without protest. Now, she said, “little by little, these…wonderful women who [had] done such stellar work said, ‘Well, maybe it was really discrimination. The fact of the matter is I didn’t progress as quickly as my male colleagues.’”

    Fleming received a letter from a graduate student named Gloria Gladman. She was from a small town in northern Michigan, and she assured the president she was no radical but “an older student, a conservative and an engineer” who had “gone along with the University on most of its issues.

    “I don’t usually get that angry,” she said. “As a woman on campus for five years, I’ve been aware of discriminatory practices and attitudes of the University directed unknowingly and knowingly toward women. I’ve always kept my cool, feeling things would become better…

    “Unfortunately I am finding your attitude and statements with regard to sex discrimination on campus exactly paralleling the administration’s unenlightened stand years ago when the University was labeled by a government investigation as a white, racist university. It took rabble-rousing, sit-ins, and ugly headlines to get a semblance of justice for blacks…

    “Don’t underestimate the feelings of women on this campus and the capabilities of current University policy and attitudes radicalizing a lot of ‘ordinary’ women on campus. When one wakes up and discovers the shackles on her own wrist and ankles it is a very frightening experience. … Don’t radicalize me and for heaven’s sake DON’T INSULT MY INTELLIGENCE with a paternalizing attitude.”

    In private homes around town, there were tense exchanges between husbands and wives. One was between Paul Federbush, a mathematics professor, and his wife, Marcia, who wrote to Fleming in “frustrated indignation” over his refusal to release HEW’s findings.

    In the Math Department, Marcia Federbush wrote, there were 89 faculty, all of them men. Yet “my husband tells me with complete seriousness that the Math Department does not discriminate against women.

    “This is a period when women are suddenly becoming aware of the enormity of their debasement in all sectors of society,” she added. “What hurts most of all is the realization that they have been living with obvious and subtle, purposeful and unintentional discrimination all their lives and have somehow either failed to recognize it or have not tried to change it.”

    She spoke, she said, for “a great many women whose lives are intimately entwined in the fabric of the University.”

    What hurts most of all is the realization that [women] have been living with obvious and subtle, purposeful and unintentional discrimination all their lives.
    – Marcia Federbush to Robben Fleming
  6. Chapter 6 “How Blinded We Can Be”

    President Fleming had made his reputation as an expert in labor law, especially as a master mediator. He was renowned for his ability to find common ground between antagonists, and in his tenure to date, he had shown time and again that he had a knack for calming roiled waters.

    And he was hardly unfamiliar with claims of sex discrimination in the workplace.

    In one of his cases as an arbitrator in the 1950s, he was asked to rule on a grievance submitted by women janitors who worked for a major manufacturer. A clause in the union contract mandated equal pay for equal work. The women proved they did the same work as male janitors, yet received 10 cents less per hour.

    The company insisted the differential resulted from a scientific evaluation system that looked at jobs, not individuals. If that was so, Fleming asked, why did the women always wind up getting 10 cents less than the men? The managers were bewildered. “But women always get less than men,” they told Fleming. “Therefore there is a differential.”

    Fleming ruled in favor of the women. It just showed, he wrote later, “how blinded we can all be by prevailing attitudes and past practices.”

    Yet this was just what women at U-M were now accusing Fleming of — being blind to the power of traditional roles for men and women in academe.

  7. Chapter 7 “A Force He Just Couldn’t Deal With”

    The women of FOCUS and PROBE conducted a mounting pressure campaign. Jean King blitzed her contacts in Washington with letters, and the response from Michigan’s congressional delegation — including supportive women staffers — was encouraging.

    On campus, members of PROBE distributed thousands of letters to women employees via the University’s inter-office mail system — until the mail manager declared the move “illegal.”

    Then, in early November 1970, shortly after HEW’s 30-day deadline had passed, the Michigan Daily broke the news that the feds had cancelled a $350,000 contract between the U.S. Agency for International Development and U-M’s Center for Population Planning. Jean King learned from congressional staffers that more grants were being held up or cancelled — up to $15 million of the University’s $66 million in federal contracts.

    “At the present time the matter is of no concern to us,” Fleming told the Daily. “We are concentrating on the broader problem of arriving at an agreement with HEW.”

    But Jean King believed quite the contrary — that this demonstration of the feds’ firm intentions was stirring fear in faculty offices and labs across the campus.

    “Knowing what I do about the inside of the University,” she said later, “the faculty member who was applying for a grant would be notified when his grant was not going to come through and he’d complain to his dean and the dean would call Fleming. So I’m sure he sat there with deans on his neck for weeks. And he had to give in. That was a force he just couldn’t deal with.”

    Meanwhile, Fleming sent appeals for support to other research universities and to his own contacts in Washington, even as HEW prepared to take action against universities elsewhere. But the test case remained Michigan, the school that all eyes were watching.

    As the Christmas break approached, Fleming began to moderate his position, indicating a willingness to meet HEW’s demand for concrete “goals and timetables” to correct inequities. A key sticking point was admissions to graduate programs; Fleming insisted that was no business of the government’s.

    On Dec. 21, Allan Smith, U-M’s vice president for academic affairs, flew to Washington. He met with HEW officials for two and a half hours.

    Then on Christmas Eve, Stanley Pottinger, director of HEW’s Office of Civil Rights, announced that an agreement with U-M had been reached. The issue of graduate admissions would be deferred.

    The University then began to put in place what is now regarded as the nation’s first affirmative action program to bring about equity between the sexes.

    * * *

    “It’s a beginning,” said Bernice Sandler, who had started the whole thing. “But we’ve got a long way to go yet, baby.”

  8. Chapter 8 “Someone Has to Give Us a Leg Up”

    In 11 years as president, Robben Fleming appointed one woman to a high position among his top aides. She was Barbara Newell, who had worked with him when he was chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. As acting vice president for student affairs for two years, she was U-M’s first female executive officer. (She was later president of Wellesley College.)

    Elizabeth Douvan recalled a meeting, several years after the HEW episode, when Fleming was preparing to appoint the geologist Frank H.T. Rhodes, then dean of LSA, as U-M’s vice president for academic affairs.

    Douvan and several women colleagues — including Regent Sarah Goddard Power and Nellie Varner, later a regent, too, but then head of U-M’s affirmative action program — went to Fleming to express their concerns. They were hoping a woman might compete for the position.

    Normally mild and courteous, the president was uncharacteristically abrupt. Douvan recalled that he said: “That is none of your business…That’s my appointment and I don’t have to take the advice of any group like yours.”

    Douvan thought he regretted his tone immediately.

    After a moment, he said it was simply unlikely that women candidates could be found with the experience necessary for such an important job.

    “For example,” he said, “when I brought Barbara Newell here from Wisconsin…you’ll see that every time Barbara had to make a critical decision, she hadn’t really had that experience before. I was there with her. I always backed her. I made a visible presence so that she had the support to go through it for the first time.”

    At that, Douvan said, Nellie Varner spoke up.

    “Mr. President,” she said, “that’s all we’re asking of you. That you should treat women now the way you treated Barbara at the time — that if we don’t have the background, someone has to give us a leg up.”

    Douvan saw that register with Fleming.

    “He thought about it,” she said, “and was much more positively oriented toward us on the way out than he had been on the way in.”


    The key sources for the story are in a rich digital collection of documents and commentary by Sara Fitzgerald titled “What Factors Led to the Success of the Historic 1970 Sex Discrimination Complaint Filed against the University of Michigan?” The collection was developed as part of a research project conducted through the University of Michigan Institute for Research on Women and Gender. The Bentley Historical Library holds most of the original documents in the collection and many related materials.