Lawyer spent decades fighting for equality for women

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Jean King admires a banner showing the center’s new name, The Jean Ledwith King Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan as Executive Director Kim Cumming looks on.


By Frank Weir

Legal News

“I was one of the lucky girls,” is how Micki King described the breaks she got — in spite of her gender — as she made her way to becoming an Olympic gold medalist in diving in 1972.

King was the keynote speaker as local attorney and Title IX legend Jean Ledwith King was honored recently at the Marriott Eagle Crest in Ypsilanti.

Women’s Center Executive Director Kim Cumming announced that the Southeastern Michigan Women’s Center has been renamed The Jean Ledwith King Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan.

Micki King began her comments to the audience by noting that, “My dad worked on the assembly line and he was the coolest dad in the neighborhood. When the factory whistle sounded, he hustled out to play with us kids. He pitched to us, he pitched highball to us.

“And the us means us kids, not boys or girls. It was kids.

“It wasn’t until high school that I discovered that girls had different opportunities than the boys. I had learned how to dive at our local YMCA since it had a ‘girl’s day’ twice a week.

“At the age of 10, I was doing AAU diving outside the schools so imagine how I felt when the diving coach at my high school told me it was a boys sport, there was no place for me.

“Suddenly, I was no longer one of the kids. I was invisible. I had no outlet for my diving as I entered high school. But I got lucky again.

“That high school coach had a young daughter. He said I could practice with the boy divers and he made me the manager to take care of the dirty towels and the kick boards.

“After graduating, I headed for the University of Michigan but at that time, Michigan didn’t even have girl cheerleaders. And the band? Anyone here remember the ‘Marching Men from Michigan’?

No girls in the band either.”

King said she went to U of M swim and dive coach Dick Kimble and he said he would coach her and she could practice in the men’s pool, but with  conditions.

“He told me to come in through the back door so the athletic director wouldn’t see me coming in.

“So I went in the back door. And he told me not to tell anyone what I was doing and not to ever date one of the boy divers.”

King noted that she had to use a public restroom to change her clothes for diving practice “so I went in and happily threw my clothes all over the public bathroom but I was the luckiest girl there, as far as I was concerned.”

King said when she won her first (of 10) national championships, a reporter approached Kimble and asked him how it felt to coach a woman to a national championship.

“And Coach Kimble replied, ‘I don’t coach men and I don’t coach women. I coach people.’ Talk about being ahead of your time,” King said.

“So Micki King is lucky. I was one of the lucky ones. I had a YMCA with a girl’s day; a high school coach who said I could come and practice with the boys; I had Dick Kimble who let me practice in the men’s pool and coached me.

“All those times I was lucky. I had all those people helping me become who I was. And little did I know that Jean King was one of those people. Helping all those other people who weren’t as lucky as me.”

King added that three months after graduating from Michigan in 1965, “I walked down to the Air Force recruiter and said I want to go to Officer’s Training School.  Military officers were some of the few women who got equal pay for equal work in the 60s.

“I signed up for four years and 26 years later, I retired. When I went in, I think two percent in the Air Force were women.

“I just want you all to know that what happened back then wasn’t right. But I was lucky. When I went to high school and was told I couldn’t try out for the dive team, I went from being one of the kids to being invisible.

“And in 1962 when I came to Michigan, I didn’t have the Olympic experience yet, but I could spell discrimination. I felt it. But I had Dick Kimble say I will coach you secretly.

“It wasn’t right but it made me visible again in his eyes. We are here to celebrate what Jean King has done for all of us, in the big picture.

“It’s easy now to take it for granted. Girls are on TV, getting big scholarships. But what we are doing tonight is making sure we aren’t going to forget. Renaming the center after Jean will give us a visual memory of what she did from the 70s forward to get us out of the shadows and make us visible again.

“Everyone tonight is treating me like a queen and my ego has been boosted for the entire year. I appreciate it but this night is about Jean King and I am humbled to be a part of that,” she said.

In addition to Micki King’s comments, two films, one narrated by Channel 4 news presenter Carmen Harlan, were shown. One recapped King’s life and career, the other showcased numerous well-wishers who were unable to attend the event.

One of those was former law partner Richard Bloch who drew a big laugh when he related an episode that occurred early in the partnership.

“I’ll never forget when Jean came into my office grinning from ear to ear. She said, ‘You’ll never guess who’s coming in to interview to be our secretary!’

“I asked who? She said, ‘A MAN!’ “

Sen. Carl Levin noted that “the list of us honoring you is long but not nearly as long as all the people Jean has helped. She has spent decades fighting for equality in American life and in 1972, she fought for an equitable role for women to the Democratic National Convention.

“The best description I have heard of Jean is that she is a ‘bomb thrower.’ But I also know her as a builder, building a world that is more just, equitable, and more open to everyone’s talents.

Renaming the center is a great reflection of her lasting legacy and is a real tribute to her.

“Thanks Jean for all you’ve done,” Levin concluded.

MSU basketball and softball player Carol Hutchins also was featured in one of the films.

“In 1979, the spotlight was on Magic Johnson and we were in the shadows. I was happy just to be competing. Magic came in on full-scholarship and owned the place.

“The men had fulltime trainers and prime time in the gym. Male team coaches were highly paid and devoted solely to that sport. Our coach was part-time and it was clear that we were lucky to
even get to play.

“There was no comparison between the two teams whatsoever.”

Fellow MSU basketball star Deb Traxinger attended the event Saturday and also appeared in the film. 

“Our gym floors were marked up, the bleachers were terrible. I remember the temperature. It was always just terribly cold when we were playing. But then Jean got involved.

“The university put up a fight. In our current world, we don’t seem to have heroes anymore but Jean is my hero and has been since that time because she stood up and did the right thing.

“She spent a lot of time on our case and she wasn’t paid a cent. I don’t think people realize that. We didn’t have any money to pay her.”

In thanking the audience, Jean King read the mission statement of the Women’s Center.

“No other organization in the country does this except the Women’s Center. And that means that we should make an effort to spread it through other states. You should congratulate yourself on supporting the center with your attendance and donations.

“I am absolutely thrilled at this. I really appreciate it.”

When asked how far did she think women have come, King replied, “As someone who came to a class at the University of Michigan Law School with 10 women in a class of 320, and that you
could walk for three weeks on campus and not see another woman, and now there are something like 51 percent women law students, I think that is a big change.”
 

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