In a yellowed University of Kansas student newspaper clipping dated May 9, 1978, Anne Levinson, then a sophomore at KU, announced her intention to file a complaint with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare as the Title IX compliance deadline approaches.
“I have an inner feeling that no one really believes women deserve equal treatment,” Levinson said.
President Richard Nixon had signed Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation, denied benefits, or subjected to discrimination under any federally funded education program or activity.
However, change did not come immediately or easily. We needed a production. It’s always like that.
“These 37 words changed what was possible in our country for women and girls, and I know firsthand what a difference it has made in many of our lives, including mine,” said Levinson, a resident of longtime Seattle.
“After five decades, it remains extremely important that we build on the legacy, but understand that there is still much to do.”
Fully immersed in field hockey, Levinson arrived at KU in 1976 with the promise of a scholarship – the only one, once the junior using it graduated. Women’s sports were included in the university budget and a “paltry” compared to men’s, which were privately funded.
Levinson and the field hockey team had a successful season. But later, the university announced that it would no longer fund the sport.
“That was it. No discussion,” she said.
“A lot of women were scared. They were told — stay in your lane. It’s not your fight. Just play your sport and if you need the money you can have a bake sale. Don’t disrupt things. Don’t upset the basket of apples, don’t make trouble.
“It brought out that innate tenacity in me to stand up for others and not sit idly by if something felt unfair or unfair.”
Levinson sought help from student government leaders, who seemed willing and even eager to clash with university administration again. As the process unfolded, it was covered by an ambitious student newspaper reporter assigned to women’s sports.
One of his most loyal and unlikely allies was art history professor Elizabeth “Betty” Banks. Banks encouraged Levinson to pursue a lawsuit and said she would support it.
“It was heartening to hear about your efforts with student athletes,” Banks wrote in a March 1, 1978 letter, offering to help.
“…There’s a lot more to do and hopefully with the involvement of more counselors who meet the needs of female athletes, we can do better.”
Emboldened and educated, Levinson noted all possible categories of inequity, “what I learned later was very unusual”.
Scholarships, medical care, housing, transport, equipment, coaches, availability of facilities – she cast a wide net.
“In every way you could measure, it was extremely unfair,” Levinson said. “At the time, it was not seen as a concern. The university community, the alumni – it just wasn’t on the radar.
True to his word, Banks also filed a complaint.
The case took years to resolve. After Title IX was passed, there was a delay in implementing the regulations, and Levinson said it wasn’t until about 1977 that a process was put in place.
The university deferred to the state legislature, so Levinson used a headline-grabbing flair. She organized a relay in which coaches and athletes from each of KU’s 10 women’s varsity sports walked the nearly 30-mile distance between Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence and the state capitol in Topeka with a petition rolled up and transmitted like a stick.
They were greeted by Governor and Representative Ruth Luzzati, who said they would get to work.
“If I had known how hard it was going to be when I started I might not have done it, but once I started I felt like I let it all down. the world,” Levinson said.
Kansas was one of eight universities considered “top priorities” by the Department of Education for review of alleged Title IX violations – Washington State was another. Six federal investigators came to Lawrence. Banks and Levinson were first interviewed, she said.
Kansas ultimately had 90 days to develop a compliance plan or risk losing up to $27 million in federal funding. The university reached an agreement to address areas of inequality that Levinson had highlighted.
It wasn’t resolved until Levinson moved back East for law school — an option she hadn’t considered before her sport was threatened.
“What the Title IX fight taught me was that it was so important to understand the law, to understand where the levels of authority came from, where the levers of power came from,” said said Levinson. “I didn’t have any of those tools as an undergrad.
“It was really a battle between David and Goliath. I learned that if I was going to be successful in these kinds of important advocacy efforts, I really needed to learn skills in this way.”
Some claimed that his movement would condemn men’s sports. What would become one of the nation’s preeminent Title IX cases had dominated his undergraduate career. But in education and outreach, Levinson honed an approach that lasted a lifetime — seeking common ground instead of demonizing the opposition.
Del Shankel, who served as KU’s chancellor twice, was tasked with negotiating for the university’s administration and often the towering figure across the table.
“I had thought he was sort of the Darth Vader of my time there, because we had to fight so often,” Levinson said.
Years later, long after settling in Seattle and beginning a long and diverse career in public policy, Levinson got a call from Shankel. They met for a cup of coffee in tears.
Levinson learned that his 19-year-old opponent was a “charming human being” in a difficult position.
“He told me what all those battles meant to him and how difficult it had been for him to represent the university’s position because he was so proud of what we were doing,” Levinson said.
“He told me that his granddaughters had all played sports, and he knew it wouldn’t have been possible if we hadn’t done what we had been doing for those years. He just wanted to thank me.
While serving as a judge in Seattle, Levinson founded and chaired one of the nation’s first mental health courts to help people with mental illness exit the criminal justice system and connect them to services. She was Deputy Mayor of Norm Rice and involved in the fight against Enron’s deregulation of the energy industry. One of the state’s first openly LGBTQ public figures, she was a founding board member of Hands Off Washington and The Privacy Fund.
Levinson retired 20 years ago to re-engage in LGBTQ+ advocacy work. She led reforms to Washington’s child welfare system and the handling of domestic violence and sexual assault. She has also worked on gun safety, campaign finance transparency and police accountability.
She was inspired by the Title IX fight in the mid-2000s when the fate of the NBA’s Sonics was in flux. The WNBA Storm was also set to move to Oklahoma, but Levinson — a fan — didn’t hear much about that threat.
“It was as if they were invisible. No one was trying to save them,” Levinson said. “They were sort of the elephant flea, if you will, because the men had all the money, all the resources.”
She wanted to see if the potential ownership group would consider separating the Storm from the Sonics. She found backers and used connections. Everything happened quietly.
“We wouldn’t have saved the storm if I hadn’t had that Title IX experience,” Levinson said. “There’s no way I would have even thought I had the ability or the connections to do it.”
Sue Bird probably would have left Seattle without these efforts. Bird said the Storm have acknowledged a global deal would move the team to Oklahoma City.
“I remember finishing the 2007 season and literally saying in the media, (when) people asked about it, ‘It’s really sad to think that maybe it was the last time I played in a Seattle jersey,'” Bird said.
“Then the ownership group escalated.”
Fifty years have brought progress, not perfection. Future generations will not experience the struggle to arrive at the current reality, and that was the goal from the beginning.
“We have the battles of this generation to win. Title IX is still a fundamentally important pillar in doing that,” Levinson said. “The kind of fights that 50 years ago people didn’t even see on the horizon – that same law is now being invoked.”
Journalist Percy Allen contributed to this story.