In a yellowed University of Kansas student newspaper clipping dated May 9, 1978, then-KU sophomore Anne Levinson announced her intention to file a complaint with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare as the deadline for Title IX compliance approached.
“I have an inside feeling that nobody really believes that women deserve equal treatment,” Levinson was quoted as saying.
President Richard Nixon had signed Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 into law: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Change didn’t come immediately or easy, however. It required a prod. It still does.
“Those 37 words changed what was possible in our country for women and girls, and I know firsthand what a difference it made in many of our lives, mine included,” said Levinson, a longtime Seattle resident.
“After five decades, it continues to be critically important that we build on the legacy, but understand that there’s still much more to be done.”
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 “pittance” compared with the men’s, which were privately funded.
Levinson and the field hockey team enjoyed a successful season. But afterward the university announced it would no longer fund the sport.
“That was it. No discussion,” she said.
“A lot of the women were fearful. They were being told — stay in your lane. This is not your fight. Just play your sport, and if you need money you can have a bake sale. Don’t disrupt things. Don’t upset the apple cart, don’t make trouble.
“It brought out in me this innate tenacity to fight for other people and to not stand by if something seemed unjust or inequitable.”
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 reporter at the student newspaper assigned to women’s sports.
One of her staunchest and unlikeliest allies was art history professor Elizabeth “Betty” Banks. Banks encouraged Levinson to research a complaint and said she’d back her up.
“It was encouraging to hear of your efforts with the women student athletes,” Banks wrote in a letter March 1, 1978, offering her help.
“… There is a good deal more which can be done and I am hoping with the involvement of more advisers who are responsive to the needs of women athletes, we can do better.”
Emboldened and educated, Levinson noted every possible category of inequity, “which I learned only later was very unusual.”
Scholarships, medical care, housing, transportation, equipment, coaches, facility availability — she cast a wide net.
“In every way you could measure, it was vastly inequitable,” Levinson said. “In those days it wasn’t seen as a concern. The university community, alumni — it just wasn’t on the radar.”
True to her word, Banks also filed a complaint.
The matter took years to resolve. After Title IX passed, there was a delay in implementing regulations, and Levinson said it wasn’t until about 1977 that there was a process in place.
The university deferred to the state legislature, so Levinson employed some headline-grabbing flair. She organized a relay in which the coaches and athletes from each of the 10 women’s varsity sports at KU crossed the nearly 30-mile distance from Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence to the state capital in Topeka with a petition rolled up and passed along as a baton.
They were met by the governor and Rep. Ruth Luzzati, who said they would get to work.
“If I’d known how difficult it was going to be when I began I might not have done it, but once I started I felt like I would be letting everyone down,” Levinson said.
Kansas was one of eight universities considered “top priorities” by the Department of Education for examination of alleged Title IX violations — Washington State was another. Six federal investigators came to Lawrence. Banks and Levinson were the first ones interviewed, she said.
Kansas was ultimately given 90 days to develop a plan for compliance or risk losing up to $27 million in federal funding. The university reached an agreement to remedy the areas of inequity Levinson had pointed out.
It wasn’t resolved until Levinson had 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 it was so important to understand the law, to understand where the levels of authority came from, where the levers of power came from,” Levinson said. “I had none of those tools as an undergraduate.
“It was very much a David and Goliath battle. I learned that if I was going to be successful in these kinds of significant advocacy efforts, I really needed to get skilled in this way.”
Some claimed her movement would doom men’s sports. What would become one of the country’s preeminent Title IX cases had dominated her undergraduate career. But in the education and outreach, Levinson honed an approach that lasted a lifetime — to look for common ground instead of demonizing the opposition.
Del Shankel, who served as KU’s chancellor twice, was assigned to negotiate for the university administration and often the imposing figure on the other side of the table.
“I had thought he was sort of the Darth Vader of my time there, because we had to do battle so frequently,” Levinson said.
Years later, long after she’d settled in Seattle and begun a long and diverse career in public policy, Levinson got a call from Shankel. They met up for a tearful cup of coffee.
Levinson learned her 19-year-old self’s adversary was a “lovely human being” in a difficult position.
“He told me about what all those battles meant to him and how difficult it had been for him to have 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 that would not have been possible had we not done what we had done in those years. He had just wanted to thank me.”
During her time as a Seattle judge, Levinson founded and presided over one of the nation’s first mental-health courts to help individuals with mental illness get out of the criminal legal system and connect them with services. She was deputy mayor for Norm Rice and involved in the fight against the deregulation of the energy industry by Enron. One of state’s first openly LGBTQ public officials, she was a founding board member of Hands Off Washington and The Privacy Fund.
Levinson retired from the bench 20 years ago to recommit to LGBTQ+ advocacy work. She led reforms of Washington’s child welfare system and the handling of domestic violence and sexual assault. She’s also worked on firearm safety, campaign finance transparency and police accountability.
She drew on the Title IX fight in the mid-2000s when the fate of the NBA’s Sonics was in flux. The WNBA’s Storm were set to relocate to Oklahoma as well, but Levinson — a fan — wasn’t hearing much about that threat.
“It was as if they were invisible. Nobody was trying to save them,” Levinson said. “They were sort of the flea on the elephant, if you will, because the men had all the money, all the resources.”
She wanted to see if the potential ownership group would entertain separating the Storm from the Sonics. She found backers and used connections. It was all done quietly.
“We would not have saved the Storm had I not had that Title IX experience,” Levinson said. “There’s no way I would have even thought I had the ability or the relationships to do that.”
Sue Bird would have likely left Seattle if not for those efforts. Bird said the Storm recognized that a package 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 that might have been the last time I play in a Seattle jersey,’ ” Bird said.
“Then the ownership group stepped up.”
Fifty years have brought progress, not perfection. Future generations won’t know the struggle to get to the current reality, and that was the goal all along.
“We have this generation’s battles to be won. Title IX is still a fundamentally important pillar in doing that,” Levinson said. “The kinds of fights that 50 years ago people didn’t even see on the horizon — that same law is now being called upon.”
Reporter Percy Allen contributed to this story.