Alumni Profile: Anne Levinson, judge (ret.)

Alumna started on path of justice as KU undergrad working for gender equality in athletics

Anne Levinson joins fellow Title IX panel members Reggie Robinson and Steve Leben.

In a time when girls were still wearing bloomers in gym class, Anne Levinson tried out for the boys’ baseball team in junior high. Such an act, when most people expected young girls to sit still and be quiet, was not very well received.

Working to open doors so that more people can have opportunities has characterized Levinson’s life and shaped her impressive career. That seemingly minor episode of trying out for a boys’ team as a kid foreshadowed the trailblazing endeavors that Levinson would undertake at the University of Kansas and beyond.

Judge Levinson (Ret.), who received her Bachelor of Arts in political science in 1980 from KU, returned to campus for a panel on March 28 to discuss her work for women’s equity in athletics at KU, as well as her later career as a judge, WNBA team owner, public official and civic leader. The panel also featured Del Shankel, Chancellor emeritus, Betty Banks, professor emerita of classics, Steve Leben, Kansas Court of Appeals judge and former KU student body president, and Reggie Robinson, professor of law at Washburn University and former KU student body vice-president. All played an important role in the athletics funding equity issues at KU in the late 1970s that ultimately resulted in Levinson filing one of the nation’s first Title IX complaints.

While on campus, Levinson also visited classes in political science and women, gender and sexuality studies to discuss her career in public service. Her visit was part of the Professor for a Day program through the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

After playing nearly every sport available to her in high school, Levinson, a native of Topeka who grew up in Massachusetts after age 10, found herself returning to Kansas in 1976 when KU offered her a scholarship to play field hockey. What Levinson soon discovered was she was not only receiving a scholarship; she was receiving the scholarship.

“In those days there was one scholarship for the whole team,” Levinson said. “It was worth $1,000.”

Once the senior student who held the scholarship graduated, Levinson was to receive the scholarship. But problems arose quickly for this proposition when the university announced it was cutting funding for all women’s sports except women’s basketball. According to Levinson, the university’s plan was for the women’s teams to hold bake sales to raise funds and to take care of their own injuries to cut costs.

Levinson saw her own program suffer and knew other women’s teams were suffering too. The injustice of the situation compelled her to act.

“I did not have experience in advocacy or public policy at the time,” Levinson said. “I had never lobbied or held a press conference. I just knew it wasn’t right and a lot of young women were impacted.”

Levinson galvanized the student body to support the field hockey team. There was no Facebook to gather supporters and no Twitter to announce the next event to raise funds. Levinson got creative. She successfully lobbied Student Senate for interim funding. She got the attention of the media, the governor and the State Legislature when she organized a relay race from Lawrence to the Capitol steps in Topeka with female athletes from the different sports at KU. These efforts secured temporary funding for the team, but did not solve the greater problem of inequality between men’s and women’s sports at KU.

The fight for Title IX

When Elizabeth “Betty” Banks saw Levinson’s efforts in the news, she reached out to her. Banks, a KU professor of classics, was a member of the University of Kansas Athletic Corporation board and had seen the discrimination against women from the inside.

Banks encouraged Levinson to file a Title IX complaint with the U.S. government.

“I said I didn’t know about (Title IX) and she did exactly as a good teacher should and told me to research it and come back,” Levinson said. She did just that.

Title IX is a federal law passed in 1972. It prohibits sex discrimination in any educational institution receiving federal funding.  When it was passed by Congress, few realized the broad impact it would have for girls and women in the decades to come. Although it is often associated with athletics, the law was actually focused on opening up doors for women who had until then been denied educational opportunities in most careers and disciplines.

Levinson saw that the University was violating Title IX through the inequality between men’s and women’s sports. There were huge disparities in scholarships, housing, supplies, coaches’ salaries, scheduling, trainers, facilities, travel and every aspect of the athletic program.  Levinson and Banks each filed Title IX complaints against the university in 1978.

Due to a backlog of cases the investigation did not begin until 1980.

The Federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) selected Levinson’s complaint among the first seven nationally because they were the strongest cases with the broadest implications. The federal investigators found the university was acting in a discriminatory manner and gave KU 90 days to develop a plan to comply or risk losing up to $27 million in federal funding. The University agreed to implement a 13-point, multi-year plan to improve women’s athletics across the board.

During that time, many voiced opposition to Title IX and the complaints by Levinson and Banks. The issue was widely covered in the University Daily Kansan, including several editorials claiming Title IX would be the end to men’s collegiate sports. Opponents argued that providing equal funding to women’s sports would drain resources from men’s sports, weakening the athletics program as a whole. Many alleged that universities, not only KU, would never be able to equally fund both men’s and women’s sports and would therefore have to cut men’s sports or even entire athletics programs.

“Kansas undoubtedly is not alone in facing such a money dilemma and possibly being forced to rob a money-making men’s sport to feed a still young women’s athletic program. But the sacrifice is too great. The risk of a demise in men’s sports that have struggled for decades to make it is unfair.” – University Daily Kansan editorial staff, Dec. 5, 1979

KU made the efforts to comply with Title IX as outlined in the government’s findings from the investigations. Men’s and women’s sports survived and to this day continue to operate successfully at KU. (Both the men’s and women’s basketball teams went to the Sweet 16 in this year’s tournaments.)

“I think (the ruling) was instrumental, not just for the women on campus at the time, but for all the women who have gone to KU since then” Levinson said. “And it really set the stage for other universities; they too had to improve their practices.

“Title IX is about so much more than athletics. It changed the landscape for women and girls. It opened doors that had been closed to previous generations. The opportunities for being able to fulfill your promise and reach for whatever you want have changed dramatically because of Title IX.”

Serving justice

When the Title IX ruling came down at KU in 1982, Levinson had already graduated with her bachelor of arts in political science. Her involvement with Title IX issues at KU inspired her to attend law school in order to pursue a career in advocacy and justice.

Levinson graduated from Northeastern University law school, which she described as a school with a strong emphasis on social justice and public service. During her time as a law student, Levinson participated in a variety of co-ops, or clinical work for students. One of those opportunities was in Seattle, and after she graduated, she moved there to begin her career.

In Seattle, Levinson is now a well-known figure.  She began with an environmental group and moved on to work for the mayor of Seattle, doing human rights work, public safety and acting as a liaison to the LGBT community. She then worked for the first African-American mayor of Seattle, serving as his legal counsel, chief of staff and as deputy mayor. From there the governor appointed her to chair the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.

Then Levinson was appointed to the bench as a Seattle Municipal Court judge. Again Levinson discovered a need to advocate for fairness. She saw that increasing numbers of individuals with mental illness were ending up in the criminal justice system due to lack of housing and services in the community. She developed one of the country’s first mental health courts, designed to get them diverted out of jail and connected to treatment and services. A groundbreaking and at times seemingly impossible endeavor, it succeeded and served as a model for other communities.

During this time, in her civic life off the bench, Levinson joined together with a small group of women to launch a middle school for girls, focused on leadership, rigorous math and science, integrated learning and broad diversity. Levinson and the other women recalled that around 5th grade was when many girls stopped trying, and started limiting their potential.  They wanted to create a school experience that would change the way young girls approached their education.

“I think it’s important for young people, particularly young women, to see all of the possibilities, to learn to question whether something really can’t be done or if there are other ways to do it,” Levinson said. “Each of us has a responsibility to help improve the world in which we live and we can each work on change, whether it’s large or small, wherever we are. It will always seem there are not enough hours in the day, but everybody can contribute to positive change.”

Supporting the team – whatever it takes

During her adult life, Levinson did not abandon athletics. When the Seattle Sonics NBA team was sold to a group in Oklahoma, the city’s WNBA team, the Storm, was going to be taken along with it as part of the franchise. The Storm had won a national championship and was beloved in the city, according to Levinson, who said that before the sale she thought her role with the team “would just be to buy tickets.”

As one may guess, Levinson would not just let the team that brought so much pride to women’s athletics in Seattle leave the city. Again, she mobilized to save a women’s team.

She approached three women she knew from the community and began negotiating with the Oklahoma businessmen poised to buy the franchise. The women formed an owners group and after seven months of negotiations with the businessmen, who were not interested in selling the franchise they had just purchased, they bought the team in January 2008 to keep it in Seattle.

The Storm went on to win the WBNA championship in 2010.

The future of fairness

Levinson left the ownership group of the Storm shortly after their championship win. After accomplishing her goal to keep the team in Seattle, holding season tickets is enough for now.

But she has stayed busy. Levinson now serves as a consultant to the City of Seattle on police misconduct and remains active in political and civic issues. As one of the state’s first openly LGBT public officials, she led statewide coalitions for several ballot measures, including the referendum that gave same-sex families the same rights and legal protections as opposite-sex families in Washington. When asked how she has achieved success in such an array of social justice issues, Levinson stressed the importance of teamwork, open-mindedness and respect.

“We each tend to only look at the world through the lens we have,” Levinson said. “It’s important to try to see things as others might, to build relationships and look for the best in people. We should each look for ways to honor and respect each other. It’s harder for others to generalize and demonize when they know someone to be a good human being.”