Distinguished Alumni: Social justice and public service are hallmarks of Anne Levinson’s career

Anne Levinson
Anne Levinson is a 2015 Distinguished Alumna of the KU College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. (photo courtesy of Meryl Schenker)

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’s degree in political science from KU, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1980, was named as a 2015 Distinguished Alumna. The honor recognizes a career in public service and advocacy, including efforts in women’s equity in athletics at KU, as well as serving as a public official, judge, WNBA team owner, civic leader and champion for social justice.

“In my era, guidance counselors did not have ‘professional sports team owner’, deputy mayor, utility commissioner or judge on the list of career paths that they encouraged young women to consider. And most certainly no career path included fighting for the rights of LGBT individuals. But it was those formative leadership experiences involving Title IX at KU that set me on a path to public service and social justice, and showed me it was important to step up even when you aren’t sure how you will succeed, how to tackle what seem like insurmountable challenges by bringing talented and committed people together and how to persevere,” Levinson said.

The fight for Title IX

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.

“My recollection is that in those days there was one scholarship for the whole team,” Levinson said. “And it was for $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. 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 student government 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 and other women’s teams. In those days, there was no Internet, Facebook or Twitter to reach out for support or get visibility. 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 run from Lawrence to Topeka with female athletes from the different sports at KU carrying a petition rolled up like a baton to hand off to Legislative leaders on the steps of the Capitol. With the help of the Student Senate, 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.

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 to be among the first group of seven investigated anywhere in the country 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. In the end, 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 advocacy 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 demise in men’s sports that have struggled for decades to make it is unfair.” – University Daily Kansan editorial staff, Dec. 5, 1979

KU ultimately moved forward 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.

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. She completed a law degree from Northeastern University, whose law school is known for its strong emphasis on social justice and public service.

Levinson has spent most of her adult life in Seattle, where she is a well-known figure. Her list of contributions to the city and the state of Washington is lengthy. She began with an environmental group and moved on to work for the mayor of Seattle, as a staff person on issues of human rights and 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. She was also appointed by the governor as the second woman in the state to chair the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. An appointment to the Seattle Municipal Court as a judge came next, where she developed and then presided over one of the country’s first mental health courts, designed to help keep individuals with mental illness arrested for misdemeanor crimes diverted from jail and instead connected to treatment and services.

Since retiring from the bench, her pace has not slowed. She has provided strategic advice for government, non-profits and foundations, with a focus on reforming systems for large-scale change. Levinson now serves as a consultant to the City of Seattle on police misconduct and remains active in political and civic issues. She also joined together with a small group of women to launch a middle school for girls that focuses on leadership, rigorous math and science, integrated learning and broad diversity. And, she led efforts to prevent Seattle’s WNBA team, the Storm, from leaving the city when the city’s NBA team was sold to a group in Oklahoma. She became part of an ownership group that kept the team in Seattle.

Since her early days working for the mayor, Levinson has also been one of the state’s first openly LGBT public officials, and 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 in 2009. That then set the stage for the Legislature to pass a marriage equality law which was affirmed by a public vote in 2012, making Washington among the first states in the nation to pass marriage equality at the ballot.

Reflecting on her accomplishments, Levinson sees her time at KU, where she advocated for equity in athletics, as the catalyst for her career in public service.

“As difficult as those years were (at KU), I am very grateful for having had those experiences. For many women, including me, their leadership opportunities can be traced back to Title IX. Title IX was about so much more than athletics. It changed the landscape for women and girls. It knocked down the barriers that kept young women from being able to obtain an education or choose a career that allowed them to use their full potential. It opened doors that had been closed to previous generations.”