In 1970, a group of women in Ann Arbor launched a crusade with an objective that seemed beyond reach at the time—force the University of Michigan to treat women the same as men. Sex discrimination was then rampant at U-M. The school’s admissions officials sought to maintain a ratio of 55:45 between male and female undergraduate entrants, turning away more qualified female applicants and arguing, among other things, that men needed help because they were less mature and posted lower grades. Women comprised less than seven percent of the University’s faculty members and their salaries trailed their male peers by substantial amounts. As one administrator put it when pressed about the disparity, “Men have better use for the extra money.”
Galvanized by their shared experiences with sex discrimination, the Ann Arbor women organized a group called FOCUS on Equal Employment for Women, led by activist Jean Ledwith King. Working with Bernice Sandler of the Women’s Equity Action League, they developed a strategy to unleash the power of another powerful institution—the federal government—to demand change at U-M and, they hoped, across the world of higher education. Prompted by a complaint filed by FOCUS, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare soon documented egregious examples of discrimination in Michigan’s practices toward women and threatened to withhold millions of dollars in contracts unless the school adopted remedies. Among the hundreds of similar complaints filed against U.S. colleges in 1970–1971, the one brought by the Michigan women achieved the breakthrough that provided the historic template for settlements with other institutions.
Drawing on oral histories from archives as well as new interviews with living participants, Conquering Heroines chronicles this pivotal period in the histories of the University of Michigan and the women’s movement. An incredible story of grassroots activism and courageous women, the book highlights the kind of relentless effort that has helped make inclusivity an ongoing goal at U-M.
Praise / Awards
"Conquering Heroines fleshes out one university's struggles in detail that would be lost in a broader treatment. It provides important state history with national ramifications and gives local heroines the credit they're due."
—Michigan Historical Review
"This is an excellent case study of a nation-wide problem."
—Senior Women Web, Jo Freeman, Feminist Scholar and author of We Will Be Heard
"This important book deserves to become a classic in the social history of the 1970s. Fitzgerald’s deeply researched and compelling narrative takes us into the halls of a powerful “public ivy” as the filing of a formal complaint prompts the U. S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to require the university to develop a plan to end discrimination against women faculty. The drama grows when the university evades the request and HEW actually withholds federal contracts. A stunning case study of transformative social change, the book deftly combines the history of higher education, the history of women, the law and politics of positive government, and the economics of discrimination."
—Kathryn K. Sklar, Distinguished Professor Emerita, State University of New York, Binghamton
News, Reviews, Interviews
Listen: The Remedial Herstory Project, Season 2: Episode #40 | Link
| June 2022
Read: Review in Michigan Historical Review
| Spring 2022
Read: Article in Bentley Historical Library Magazine | Link
| June 2021
Read and Listen: From Michigan Today
, "Episode 41: The Conquering Heroines of Title IX, featuring Sara Fitzgerald" | Link
Read: From the Michigan Daily
, "First female editor-in-chief of The Daily talks history of sex discrimination at ‘U’" | Link
Read: Review on Senior Women Web
Read: Essay "A Collegiate Catalyst" from Washington Independent Review of Books
Watch: Making Michigan Lecture Series | Link
Watch: Virtual Author Event recording | Link
Watch: Honors Seminar Presents Sara Fitzgerald | Link
Watch: Sara Fitzgerald shares Conquering Heroines
with One More Page Books | Link