In 1970, a small group of women in Ann Arbor, Michigan found a way to unleash the power of one American institution—the federal government—against another powerful institution—the University of Michigan. And within a matter of months, they helped spark a revolution in academic hiring practices that would reverberate all across the country.
At a time when women were starting to find their voices over the sex discrimination they were experiencing in the workplace, the local chapter of FOCUS on Equal Employment for Women filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, challenging the prevailing University practices on the admission, hiring, promotion and compensation of women. Officials from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare subsequently turned up egregious examples of discrimination in their investigation, and threatened to hold up federal contracts until the University adopted prescribed remedies.
“Conquering Heroines” chronicles the suspenseful standoff that ensued as University administrators dragged their feet and tried to organize their counterparts at other major universities to resist what they viewed as a bureaucratic intrusion into their affairs. Meanwhile, what became known as “the HEW complaint” helped galvanize women across the campus and across the country o challenge all the forms of discrimination they were experiencing.
With the “white knights” of the federal government on their side, the Michigan women succeeded in getting many of their concerns addressed. Their complaint was the first that led to the withholding of government contracts from an American university because of sex discrimination. Among hundreds of similar complaints filed against U.S. colleges during that time, the Michigan complaint provided the “historic” template for settlements with other institutions.
The publication of "Conquering Heroines” coincides with both the 50th anniversary of the filing of the HEW complaint and the 150th anniversary of the admission of women to Michigan. It captures the stories of key participants in the battle, the secrets that were locked away for many years in the papers of University administrators. and the lively climate on campus at the time. It serves as a reminder of how far women have traveled over the past half-century and the challenges that still remain in their fight for equality.
"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
"Senior Women Web" review by feminist scholar Jo Freeman, author of "We Will Be Heard: Women's Struggles for Political Power in the United States."
To mark the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, USA Today prepared a project to recognize 10 women from every state who had played important roles in U.S. society between 1920 and 2020. Lawyer Jean L. King, one of the protagonists of "Conquering Heroines," was among the women chosen from the state of Michigan.
This Washington Post story details what Elizabeth Warren experienced as a law professor at the University of Houston in the late 1970s.
This Washington Post story, focused on Iceland, describes how women are outpacing men in attending college now.