“I have a pretty good sense of outrage,” says attorney Jean Ledwith King.

King was one of just ten women to graduate from the U-M Law School in 1968 and, at forty-five, probably the oldest in her class. Just two years later, she took on her alma mater when she filed a federal complaint charging that the university discriminated against women in admissions, financial aid, employment, and promotions. King says that the university tried to resist–but once the feds started to withhold grant money, it capitulated and raised the pay of about 100 female faculty.

In 1974, King took a call from a parent in west Michigan whose daughter wanted to run track. At the time, the girl’s high school district had no girls’ track team–which, King pointed out, violated Title IX, the 1972 Civil Rights Act amendment barring gender discrimination in education. When the publicity hit the local papers, the school immediately created a girls’ team.

King had found the cause that defined her career. After that first success, she heard from more young women around the country who wanted an equal chance to compete. No athlete herself, she proved a tough legal competitor. “When I first met Jean King, I remember thinking, ‘How is this old grandma lady going to help us?'” admits former MSU basketball player Deb Traxinger. But King (who wasn’t a grandmother then, but is now) proved her legal savvy in the seven-year litigation. Knowing the university would stall, King persuaded the anxious women that they had to testify immediately about the most egregious funding discrepancies: on road trips, for instance, the women got only half as much spending money as the men. This was so irrefutable that the judge quickly ordered MSU to ante up.

“She has a great ability to see through everything and get to the heart of the matter,” says former MSU player Carol Hutchins, now the U-M’s softball coach. “Where women’s sports are concerned, Jean King is one of the major forces in the entire country.”

By the time she closed her downtown Ann Arbor office two years ago, King had handled sex discrimination complaints encompassing thirty-three sports, from badminton to wrestling. In 1980, she pushed Pioneer High School to create a girls’ golf team. Twenty years later, King got Huron High to give varsity status to girls’ water polo. One of the players on that team was future Olympian Betsey Armstrong.

“Jean taught us we could do the things we never thought we could do,” says Traxinger. Now a high school teacher and basketball ref in Grand Ledge, Traxinger will be among those paying tribute to King at a March 26 fundraiser, when the Women’s Center of Southeastern Michigan will be renamed in King’s honor.