First female editor-in-chief of The Daily talks history of sex discrimination at ‘U’ | #students | #parents

The University of Michigan LSA Honors program hosted alum Sara Fitzgerald, author and former new media developer for the Washington Post, to discuss the instances of sex discrimination she has experienced and researched since her time at the University. 

Fitzgerald served as the first female editor in chief of The Michigan Daily when she was an undergraduate, making University history while ensuring coverage for the frequently silenced voices of female students and faculty. 

In an email to The Michigan Daily, LSA Honors Director Mika LaVaque-Manty said Fitzgerald spent her time as a student at the University fighting against the institutionalized discrimination of women.

“She is a particularly fitting guest in the current moment, when the campus community is once again tackling questions of justice, equity and the role of the institution,” LaVaque-Manty said.

Fitzgerald discussed her experience at the University as a journalism and history double major. She said much of her work derives from the sex discrimination she witnessed, experienced and heard about throughout her college years. Fitzgerald’s most recent book, “Conquering Heroines,” focuses on the sex bias complaints at the University and the women who were key parts of the Title IX movement. 

After her time at the University, Fitzgerald had multiple jobs, including the head of a consulting company and a journalist at the Washington Post. Almost 40 years after her graduation in 1973, she ran into her senior thesis adviser and returned to the University to work on uncovering the history behind sex discrimination in academic environments. 

Her first story followed Bernice Sandler, a University of Maryland student who was instrumental in the eventual creation of Title IX. Sandler faced severe discrimination when searching for jobs at her university, and was told that she needed to focus on raising a family instead of finding a job. Fitzgerald described the mentality of companies regarding hiring women.

“You were not really a professional, but just a housewife who went back to school,” Fitzgerald said.

By Jan. 31, 1970, Sandler filed numerous sex bias complaints. 

Fitzgerald also discussed the life of Jean L. King, another University alum whose advocacy for women’s rights transformed both the University and the entirety of American higher education. After King retired, she continued to share her stories of injustice as she was no longer under the jurisdiction of the University. 

The second portion of Fitzgerald’s talk followed the general culture of sex bias at the University. Sixty years after the University’s opening in 1817, the first female student, Madeline Stockwell, was admitted to and attended the University. 

As referenced in the University’s fight song, Fitzgerald said, the University saw itself as somewhat of a “Harvard of the West,” so the Ivy League-esque male students were forced to adjust to a more inclusive education. Fitzgerald said sex discrimination existed in numerous forms, ranging from separate doors to enter the Michigan Union for each gender to barring women from stepping on to the Big House field. 

These antiquated rules remained part of the University experience until 1968, the year before Fitzgerald’s entry into the school.

“Thanks to so much of what our upperclassmen had gone through through the run-up years of ‘66 to ‘68, the fall of ‘69 seemed to be completely free,” Fitzgerald said.

Though discrimination was no longer plainly evident, it manifested in more subliminal forms. Fitzgerald said a quota of 55 men for every 45 women at the University was in place, so extremely qualified women with higher grades than their male counterparts were denied admission purely due to their gender. 

Fitzgerald said only 34 out of 900 LSA professors were women and six out of 100 School of Education professors were female during her time at the University. She said the gender injustices plaguing the University and a multitude of other universities, namely the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia, were debilitating to women seeking a career in academia. The false assumption that women were solely future homemakers and mothers stopped many companies from hiring a fair amount of women. 

“Men also become parents, but we do not, as a society, punish them by taking away their opportunities,” Fitzgerald said.

LSA sophomore Dyanna Bateman attended Fitzgerald’s talk. She wrote in an email to The Daily that Fitzgerald’s perspective was empowering despite it being a virtual event.

“It was interesting to see the history that Fitzgerald and her colleagues not only explored but also created at the University of Michigan,” Bateman said.

Daily News Contributor Emily Blumberg can be reached at emilybl@umich.edu. 



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