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Feminist Theorist Dies at 57

By Ella A. Hoffman, Crimson Staff Writer

Renowned feminist political theorist Susan M. Okin died last Wednesday, March 3, in her Lincoln, Mass., home. She was 57.

The precise cause of death is unknown, though Kevin Kennedy of the Lincoln Police Department said Okin appears to have died of natural causes.

Friends and family remember Okin as a scholar, teacher and mother of the first order.

Okin, who had taught at Stanford University since 1990, was spending this year as a fellow and visiting professor at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Okin is best known for arguing that gender issues should not be excluded from political thought. Her first book, Women in Western Political Thought, is now considered a cornerstone in her field.

Okin’s work stressed that family could not be excluded from conceptions of justice. Throughout her career, Okin engaged and criticizing top theorists—including John Rawls, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Nozick and Michael Walzer—for neglecting to incorporate women into their theories.

Rawls reportedly accepted Okin’s criticism of his work and altered some of his later work to accommodate it, said Jane J. Mansbridge, the Adams professor of political leadership and democratic values at Harvard.

Mansbridge described Okin’s scholarship as “path-breaking” and “courageous.”

“Her insights on gender and the family shed new light on almost every political theory of major importance,” Mansbridge said.

Other publications include Justice, Gender, and the Family (1989) and Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (1999), as well as dozens of articles and book reviews.

Okin served as director of Sanford’s Ethics in Society Program from 1993-1996. During her career, she received numerous awards for her scholarship and writing.

In recent years, Okin’s work had turned toward economic development and gender throughout the world, according to Mansbridge. Okin’s interest in women in the least-developed countries extended beyond the bounds of scholarship, Mansbridge said.

She described Okin’s devotion to the Global Fund for Women, a San Francisco-based foundation. In January, Okin traveled to India to represent the foundation at the World Social Forum.

“She was a force for good in the world,” Mansbridge said.

At Radcliffe, Okin was enlarging on her writings on gender, economic development theories and policies, and women’s rights in the late 20th century.

She was scheduled to present her findings in a talk entitled “Gender, Economic Development and Human Rights” at Radcliffe this Monday, March 8, to coincide with International Women’s Day. Instead, approximately 100 friends and colleagues gathered for a commemorative service held in the Cronkhite Living Room.

Several of those who spoke at Monday’s service praised Okin’s teaching and willingness to mentor younger colleagues.

“There are at least three theorists who went into political theory because they had her as undergraduates,” Mansbridge said. “This is someone who affected many lives not only through her writing but through her caring response to her students and others.”

Several teaching awards she earned during her time at Stanford substantiate these claims.

Judith Vichniac, the director of Radcliffe’s fellowship program who has known Okin since they both entered graduate school at Harvard in 1972, spoke at Monday’s ceremony at Radcliffe.

Vichniac recalled that Okin “loved to garden, she loved to go antiquing, she loved to fix up houses, she loved to cook, she loved to dress up—she always dressed with a real flair.”

She also stressed the importance of family to Okin’s personal, moral and intellectual life.

Mansbridge also recalled that Okin was always eager to talk about her children, Laura and Justin.

“It was a wonderful mixture of being able to get to the very frontier of political theory in one breath and talk about my son and her family in the next,” Mansbridge said.

Okin was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and graduated from the University of Auckland in 1967. She earned a master’s degree in philosophy from Oxford in 1970 and a doctorate from Harvard in 1975.

Before taking her position at Stanford, Okin taught at the University of Auckland, Vassar, Brandeis and Harvard.

Her ties to Cambridge were strong. According to Vichniac, Okin used Radcliffe 25th reunion reports as material for some of her research.

In 1990, Okin delivered the Radcliffe Alumnae Lecture, and in 2000 she was presented with the Radcliffe Graduate Society Medal for academic achievement, awarded to a woman with a graduate degree from Harvard who has made an outstanding contribution to her field.

Okin had recently purchased a condo in Lincoln and hoped to be able to spend part of every year in the Boston area. She had also bought a house in the south of France.

Okin is survived by a daughter, Laura Moller Okin of Boston; a son, Justin Moller Okin of New York; and two sisters, Janice May of England and Catherine Pitt of New Zealand.

Family and friends gathered at Okin’s home in Lincoln on March 7 to commemorate her life.

A memorial celebration will be held at Stanford this spring and will be followed by a conference honoring Okin’s scholarship. The family requests that donations in Okin’s memory be made to the Global Fund for Women, 1375 Sutter St., Suite 400, San Francisco, CA 94109.

—Material from the Associated Press was used in the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Ella A. Hoffman can be reached at

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