March 9, 2004
Susan Okin, feminist political theorist, dead at 57
By Lisa Trei
Susan Moller Okin, a renowned political philosopher, was found dead at her home in Lincoln, Mass., on March 3. She was 57. The cause of death is unknown, but suicide and foul play have been ruled out, according to her ex-husband, Bob Okin.
Okin, the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society, joined the Stanford faculty in 1990. At the time of her death, she held the Matina S. Horner Distinguished Visiting Professorship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, a one-year fellowship at Harvard University.
"She was perhaps the best feminist political philosopher in the world," said Debra Satz, associate professor of philosophy. "More than anyone else I can think of, she made it the case that consideration of the status and position of women must be part of political philosophy's concerns. She was very bold in her approach to the field and she was not afraid to take on the established view."
John Ferejohn, the Caroline S. G. Munro Professor of Political Science, said Okin invented the study of gender and political theory. "She revolutionized the field," he said. "She was an enormous presence on campus."
Okin's work focused on the exclusion of women from most Western political thought, past and present. She argued that gender issues belong at the core, not the margins, of political philosophy. Her book Women in Western Political Thought (1979) is considered a cornerstone of research on women in politics. She also authored two other books, Justice, Gender and the Family (1989) and Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (1999).
Labor economist Myra Strober, a professor of education, said Okin made "foundational" contributions to theories based on the economics of work and family. Okin took John Rawls' 1971 book, A Theory of Justice, which argued for a political philosophy based on equality and individual rights, and applied it to the family. "She was brilliant; she was one of the best brains around," Strober said.
Okin argued that if theorists fail to speak about the concerns of women in the domestic sphere, they thereby fail to take into account what it takes to have a public sphere, said Rob Reich, assistant professor of political science. In Justice, Gender and the Family, Okin asked whether the principles of justice should be applied to the family. "Her attitude was that the family could not be exempt from a conception of justice," Reich said. "After that [book], it was impossible for people to write about political theory regarding the position of women" without taking the domestic sphere into account. By doing this, Satz said, Okin offered a "brilliant internal critique of the field." Okin considered herself a Rawlsian, but argued the philosophy needed revision. "She cared about scholarship but also wanted to make sure that it interfaced with the real world," Reich added.
In recent years, Okin had turned her attention to the plight of women in the least developed countries. "[She] demonstrated that their extreme difficulties create a need to think differently about the complexity of gender issues in an international context where poverty threatens the lives of adults and children on a daily basis," said Joanne Martin, the Fred H. Merrill Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business.
In that capacity, Okin became a staunch supporter of the Global Fund for Women, a San Francisco-based grantmaking foundation supporting women's human rights. In January, Okin spent three weeks traveling as a member of the fund's delegation to the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India. During the trip, Okin wrote: "My view of Mumbai's and Delhi's slums has been transformed from seeing them [from the outside] as totally destitute and sordid places where no one could possibly lead a decent or hopeful life to seeing them as poor but vibrant communities, where with well-directed help from the outside, many people can improve their living conditions and hope for a better life for their children." Fund President Kavita Ramdas, who led the delegation, said Okin's "passion for women's rights and peace and justice were evident both in her academic work and in her philanthropy."
At the Radcliffe institute, Okin was expanding on her recent work on gender, economic development and women's rights in the late 20th century. She also planned to collect her work on multiculturalism and feminism, and to begin looking at the subject of evolutionary biology from a feminist point of view. On March 8, she was scheduled to give a public talk on her work at the institute, to coincide with International Women's Day. Instead, colleagues and friends met to commemorate her life. A family gathering also took place at her home in Massachusetts on March 7.
Okin was born in 1946 in Auckland, New Zealand. She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Auckland in 1967, a master of philosophy degree from Oxford in 1970 and a doctorate from Harvard in 1975. She taught at the University of Auckland, Vassar, Brandeis and Harvard before joining Stanford's faculty. Okin was director of the Ethics in Society Program from 1993 to 1996. "Of any place at Stanford, this was her intellectual home," said Satz, the program's current director. "Her heart really lay here."
Okin received numerous awards during her career, including the American Political Science Association's Victoria Schuck Prize for the best book on women and politics in 1989 for Justice, Gender and the Family, and the Allan V. Cox Medal for Faculty Excellence Fostering Undergraduate Research in 2002.
According to Ferejohn, Okin had a caring, close relationship with many students and colleagues. "She was very good with students," he said. "She will be enormously missed. We were all looking forward to her coming back refreshed."
Satz said Okin was "very, very supportive of women, in particular her untenured colleagues." When Satz's own quest for tenure was under scrutiny, she said Okin stepped forward and backed her. "She spoke out when she thought something was wrong," Satz said. "She was really willing to go the extra mile. She was a champion of justice."
Okin is survived by a daughter, Laura Moller Okin of Boston; a son, Justin Moller Okin of New York; and two sisters, Catherine Pitt of Nottingham, England, and Janice May of Auckland, New Zealand. Her marriage to Bob Okin of Los Altos ended in divorce.
A memorial celebration will be held on campus this spring, followed by a major conference honoring Okin's work during the 2004 academic year. 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.