Susan Moller Okin

by Harry on March 8, 2004

My friend Rob Reich has just told me the very sad news that Susan Moller Okin died last week. Her book, Justice Gender and the Family, had a major effect on political theory, and helped produce the turn to the intimate that has happened in the last decade or so: an agenda setting achievement. I have been meaning for some time to blog about one of her arguments, but today is obviously not the day for that. I met her only once myself, but was impressed on that meeting by how the quality of the work I have admired for so long was matched by the quality of the personality I met — something one does not always find. An obituary will appear in tomorrow’s edition of the Stanford Report. (UPDATE: the full Stanford Report obituary is now online here.) Here is the press release:

Susan Moller Okin died of unknown causes last week at the age of 57. Okin was Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society and professor of Political Science at Stanford University. At the time of her death she was on leave with a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Okin was the director of the Program in Ethics in Society at Stanford University from 1993-1996, and she held fellowships at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto and at the Rockefeller Foundation. She was also the recipient of the Bing Fellowship for excellence and innovation in undergraduate teaching, and the Allen Cox Medal for faculty excellence in fostering undergraduate research at Stanford University.

Okin was a leading voice in political theory whose work centers on justice and the absence or exclusion of women from past and contemporary political thought. She was the author of three books, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (Princeton University Press, 1999); Justice, Gender, and the Family (Basic Books, 1989), for which she was the co-recipient of the American Political Science Association’s Victoria Schuck Award for the best book on women in politics; and Women in Western Political Thought (Princeton University Press, 1979).

She was a courageous voice, both in person and in her work. She spoke out against injustices wherever she saw them, often saying publicly what other people were only thinking privately. Her scholarship reflected her sense that political theory must reach out to public concerns, both in the United States and abroad. She was a feminist, with concerns about women at the heart of her work. In Justice, Gender, and the Family, Okin wrote, “My proposals, centered on the family but also on the workplace and other social institutions that currently reinforce the gender structure, will suggest some ways in which we might make our way toward a society much less structured by gender, and in which any remaining, freely chosen division of labor by sex would not result in injustice. In such a society, in all the spheres of our lives, from the most public to the most personal, we would strive to live in accordance with truly humanist principles of justice.”

She was at work on three projects at the time of her death. She was extending and expanding some recent articles on gender, economic development policies, and human rights. She was writing about evolutionary biology from a feminist perspective. And she was collecting and updating several papers on multiculturalism and women for a new volume.

Okin was born in New Zealand, and educated at the University of Auckland, and at Oxford and Harvard Universities. She is survived by her former husband, Robert Okin, and two children, Justin Okin and Laura Okin, and two sisters, Janice May and Catherine Pitt.

The charitable organization closest to Susan Moller Okin’s heart was the Global Fund for Women. A summary statement by the Global Fund describes its mission:

Your gift to the Global Fund makes it possible for grassroots women’s organizations to defend and promote the rights of women and girls all over the globe. Your support elects women to political office in rural Mongolia, … educates and empowers women who are victims of domestic violence in Chile, and provides free education to girls in Kenya…. Over the past sixteen years the Global Fund for Women has awarded more than $30 million to seed, strengthen, and link over 2,400 women’s groups in 161 countries and territories. These grants continue to sustain women’s efforts to improve and implement education programs for girls, stop violence against women, achieve economic independence, strengthen women’s political participation, and gain access to information technology.

Just prior to her death, Susan took a trip to India in January 2004, organized by the Fund. She wrote while on that trip: “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. I am inspired to give more $$ to the Global Fund [and] to help it whatever ways I can.”

A memorial fund honoring Susan Moller Okin has been set up at the Global Fund for Women. Please designate your tax-deductible gift to this fund.

The Global Fund for Women
1375 Sutter Street, Suite 400
San Francisco, CA 94109
Phone: 415-202-7640.
Fax: 415-202-8604.



Russell Arben Fox 03.09.04 at 12:59 am

I never met Okin; only heard her speak at different conferences on panels here and there. She never came off as anything less than engaging, challenging, rigorous, and generous. My worldview and her’s part in some pretty significant ways, but she is one of only two theorists (the only being Elshtain) that I simply cannot imagine ever teaching feminism without appealing to. Her take-downs of Rawls and (especially) Nozick in Justice, Gender, and the Family are, as far as I’m concerned, practically definitive.


Maria 03.09.04 at 1:25 pm

Sad, sad news. ‘Justice, Gender and the Family’ was one of the most exciting and important books I ever read (Henry’s copy of course). FWIW, that book is the one that got me thinking politically. It was a revelation.

Susan Moller Okin seemed an especially humane and principled person in a field where it must be easy to become hopelessly angry. It’s a real loss that she has died while in the middle of a life’s work.

Thanks for the link, Harry.


Wayne Eastman 03.09.04 at 2:07 pm


The memories are few and vague…she had beautiful long ironing board-straight 70s hair…I remember going to her office to turn in or maybe talk about a (late?) paper I wrote for her course on how the Mill of “On Liberty” would have thought about abortion…also an image of her writing on a blackboard wearing a shawl, maybe…the course where she was my section person must have been the political theory Gov requirement taught by Michael Walzer. Maybe she opened my mind to a feminist spin on Rawls, liberal justice, etc. the way she did later in the books that made her a political philosophy name…I just don’t remember.

It’s one thing that some of the senior profs I took courses from like Robert Nozick and Richard Herrnstein are gone…it’s quite another that one of my section people who seemed hardly older than I was and who rose to shine brightly is no longer with us.


drapeto 03.10.04 at 12:18 am

She never came off as anything less than engaging, challenging, rigorous, and generous.

Well, after the responses to edward said’s death, i guess i can feel free to say i find this hilarious. uh… she came off less than rigorous on n>1 occasions to me, anyway.


Ophelia Benson 03.11.04 at 4:04 pm

“Well, after the responses to edward said’s death, i guess i can feel free to say i find this hilarious.”

Jesus H. Christ. A new low is achieved.


Honor Spitz 03.13.04 at 12:32 am

I knew Susan and the rest of the Okin family as wonderful, engaging, open and generous neighbors when they lived next door to me in Los Altos, Ca. Susan’s laugh, quick but gentle wit, and large doe like eyes that looked as well as listened belied the fact that she was an eminent scholar…in fact I didn’t know of her academic stature for quite a few years after our first meeting, and then, it came from someone else. Humility and humor…that’s a pretty good way to be remembered. Goodbye, dear Susan, Godspeed. The world is a poorer place with your passing.

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