Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Susan Moller Okin: A New Zealand Tribute Ten Years On

Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

Susan Moller Okin: A New Zealand Tribute Ten Years On

Article excerpt


In January 2014, New Zealand's then Parliamentary Speaker David Carter announced his intention to undertake a review of M?ori protocols in Parliament. The rationale, according to Carter, was that 'Parliament needs a protocol that is modern and acceptable to a diversified Parliament' ('Speaker calls for M?ori protocols to be modernised', 2014). The review, undertaken with the guidance of Te Atiawa and other iwi, was in part prompted by an incident in July 2013 where two senior female Members of New Zealand's Parliament (Parliament's longest serving woman Member Annette King and her Labour Party colleague Maryan Street) were asked to move from the front bench during a powhiri (M?ori ceremonial welcome) at New Zealand's Youth Parliament. They subsequently raised their concerns with the New Zealand Parliamentary Speaker as an issue for the New Zealand House of Representatives to consider (Borissenko, 2013). Some claim that such a review is long overdue ('A woman's place', 2014; ' Speaker's look at Maori rules overdue', 2014) coming as it does on the back of calls from various high profile New Zealanders over recent years for gender inclusiveness and equal treatment in civic spaces.

One New Zealander who doubtless would have been very interested in these debates is the late feminist political theorist Susan Moller Okin. Although Okin became an academic superstar in the United States where she spent most of her career, in New Zealand, her birth country, she remains relatively unknown.

Okin helped to pioneer the study of feminist political theory, breaking new ground in her various works, which included a large number of articles and several books. Her work received much international acclaim, especially in the United States, and was generally regarded as groundbreaking. But it was her 1997 essay Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? that proved most contentious. In this essay Okin explored the implications for women of the claims of some minority cultures to group rights.

Okin was a brave and independent thinker whose contribution to feminist thinking has been, I would argue, insufficiently recognised in her homeland of New Zealand. The year 2014, the tenth anniversary of her death in Lincoln, Massachusetts, thus seems a fitting time to pay tribute to her in New Zealand.

Background: Okin's early life in New Zealand

Susan Okin, née Moller, was born in 1946, the youngest of three daughters, in a state house in Auckland's wealthy suburb of Remuera. Her New Zealand mother became a fulltime housewife upon marriage, as was then the norm. Her Danish-born father worked as an accountant at Holeproof Woollen Mills. Susan was taught by her elder sister Catherine to read at a young age while convalescing from a childhood illness.1 She attended Remuera Primary and Intermediate schools, followed by Epsom Girls' Grammar from 1959-1963. A high flyer and an academic all rounder, Susan was a prefect and the recipient of several prizes and awards including for languages, English, history, music and art. In her final years at Epsom Girls' Grammar she was awarded a John Williamson Scholarship to assist girls with an excellent academic record to undertake tertiary study.2

Okin's academic career was stellar. Having graduated with a bachelor's degree in history from Auckland University in 1966, she was awarded a scholarship to attend Oxford University. There she completed an MPhil in politics in 1970, before going on to obtain a PhD in government at Harvard in 1975. For the next 15 years, she taught at Brandeis University, Massachusetts (Hoffman, 2004; Squires, 2004; Trei, 2004).

In 1990, Okin moved to California to take up the position of Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, posts which she held until her death in 2004. Between 1993 and 1996 she was also director of Stanford University's Ethics in Society Program. At the time of her death, Okin was undertaking a one-year fellowship at Harvard University - as a recipient of the Marta S. …

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