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Intrepid champion for rights

by Karin Winegar

Janet Benshoof

Janet Benshoof

For a bookworm from tiny Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, who describes herself as “sort of an introvert,” it's been an amazing public ride.

Janet Benshoof has repeatedly been selected by the National Law Journal as one of the 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America and has received numerous awards in the fields of constitutional law, reproductive rights, and women's health rights. She also has lived, and thrived, at the center of political storms.

Benshoof is founder and president emeritus of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (CRLP), a nonprofit human rights organization specializing in legal reform of reproductive/privacy laws. She has litigated constitutional cases in more than forty states and the United States Supreme Court.

In 1992, she received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for her work in advancing women's legal rights. And she is a familiar face on television: She has appeared on Good Morning America, Nightline, CNN, and McNeil /Lehrer.

As a teenager, Benshoof read 20 books a week so she came to the University of Minnesota in 1965 intending to major in English. When she graduated summa cum laude in 1969, she was still an avid reader, but her majors were political science and sociology.

Along the way, she savored courses with some of the most notable professors of the time: poet John Berryman, political theorist Mulford Sibley, and economist Walter Heller.

Liberal arts and law

While earning her law degree at Harvard, Benshoof remained a liberal arts junkie. “I found the U of M at least twice as intellectually stimulating,” she says. “ Law school was more like vo-tech. Analyzing cases did make me learn to write with less petrification, but I was more stimulated by human and civil rights, the rule of law and international tribunals and the Supreme Court.

“The idea of justice had appeal for me. I knew I didn't want to do corporate law.”

At Harvard, Benshoof founded a Harvard women's law association. But it was earlier, in CLA, where her feminism took root. While researching aspects of the authoritarian personality for her summa thesis, she noticed that all those polled on American voting attitudes were men.

“So I asked, 'Why don't we look at women?' I was told we don't need to because women vote exactly the same,” says Benshoof, noting what a “facile answer" that was. These days, she says, women not only make their own decisions at the polls, but also have become a powerful political force in their own right, holding public office, running campaigns, and deciding elections. And in taking independent stands, they often have concerns and priorities that are different from men's.

Just do it

Benshoof has put much of her professional energy into seeing that women's voices are heard and giving due credit to women's accomplishments. She modeled her career, she says, after feisty heroines of literature.

“The heroine has to do something to move the book along,” she says. “You have to just take chances, return the pearl necklace, stop for the person in the road, or dash into the battlefield, even if you aren't Sue Barton or Nancy Drew. In books, [heroines] did it, so it occurred to me, I will go and do" and do she did, as an advocate in the nation's courtrooms.

What Benshoof defended were the right to free expression, freedom of religion, freedom from discrimination, and the reproductive and privacy rights of women. Her concern for these issues has taken her to Burma, where she gave open talks on human rights and served as attorney to Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi; and to Turkey, where she is on the board of an organization that trains young village women to go door to door to talk about family planning and take women to health services.

Looking at the big picture

When Benshoof retired in 2001, CRLP had a staff of 60, an annual budget of $7.7 million, consultative status to the United Nations, and legal projects in more than 40 nations. One of Benshoof's last acts there was to file a lawsuit against President George Bush and the Global Gag Rule (which denies funds to local family planning agencies that provide both family planning and abortion). The move was a stand against accelerating government restrictions on individual rights, she says.

“We are seeing a dismantling of the balance of powers,” she says, noting that if the current trend continues, “The executive, legislative, and judicial branch will be in sync and dominated by an ideological agenda.”

Although Benshoof says she arrived at the U with her values already in place, her education taught her to think big, think critically, and think and act with passion and conviction about the issues she cared about.

“The biggest American value is our public education,” she says. “Public education is of value no matter how hard it is to get. My mother rode horseback between schoolhouses in Montana. Especially as the world becomes more multicultural, public education gives us a basis of values. It should be our greatest investment.”

“You have to just take chances. In books, [heroines] did it, so it occurred to me, I will go and do.”

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