By Leslie A. Gordon
Kristin Luker, Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Professor of Law, has received the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale University. Awarded to a small number of outstanding Yale alumni by the university’s Graduate School Alumni Association, the medal recognizes distinguished achievement in scholarship, teaching, academic administration, and public service. Previous winners include Nobel Laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners and professors from prominent institutions such as NYU, Stanford University, UCLA and Harvard. Past recipients include chemist John Fenn and historian David Kennedy.
Professor Luker is an expert in sexual and reproductive behavior, gender, and the relationship between gender and the history of the social sciences. She received her Ph.D. from Yale in 1974 and will return to her alma mater in October to speak at the medal awards ceremony. “I’m very eager to go back to New Haven to share the culmination of 40 years of research,” Luker said, and added that she was “astonished and thrilled” to receive the award.
In Luker’s first semester at Yale in 1968, she was taking notes in a demography class when she “suddenly realized that a woman’s entire fate can rest on the head of a tiny, invisible sperm,” she recalled. She was referring to reproduction—and to the men in power making decisions about abortion. “It was something I knew theoretically, but suddenly it was emotionally charged. It became apparent that the political institutions that regulated women’s sexuality and reproduction were actually venues centered around power. It was a life-changing event that totally shifted the course of my study and career.”
Because of her groundbreaking work on women’s reproductive issues, Luker was invited to the Clinton White House in 1993 to discuss “issues confronting the nation,” and the next year the White House solicited her testimony on teenage pregnancy.
“She’s a leader in a new field—reproductive rights and justice—which spans law, social science, and public health,” said Associate Dean Calvin Morrill, who wrote a letter to Yale in support of Luker’s nomination for the award. “She’s reconceptualizing the way we think about abortions. It touches on the ideological, moral, and personal identity, which all pull against each other.”
Specifically, through her research, Luker has empirically countered conservatives’ prevailing theory regarding what kinds of women seek abortions. “The ideological right has vilified ‘young, single women’ the way they did people on welfare,” Morrill said. “But Luker has shown that’s not the only group who get abortions and she has changed how women are framed. She’s kind of a hero.”
Reshaping public discourse
Morrill describes Luker’s books, including Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and Dubious Conceptions, which was selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, as “path breaking” works that have reshaped public discourse.
As director of Berkeley Law’s Reproductive Rights and Justice Center, a multidisciplinary research center Luker founded last year, she’s now at work on the first-ever case book on reproductive rights. “It captures everything I’ve been concerned about for 40 years,” Luker said. “What I wandered out into alone to do is now a field.”
Berkeley Law’s leading Jurisprudence and Social Policy Ph.D. program had long been the domain of white men, and for a long time, Luker was the only woman in the program, Morrill noted. “When female graduate students began coming through the door to the program in greater numbers more than two decades ago, they found her. She’s become a primary role model and provided mentorship to female scholars not only in the program, but also in the field.”
As a result, Luker also “turned out some of the top Ph.D.’s in law and social science,” Morrill added, including Berkeley Law Professor Catherine Albiston, an expert in work and gender policy; Laura Beth Nielsen, a Northwestern University professor studying the interplay between law and race, gender and class inequalities; and Lynette Chua, a professor at the National University of Singapore who studies Asia’s LGBT movement. “Because of Luker, all of these scholars do work on rights, power imbalances, and how people understand and mobilize their rights,” Morrill said.
Yale’s Wilbur Cross Medal is among several awards Luker has received, including Ford, Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships; and the Outstanding Faculty Award from the alumni association at UC San Diego, where she used to teach. “Receiving this award is like one small step for woman and one big step for womankind,” Luker said. “It’s an acknowledgement of a set of issues that were just on the horizon years ago.”