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DL grad had huge impact on women's rights

Janet Benshoof

A Detroit Lakes native and attorney has made a big difference in the lives of women and girls around the world.

Janet Benshoof, 70, died Monday, Dec. 18 at her home in New York. She was diagnosed with uterine serous carcinoma in November

An internationally recognized human rights lawyer, Benshoof's work established landmark legal precedents in the U.S. Supreme Court and international forums. She battled anti-abortion rulings in 40 states, and her successful legal precedents include the FDA's approval of emergency contraception, and the application of international law to ensure the rights of rape victims in the Iraqi High Tribunal's prosecution of Saddam-era war crimes.

Benshoof graduated from Detroit Lakes High School in 1965 and went on to graduate summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota, then paid her way through Harvard Law School with money she earned working summers at an A&W root beer stand.

At Harvard Law, she formed a Women's Law Association and one of her first accomplishments was to have now Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, come and teach a course.

Named as one of the "100 Most Influential Lawyers in America" by the National Law Journal, Benshoof was the recipient of numerous awards and honors including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "Genius Award" in recognition of her legal work, the Gloria Steinem Women of Vision Award, the Edith Spivack Award for Outstanding New York Women Lawyers, and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America's Margaret Sanger Award.

Her motto was "power, not pity," and she acquired a reputation as a fierce presence in the courtroom, arguing sex education and abortion cases before the Supreme Court for the American Civil Liberties Union, according to a Washington Post obituary by Harrison Smith. She was known as a frank, even funny guest on news programs such as "Good Morning America" and "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."

Janet's parents, Lowell and Helen Benshoof, "were a big part of the DL community," said Sandy Ostbye, whose husband, Gary is Janet's cousin. "Lowell had a successful legal practice and Helen was largely credited for the addition onto the fabulous library."

Janet Benshoof founded the Global Justice Center in New York. In an obituary, the organization called her "a generational force and tireless advocate for the rule of law and women's equality."

"Janet dedicated her life to fighting for justice and equality," said her family. "It gives us great comfort to know that her fighting spirit will be carried on by the Global Justice Center and all those whose lives she touched ... We would like to thank all those who contributed to her medical care in recent days. We are also so very grateful for the many expressions of love and support we have received. At this stage we are taking some time to come to terms with what has happened," said her son, David Benshoof Klein, on behalf of the family.

In addition to the Global Justice Center (a New York City-based human rights organization that uses international law to advance women's rights) Benshoof also founded the Center for Reproductive Rights, the world's first international human rights organization focused on reproductive choice and equality.

She also served 15 years as director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Rights Project, where she spearheaded litigation shaping US constitutional law on gender equality, free speech and reproductive rights. Fundraising increased from $70,000 to $2.2 million under her leadership.

"Janet was a force of nature," says Akila Radhakrishnan, the Global Justice Center's acting president. "With her passing, the international community loses a powerful advocate. She was insanely funny and incredibly brilliant, with a one-of-a-kind legal mind."

"My idea for the Global Justice Center was to create an entirely new type of human rights organization, one in which women's equality in power is a foundational principle not just for women but for human rights of all people — the core of our vision of a global rule of law and justice," said Benshoof in a recent interview.

"Janet will go down in history as a legal and women's rights pioneer," said Global Justice Center Board Chair Tracy Higgins. "The Board and Staff at the Global Justice Center feel honored to have worked with such an incredible visionary and are determined to fulfill her life's work to achieve gender equality not only on paper, but in practice. 'Power, not pity,' was her motto and we find those words both a comfort and a challenge as we carry on her legacy."

In an interview in 1998 with the New York Times, Benshoof was asked how she would like to be remembered:

"I don't think I'd want it to focus on one case,'' she says. ''I don't know how to say this, it sounds so hokey. I'd like people to say, 'She wanted to make the world a better place.' ''

Ms. Benshoof gestured outside, to the canyons of Wall Street.

''There are towers all around us, filled with lawyers, brokers. I don't think most of them have a vision of changing the world. I'd like people to think, just 'She had a bigger view.'"

In addition to her husband, Alfred Meyer, Janet is survived by her twin sons, David and Eli Klein.