National Women’s Hall of Fame to honor KU professor for her work on feminist, Native issues
photo by: Ashley Golledge
University of Kansas professor Sarah Deer was in the first grade when she learned life wasn’t fair.
She was reading an article in a children’s magazine about the women’s suffrage movement, and she discovered that women didn’t have the right to vote in national elections until 1920.
“I was just sure it was a typo (and) they meant 1720 or 1620,” Deer said. She showed what she thought was an error to her mother, Jan Deer, who told her it was really true.
“I did the math and realized at that point women had only had the right to vote nationally for 60 years,” she said. “I was flabbergasted, angry, frustrated. I just thought, ‘What an embarrassment.’ Why wouldn’t women be able to vote? I remember talking to my mom about it. She said sometimes things aren’t fair.”
Deer said that experience 40 years ago made her a champion of women’s rights early on in life.
Since then, she’s been recognized nationally for her work as a tribal legal scholar, helping Native American communities deal with violence against women. She’s been a vocal advocate for abortion rights and has supported victims of sex crimes.
And in September, the 46-year-old professor will be heading to Seneca Falls, N.Y., to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
A citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, Deer is the 10th Native American woman to be inducted into the Hall of Fame since it began 50 years ago, said Hannah Bendull, a spokeswoman with the Hall of Fame. Deer will also be the fifth Kansan to be inducted into the Hall.
She’ll be inducted in the same class as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, activist and author Angela Davis, and actor Jane Fonda.
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Deer’s political activism started in childhood. When she was a kid, she handed out campaign flyers for her father, Montie R. Deer, in his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for a seat in the Kansas House of Representatives. And as a teenager, she pushed for social change in op-ed pieces she wrote for the student newspaper at Wichita Northwest High School.
“I was an angry adolescent who thought a lot of things were unfair,” Deer said.
In 1991, when she graduated high school and headed to St. Olaf College in Minnesota, Wichita was embroiled in the so-called “Summer of Mercy” anti-abortion protests, in which thousands of protesters blocked the entrances to abortion clinics. When she started her studies at St. Olaf, she was keeping up with the news of the Senate hearings on Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court — and Anita Hill’s sexual assault allegations against him.
“All these high-profile things propelled my activism,” Deer said.
After finishing her sophomore year, Deer left St. Olaf and enrolled at KU. She became a leader in the university’s Pro-Choice Coalition and volunteered to escort patients at Dr. George Tiller’s abortion clinic in Wichita. She also volunteered for the Douglas County Rape Victim Support Service and then was hired by Sarah Jane Russell, who was the executive director at the time, to be an advocate.
“You just know when you meet somebody who means exactly what they say and will stand ready to support others,” said Russell. “She really was that person.”
At the time Deer was finishing up her undergraduate degree and had applied to KU’s law school.
“I knew that in this case she was juggling a lot, and I had the greatest respect for her,” Russell said.
Russell said Deer acknowledged that she had been given a lot in life, and that she turned around and gave back to those in need.
“She stood very solidly in that circle of caring,” Russell said. “She was very clear about her journey forward. As I look back on it, she really never wavered.”
While in law school, Deer met her husband, Neal Axton, in a class on feminist jurisprudence.
She knew the stereotypes about men who showed up in women’s studies classes. But her opinion of Axton quickly changed as she got to know him, she said.
“He wasn’t a poser,” Deer said. “He absolutely had studied feminism and was the real thing. He wasn’t there because he thought he could pick up chicks.”
Deer and Axton married in 2000.
“I am very proud of Sarah,” said Axton, who now works as the graduate engagement librarian at KU’s Watson Library. “With her passion, she really spends a lot of time and energy making the world a better place.”
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Once Deer graduated law school, she took her activism on the road, taking jobs all around the country to help address women’s issues.
Her first job out of law school was in Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Department of Justice’s Office On Violence Against Women. Then, she and Axton moved to Los Angeles so she could take a job at the Tribal Law and Policy Institute. Axton returned to school and got a master’s degree in library science from UCLA.
A few years later, the couple moved to St. Paul, Minn., where Deer got a job teaching at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
At the same time, however, she was also working with individual tribal nations, helping to reform their justice systems. She traveled to reservations and met with police departments, prosecutors and advocates for Native American victims of sexual and domestic violence, and she helped the tribes improve their policies and laws.
Deer’s work on violence against Native women earned her national recognition from the American Bar Association and the Department of Justice. In 2014, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. She continued teaching and used the $650,000 stipend from the fellowship to pay off college debt.
She also wondered if she could live up to the honor.
“I was 41 at the time and I began to wonder if I was peaking early,” she said. “Was this the pinnacle for me?”
But she published a book — “The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America” — in 2015. She took a job at KU, teaching in both the women’s studies department and the School of Public Affairs and Administration. She serves as the chief justice for the Prairie Island Indian Community Court of Appeals.
And next month, she will be in the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
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Right now, Deer’s research involves interviewing Native people who are survivors of sexual violence. She’s speaking with both women and two-spirit people, a term for queer Native people.
“I’m asking questions around their perceptions of what justice is and what accountability means for them personally, and I am really excited about the direction of it,” she said.
For now, she isn’t sure if she will compile the information into an article, a series of articles or a book. What she does know is that she’s breaking new ground.
“Nobody has done this type of research before,” she said. She said hearing from survivors could help reform tribal courts so they can better hold offenders accountable and help victims heal.
“The justice system of the dominant society has so many flaws — it doesn’t hold rapists accountable — so why would we want to replicate that?” Deer said. “I really want to hear from survivors: What’s their expertise in what trauma does, and what needs to happen to people who commit these kinds of crimes?”
But Deer will take a brief break from her research to head to Seneca Falls on Sept. 12.
A new class of women is inducted into the Hall of Fame every two years, Bendull said. The women can be nominated by anyone, and the nominations are sent to a panel of external judges and are narrowed to a final class of 10 to 12 people.
Deer said she has no idea who might have nominated her for the honor.
Before the induction ceremony on Sept. 14, Deer will meet the other inductees at a reception and will go to local high schools and talk to students there.
She said she’ll be attending all those events alongside the person who first sparked her activism — her mother.