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Feminist Charlotte Bunch Continues Fight for Human Rights

Though Charlotte Bunch grew up in the small town of Artesia, N.M., her world was bigger than that. Bunch’s parents—her father was a doctor and her mother a housewife—were East Coast transplants who had planned to serve as Christian missionaries in China. And her college-educated mom tended to both household and civic affairs.

“In the 1950s, she was the only woman on the school board, and the first [female] president,” recalls Bunch, the founder and executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University. “So I grew up with the notion that women could do those things and should do those things.”

That upbringing laid the foundation for Bunch’s four-decade career as a scholar and activist who has fought for human rights globally. “We were the family that hosted every international visitor who came to town,” she says.

On Tuesday, the organization SAGE (Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders) will recognize Bunch, 64, with its first Joyce Warshow Lifetime Achievement Award. It is named for a filmmaker who died a year ago on the day before she was to accept an award from the New York-based group. At the time, Warshow was working on a film about Bunch, which another filmmaker is completing.

SAGE calls Bunch “an extraordinary woman who, as a scholar and activist, has devoted her life to fighting for equality and human rights and whose legacy will extend well into the future.”

Tennis star Martina Navratilova and Village Care of New York, which serves older people and people with HIV/AIDS and other medical needs, will also receive SAGE awards. AARP is a sponsor of SAGE’s fourth national conference, which ends Tuesday in New York.

Bunch has led campaigns to get women’s rights recognized as international human rights, connect the women’s movement in the United States to such movements in other countries and win acceptance of “lesbian feminism” in the women’s and gay rights movements.

As a student at Duke University in the 1960s, she was active in Christian student groups, dialogues between black and white students, and pray-ins and sit-ins for civil rights. In 1965, she provided logistical support for the final segment of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., joining marchers when they reached the capital and arranging housing for them in the city’s black neighborhoods.

After graduating in 1966, Bunch went to work at the Institute for Policy Studies, a leading liberal think tank in Washington. There she developed a feminist outlook and also, as she puts it, “discovered that the rest of the world wasn’t as open” to women’s aspirations.

Bunch is best known for her push to recognize women’s rights as human rights, a pioneering concept two decades ago. The global campaign culminated at the U.N. World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993. A daylong tribunal focused on women’s rights, including legal protection from gender-based violence.

“I think I was always an activist by temperament,” Bunch says. “I was always looking for what could be done about things.”

Kenneth J. Cooper is a writer in the Boston area.