Ela Bhatt, a well-respected leader of the international labor, cooperative, women’s, and micro-finance movements will receive the University of Chicago’s William Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service on Monday, Nov. 26. Bhatt will then deliver a public lecture, titled “Organizing Poor Women: The SEWA Experience,” at 12:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 27, in the Weymouth Kirkland Courtroom at the Law School at the Law School. A question-and-answer session will follow her lecture.
“Ela R. Bhatt is widely recognized as one of the world’s most remarkable pioneers and entrepreneurial forces in grassroots development,” said Martha Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law & Ethics in the Law School, Philosophy and the Divinity School at the University who nominated Bhatt for the honor. “Known as the ‘gentle revolutionary,’ she has dedicated her life to improving the lives of India’s poorest and most oppressed women workers, with Gandhian thinking as her source of guidance,” Nussbaum added.
The Benton Medal, created by the University Trustees in 1967 to honor Sen. William Benton on the occasion of his 25th anniversary as chairman and publisher of Encyclopedia Britannica, is presented “to honor the most extraordinary service to the field of education and to the University.” This field includes “not only teachers but also … everyone who contributes in a systematic way to shaping minds and disseminating knowledge.” After receiving her legal training and teaching for a brief time, Bhatt joined the legal department of the Textile Labour Association in Ahmedabad, India, and became head of its women’s wing.
In 1972 while leading the women’s wing, Bhatt helped organize the textile workers, who were self-employed women, into the Self-Employed Women’s Association. This trade union now has more than one million members. Bhatt is founder and chair of the Cooperative Bank of SEWA, the All Indian Association of Micro Finance Institutions in India (Sa-Dhan) and the Indian school of Microfinance for Women.
She was a member of the Indian Parliament from 1986 to 1989 and became a member of the Indian Planning Commission. She founded and served as chair for Women’s World Banking, the International Alliance of Home-based Workers, and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing, Organizing. Bhatt has received numerous awards, and in 2007 she was named a member of The Elders. This international group of leaders works toward helping resolve long-standing conflicts, articulates new approaches to global issues that cause or may cause human suffering and shares wisdom by helping to connect voices around the world.
This is only the eighth time the Benton Medal has been awarded. Following the inaugural medal given to William Benton, the medal was presented in 1972 to Paul Hoffman, who, as administrator of the Marshall Plan, engineered Europe’s economic recovery after World War II. In 1976, it was awarded to Hermon Dunlap Smith, former chairman and chief executive officer of the Marsh and McLennan insurance firm, who was known for his lifelong support of social service work both at the University and in the community.
Other recipients of the Benton Medal are the late Katharine Graham, former chairman of the Washington Post Company and an advocate for First Amendment rights; Geoffrey Canada, president and chief executive officer of the Rheedlan Centers for Children and Families in New York; John Callaway, an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist in Chicago; the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, and most recently, Leon Despres (Ph.B.,’27, J.D.,’29), a former Chicago alderman who crusaded to ban discrimination, and gain equality for African-Americans.