Community mourns loss of disability activist, UC Berkeley lecturer Marsha Saxton

Mug of Marsha Saxton

Marsha Saxton, UC Berkeley lecturer in disability studies and renowned disability rights activist, died Dec. 1. 

Saxton spent more than 25 years teaching at UC Berkeley. During that time, she co-founded the disability studies minor and served as a lecturer within the newly created field.

“She is a major founding scholar of disability studies,” campus professor Charis Thompson said in an email. “She always emphasized women and underrepresented minorities and kept their voices and activism by people with disabilities foregrounded in her scholarship and teaching.”

Campus professor Susan Schweik worked with Saxton for more than 25 years as co-founders and co-directors of campus’s disability studies minor. Schweik said Saxton was fierce, gentle, honest and brave, and added that she had many fans in various fields of her work.

Laura Mauldin, associate professor at the University of Connecticut, said in an email that Saxton was one of the first scholars to address ableism in medical education. Mauldin also noted that Saxton’s work with bioethics included prenatal testing, selective abortion and disability rights.

“We owe her a debt of gratitude,” Mauldin said in the email.

Saxton also served as the director of research and training at the World Institute on Disability. During her life, Saxton authored “Sticks and Stones” and “With Wings,” a collection of short stories and poems written by women with disabilities.

Schweik recounted a story where, during the Nobel Conference on Reproductive Technology at Gustavus Adolphus College in 2017, hundreds of students who had read Saxton’s works championed cutouts of her above their heads and marched into the great hall.

“Students were thronging in with signs of Marsha’s face on them as a sign of respect and support and thanks to her,” Schweik said.

Schweik added that Saxton’s other notable accomplishments include speaking on “60 Minutes” about wrongful birth lawsuits.

Saxton also was a champion of women’s rights, according to Sumi Colligan, professor emeritus at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who co-lectured alongside Saxton at UC Berkeley this semester. Colligan added that Saxton loved teaching and served as a role model for her students, fostering open conversations to break societal taboos and encouraging her students to connect to the emotional importance of the subject material.

Disability activist Anne Finger, who will teach Saxton’s scheduled course “Women and Disability” next semester, said she hopes to honor the open exchange of views fostered by Saxton.

Saxton’s memorial service will be held May 14 at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kensington at 2 p.m., said Jenny Kern, fellow disability activist and friend.

“She is going to be so missed by friends, family and the world,” Kern said.

Contact Lily Button at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @lilybutton27.