Professor Benita Roth, a feminist intersectional scholar, union leader, and valued colleague, teacher and advisor, died on May 27th, 2023. She was 62.
Benita Roth was Professor of Sociology and History, and Director of the transdisciplinary program in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Binghamton University. From 2010-2015, she also served as the associate editor for the Journal of Women’s History.
Building on feminist intersectional scholarship, Benita Roth’s research foregrounds the work of feminists and those who fought the ravages of AIDS and opioids, even as it unflinchingly captures the inequalities that fissured these movements. In recognition of the important contributions it made, her first book, Separate Roads to Feminism: Black Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America's Second Wave (Cambridge U. Press, 2004), earned the distinguished book award in sex and gender from the American Sociological Association. According to the awards committee, the book filled “a critical gap by…taking on the mainstream account that claims women of color came late to feminism.” Instead, as Roth’s work shows, “Black and Chicana feminism emerged at the same time as women's liberation” and that “by incorporating race and class, not just gender, in their analyses, these women-of-color groups anticipated the "intersectional" theorizing that has so influenced our field over the past 20 years.”
The insights offered by Benita Roth’s research are not limited only to the academic. They are also strategic, as her comments on how to avoid “‘Healing’ the US back to an Anti-Feminist Future” (January 2021) reveal. Her second book, The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA (Cambridge U. Press, 2017), tells a “largely lost” success story of “the accomplishments of direct-action anti-AIDS protest.” In keeping with her book’s assessment that gender inequalities undermined the group’s momentum, she advises activists to “always be actively conscious of how they construct solidarity, who is included, whose voices are excluded, who gets listened to.” She underscored such strategic lessons when she interviewed former ACT UP/NY activist, Ron Goldberg. Her most recent research project--focused on the fight against the opioid epidemic in Central New York by people involved with Truth Pharm—similarly derived strategic implications for activists facing different local political and institutional contexts.
Benita Roth’s commitment to equity extended beyond her scholarship to praxis. As described by her colleagues at the UUP (United University Professions), she vigorously represented the interests of all professionals, including that of faculty, at Binghamton University through more than fifteen years (2007-2023) of dedicated service: as the elected Chapter President between 2013-2017, and as Vice President for Academics for the Binghamton Chapter of the union since. Most recently, Benita was also a member of the state-wide contract negotiations team and a member of the state UUP Executive Board. As in the case of her early experience of research and activism with ACT UP/LA in the 1990s, her recent work with Truth Pharm also drew her into an immediate fight for justice. In recent years, Benita became a vocal advocate for harm reduction, conducting Narcan trainings in the community.
In losing Benita, we also lose a dynamic instructor, loyal colleague and friend. A champion of sociology as a seed for social change and a committed advisor to the independent research of both undergraduates and graduate students, Professor Roth received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2007. She brought a steady hand and witty repartee to departmental deliberations in Sociology and WGSS, and an infectious confidence in all our endeavors. To many of us at the University and to many more beyond, she was also a trusted friend: one who might admonish self-doubt just as easily as regale with anecdotes of the absurd and the obscene from Hollywood to politics.
We invite you to share your memories of Professor Roth below.
I like an Eleanor Roosevelt quote that makes me think about Benita: "A woman is like a tea bag- you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water." Benita was in hot water many times: confronting issues in the department, slaying toxic masculinity, her unstoppable work with UUP, and, ultimately, battling for her life. The tea bag held firm. I can only imagine how difficult a journey that final challenge must have been—my respects.
I first met Professor Benita Roth in 2016 when I was in my second year of graduate school. I was struggling to figure out my path and what was right for me. Despite my interest in gender studies, I didn't know where to begin. Unaware of how overburdened Professor Roth was, I visited her and asked if she would guide a reading club for gender studies. Despite it being our first meeting, she gladly agreed. Looking back, she could have easily declined. With her commitments to the United University Professions and other important work, she had no obligation to assist a graduate student she had just met. I often find myself reminiscing about that moment. At the time, I wasn't a particularly promising student and seriously contemplated pursuing something else. If she hadn't accepted my request, I might have given up. It was perhaps my last bit of courage to stay in school, and she was there to support me. I frequently wonder if I can be of assistance to struggling students like she was to me. When I took her class, I was determined to have Professor Roth as my advisor. Asking a professor to be an advisor is not an easy task for any graduate student. Well, I couldn't imagine choosing anyone else. Everything about her made me confident in my academic future. Going to her office to ask her to be my advisor, I still felt nervous. However, she knew I would approach her and gladly accepted me as her advisee. I won't say I didn't face any challenges afterward, but I finally had someone I could rely on. I often wonder how different my life would be without her. Professor Roth was always straightforward and never hesitated to criticize me when I didn't perform well. However, I could always sense her genuine kindness. During one of my visits to discuss a paper I was working on, I expressed my concern that I was not measuring up to the other students. In response, she asked why I held such a belief and reassured me that my presentations were excellent. Her words immediately dispelled any doubts I had. When she said, "You are doing very well," she truly meant it. I believed that I would find a way to repay her kindness in the future. I didn't fully realize just how much I appreciated her honesty and candor. Certainly, I had expressed my gratitude numerous times. However, I always sensed that they could never truly capture the depth of my appreciation. I wanted to convey that everything I achieved throughout my graduate school journey was because of you. Right from the very first moment, I wanted to let you know that you were the guiding light in my journey. You instilled confidence in me and taught me how to become a better person. You once said we would become friends after my graduation, and I often daydreamed about those personal moments we would share in the future. Even though you are no longer with us, please allow me to express this now. Although I haven't graduated yet, I know you would understand. Thank you, Benita. Every accomplishment I have is because of you. I miss you, Benita. Thank you so much my dear friend and respected professor.
I met Benita on the first day that she joined the sociology department, back when we were in the first floor of the older Library Tower area. I did not realize she was a faculty member, as she looked quite like a graduate student . We started chatting animatedly and after a long time spent talking about everything under the sun, we realized we had both forgotten to introduce ourselves to each other. "I am Benita, by the way",she said cheerfully. "What is your name?". "I am Vandana", i said. That was the beginning of a long association with Benita. Always friendly, warm and supportive. She went away too soon and i am in shock as i write this. I hope she is in a good place now. Her powerful work lives on and continues to inspire me.
I am so sorry to hear that my Ph.D. thesis advisor, Prof.Benita Roth, passed away. She was a strong woman and I will miss her funny, and caring presence in this world. I will never forget her intellectual and emotional support to me in my Ph.D. journey. Her theoretical knowledge and research experiences in the fields of feminism, social movements and intersectionality have been a guide for me to conduct a research, and make an in-depth interpretation of social problems. In this sense, she played a very important role in shaping my intellectual identity. Today, it is possible to find traces of her theoretical insights in the research and studies I have carried out in the field of gender inequality, peasant movements and rural sociology in Turkey. As a real advisor, she always supported me, motivated me, listened patiently and enabled us to produce solutions together when I encountered difficulties in the research and writing processes . As a truly strong, and cheerful woman, I thank her so much for giving me the strength to persevere in my academic journey and in life. I will miss her very much.
Bengu Kurtege Sefer
I was fortunate enough to take one course with Professor Roth: Women in Work. I will never forget the day of our final exam, which was scheduled across campus in a building no one had been to before. It was an 7:30AM and snowing, and I remember laughing and being frustrated all at the same time with Dr. Roth. She was always passionate about her work and her students, and she always made the class fun, relevant, and exciting. Thank you for everything, Professor Roth!
Where to begin? Perhaps the first day of new faculty orientation 25 years ago, when Benita and I had our first conversation in the ladies' room. My first true friend in Binghamton, we have remained close ever since. So outspoken, smart, funny, and with so so much to say, she taught and influenced me in ways I'm only beginning to fully understand. We celebrated milestones and celebrations together: books, tenure and promotions, Halloweens, poker games, barbecues, salsa dancing (way back in the day!), day trips, Jewish holidays, Luma, Porchfest...whatever the occasion, she was my Go-To. My whole family loved her and there will forever be that hole in our lives, which we try and fill with our memories and stories. Her memory lives on not just as a blessing, but also as an inspiration. Rest in Power, beloved Benita.
To me, more than anything else, Benita was a good and true friend. I enjoyed her company whether we were gossiping during AHL hockey games, solving the world’s problems playing poker, or playing “what I would do if I were [fill in the blank university administrator]” over lunch in the Chenango Room. I will not write here about the gossip we shared nor about how she or I would run the university (as you know, Benita was not shy about sharing feedback directly with [fill in the blank university administrator]). Rather, I want to share my memories of Benita and me – the sociologist and the psychologist – discussing the hard problems of the human condition. Initially, I did not see the overlap of our professional interests. My side of the fence was all about the scientific study of intimate relationships and her side was all about the ethnographic study of up-from-the-ground social movements. This changed as I started reading more sociological scholarship and shamelessly stealing these ideas for my research. This led to my conversations with Benita about the overlap in our research. These discussions illuminated our mutual disdain for those who promise a quick fix to pernicious social problems whether proposed from the ideological left, right, or middle. As I began thinking about the efforts of Democrats and Republicans to solve poverty/violence/addiction (you name it!) by convincing more people that they should get and stay married, Benita helped me think about what sociological theories and ethnographic research had to say about this. In what became a theme of our 24-year-long conversation, she accurately predicted what rigorous psychological research would later demonstrate. As my research shifted to intimate partner violence and public policy regarding violence against women, I again turned to her wisdom and reading of the scholarly literature. In turn, I was fascinated by her work and shared what I could with her from a psychological perspective. We talked for hours about the harm reduction movement and the ways addiction and the criminalization of addiction tore families apart and broke hearts, minds, and bodies. None of this will be evident on our respective CVs. We did not acknowledge each other publicly in our respective research publications (only those sitting near us at hockey games might realize the extent of our professional overlap). We simply knew that we could count on each other to provide a perspective that foregrounded the other’s discipline and, in doing so, brought ideas we had unintentionally marginalized to the center of our thinking. I will miss guest-lecturing about family policy in her classes. I will miss having her as a committee member on my students’ theses. I will miss going to hockey games with her. I will miss playing poker with her. Indeed, I miss her already… But, I will not miss speaking with her about my research because I plan to continue asking her for her perspective on my future ideas. These interdisciplinary conversations about difficult problems exemplify the advantages of being a faculty member of a liberal arts college. In losing Benita, we have lost a member of this scholarly community. Her loss dims the lights in Harpur and in the hearts of those who knew her.
Matthew D. Johnson
Over the past 20 years, Benita has been both a dear mentor and friend. As fellow Southern Californians in the Rust Belt, Benita and I hit it off immediately. We shared stories of random celebrity sightings and past hangouts in Los Angeles during blistering cold winters in Binghamton. Of course, she was my professor, from whom I learned so much from. However, that mentorship didn’t stop at graduation. Seeing Benita at ASA every year was always a treat. It was a time to catch up, gossip, and get advice on all aspects of an academic career. In addition to being an academic mentor, she provided guidance as I became involved in my faculty union. In many ways, I feel like I’m following in her footsteps. One of the final things she said to me as she succumbed to illness was that she is protective of all her students and wants to ensure their success. Those final words make me think of the following lyrics: “Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist, keep on loving, keep on fighting.” I think the lyrics not only describe Benita’s life work but it is a mantra she would want for her students.