Mary Bonauto’s MacArthur grant: Social change takes genius

Mary Bonauto was awarded  a “genius grant” from the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation.
Mary Bonauto was awarded a “genius grant” from the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation.Associated Press/John D. <br/>and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

When Mary Bonauto, a lawyer for Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, began working to secure marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, even many political liberals viewed her cause as quixotic. But Bonauto mapped out an approach involving years of state-by-state litigation. With bans on same-sex marriage falling in states from coast to coast, and a Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality a distinct possibility, it’s now evident that Bonauto possessed a rare kind of foresight. And so the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation acknowledged Wednesday, when it honored Bonauto with one of its so-called “genius grants.”

The awards, worth $625,000 each, honor people who have shown unusual imagination in their chosen field. The role of such creativity in social activism is easy to overlook. In hindsight, progress toward tolerance and greater protection of civil rights always looks foreordained — the inexorable march forward of the American ideal. At the time, though, it’s nothing of the sort.

This dynamic doesn’t apply only in the civil-rights field. Indeed, one common thread among many of Bonauto’s fellow honorees is that their work opens up new horizons that others quickly build on. Harvard mathematician Jacob Lurie’s work in the field of algebraic geometry has provided a powerful framework for other researchers. Yitang Zhang, a Chinese-born mathematician whose unlikely path to the University of New Hampshire faculty included stops as a delivery worker and Subway sandwich shop employee, made a major advance last year in solving a long-standing question in the world of prime numbers.


But for all the visibility of the same-sex marriage debate, the significance of one individual’s insights can be harder to spot amid a sprawling and suddenly fast-moving social controversy than in many academic fields. There are same-sex couples from California to Maine who have never heard of Mary Bonauto — but owe their marriages to her.