A Lifelong Activist

A tireless champion of social justice, Janet Axelrod ’73 advocated for progressive causes, effecting change within her community and in the worlds of philanthropy and tech

By Merri Rosenberg ’78


When Janet Axelrod heard she’d be the recipient of the 2013 Millicent Carey McIntosh Award for Feminism at her 40th Reunion, she asked, “What have I done?” recalls her son, Eli Plenk. “She was so humble and hesitant to take credit.”

Perhaps a more pertinent question could be asked: What hadn’t she done?

Axelrod, who died December 26, 2021, at the age of 70 at her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led a life devoted to social justice, activism, and her family. She is survived by her husband, Tim Plenk, and children Eli Plenk, Stella Plenk, and Lindiwe Nomhle Gararirimo ’12, who joined their family in 2004 after the death of her mother.

As a fierce feminist, Axelrod lived her values. “She was feisty, spirited, and opinionated in a good way,” says her friend Fanette Pollack ’74.

Axelrod was a trailblazer throughout her career. She was the first hire at the Haymarket People’s Fund — a foundation that provides support for local grassroots organizations committed to social justice movements in New England — when it was initially launched. She was also the first employee of the computer software company Lotus, which developed the enormously popular digital spreadsheet Lotus 1-2-3. Soon after, she became its VP of human resources and launched the first benefits program for same-sex partners at a U.S. company. “The tech culture in Silicon Valley was modeled on what she had done at Lotus,” says her son. She also created the Lotus Foundation, an employee-directed charity that modeled the ways other companies could sponsor anti-racist projects.

Axelrod co-founded and was a longtime board member of South Africa Partners, in addition to serving on the boards of Grassroots International, Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center, and Libraries for the Future; she was also board chair and trustee of the Cambridge Public Library, where she successfully steered a somewhat contentious expansion to completion. Under Axelrod’s leadership, Cambridge was the first library in the world to offer internet access via broadband.

“She believed in the power of democratic institutions to make people’s lives better,” says Susan Flannery, retired director of the Cambridge Public Library. “The idea of free and open access, available to everyone, really appealed to someone egalitarian like Janet.”

Born at Harlem Hospital on November 1, 1951, Axelrod spent her early childhood in the Bronx before growing up in Mt. Vernon in southern Westchester. When her family relocated to New Haven, Connecticut, Axelrod ended up graduating from the integrated, experimental Lee High School, where she joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

At Barnard, her activism continued.

She was one of the students who pushed for a women’s center at Barnard — now known as the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW) — and was a member of its first board. “She truly understood the connections between local and global work and between feminism and the entire range of issues related to justice and creating a better world,” said Janet Jakobsen, Claire Tow Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at BCRW, in an email.

“Janet was so dedicated to politics she would argue forever for a cause — women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights,” says her friend Ilene Karpf ’73. “But she was always ready to party and loved to dance.” In recent years, Axelrod was part of a Brazilian-inspired drum band in Cambridge called SheBoom.

This love of music was something she pursued at Barnard, when as an American studies major, she wrote her senior thesis on “women in rock and roll,” says Pollack. While doing her research, Axelrod would have listening sessions at her thesis advisor and professor Annette Baxter’s Upper East Side apartment, where she would play bands like the Rolling Stones on a small portable record player. “Janet was so worldly-wise and comfortable with everyone. She knew how to get people to get comfortable with her,” says Gracelaw Simmons ’73, who lived next door to Axelrod during their freshman year.

Barnard, in particular, mattered to Axelrod, says her son. “She felt Barnard was transformative for her, as an intellectual and as a feminist. It was a place where women could be themselves.”

Latest IssueSpring 2023