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Fran P. Hosken, 86; activist for women's issues globally

Over a lifetime that often seemed a hybrid of adventure novel and feminist manifesto, Fran P. Hosken shredded stereotypes of the postwar suburban housewife while simultaneously challenging conventional notions of how professional women went about fashioning a career for themselves, never mind several.

In the activist community, she was perhaps best known for having founded the Women's International Network, which began publishing a quarterly journal on women's health issues in 1975, and for researching and writing a groundbreaking study of female genital mutilation, primarily as practiced in African and Muslim nations. She also designed and wrote ''The Childbirth Picture Book," a teaching aid that has been translated into a dozen languages and distributed throughout the world.

Mrs. Hosken, a journalist, photographer, painter, author, urban planner, furniture and jewelry designer, entrepreneur, social activist, and world traveler whose interests ranged widely, from global health issues to the creative arts, died Feb. 2 at her home in Lexington. Mrs. Hosken, who was 86, suffered a heart attack, according to a state medical report.

In artistic circles, Mrs. Hosken was celebrated as one of the first women to earn a degree from Harvard University's Graduate School of Design (where she studied under Walter Gropius), as a pioneering architectural photographer and archivist, as an authority on urban planning and interior design, and as a writer, teacher, and artist whose work was exhibited at MIT's Hayden Gallery and the Boston Visual Arts Union, among other venues.

''Her career came in phases," her son John recalled this week.

Sharp-tongued and headstrong, ''she was a difficult person, but that gave her the strength to fight these innumerable battles," he said.

One such battle occurred in the 1970s, when Mrs. Hosken was accused by anthropologists of committing cultural genocide by criticizing Africans for countenancing female circumcision. She was undeterred by such criticism, having visited hospitals where the practice was not only routine, but subsidized by US aid, her son said. ''She was a woman of privilege who had the money and opportunity to help other women who had neither," he noted.

Judy Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves, the Boston-based women's health organization, described her longtime friend as ''a colorful and problematic character" who ''did as much as any feminist to help women across the globe network with each other" in the pre-Internet era.

More specifically, said Norsigian, her childbirth books are ''very much in line with our belief in core body education" and have made a positive and substantial impact on women's health issues worldwide.

Born Franziska Porges in Vienna, where her father was a prominent physician, she and her family immigrated to America in 1938. In 1940, she graduated from Smith College and earned a master's degree from Harvard in 1944. Joining the Coast Guard during World War II, she worked in communications intelligence and attained the rank of ensign. In 1947, she married James Hosken. They founded and ran a furniture- design company until 1951. Although the business model ultimately failed, the designs were sufficiently innovative to earn Mrs. Hosken ''an esteemed seat within mid-20th-century design," according to a 2001 profile in Art New England.

The couple divorced in 1962, and James Hosken died in 1992.

While raising their three children, Mrs. Hosken also shot and amassed the world's largest collection of architectural color slides, which she later sold to Texas A&M University, collaborated on a Gropius biography, designed a line of jewelry, worked as an interior designer in Boston, and wrote columns on architecture and design for several periodicals, including the Globe. Among her other books are ''The Language of Cities" (1968), ''The Function of Cities" (1972), and ''The Kathmandu Valley Towns: A Record of Life and Change in Nepal" (1974).

By the 1970s, her penchant for globe-trotting, often to remote and dangerous corners of the Third World, steered Mrs. Hosken more conspicuously toward social activism. In the middle of that decade, she founded the Women's International Network and helped organize the Human Rights Health Action Network. Over the next 30 years, she served on the boards of numerous organizations, including University Without Walls at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the National Urban League's Housing Committee, and the Massachusetts Humanist Association.

Yet, above all, she was a woman of action, he said. In the 1940s, when the New England ski industry was in its infancy, she took to the slopes with characteristic relish. ''My mother didn't just go skiing," he said wryly, ''she wrote a book about it."

In 1995, Mrs. Hosken attended the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where Hillary Rodham Clinton and other leaders addressed issues such as economic inequality, healthcare, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation. To a Globe reporter covering the event, Ms Mrs. Hosken observed that ''women are much more outspoken and much more unified across countries" than at previous conferences she had attended, a transformation she herself had done much to bring about.

Physically active and intellectually engaged well into her 80s, she was enthusiastically involved in the lives of her two grandsons, according to daughter-in-law Nancy Friedlander. ''She was always the teacher, taking them bike riding and exploring," Friedlander said. ''There was a mellow side to her, yet one with very high standards. She felt that unless you were doing something for the world, you were useless."

In addition to her son and grandchildren, she leaves a daughter, Caroline of Freemont, Calif.; and another son, Andrew of Los Angeles.

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