I. Revisiting Helen Hacker
I remember what Oscar Wilde said: “never do in private what can’t be shouted from the rooftops.” And that’s the way I feel—I didn’t say anything the whole world can’t hear.
We (Heather and Kyle) first met Dr. Helen Mayer Hacker in 2011 as graduate students at the University of Minnesota. Helen spent the long evening pouring us drinks, sharing stories and laughter, and engaging in deep intellectual discussions. Her story is a fascinating one. Adopted and raised by a Jewish family in Minneapolis in the 1920s, she dropped out of high school in the 1930s and enrolled in classes at the University of Minnesota. By the mid-1940s she had finished her coursework at Columbia University, and completed her dissertation and earned her Ph.D. in 1961. She published her most well-known articles during that window, but continued writing and teaching about gender, sexuality, family, and other sociological topics until long after she retired from Adelphi University in 1984. We prepared this volume with the hope and expectation that others will enjoy reading her work and remembering her as much as we have.
In this book we bring together the life and work of Dr. Hacker, a pioneering feminist sociologist and tireless social activist who advocated for women and other marginalized groups for over sixty years. In her scholarship, her abundant intellectual curiosity and courage are difficult to miss. Taken together, the pieces of this collection highlight how her continuous push for the study of new topics and for innovative ways of measuring social phenomena, particularly within the areas of gender, family, and sexuality, helped lay the foundation for the work that followed over the next half century.
Hacker’s nontraditional career path and existence on a number of social margins played key roles in pushing her to always move beyond the established script. While influenced by her interest in a critical engagement with gender, her scholarship demonstrated an independence and desire to study groups that other scholars had relegated to the margins, whether due to race, sexuality, or religion. In doing so, she demonstrated an appreciation for intersectionality long before the approach was coined, theorized, and popularized by scholars such as Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins. It is also worth noting that Hacker’s empathy extended beyond groups that faced structural oppression, as she managed to be both critical and caring when making sense of the challenges that white men faced in a changing world. During our 2011 interview, Helen told us that she wrote about men “to be even-handed. And because of my personal experience. I don’t know, maybe I didn’t want to be accused of being one-sided or just caring about women.”
Hacker was also the quintessential gadfly, never content to remain confined to academia or allow an injustice to stand. She proudly made waves (“I heard that alumnae were threatening to cut off bequests to the college unless they got rid of this damn Yankee”) and took extraordinary steps to make lemonade when life threw lemons her way (“I was giving soap box talks against imperialism on Moore and 6th Ave…carefully conserving all the vegetables that were hurled at me from the stoop and inviting people over…for dinner.”). She never hesitated to voice her opinion—whether in academic journals, professional conferences, newspaper op-eds, or her own fashion: “I was wearing my other t-shirt with freedom riders but I noticed it had a bleach stain, so I didn’t wear that shirt today, but most of my t-shirts make some kind of statement.” It is worth noting that Helen’s backup t-shirt of choice, emblazoned with the words “allergic to stupid,” was by no means quiet.
“Allergic to stupid”
Returning to Hacker’s work while armed with contemporary scholarship on sex and gender provides a fresh perspective on many issues of particular relevance today. As you read, you may want to reflect on how these issues have evolved over time, how society has both changed and remained the same, and the implications for men, women, and those whose identities do not fit within the gender binary. We also hope the collection provides an opportunity to be inspired by Helen’s abundance of grit, empathy, and humor. In the early 1950s women comprised less than one-third of the labor force, with the vast majority relegated to low-paying, less prestigious positions. But by that time, Hacker had established herself as a groundbreaking feminist scholar—an accomplishment made more impressive considering the obstacles she faced as a Jewish woman who was single or divorced during a time when being unmarried was less socially acceptable.
Hacker’s two most well-known readings offer a useful starting point for appreciating her larger contribution to the discipline. Together, “Women as a Minority Group” and “The New Burdens of Masculinity” have been cited hundreds of times by many of the most prominent gender scholars of the century, including Joan Acker, Raewyn Connell, Myra Marx Ferree, Arlie Hochschild, Roberta Simmons, and Candace West. The collection of authors drawing explicitly upon her work demonstrates her influence across gender studies and masculinity studies—subfields that too often remain divided areas of specialty.
“Women as a Minority Group” offers a clear demonstration of Hacker’s ability to breathe new life into a subject by offering an alternative theoretical and analytic lens. While we were not able to obtain the copyright necessary to include “Women as a Minority Group” (1951) or “Women as a Minority Group: Twenty Years Later” (1975) in this volume, we do highly recommend tracking down both articles in the archives or using your favorite search engine to find a copy online. In the 1951 article, Hacker was the first person to apply the term “minority group” to women. In doing so she raised a number of questions central to the study of women and society, including: (1) to what extent do women collectively identify as a minority group (an issue that had yet to be explored in mainstream sociology journals); (2) what would it actually look like for men and women to be fully “assimilated,” and is this erasure of all difference a desirable goal; and (3) what hypotheses of inter-group relations may be tested in regard to men and women. These questions continue to have particular relevance and receive considerable attention in the field of gender studies. For example, scholars—most famously Judith Lorber—continue to offer their own visions of what “degendering” might look like at various levels of analysis.
In “The New Burdens of Masculinity,” included here in Section I, Hacker again demonstrates her ability to push past the constraints of the dominant thought paradigms of the time, positing that the difficulties of contemporary masculinity arise from three sources: (1) the pressures of work and the social expectations of upward mobility not matching lived experiences; (2) unattainable masculine ideals that are both contradictory and shifting; and (3) the increasing number of women entering the workforce and the ambiguity this introduces to family dynamics. In asking these questions she effectively bridges the Talcott Parsons-inspired role-based approach to understanding gender relations as part of the functioning of a well-ordered society with a more critical version of masculinity studies that would not enter mainstream sociology until the mid-1980s, led by Connell’s early essays (1983) and the publication of Carrigan et al.’s article “Toward a new Sociology of Masculinity” (1985).
Hacker’s well-known articles were once required reading in the classroom and were present in any literature review related to the respective subjects. As sociologist Dr. Laura Kramer reminded us in an email exchange on Hacker’s legacy, we tend to forget about the important scholarship written between feminist waves; foundational articles are replaced by the works they inspired, eventually moved to recommended reading lists, and finally relegated to long strings of citations in journals.
As we read over these works during the early stages of this project, we could not help but reflect on the value of returning to the work of our predecessors and mapping the historical developments of the sub-disciplines. This is not only an informative undertaking, but an inspiring one. Hacker, for instance, served as a bridge between the Goffmanesque perspective on interaction, evident in her discussion of sex/gender roles, and critical examinations of gender and power.
Hacker’s writing also reminds us that much of the social phenomena we currently study are not new and that many of her questions remain unanswered. In “The New Burdens of Masculinity,” for example, she examines the popular belief that mothers are unable to teach their boys about masculinity and that the erosion of the traditional status of men is the cause of many societal problems—discourses that emerge again with the mens’ movements of the 1980s, during the more recent economic crisis dubbed the “mancession,” and that are the subject of countless opinion pieces inspired by and in reaction to Hannah Rosin’s provocative “End of Men” essay (2010). To see questions that seem “unique” and “new” being grappled with more than half a century ago forces a humbleness and appreciation of historical trends that, we argue, only leads to better scholarship.
Reading the Book
When a scholar’s insights grow to become taken-for-granted knowledge about the social world, that scholar has attained real success. Dr. Hacker made absolutely fundamental contributions to the ways in which sociologists, other scholars, and the public understand social relations in gender, sexuality, family relations, and related fields.
Some of her writing from the 1950s and 1970s is so fresh that it would be at home in a journal of 2018. Other writing, of course, is more a product of its time. Such is the fate of sociologists who write for five decades and are likely to be read for at least five more. Helen would welcome critique and argument. As she told us in 2011, “I would rather keep company with an intelligent fascist than a stupid liberal.”
In making Dr. Hacker’s writings available now and in perpetuity, we hope readers will be similarly inspired and moved to reconsider their own lives and work. We have organized selections from her published works and her personal archives, following as her interest in better understanding gender relations took her into the areas of (II) Work and Family; (III) Sexuality, Intimacy, and Friendships; (IV) Women of All Types and Locations; and, finally, (V) Helen M. Hacker: Critic and Provocateur. Of course, with a scholar who was defined by her curiosity, the sections are a bit artificial—she simply wasn’t someone who could be contained by categories and boxes.
Before proceeding to her scholarship, however, we present Eugenia Smith’s (2006) biographical reflection written for the Spring 2006 issue of CLA Today, a publication of the University of Minnesota College of Liberal Arts. Helen’s own account of her life course and career trajectory follows. She prepared “Slouching Toward Sociology” for an edited volume that showcased the influences and influence of great women sociologists. As we discovered in our interview at her apartment, Helen prided herself on truth-telling—about herself and about the social world.
- Eugenia Smith. 2006. “Helen Hacker: Rebel with a Cause.” CLA Today.
- Helen M. Hacker. 1995. “Slouching Toward Sociology,” in Individual Voices, Collective Visions: Fifty years of Sociology, ed. Ann Goetting and Sarah Fenstermaker.
Carrigan, Tim, Bob Connell, and John Lee. 1985. “Toward a new Sociology of Masculinity.” Theory and Society 14(5): 551-604.
Connell, R. W. 1983. Which Way is Up? Essays on Class, Sex, and Culture. Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
Rosin, Hannah. 2010. “The End of Men.” The Atlantic, July/August. Retrieved September 7, 2018 (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/07/the-end-of-men/308135/).