IV. Women of All Types and Locations
That was such a happy year, my first year at the University of Minnesota, because I was a big shot on campus, the debating society, and I was elected to be some kind of student representative. [A professor] wrote on one of my exam papers “keep up the good work freshy,” because I entered a course that was supposed to be open only to upperclassmen... I was very interested in logic; I always felt that I was so good at picking out fallacies and errors in reasoning.
Throughout her career, Hacker used her self-proclaimed skills in logic to avoid errors in reasoning that were common to the discipline at the time. In her early scholarship, she offered multiple critiques of research that overgeneralized from the experience of men to women, or from particular groups of women to all women. In her own work, she paid attention to how the racial and economic background of women shapes their experiences and opportunities, and built arguments from cross-cultural comparisons of women in a wide array of international contexts. In both her domestic and global focus, Hacker demonstrates an early appreciation of the importance of an intersectional approach to research—an argument that did not truly enter the discipline’s consciousness until Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins fully theorized the multiple intersecting sources of oppression.
“Women of All Types and Locations” brings together Hacker’s writing on variation in gender norms across race, culture, and religion. Although more commonplace today, these forward-thinking articles complicate factors that shape group and individual experiences and call for a more nuanced approach to theorizing power and society.
In the first entry of this section, “Bases of Individuation in the Modern World,” we see Hacker working through the challenges of retaining group identity in a society that emphasizes equality at the level of the individual. Here she raises difficult questions about what is lost and what is gained “once distinctions of race, nationality, and sex have been broken down.” And while the vision of a society in which individuals are not born into group difference still seems far beyond the horizon, academia and the larger society continue to grapple with fundamental questions about identity, sub-culture, and the weakening of group ties.
Next, we include “Gender Roles from a Cross-Cultural Perspective,” a chapter Hacker wrote for Lucile Duberman’s 1975 edited volume, Gender and Sex in Society. Here Hacker takes a global approach, comparing the paths taken by Israel, China, Sweden, and the USSR to foster gender equality. In examining how each country effectively failed to achieve the goal, she masterfully illustrates the importance of giving attention to both structural and cultural barriers. Hacker stays true to her social action-oriented approach by concluding with a list of material and ideological pre-conditions that must be met before true equality can be achieved.
“Sex Roles in Black Society: Caste Versus Caste” is an early draft of a section of Hacker’s second book chapter, “Class and Race Differences in Gender Roles,” included in Duberman’s (1975) aforementioned collection. The short essay is one of the clearest examples of Hacker’s early writing on the intersectional nature of inequality. She argues that any movement—whether a Marxist uprising or Black Power—that is based on one source of inequality will always fall short in achieving true justice. Instead, social action must take into account all power differentials: “we may ask whether Black women suffer more from racism or sexism, and whether Black men must be sexists in order to carry on the Black struggle.” While Hacker falls short of the nuance of later intersectional analyses, she clearly argues that to appreciate power and oppression to “these two castes of sex and race a third status should be added—that of class.”
In “The Women’s Movement: Report from Nairobi,” Hacker and Audrey Meyer recount their participation in Forum ’85, the unofficial meetings preceding the UN Conference marking the end of the International Decade for Women. A shortened and revised version of this manuscript was subsequently published in Network News, the newsletter of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS). Hacker was instrumental in building scholar-activist relationships between her New York chapter of SWS and the UN (for more history this relationship, see Daniela Jauk’s 2017 article in Brock Education Journal). The Forum attracted 13,000 participants and dealt with issues ranging from domestic abuse to the inequitable distribution of resources to the challenge of coming to a consensus on how to define “women’s issues.” While the popularity and visibility of Forum ’85 showed that the women’s movement was “far from spent,” Hacker argued that continued progress required an international commitment that would “bypass old ideological cleavages and permit women to ‘think globally and act locally.’”
Hacker’s report from Nairobi effectively demonstrates her commitment to improving conditions for women from all economic, religious, and geographic backgrounds, her constantly active sociological imagination that always connected domestic issues to the larger political economy, and her delight in experiencing new cultures and ways of seeing the world. In her nineties, she still remembered her trip fondly, telling us that it “was the only time I was in Africa, but I recall one of my happy memories is in this treehouse we were staying and looking out and seeing the elephants coming and drinking the water.”
Lastly, Hacker’s “Women and Religion in Islam” outlines and assesses different courses of potential action for feminist Muslim women seeking equality. As a concluding work for this section, this unpublished essay showcases her research on international groups relegated to the margins by the larger discipline. Once again, we see Hacker rejecting a one-size-fits-all approach to feminism or social action. Instead, she helps reveal the power dynamics in play through attention to the intersection of geographic location, gender, and religious faith.
- Helen M. Hacker. 1955. “Bases of Individuation in the Modern World.” Phylon First Quarter: 33-40.
- Helen M. Hacker. 1975. “Gender Roles From a Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Pp. 185-214 in Gender and Sex in Society, edited by Lucile Duberman. New York: Praeger.
- Helen M. Hacker. “Sex Roles in Black Society: Caste Versus Caste.” Previously Unpublished.
- Helen M. Hacker and Audrey Meyer. “The Women’s Movement: Report from Nairobi.” Previously Unpublished.
- Helen M. Hacker. “Women and Religion in Islam.” Previously Unpublished.
Jauk, Daniela. 2017. “Feminist Scholar-Activism Goes Global: Experiences of ‘Sociologists for Women in Society’ at the UN.” Brock Education Journal 27(1): 79-100.