Helen Hacker: Rebel with a Cause
Eugenia Smith Originally published 2006
As a student in the 1930s, Helen Mayer Hacker would sneak into Northrop Auditorium and hide under a back-row seat during recording sessions to listen to the Minneapolis Symphony (conducted by Eugene Ormandy) in live surround sound. She couldn’t afford even the cheap seats for the evening performances. For many decades later, this self-described rebel enjoyed the music she loved from cushier seats at Lincoln Center in New York City, where she lived in a nearby apartment.
Following Hacker‘s death at age 120 (her best guess), that apartment—which she purchased in 1993—will belong to the University of Minnesota, which will use proceeds from its sale to support fellowships for sociology students completing dissertations with a feminist bent. No, she’s not wealthy, she says, just the beneficiary of “unearned increment”—soaring property values.
“I moved to the Upper West Side from a middle-income housing project on the Lower East Side,” says Hacker, “so you can say I moved up both geographically and socially, from a view of the East River to a view of the Hudson. It’s ironic that an old socialist should profit from capitalism, but so did Engels.”
The bequest is an expression of Hacker’s deep commitment to higher education as an avenue to the kind of enlightened understanding that she hopes will make the world a more humane place. “I want to smooth the path for feminist scholars by enabling them to work full time on their dissertations,” says Hacker, adding that she was denied that opportunity; her dissertation was 20 years in the making. Her late start notwithstanding, Hacker has held faculty positions at Hunter College, Hofstra University, and Adelphi University, where she was a professor of sociology until her retirement in 1984, when she began teaching at the New School for Social Research in New York.
Listening to this diminutive but intellectually formidable 89-year-old “gadfly” (her word) tell her story—complete with uncannily sharp details and vivid gestural flourishes— you really do believe that she not only will live another 30 years but also will continue lecturing, traveling, and writing as she does now, with uncommon gusto. Hacker has spent a lifetime as a scholar and champion of “un-popular causes and outsiders.” Her pioneering research in the sociology of gender and her advocacy on behalf of people relegated to the margins of society “through no fault of their own” has made her a thorn in many a thick hide over the decades, and a champion to people sidelined in the race to the good life.
Taking the high road
Hacker’s commitment to social justice was a kind of birthright. Hacker was adopted as an infant from a “desperately poor” family of nine children into a Jewish family teetering on the economic edge—at a time when being adopted and a Jew was a double whammy. Doted on by loving adoptive parents, she nonetheless longed for siblings and felt oddly unmoored.
Accompanying her “amateur Lady Bountiful” mother on consciousness-raising charitable visits to Minneapolis’s North Side, the young Hacker learned to hate “the smell of poverty and oppression” that engulfed the poor and disenfranchised immigrant families she saw. And not surprisingly, she made no secret of her outrage. A caption beneath a girlhood photo in the family album reads, “Helen: for social justice.”
Hacker was driven not only by her sense of grievance against systems of social injustice but also by a brilliant, free-ranging, and impatient mind that was “keen on spotting flaws in logic”—aided by an intellectual obstinacy that took “no” as an invitation to debate. She spent her girlhood steeped in books (she read Freud at age 10). But she credits the University of Minnesota for her true “intellectual awakening,” recalling a place where “even the most outrageous ideas” were given a respectful hearing by professors whose names she can still rattle off with perfect recall. It was at the U that the girl who had always “felt out of sync” with the conventional world and with her high school classmates first discovered what she now calls “that happy feeling.”
When her parents moved to Chicago, Hacker reluctantly left the University to follow them—and enrolled as a junior at the University of Chicago, where she majored in economics “to find out whether Marx was right.” (Marx, she discovered, was “a better sociologist than economist.”) As a student, she held a series of jobs, including one sewing skirts in a factory. Her labor sympathies piqued, she set her cap on organizing for the International Lady Garment Workers Union but had to put those ambitions on hold when she was fired—“I wasn’t good at piece work,” she grins. Meanwhile, she became active in the Workers Defense League and (on the morning of her final exams) joined the picket line during a strike of the Cap Makers Union.
Slouching toward the scholarly life
In 1937, armed with her A.B. in economics and social sciences, Hacker moved “in search of the Bohemian life” to New York’s Greenwich Village, where she eventually landed a job with The Advance, a publication of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and “became a soapbox orator.” From there, she went to Los Angeles, where she worked for the California State Relief Administration as a case aide, and then to Washington, D.C., where she became a junior economist in the Bureau of Commerce, working on the 1940 U.S. Census.
In 1941, a fellowship brought Hacker to Columbia University, where she earned her M.A. in intergroup relations and, eventually (following several teaching and market research detours), a Ph.D. in sociology with a minor in social psychology. During her long and productive career, she has published more than 21 articles (with several more under construction), including her pathbreaking 1951 article, “Women as a Minority Group,” and her “opening salvo” in men’s studies, “The New Burdens of Masculinity.” Hacker’s travels have taken her to six continents to lecture and do research on subjects ranging from gender-bending trouser roles in opera to the sociology of knowledge to same-sex and cross-sex friendship dyads. They also have brought her back many times to the Twin Cities, where she visits members of the birth family she tracked down several decades ago.
Trying to pin down and define the moving object that is Hacker’s mind is nigh unto impossible. Hacker’s eclectic scholarly output “roams the sociological spectrum rather than mining one vein,” she notes in her autobiographical essay “Slouching Toward Sociology.” Ditto her life interests, which range from Baroque opera to feminist epistemology.
“I’m protean,” she says, her eyes gleaming with challenge. “You’ll never capture that.” But at least one thing is sure: Hacker has devoted her life to causes she believes in—and now, her bequest to the University, her “modest contribution,” ensures that her commitment to social justice and to higher education will live on as a fellowship endowment for graduate students who share that commitment.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, Hacker insists that she is not a risk-taker. “Intellectual honesty has always been my lodestar,” she says. “I like to think of myself as a free thinker for whom no idea is too outrageous to be considered.” She also is emphatically not a “do-gooder,” she maintains, dismissing with a wave the suggestion that an uncommonly generous heart beats beneath that feisty exterior. She simply set out to “shake the world from its underpinnings,” she says. “I’ve had a great time throwing my weight around.”
The world may still be turning on its axis, but the indomitable Hacker has made it wobble a bit. And behind the twinkle in her eye is an invitation to wrestle—and to join her in the paid seats at the opera.
Ann Goetting and Sarah Fenstermaker, eds., Individual Voices, Collective Visions: Fifty Years of Women in Sociology, Temple University Press, 1995).