V. Helen M. Hacker: Critic and Provocateur
I went to C. Wright Mills and said I am having such trouble writing my dissertation, writing an introduction, writing the first chapter, and he said “Helen, go home and drink a bottle of wine, and then sit down with your typewriter.” That’s C. Wright Mills.
In her autobiographical essay (included above), Helen described her vita as “eclectic as well as hectic.” She wrote countless op-eds, always eager and more than willing to demonstrate the value of a well-honed sociological imagination: “I’ve written so many letters to Newsweek and The New Yorker, I recently wrote my solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Although the majority of her scholarship is situated at the intersections of gender and the fields described in the preceding sections, this final section showcases Dr. Hacker’s diverse research interests and her ability to go toe-to-toe with leading academics, regardless of their discipline or rank. As her family takes care to remind us, Aunt Helen’s motto was, “why be difficult, when you can be impossible!?”
Her influences (most notably Nietzsche, Veblen, and Proust) spanned sociology, philosophy, economics, and numerous other disciplines, and her writing reflects her well-roundedness as a scholar and intellectual. For example, when Helen was unable to obtain an academic job after Columbia (“women in their forties and lacking a male patron were not hired as Assistant Professors, or even instructors”), she accepted a job in the New York City Department of Health conducting accident research. She published an article on the topic in Social Problems in 1963, although we were not able to obtain the copyright to include this theoretical essay here. Helen was skilled at presenting topics that are currently studied and drawing on social theory to propose new directions for future research, a theme that permeates through the five publications included below.
First, are two letters to the editor of the discipline’s leading journal, American Journal of Sociology (AJS). Highlighting her desire to study the unknown, Helen’s 1948 piece explains that scholars have examined a number of subcultures, but one that would be especially revealing (albeit difficult) to investigate is “extra-legal, secret, international organizations, as exemplified in a narcotics smuggling ring.” Written just a few short years after the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, Hacker offers four hypotheses for future researchers to test, arguing that this type of project is necessary “in an age when the political institutions of cabinets, parties, and parliaments are eclipsed by the monstrous forms of terror.”
The second letter to the editor is a critique of Arnold Rose’s 1950 AJS article, “A Deductive Ideal-Type Method.” We discussed this scholarly exchange with Helen, who recalled, “I said that structural functionalism was an elaborate tautology…Well, I haven’t changed my mind.” Helen was always willing to engage with and critique dominant forms of thought. Then in her mid-90s, we told Helen that we were impressed by her willingness to critique established theories, especially given that she had yet to earn her doctorate. Helen’s reply perfectly captured her feisty attitude and passion for intellectual debate: “Why!? What have I got to lose?!…I didn’t think what I was saying was an act of courage at all. Speaking truth to power, these were pretty powerless people anyway, sociologists are.”
In “Marx, Weber, and Pareto on the Changing Status of Women,” an article she published in the journal Phylon, Hacker again demonstrates her willingness to critically engage with central disciplinary ideas. This time she returns to the work of three foundational theorists of social change--Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Vilfredo Pareto--with a particular eye to how they may help us understand the role of women in modern society. In doing so reveals key limitations and silences in each of their respective work and repeatedly demonstrates how the lack of engagement with women undercuts their potential to make universal claims. As always, Hacker does not shy away from difficult questions about the role of the researcher--contrasting Marx and his willingness to write for social change with the more value-neutral duo of Weber and Pareto.
“The Ishmael Complex,” published in the American Journal of Psychotherapy, began as a course paper for renowned sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld at Columbia University. Critical of Sigmund Freud’s “oedipus complex,” Hacker offered an alternative developmental pattern where children attach with “a combined maternal-paternal image in which the desired qualities of both parents are preserved, and their deficiencies eliminated.” In support of the “Ishmael complex,” Hacker borrows from Leslie Fiedler’s (1948) analysis in Partisan Review, a literary magazine whose ties to the Communist Party and covert CIA funding is worth a visit to their Wikipedia page. Hacker argues that the Ishmael complex explains the “chaste and pure” relationships between white boys and older black men in the remote and isolated settings of classic novels such as Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick. Typical of her writing, Hacker emphasizes the significance of social class and race, hypothesizing why the Ishmael complex is especially strong among middle class boys and how racial stereotypes allow the black characters in these novels to embrace both paternal (e.g., protector in a strange and perilous world) and maternal (e.g., tender, affectionate) roles.
After careful thought, we decided to preserve Hacker’s original language in all of her writing. This includes “Ishmael Complex,” which, as readers will see, utilizes antiquated racial terminology. Debates about racism and censorship are ongoing, especially as it relates to Mark Twain’s 1885 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (one of the primary issues here). Our goal in this project is to share Hacker’s scholarship, not update it to reflect contemporary understandings of gender, sexuality, or race. We hope we do Hacker’s writing justice with this decision, but also want to warn readers to expect offensive language in this piece.
We leave readers with an article on clergymen and hippies that on the surface is quite removed from Helen’s other scholarship, although it should be noted that Helen proposed a dissertation on the experiences of women Protestant ministers (“Petticoats in the Pulpit”) that was shot down by Robert Merton. The findings from “How Clergymen View Hippiedom” are based on a questionnaire that her research methods class at Adelphi University mailed to every clergyman in Nassau and Suffolk counties, New York (just over one-third responded). Their results suggest that clergymen, on average, view hippies “largely as middle-class delinquents,” but that views vary based on characteristics like age, length of time in the clergy, and congregation size. Some sympathized with the movement, seeing it as a corrective to “the puritanic hangups of traditional pietism that was neither Christian nor pious to begin with. It is a call to reawakening, evaluating, perhaps restructuring worn-out clichés and structures.” We suspect that Helen would agree.
- Helen M. Hacker. 1948. “Secret Societies.” American Journal of Sociology 54: 156-158.
- Helen M. Hacker. 1951. “Arnold Rose’s ‘A Deductive Ideal-Type Method.’” American Journal of Sociology 56: 354-356.
- Helen M. Hacker. 1953. “Marx, Weber and Pareto on the Changing Status of Women.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 12(2): 149-162.
- Helen M. Hacker. 1952. “The Ishmael Complex.” American Journal of Psychotherapy 1(3): 494-512.
- Helen M. Hacker. 1970. “How Clergymen View Hippiedom.” The Christian Century July 22, 1970: 887-891.
Fiedler, Leslie. 1948. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” Partisan Review 15: 664-671.
Twain, Mark. 1885. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York, NY: Charles L. Webster & Co.