Slouching Towards Sociology
Helen M. Hacker Originally published 1995
Family of Orientation
Four things no one ever told me I have always known: there is no God; the world is full of injustice; babies don’t come from heaven; I was an adopted child. I was told, however, that I was Jewish. All the foregoing, I believe, conduced to a sociological orientation. The adopted child receives a double message. You belong to us, and yet you don’t. You were chosen by us, but you were rejected by somebody else. Early on I formed the concept that my origin was lowly and that my adoptive parents were constantly assessing what about me could be attributed to their benign upbringing and what to inheritance. They were third-generation German Jews who clung to a social status not matched by their financial means. My mother never actually used the word “kike” in reference to more recently arrived Jews from Eastern Europe, but rather the patronizing expression “first generation!” As an amateur Lady Bountiful, she regularly visited several poor immigrant families on the near north side of Minneapolis, bringing care packages and counsel. I was her unwilling companion on these social work calls, hating the smell of poverty and suspecting that my birth family was their kin. “Where does Helen get her love of books from?” my mother often mused. “Sidney [my father] and I are no intellectuals.” Again, although she never came out and said it, I felt she was alluding to some gender-misplaced, Talmudic, shtetl background. Just before my sixteenth birthday, I was rushed by a sorority that pledged only German Jews, and although my best friends were of Russian provenance, I joined, under extreme pressure from my mother, and felt like both a traitor and an imposter.
Our family was a matriarchy. My mother’s dominance was reinforced by her husband s financial failure; thus our household had to be partially subsidized by my mother s sisters, who had had the wit to marry men who were already rich or who became so. My father began as an optometrist, but my mother’s prodding forced him into business first with my maternal grandfather and subsequently on his own. He went bankrupt when I was five, and from then on penny-pinching became my mother’s occupation. To reduce expenses, we moved in with another family when I was ten. As an only child, I was delighted to acquire siblings so easily. They were two brothers a few years older than I who taught me how to play football and baseball with a hardball. Perhaps this experience helped consolidate my feelings, an outlook not widely shared, that girls could play the same games as boys.
As I mentioned, I do remember being told that I was Jewish. It was after school one day that I asked my mother where I should be going on Sunday mornings, a question I had been unable to answer when my classmates put it to me. Her reply was an offer, which I eagerly accepted, to join Temple Israel, a reform congregation. During that summer vacation I was tutored in Jewish history and Bible in order to enter the pre-confirmation class in the fall. The following year, each member of the confirmation class was asked to participate in an essay contest on "What the Synagogue Means to Me.” My entry, under the pseudonym “Faith Ascendant:” won the prize—probably because of my research on the synagogue as a house of prayer, house of meeting, house of study. But the nascent sociologist was betrayed in the first paragraph in which I said that when I entered the synagogue on Friday night I felt like more of a Jew and less of a Jew than at any other time. More of a Jew because I was with my own people, suffused with a “consciousness of kind;” less of a Jew because I did not have “to prepare a face to meet the faces“ that I met. (During the time that I attended West High School there were only a dozen or so Jewish students, and, in general, Minneapolis was an anti-Semitic town.) Since Rabbi Minda did not take my confession of atheism seriously, I was confirmed in the Jewish faith and became a member of the junior congregation. As such, I was asked to give a talk at a Friday evening service. I chose to discuss a book I had just read, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933), and I quoted her goal of “knowing something about everything, and everything about something.” I think I have fulfilled the first of this aspiration.
My parents subscribed to The Nation, wherein I read articles assuring me that unemployment insurance, health care for all, and other social welfare proposals were not socialistic or communistic. Why would that be so bad, I wondered, and at age thirteen set off for the public library to find out. Under the heading “socialism” I found Morris Hillquit’s History of Socialism in the United States and Friedrich Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. I immediately became a convinced Marxist, and I passed up a chance to hear T. S. Eliot in favor of one Sam Davis who was running for governor of Minnesota on the Communist party ticket. At party headquarters I picked up a slew of pamphlets like “A Noon Hour Talk with the Communist Party.” I wrote a paper on American radical movements of the nineteenth century for a high school history class, but it got lost after the teacher lent it to a fellow student. I dropped out of high school at the end of my junior year and applied for admission to the University of Minnesota.
Education: Formal and Informal
Although my parents were in straitened circumstances, there was never any doubt about my attending the university. In the 1930s, residents of Minnesota paid only about twenty-five dollars a quarter, so tuition was not a hardship. The real problem in those Depression years was that families needed the help of their children to keep from going under financially. My father, who saw me as another Walter Lippmann, accompanied me when I visited the campus. The university administrators were taken aback at my request to enter the university without graduating from high school but admitted me on probation. My first year was filled with intellectual and social excitement, engaging with able, provocative teachers: Benjamin Lippincott in political theory, who assigned books like Richard Henry Tawney’s The Acquisitive Society (1920) and Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb’s Industrial Democracy (1897); Castell in philosophy and logic; Minnich in zoology; Charles Bird in abnormal psychology; and Eugen Altschul in socialist economics. Somehow I got turned on to Thorstein Veblen, peppering my conversation with “pecuniary emulation,” “invidious comparison,” “vested interest,” “conspicuous consumption,” “idle curiosity,” and the rest of his catchy concepts. I read all his books and toyed with the idea of writing a biography of him, but Joseph Dorfman beat me to it. I also made the varsity debate team, a learning experience in how to take any side of a question. Encounters with more sophisticated students from Saint Paul were also stimulating. I was aware that there were a few feminists around, but I dismissed them as oddballs who insisted on racing men to doors and windows. I also disdained women’s organizations, like the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the National Council of Jewish Women, as bourgeois and supportive of the status quo. During my first year at the University of Minnesota, I went to hear Lucian Koch, the director of Commonwealth College, a labor college in Mena, Arkansas. The notion of becoming a labor organizer began to germinate. But there were other notions, too. A year or two earlier I had become friendly with a literary young man who introduced me not only to T. S. Eliot, Restoration comedy, and other hitherto unknown-to-me English writers, but also to Proust, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and the symbolist movement. I felt that Eliot had written Prufrock just for me; even though it wasn’t coffee spoons I was measuring my life with. (Later I made extensive use of poetry in my sociology classes, especially that of the most sociological of poets, W.H. Auden. See, for example, his "Law Like Love” to spark a discussion of social control.) I also became hooked on Proust and read every word of his, mostly in translation, and everything about him I could find. Although I still have a bookcase of Proustiana, I have not been as meticulous as he in dredging up detail for this quick autobiography. Proust reappears later in my story.
After a year and a half at Minnesota I transferred to the University of Chicago to live with my parents, who had moved to Chicago. I decided to major in philosophy, especially Hindu philosophy. I supplemented my full-tuition scholarship with part-time jobs, such as cataloging the books in the personal library of a professor of public finance and catering private dinner parties. During the summer, I worked full-time as a bookkeeper in a jewelry store and as a stitcher of skirts in a cotton goods factory. This last job was taken with a view to becoming an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union; but I was fired after six weeks because I was unable to meet the piecework quota. After a quarter at the University of Chicago, only eighteen and acting on an impulse I don’t fully comprehend, I applied for admission to Commonwealth College—which my father called “Commonfilth”—and was accepted as their youngest student despite telegrams from my family urging them to reject me. Tuition, including board and room, was forty dollars a month plus twenty-five hours of work a week. I was apprenticed to Willie, the cook, who had been a member of the German Communist Party. Willie’s other helper, Jeff, was an anarchist; listening to their arguments was instructive. (I had read with great fascination Emma Goldman’s Living My Life, but knew I was not one “on bare knees to climb the volcanic hill.”)
At that time, the college was nonsectarian and all the extant proletarian parties were represented there. I took courses called “Imperialism and Fascism, History of Trade Unionism in the United States” and “Proletarian Literature.” I prepared a genealogy of the fifty-odd proletarian parties in the United States and I became romantically involved with a Trotskyite. On Saturday nights I square-danced with local farmers. I discovered, however, that I was an intellectual snob, like John Reed, who despised every communist who was not a Harvard graduate and every Harvard graduate who was not a communist—in the manner of Oscar Wilde’s more famous statement about wits and gentlemen. Why I had expected workers from southern mills and factories to join me in contemplating the bourgeois wasteland, I don’t know. Anyway, my tuition money ran out after three months, and I returned to the University of Chicago. At this time, a dissident group within the Socialist Party was flirting with a Trotskyite faction led by James P. Cannon (of Local 544 of truck drivers’ union fame) and Max Schachtman. In 1938, that faction became the Socialist Workers’ Party. In joining the left-wing youth group of the Socialist Party, the Yipsels (Young People’s Socialist League), in 1936, I was relieved of the necessity of choosing between reformism and revolution. In the Yipsels with me were such future greats as Saul Bellow, Oscar Tarcov, Herb Passin, George Reedy, Ithiel de Sola Poole, and Isaac Rosenfeld. I still remember the night a bunch of us spent at Isaac Rosenfeld’s listening to De Falla’s “Three Cornered Hat.” I was also active in the Workers’ Defense League. The C.I.O. was on the ascent, and I recall getting up very early on the morning of my final exams in order to be on the picket line of a strike by the Cap Makers’ Union.
I changed my major to economics in order to find out if Marx was right and was guided through the three volumes of Capital by Paul Douglas, discovering the famous contradiction of how market forces were brought in “behind the backs of the workers.” Our backs were sore from the whacks Douglas administered when he made an important point while pacing around the long seminar table. From Herbert Simon I learned that Marx as an economist was largely irrelevant, but that he could be admired as a sociologist. While an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I took no course in sociology, although through independent study I did pass an examination on that subject. It was a philosophy course, “General Theory of Mind,” that set me on the path to sociology. The instructor, Charles Morris, suggested that I read Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia for the required book report. The sociology of knowledge solved a fundamental problem for me—how it was possible for someone to disagree with such a right-thinking person as myself without being either a fool or a knave. Many other remarkable professors at the University of Chicago remain in my memory: Mortimer Adler (great books), Richard McKeon (literary criticism), Frederick Schuman (international politics), Fay Cooper Cole (anthropology), and the boy-president himself, Robert M. Hutchins. This “mountain range of Gothic,” as Vincent Shean dubbed the university, was the field for the “battle of the books,” which overflowed the classroom into nearby beer halls. My chief learning from the University of Chicago was that anything not in Aristotle or Aquinas was either false or insignificant.
As an adolescent in Minneapolis I had dreamed of leading a bohemian life in Greenwich Village. So, armed with an A.B in economics and the social sciences from the University of Chicago and on the basis of my experience in writing for the Chicago Daily Maroon and Soapbox, I sent letters to every New York-based publication from Boating Magazine to the Police Gazette, modestly offering to serve as editor. Although hardly shaking the big city loose from its underpinnings, I finally did land a job on The Advance, the publication of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. Besides reporting on labor matters, I prepared instructional materials for workers’ education classes. Many evenings were spent at party meetings followed by long discussions at Life Cafeteria in the Village. I noted, without the indignation of a raised consciousness, that men did most of the talking and that women changed their political outlook with their lovers. At the behest of the party, I became a soapbox orator, holding forth on housing, unemployment, and war, and rescuing the vegetables hurled at me for the dinner stew. Late hours took their toll, and I was fired from The Advance. My account of my dismissal cites Trotskyism, but according to my boss, J.B.S. Hardman, it was for being late to work.
Unemployment forced a return to the parental nest, now in Los Angeles. After a series of odd jobs, including one as a hypnotist’s accomplice, I went to work in 1939 as a case-aide for the California State Relief Administration. When one of my clients, angry at the cut in his check, pulled a gun on me, I disarmed him with an exhortation to join the union of people on relief. Party activities continued and Sunday mornings found me distributing leaflets to Japanese workers in Sawtelle, lecturing on the crisis of the middle class in San Diego, and, for a time, editing a publication for Mexican workers called La Lucha Obrera.
My sojourn in “warm Siberia” ended when, after passing a civil service exam for junior economist, I received a job offer from the Bureau of the Census. In Washington, D.C., my alienation from the party intensified. In Los Angeles, I had begun to prefer concerts over Red Card meetings. In the capital, I resented having to contribute half my salary to the party. The petty bourgeoisie in me preferred spending that money on graduate study, especially since my roommate, who had left to attend Columbia with a fellowship in economics, urged me to join her, assuring me of a similar fellowship. One course in public finance was, however, enough to confirm that I had lost my taste for economics. Accordingly, I had the chutzpah to ask Robert M. MacIver, then chair of the Sociology department, if I could trade my scholarship in economics for one in Sociology, which I considered the last refuge of the dilettante. MacIver was agreeable to subsidizing my tuition, but I still had to work full-time to support myself and so I had little time to hang around school and network. I did, though, have flexible hours with the North American Service of the BBC, for whom I wrote reports on American reactions to their broadcasts and on the contribution of American women to the war effort. I did this in spite of my personal opposition to the “imperialist war,” believing there were better ways of saving Jews and others from the Nazis.
Caste and Class in a Southern Town
In 1944, after completing the required sixty hours of course work for a Ph.D. in sociology, I registered with the employment bureau and was interviewed by Dean French of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, who confided that, never having had one, they were looking for a “nice Jew” to be on their faculty. I replied that I hoped they would find me so nice that they would hire more (indeed, Hilda Hertz succeeded me). I wasn’t, however, very nice. I was horrified, I told the students, by water fountains marked “white” and “colored,” at a drugstore clerk’s refusing a Negro woman a drink of water because they had run out of paper cups, by the lack of a hospital where a Negro doctor could take his patients. I encouraged my students, as young women of good will, to walk rather than ride the segregated bus. With a religion instructor, Emma-Lou Benignus, I took a group of students to an interracial conference in Durham, talked about the “white peril” in Lynchburg at the Methodist church, and heard that alumnae were threatening to cut off bequests to the college unless they got rid of this damn Yankee. Emma-Lou and I also managed to invite a group of Negro high school teachers to the annual Greek play, where they were seated next to carefully selected student buffers. I got a firsthand lesson in caste and class when, at a tea at my house afterward, they complained about the riffraff they had to teach.
Although I was opposed in principle to marriage as an institution oppressive of women, I was married at the end of my first year at Randolph-Macon. There was no way I could “live in sin” and remain on the faculty. I should have mentioned that although I had never taken a course in the family, it was assumed that as a woman I was fitted by nature to teach such a course. Amusingly, when it came time to impart sexual facts, Donald Taylor, who also taught a family course, added my class to his. Perhaps this delicacy on the part of the chair derived from my as yet unmarried state. My husband, Emanuel A. Hacker, kept house for us while working on his dissertation on the marginal utility of leisure. When he received an offer to teach economics at Brooklyn College, I left for New York with him. I got a job at the New School for Social Researchers as student adviser with teaching responsibility for one course, which in those pre-feminist days I called “Man in Relationship."
Academic Bites in the Big Apple
Permit me to backtrack a bit. Robert K. Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld supported the sociological firmament at Columbia during my sojourn there, prior to my teaching at Randolph-Macon. It was a “window of opportunity” for women, since most of the men either had been or were about to be drafted. Although Merton’s lectures had the elegance of a chess game, I chose Lazarsfeld and majored in public opinion and mass communications. Regrettably, I did not have the leisure to serve an apprenticeship under his tutelage at the Bureau for Applied Social Research. I wrote, however, a paper titled “The Ishmael Complex” (1952) for one of his courses. It was based on a content analysis of popular books for boys, and, in part, it exploited the black-woman analogy in explaining the camaraderie between white boys and their colored companions. Its publication provoked a host of angry letters to the editor and attacks in the Amsterdam News, all based on a complete misunderstanding of Sociology. For Merton I began, but never finished, a paper titled “Nietzsche’s Theory of Ideology,” which was finally published in an Indian journal (1970). Nietzsche succeeded Veblen and Proust as my third great hero.
Doctoral candidates were encouraged early on to give thought to their dissertations. Several of my attempts fell by the wayside. The first, “Social Structure in Proust,” was salvaged for a course in the sociology of literature that I co-taught at the Columbia School of General Studies. My second try was titled “Petticoats in the Pulpit.” I had fallen heir to a list of some two hundred women ministers ordained in four Protestant denominations concentrated largely in New England, and I thought I might interview them in depth about their experiences and problems. I hoped that Merton might agree that such a study would make a valuable contribution to the Sociology of occupations in exploring the paradox that the ministry, stereotyped as the most feminine of male occupations, was most closed to women. He did not, however, find the suggestion interesting. Years later, after many false starts, I finally wrote a Parsonian dissertation, which was accepted without revision and will be discussed below.
I had been poised to take my orals until a fellow student told me I was sure to fail; I cancelled. I was also aware that in those years the average time for getting the doctorate at Columbia was from ten to fifteen years. I was also told that things might go faster at Teachers College-Columbia University, and so, with the aid of a fellowship, I embarked on a program of study there and received a master’s degree in intergroup relations in 1949. Although in the end I did return to Columbia for my orals and doctorate, it was at Teachers College that I decided that every term paper should explore some theoretical problem in relation to women in the hope that these papers in combination might constitute a dissertation. So it was for Goodwin Watson that I wrote “Women as a Minority Group” (1951)1 and “Marx, Weber, and Pareto on the Changing Status of Women” (1953). At this time I was a non-tenure track faculty member at Hunter College, where I unsuccessfully proposed a course called “Conflicts of Modern Women.” In my social problems classes, I was also pushing the “Hacker Plan for the Reconstruction of Family Life,” a ten-point program emphasizing the need for part-time jobs on all skill levels and for mothers’ preference, similar to veterans’ preference, on civil service exams. (As men bear arms for the state, women bear children.) My tenth point gave women permission to marry down: If the prince can marry a shepherdess, then the princess can marry a goatherd.
In a way, not having a Ph.D. was an advantage. In those days the operating system at Hunter was known as the “fluid bottom” in that hardly anyone on a tenure track ever achieved it. Rather, after serving for three years, instructors were not renewed. As: a degree-less “temporary tutor” I could stay on indefinitely without raises or perks, but I was allowed to teach practically every course in the curriculum, including a graduate course in theory. Personal circumstances, however, impelled me to leave Hunter. My husband had been hospitalized for an indefinite period, and I needed much more money. Luckily, a friend brought me to Ernest Dichter’s Institute for Motivational Research at Croton-on-Hudson and, after a trial assignment of a “think piece” on the role of barbers in selling men’s hair products, I was hired. Thus began a fascinating apprenticeship in imaginative, qualitative research. Vance Packard didn’t name me in The Hidden Persuaders (1957), but I was responsible for the suggestion made to Duncan Hines that women should be asked to add their own egg to the cake mix. From the Institute I graduated to Young & Rubicam, an advertising agency, where the conversational level surpassed that on most college campuses. There I supervised a series of special market studies on Negroes, farmers, adolescents, and, most significantly, working wives.
I was permitted to add a page of my own on working wives to the agency’s Consumers’ Poll, with its national probability sample of four thousand men and women. These data served not only as the basis for advertising strategies but also provided the material for my dissertation, “A Functional Approach to the Gainful Employment of Married Women.” My study purported to explain why the large-scale employment of married women outside the home, like women’s suffrage, had had so little impact on the relations between men and women and the status of women in our society. It demonstrated that women’s attitudes toward work served to obviate any potential conflict between their jobs and the primacy of their family roles. I found that the majority of working wives did not seek to compete for jobs on an equal basis with men, but were satisfied with the connotations attached to merely holding a job.2 At last in 1961 (and aged forty-something) I became in my eyes the world’s oldest newly minted Ph.D.
The acquisition of a Ph.D. did not help to overcome my growing dissatisfaction with Young & Rubicam, but would, I hoped, provide a springboard for reentry into college teaching. Letters of application to Queens College and other schools, however, netted nothing. Women in their forties and lacking a male patron were not hired as assistant professors, or even instructors. I was taken on, however, by Ed Suchman as a resident in accident research for the New York City Department of Health. Among my duties was the ghoulish task of watching for near-accidents in playgrounds, schools for the deaf, and tunnels under the Hudson as background for writing research proposals. Although none of the proposals got funded, I did publish a theoretical article (1963). Concurrently, I conducted a research seminar and served as adviser on doctoral dissertations in the Teachers College department of home and family life. In this capacity, I helped policemen, rabbis, social workers, and others who had mindlessly collected data to ferret out questions that their data might answer. Gertrude Stein would have been pleased!
My Not So Dolce Vita in Italy
I had always dreamed of living in Italy: Bell'Italia, amate sponde, pur vi torno a riveder! I still have a postcard from my childhood sent to me by my Aunt Ada, who had been a friend of the Italian novelist and poet D’Annunzio, exhorting me to come to Italy even on my hands and knees like the pilgrims of old. So shortly after I had my Ph.D., and freed by divorce from marital responsibilities some years earlier, I applied for a postdoctoral Fulbright to conduct research on the family life of working mothers in northern Italy. Thus, in 1962 I traveled blissfully by freighter to Genoa. Random sampling was out of the question, but I gained access to operaii (blue-collar workers) and impiegati (white-collar workers) through personal contact with several important employers in Genoa. I was probably in more Italian homes than most Italians, and I quickly learned to plead fegato (liver trouble) to fend off repeated offers of sweet vermouth. Findings from intensive interviews with over a hundred husbands and wives in which I employed a Rashomon-like technique have been reported to various international conferences, but nothing ever found its way into print.
I spent a second year in Italy doing consumer research for several advertising agencies in Milan. One of my projects uncovered an interesting relationship between technology and the household division of labor. With the acquisition of a washing machine, the wife became the laundress because she didn’t trust the maid with the machine. Similarly, with the acquisition of a dishwasher, the husband took over from the wife. Of course that was thirty years ago, and I haven’t had a chance to check on more recent appliances like the microwave. I had obtained these assignments through the good offices of Francesco Alberoni, a Milan-based sociologist who also published several of my reviews and articles in the journal he edited, Studi di Sociologia. One of them, which attempted a definition of role conflict in modern women, paralleled to some extent Merton’s concepts of role-set and status-set (1965).
In 1964, I reluctantly returned to New York from Italy after receiving notice that carrying charges had begun on the co-op apartment that I had purchased in the blueprint stage. After another stint in motivational research, in 1966 I obtained a position as associate professor at Adelphi University through the then-chair of the department of sociology, Robert Endleman, whom I had met at a cocktail party.3
Song of India
The fall of 1969 found me, on leave of absence from Adelphi, at the University of Bangalore in South India on another Fulbright fellowship as a visiting professor. I taught graduate courses in the family and field research methods, and it is not altogether complimentary to my students that I learned much more from them than they did from me. While I tried to encourage them in sociological ways of thinking about the social problems that beset India, they were orienting me to India in matters small and large. In the beginning, there were lessons in sari-draping before class; my highest mark in this endeavor was B+. Then I was invited to weddings, dance recitals, religious lectures, tabla (drum) and sitar concerts, picnics, and above all to their homes. (When they came to mine, I escorted the women home in an auto-rickshaw.) Perhaps it was the eager hospitality and openness of my students that gave me the illusion that I shared in their world. Indeed, it seemed that time past and time future were present in India. Strangely, it was my very immersion in Hinduism—I spent some time at the Pondicherry ashram—that brought me to a new appreciation of Judaism. Acres of diamonds in my own backyard!
Although my primary purpose in India was to teach, I also engaged in research, both planned and serendipitous. The former was an adaptation to the Indian scene of my Italian questionnaire. English is the language of instruction in Indian universities, so my students were able to translate the questionnaire into whichever of the some twenty-six languages they also spoke and to conduct interviews in it with Indians who did not know English. After I resumed my duties in the States, the data were farmed out to Adelphi students for master’s essays.
I have already hinted at the pervasive sexual and nonsexual harassment of Indian women called “Eve-teasing.” Women students were afraid to go alone to the library at night. After graduation, they were escorted to and from their jobs by male relatives or husbands. I sent a letter protesting this situation to the local paper, the Deccan Herald, signed only H. Hacker, which provoked a prolific, largely negative response. Many of the letter writers assumed I was a foreign man seeking to corrupt the purity of Indian womanhood. The letter’s editor of the Deccan Herald gave me all the letters and subsequently published my content analysis of them. The whole exchange became a minor cause célèbre that outlasted my stay in India as indicated by the headline “WOMAN: DEVI [goddess] OR DOLL: Hacker and After.” On my lecture circuit in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, sponsored by the U.S. Information Service, many women expressed appreciation of my modest efforts on their behalf. For me, India abounded in wondrous experiences, but the most enchanting was hearing a nightingale outside my mission window in Rajshahi just before dawn.
At the end of my Fulbright year, and somewhat unwillingly, I returned to New York via Indonesia and Japan just in time for the mighty march celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the woman’s suffrage amendment. In consonance with my long-time interest in the study of women and my commitment to the women’s movement, I had joined NOW in 1966 in response to an invitation from Pauli Murray, a founding member and the first African American woman to be ordained a priest of the Episcopal Church. She had previously been a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and our friendship had begun after she had telephoned me out of the blue to say that she had used my “Women as a Minority Group” in a brief before a federal court contesting the exclusion of women from jury duty in three southern states. I had also gotten in on the ground floor of Sociologists for Women in Society. In fall 1970, I offered a course in “Women’s Liberation” at Adelphi, which elicited long and impassioned term papers from the women students. In subsequent years, in order to bring men in, the title was changed to “The Social Roles of Men and Women;” ultimately it became “The Sociology of Gender.” I also pioneered a course named “Sexuality in Sociological Perspective.”
A sabbatical from Adelphi in 1974 provided an opportunity for visiting Israel, where I substituted for Dorit Padan-Eisenstark at the University of the Negevin Beer Sheba while she was occupied with a project in Jerusalem. We were collaborating on a pilot study of marital power in four Israeli institutional frameworks: the kibbutz; the “regular” moshav; an intermediate form known as the moshav shitufi, which combined equality of income with traditional family patterns; and the private sector. These four structures constituted a continuum along which the key variables of family and work arrangements varied systematically. For purposes of observation and interviewing, I was invited by Menachem Rosner, a noted Israeli sociologist, to spend a week at his kibbutz, Reshafim. I then moved on to Regba, as representative of the moshavim shitufim (small landholders’ collective settlements) for another week.
Our conclusions included two propositions: First, until men are drawn into child care and service occupations, job segregation, with lower prestige for women’s work, will persist; and, second, even when wives are not economically dependent on their husbands, they retain an inferior social position in a male-dominated community. Back in the United States, I devoted months to grant applications to the Ford Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) for a research project based on our pilot study. It was never funded, possibly because of the modesty of the request and the evaluators’ lack of sympathy for Israel. Amusingly, the first proposal I wrote, “The Socio-Economic Context of Sex and Power: A Study of Women, Work, and Family Roles in Four Israeli Institutional Frameworks,” was published in an anthology edited by Florence Denmark (1976). A paper, “Cognitive Dissonance and Choice of Reference Group: The Case of Women and Work in the Moshav Shitufi,” was rejected by the American Sociological Review with the suggestion that I submit it to a journal dealing with sex roles, perhaps indicating minimal mainstream interest in integrating studies of women’s experiences into sociological theory.
Finding My Birth Family
In March, 1969, I went to my hometown of Minneapolis as a delegate to the annual meeting from the Adelphi chapter of the American Association of University Professors. There my research skills paid off: I found my birth family. The high drama of that encounter I reserve for another context, and I say here only that suddenly I acquired four brothers and four sisters, all but one older than I. It saddens me that I missed meeting my birth mother by only two years. My father, though, had been long dead. Both had been born in Odessa. Poverty had forced them to give me up, but the trauma had been so great for my mother that they kept my youngest, equally unwanted sister. Over the past twenty-some years, I have formed strong bonds with this second family and am continually celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, Bar and Bat-Mitzvot, weddings, and so on. In 1977, I led a workshop on the adoptee experience at the Groves Conference on Marriage and the Family. At present I am involved with three families, since even though I am divorced from his uncle, Andrew Hacker continues to regard me as his favorite aunt.
The Recent Past
In 1984 I took early retirement from Adelphi. Since then I have been teaching one course a semester at the New School for Social Research, alternating among my current interests in religion, sexuality, and the impact of feminist scholarship on the social sciences.
In my end was my beginning. I seem to have returned to my early concern with philosophy, and I now regularly read Hypatia and similar journals. It was at the Non-Governmental Organization Forum before the UN Decade for Women Conference in 1985 in Nairobi that I first heard myself say that my current interest was feminist epistemology. I now have a formidable library on the subject. At an International Sociological Association conference in Trento, Italy, in June, 1992, I made a presentation on feminist methodology. Then there are lesser flights of fancy, like my frequently given talk with musical illustrations, “Women’s Plights in Opera Plots: Fantasies of Male Librettists."
Apologia pro Mea Vita
Shall we look at my story as oral history, cautionary tale, or just personal memoir? In reflecting on my sociological career, what can I say I have accomplished? Like most teachers, I have spent hours in student hand-holding; have recruited young people into sociology, most notably, Bennett Berger, who has often told me that I “turned him on to sociology;” and have labored interminably with graduate students. I have written countless letters of recommendation, marched and demonstrated for women’s and other worthy causes, testified in Albany and Washington D.C., about discrimination against women, acted as outside reader for dissertations written both in the United States and in India, served on professional committees, written dozens of painstaking critiques of papers submitted to professional journals, done duty as reference librarian for friends and colleagues on a wide range of subjects, addressed graduate colloquia, participated in radio and television programs, and more.
Although I have contributed chapters to several books, in one case amounting to half the volume, I have not published a book. (The covers of The Social Roles of Women and Men (1975) were too close together to merit that designation.) My vita is eclectic as well as hectic. The articles (twenty-one), book reviews (sixteen), and presentations at professional meetings (thirty) roam the sociological spectrum rather than mining one vein. In the main, my sociological work bears witness to my lifelong interest in the problem of redefining gender roles and restructuring the power relationships between women and men in a manner to maximize human potential. I have addressed this question on both the social and the psychological levels—that is, by investigating the interrelationships among such dominant institutions of our society as the family, the economy, legal and political systems, and the church, on the one hand, and the impact of these institutions on the motivations and self-concepts of individuals, on the other.
Although I have to my credit a few major articles, my contributions might have been much more substantial. I have always been more of a gadfly than a solid scholar. I am attracted to unpopular causes and outsiders, people on the margin (1971b). It is axiomatic to say that my paucity of publications can be attributed to an interaction of environmental, accidental, and characterological factors. I have always been out of sync: entering graduate school a few years older than was customary at the time, completing my Ph.D. as a middle-aged woman, spouting ideas whose time had not come. As mentioned earlier, in my youth, women needed male sponsors and I had neither the time nor the inclination to acquire one. I should say, however, that all my jobs and most of my invitations to present at professional meetings came from personal contacts, mostly male.4
On the characterological side, there was the nagging doubt as to whether what I was doing was worth any great investment. Also, I have been a peculiar combination of quick study and obsessive-compulsive attender to detail. Call it grandiosity, but there was always one more book or article to be read, one more anticipated counterargument to be taken care of, before closure could be achieved. Often it was more interesting to move on to a new enthusiasm or to throw off a think piece for others to substantiate. Brainstorming is more fun than fact gathering. Lack of discipline looms large. I never wanted to give up anything—concert, play, opera, party, lecture, seminar—because of fundamental uncertainty that the sacrifice would pay off.
Feminism has always been the beacon that I follow even as its trajectory changes. It is difficult now to recollect in tranquility just what propelled me along different paths. Overall, like so many others, I have been concerned with the causes of women’s subordination. In reflecting on the failure of those modern societies officially committed to the liberation of women, such as the Israeli kibbutzim, the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, and Sweden, to implement sex equality, I speculated that, in addition to their special circumstances, a pervasive traditional counter-ideology, stemming from religion, persisted. For the past decade or so, I have been interested in the pursuit of strategies to transform the religious substrate of primordial images of masculinity and femininity and, in addition to writing in this area (1983, 1984), have offered a course at the New School for Social Research titled “Men’s Rites; Women’s Rights: Sociological and Feminist Perspectives on Religion."
What next? Shall I cultivate my garden, or which, if any, of my unfinished projects that fill ten file cases shall I try to complete? Polish the paper “Outing versus Coming Out” given at the 1992 meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems? Develop the play based on the life of Frances Wright? Deliver the coup de grace in the argument about matriarchy or the best definition of marital power? Distill more articles from the in-depth interview study of same-sex and cross-sex friendship dyads that so far has yielded only one published (1981) and one unpublished paper (1978)? Revise and resubmit the analysis of the situation of women in Regba, a collective settlement in Israel? Look over the transcriptions of my Italian interviews? Go beyond the two chapters of the update of my dissertation based on new survey data that I had completed before Harper and Row—not the first publisher to do so—canceled my book contract? Try to integrate into a book my lecture notes for the course dealing with the impact of feminist scholarship on the social sciences? “Decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Or shall the aged eagle spread its wings and fly off in some new direction?
No matter. At least I have the satisfaction of knowing that under the terms of my will a fellowship will be established in my name at the University of Minnesota to provide one year, or possibly two, of subsidy to a promising graduate student, who has completed all the course requirements for the Ph.D., to work full-time on a dissertation that will contribute to feminist scholarship.
1 A revised and updated version of this essay was published in 1974.
2 This finding is clarified and elaborated in my article “The Feminine Protest of the Working Wife” (1971a). The title alludes to Adler’s concept of “masculine protest.” In effect, the working wives in my study say, “Even though I work like a man, I am still a woman—and a good wife and mother.”
3 It may be of historical interest to note that my beginning and continuing salary was substantially less than that of the average male assistant professor at Adelphi. Some years later, and without any intervention on my part, I was identified by Committee W of the American Association of University Professors as the most discriminated against woman at Adelphi and given a raise of $2,000.
4 For example, “The New Burdens of Masculinity” (1957) was originally a paper on role conflicts of men that was commissioned by Nelson Foote, a family sociologist, for a meeting of the Groves Conference on Marriage and the Family.
Hacker, Helen Mayer. 1951. “Women as a Minority Group.” Social Forces 30(1): 60-69. No. S-108 in the Bobbs Merrill Reprint Series in Sociology.
------. 1952. “The Ishmael Complex.” American Journal of Psychotherapy 6(3): 393-512.
------. 1953. “Marx, Weber, and Pareto on the Changing Status of Women.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 12(2): 149-62.
------. 1957. “The New Burdens of Masculinity.” Marriage and Family Living 19: 227-33.
------. 1963. “A Sociological Approach to Accident Research.” Social Problems 10(4): 383-89.
------. 1965. “Verso Una Definizione dei Conflitti di Ruolo nelle Donne Moderne.” Studi di Sociologia 3(3): 332-41.
------. 1970. “Nietzsche and the Ideology of Greek Tragedy.” Daystar: Social, Cultural, and Literary Magazine 2(4): 17-30.
------. 1971a. “The Feminine Protest of the Working Wife.” Indian Journal of Social Work 31(4): 403-6.
------. 1971b. “Homosexuals: Deviant or Minority Group?” Pp. 65-92 in The Other Minorities, edited by Edward Sagarin. Waltham, MA: Ginn and Company.
------. 1974. “Women as a Minority Group: Twenty Years Later.” International Journal of Group Tension 9(1): 122-32.
------. 1975. The Social Roles of Women and Men: A Sociological Approach. New York: Harper and Row.
------. 1976. “The Socio-Economic Context of Sex and Power: A Study of Women, Work, and Family Roles in Four Israeli Institutional Frameworks.” Pp. 579-600 in Women, vol. 1: A PDI Research Reference, edited by Florence L. Denmark. New York: Psychological Dimensions.
------. 1977. “Problems in Defining and Measuring Marital Power Cross-Culturally.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 285: 646-52.
------. 1978. “The Influence of Gender Roles on Reciprocal Ratings in Same-Sex and Cross-Sex Friendship Dyads.” Paper presented at the Ninth World Congress of Sociology, Uppsala, Sweden.
------. 1981. “Blabbermouths and Clams: Sex Differences in Self-Disclosure in Same-Sex and Cross-Sex Friendship Dyads.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 5(3): 385-401.
------. 1983. “Women and Islam: Dilemmas of Muslim Feminists.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Knoxville, Tenn.
------. 1984. “Towards a Feminist Reformation of Biblical Religion.” New England Sociologist 5(1): 23-36.