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A Space For Me In Feminist Activism?

In recent years, I have either stayed clear of women’s and feminist groups I presume to offer a safe space for women, or ask outright whether they are intended to be a safe space before I begin participating.  Feminism is not intended to offer something to me as a man, so I acknowledge and respect that much of it is not necessarily a space for me.

via The Retriever Weekly (UMBC)

2005 Take Back the Night Rally at UMBC.
I am in the funky blue shirt, holding a sign, on the left side of the picture.

Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

It appears that others know well that men’s place in feminist activism is a precarious one.  I am aware of a few groups — some pro-feminist, some for sexual violence prevention — that are run by and for men who wish to advocate for gender equality and eliminate violence against women. (Thus, I am not confusing these with “men’s rights” groups, that advocate for advancing men’s status in society even further.)  There are also resources like The Guy’s Guide to Feminism that are produced for and by men to better understand feminism, gender inequality, and sexism.

I am uncertain of the particular histories of these kinds of groups.  Were they started because feminist women effectively articulated a need to have groups that serve as a safe space for women?  Did men feel out of place in these kinds of groups?  Or, are (some) men aware that the kind of advocacy they would pursue would be qualitatively different — for example, more inviting to men, and possibly even more influential among men as a whole?

My Involvement In Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

I understand the significance of pro-feminist groups for men.  But, I initially felt no particular draw to such groups.  A few years ago, I did actually become involved in one — not necessarily by my own decision-making.

I became involved with a local sexual violence prevention organization as a graduate student.  The organization also served as a rape crisis center and shelter for women (and their young children) fleeing abusive partners.  Understandably, the organization limited the number of volunteer positions that men could hold in order to maintain a safe space.  But, that meant my involvement was constrained to external programming, namely sexual violence prevention education in local schools.  Since that ended up not working for my schedule, I was invited to help start a group, “Man Up!”, for men to raise awareness about and eliminate sexual violence.

I knew from the start that I felt out of place in Man Up!  Even the group’s name symbolizes the emphasis on men‘s involvement.  I did my best to stick with it, but slowly drifted out of the group until I was no longer participating at all.  I dreaded meeting with other men — especially straight men — about gender politics.  I was not enthusiastic about reaching out to young men about healthy relationships and consensual sex — presumably heterosexual relationships and sex.  And, even the perspective of the group — men‘s sexual violence prevention advocacy — felt distant from my feminist politics.

Fortunately, I moved to another external project — healthy romantic and sexual relationships among young gay, bisexual, and trans men — and stuck with that until I had to focus exclusively on my dissertation.

Invisible In Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

This summer, I had the pleasure of meeting a bright undergraduate student who presented a paper on men’s anti-sexual violence groups at the American Sociological Association.  From my own experiences, I had assumed it was just me; because of my gender politics and genderqueer identity, I feel uncomfortable in predominantly-male spaces.  But, this student pointed out larger problems with these groups.

In particular, (some of) these groups are founded upon whiteness and heteronormativity.  They are created for heterosexual men to have healthy, consensual relationships with their women partners.  Advice like, “just don’t rape your girlfriend or wife!”, presumes that all men participants are engaging in heterosexual relationships.  What about bisexual, queer, and gay men?  Similarly, advice to check one’s white privilege erases men of color who are involved in pro-feminist and sexual violence prevention advocacy.  So, as a queer man of color, I often walk away from these groups for men feeling invisible.

The student also pointed out the missing structural and cultural perspectives of these groups.  The flip of blaming women for their own victimization is to blame individual men for perpetrating violence and discrimination against women.  There is inattention, then, to the ways in which organizations and institutions reproduce sexism and to the larger rape cultureSystemic problems cannot be properly addressed with individual behaviors.

Carving Out My Own Space

I suppose the starting point to finding a space for myself in feminist activism is a recognition that it cannot be a space for men.  It has to be a space that explicitly acknowledges queer men’s social location in our sexist and heterosexist society.  We are still privileged as men, albeit disadvantaged by trans-, bi-, and/or homophobia.  It is a major oversight to assume that queer men are immune to sexism and free of male privilege.  Sadly, I did not find much on queer men’s feminist advocacy, so I created a short essay, “A Gay Guy’s Guide To Feminism – A Brief Introduction.”  But, even these initial efforts fail to directly address my perspective and experiences as a person of color, and a fat person.

Black Gays for Justice and Respect

In some ways, I feel I should still participate in groups where I am the only man, only queer person, only person of color — or even only queer man of color — to ensure that my perspective is reflected.  But, in others, I need to acknowledge that a focus solely on gender simply does not fit for my perspective — one that is is inherently intersectional.  I do not fit as a fat brown queer man, not simply because I hold these identities, but because of the worldview that is shaped by the intersections among them.  I suppose at best, I can collaborate with feminists and be an ally to women; but, the space in which I will be most instrumental, and feel most comfortable, is one that advocates for human rights, with explicit attention to the intersections among racism, sexism, classism, fatphobia, transphobia, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and xenophobia.  I suppose I found the answer to my question.

On Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Academia

The days of formally excluding women and people of color as faculty, staff, and students from colleges and universities are long gone.  And, great progress has been made toward achieving diversity on college campuses along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and nationality.  But, it seems diversifying the professoriate remains a stubbornly challenging problem.  The realities of racism and sexism in the academy are complex, and shape every stage of the academic pipeline — from admission to graduate school to promotion to full professor to university leadership.  So, the mere counting of how many women and people of color “come through the door” as faculty misses these larger problems.

Racial And Gender Inequalities In Graduate School

Beyond admission to graduate training programs, the quality and extent of the mentorship one receives is shaped by their race and gender.  In a recent study, professors at over 250 colleges and universities received fictitious emails from PhD students requesting meetings.  Professors were more likely to grant meetings for the following week to students presumed to be white men compared to those presumed to be women and/or of color.  But, no difference was found for meeting requests for that day.  The difference for later meetings was attributed to the sense that such meetings were worth the professors’ time.  One could extrapolate from this that racial and gender differences in investment from faculty may exist beyond scheduling meetings.  And, these inequalities in mentorship may increase throughout graduate training, posing potential disadvantages to students as they pursue jobs and their success beyond the PhD.

And, what if this is interpreted as racist and/or sexist bias among professors — particularly among white men faculty?  One way of avoiding this would be to seek advisers from one’s own background — women professors for women students, faculty of color for students of color.  These relationships might be more comfortable, including support for one’s research (especially if it is on gender and/or race and ethnicity) and for one’s subjectivity.  However, you may be trading comfort for marketability.  A couple of years ago, the American Sociological Association conducted a study of PhD students in a minority fellowship program to assess where they landed jobs.  Those with white men as their mentors were more likely to secure jobs at Research 1 universities than those with advisers who were women and/or of color.

Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Hiring

Progress has been made in hiring faculty from diverse gender, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.  But, problems remain.  Though outright discrimination is both illegal and harder to get away with, racial and gender bias has found sneakier ways to keep qualified women and people of color out.

For example, an experiment comparing the hireability, competence, and presumed willingness to mentor students of women and men candidates for a a lab manager position found clear gender bias (against women).  And, proposed starting salaries were lower for women candidates, which reflects actual gender gaps in pay.

When scientists judged the female applicants more harshly, they did not use sexist reasoning to do so. Instead, they drew upon ostensibly sound reasons to justify why they would not want to hire her: she is not competent enough. Sexism is an ugly word, so many of us are only comfortable identifying it when explicitly misogynistic language or behavior is exhibited. But this shows that you do not need to use anti-women language or even harbor conscious anti-women beliefs to behave in ways that are effectively anti-women.

And, of course, there is discriminatory treatment even once you are hired:

[T]he report [on sexist discrimination at MIT] documents a pattern of sometimes subtle — but substantive and demoralizing — discrimination in areas from hiring, awards, promotions and inclusion on important committees to allocation of valuable resources like laboratory space and research money.

So, by the time women and people go up for tenure, they may have faced numerous instances of unequal treatment — even the prestige associated with their research and how widely they are cited (especially if they do work on race and/or gender).

But, institutional and external constraints that deter some women from applying for tenure-track jobs exacerbate these practices.  Because (heterosexual) women are still responsible for much of the household labor for their families, women with children are more likely to opt out, instead taking underpaid postdoctoral positions.  Those who do take faculty positions still face penalties for being married and/or having children.

Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Tenure And Promotion

Late last year, a report from an investigation in tenure at the University of Southern California was released, including some very depressing statistics.

The results they procured were staggering. According to her press release, “Since 1998, 92% of white males who were considered for tenure got it.  During the same period of time only 55% percent of women and minority candidates were granted tenure.  Looking at ethnicity alone, USC granted tenure to 81% of its white candidates but only to 48% of its minority candidates.”

I say “very depressing” to describe this pattern because it suggests that one could do everything “right” while on the tenure track — become a publishing machine; minimize how much you challenge students so they will not punish you on evaluations as “incompetent” or “biased”; remain censored, silent, and apolitical — and still be denied tenure if you are a woman and/or a person of color.

Racist And Sexist Climate

Discrimination is not merely the denial of access and opportunities.  It also includes aspects of interpersonal interactions and the institutional climate that can be unwelcoming to women and racial and ethnic minorities.

[A] study based on interviews with 52 underrepresented minority faculty from throughout the university describes areas for attention and improvement in the academic environment, particularly with respect to research isolation, diminished peer recognition and lesser collegiality experienced by some faculty of color.

In an environment where networking and self-promotion are vital to one’s success as a scholar, harassment and hostile interactions serve to keep marginalized faculty “in their place.”  For example, philosophy has recently received some negative attention for rampant sexual harassment by men faculty targeted against women faculty.  And, just like many universities’ failure to protect and seek justice for victims of rape and sexual assault on campus, there appears to be little protection from and recourse for sexual harassment.

No Better, No Worse

I do not write this extensive post on racial and gender harassment and discrimination in academia to demonize colleges and universities.  Rather, I wish to continue to beat the drum that calls for more explicit examination of the areas of bias at various stages in the academy.  Academia is a social institution; as such, it is not immune to realities of the social world beyond the ivory tower.

Many individuals of marginalized backgrounds pursue higher education to improve their social status and fight for change for their communities.  Indeed, college is viewed by many as a possible source of enlightenment, empowerment, and liberation.  While partly true, so, too, is the reality that universities and colleges exhibit the same inequalities of the larger society and actually contribute to them.  But, the relatively small number of women and people of color in university administration limits their potential to create change from the top; the same goes at the department-level because of the disproportionately low numbers of senior professors who are women and racial and ethnic minorities.  Those on the tenure-track (and in graduate school) are politically quarantined for several years, as well.

I call, first, for better efforts to attend to and minimize bias in graduate admission and evaluation, hiring, awards, tenure evaluation, and promotion.  This means becoming attuned to the subtle and covert ways in which bias is plays out.  For example, in hiring, problems with “fit” are often used to justify overlooking women and people of color as job candidates.  There appears to be an incomplete recognition of inequalities in mentorship and publishing that occur during graduate school that then impact one’s marketability when seeking jobs.  I have also heard that some departments make a priori assumptions that candidates of such backgrounds will not seriously consider them if an offer were made, and thus rule them out without waiting to be turned down.   My own university has made great strides in the past few years by requiring search committees to employ a diversity advocate to oversee the hiring practices.

Second, as I noted above, attention to discrimination must extend beyond denial of opportunities and access — those matters of getting in.  Hostile interactions, racist and sexual harassment, avoidance, isolation, and invisibility are also severe impediments to one’s productivity in graduate school and on the tenure-track (and beyond).  These experiences pose problems to one’s health, which can further slow one’s work down.  And, they may steer women and people of color out of academia all together, or toward certain (possibly less prestigious) programs and universities to minimize their exposure.

The problems are certainly complex, but academics are bright enough to better understand and address them.

Fatphobic Prejudice And Discrimination In Academia

On June 2nd, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller posted on his Twitter account (@matingmind) a rather disturbing message to fat applicants to PhD programs: “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth.”  Though he attempted to apologize for his comment (after people called him out), and then he made his Twitter account private, the damage had been done.  His open expression of hostility toward fat people brought about a quick and direct response from fat scholars and activists.  To prove Miller’s stereotypes wrong, several fat academics contributed their picture and degree/degree-in-progress to a Tumblr page, Fuck Yeah!  Fat PhDs.  Though the response was beautiful — a long overdue expression of pride, rather than shame, from fat people — Miller dug himself deeper by saying the entire debacle was an experiment.  (And, his past questionable work that seems to promote eugenics, and other comments, also came to light.)

Fatphobia In Academia

Is Miller just a bad apple?  And, how the heck does a PhD-educated individual harbor such prejudicial and unfounded views?  The Fat Chick noted:

I can find no excuse for this sort of behavior.  None. This guy is supposed to be a teacher.  This guy is supposed to be a scientist.  And he’s drawing this conclusion based on what evidence?  None.  He doesn’t like fat people, therefore they are lazy and incapable of doctoral level work.  Oh except, not really.  He didn’t really mean it.  The fact that this guy clearly gets to make decisions about who gets to apply for a PhD is utterly terrifying to me.

In his case, you have someone who has had say in the admissions process for his graduate training programs.  He openly announced his view that fat candidates are less qualified because they will not have the willpower to complete a dissertation.  He might as well have posted a sign:

Miller’s ignorance has raised the important lingering question: is fatphobia a problem in academia?  In my own reflection about my body (image issues), I wrestled with defining fatphobia as a system of oppression as we do racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism.  That is, is bias and discrimination against fat people systemic?  Yes. There is rampant fatphobic discrimination across multiple social contexts, which threaten the well-being and life chances of fat people.

And, academia is not immune to fatphobia.  Getting right to the heart of Miller’s comments about graduate admission, recent studies actually demonstrate discrimination against fat applicants:

“The success rate for people who had had no interview or a phone interview was pretty much equal,” Jacob Burmeister, one of the study’s authors, said in a press release. “But when in-person interviews were involved, there was quite a bit of difference, even when applicants started out on equal footing with their grades, test scores and letters of recommendation.”  The link between high BMI and low admission rate was especially strong in women.

Of course, to the charge of discrimination, there will always be the rebuttal that difference in outcomes may reflect difference in performance (not difference in opportunity or resources):

“There are two explanations,” Burmeister told Times Higher Education. “One is that there is some sort of conscious or unconscious prejudice on the part of those carrying out the interviews… [or] it could be that when applicants with obesity are put into a face-to-face interview and are aware of some of these stereotypes, it negatively affects their performance.”

The presence of fatphobic prejudice is undeniable.  And, discrimination does occur.  But, even if disparities in graduate school admission is due in part to stereotype threat (that is, underperformance by marginalized individuals because of anxiety about stereotypes), it is cause for concern.  And, discrimination may not occur at the point of entry alone.  It may be the case that fat academics face differential treatment consistently throughout their careers — potentially any face-to-face interaction, presentation, course taught, and the consequences of these instances of being denied or judged harshly.

Fellow academics, we have a problem on our hands.  And, it appears to intersect with other well-known sources of prejudice and discrimination — particularly gender.  The good news is that we are beginning to discuss weight, the body, and fat people and fatphobia in classrooms and research.  The next step is to talk about these issues within academia broadly.

Update (8/7/13, 2:41pm): Geoffrey Miller has been formally censured by one of his institutions, University of New Mexico, and will no longer be able to serve on graduate admissions committees.  After investigating Miller’s claim that his fatphobic tweet was an experiment, UNM didn’t buy his claim.  However, he will continue to serve as a visiting professor at New York University without sanction.

Gender And Class Shape How Researchers See Your Race

Sociologists Andrew M. Penner and Aliya Saperstein have published yet another study that demonstrates how we categorize others in terms of race — not just racial stereotypes, but even racial identity — is dependent upon their other characteristicsIn their most recent, published in the June 2013 issue of Gender & Society, the researchers found that individuals’ socioeconomic position and gender predicted whether their race would be recorded by interviewers as Black, white, or other:

Researchers study what shapes racial classification. In a novel study that looked back at how survey interviewers racially classify people over the course of their adult lives, sociologists Andrew Penner and Aliya Saperstein discovered that from one year to the next some people’s race appeared to change. This change occurred when the interviewer in one year wrote down one race, but in the next year the interviewer wrote down a different race. Penner and Saperstein call these changes in classification “racial fluidity,” and the researchers wanted to know what affected how a person’s race was perceived.

Though they found general factors that seemed to determine respondents’ racial classification, some were gender-specific:

The study found that men and women had similar levels of racial fluidity overall, and some factors, such as where the people lived, resulted in similar changes for both women and men. All else being equal, people were more likely to be classified as white and less likely to be classified as black if they lived in the suburbs, while the opposite was true for people living in the inner city.

However, other factors that triggered changes in racial classification differed by gender. In particular, poverty made men and women less likely to be classified as white, but the effect was stronger for men. Penner explains, “This is consistent with traditional gender roles that emphasize men’s responsibility as breadwinners, so that poverty changes how men are seen more than how women are seen.”

On the other hand, women, but not men, who have received welfare benefits are less likely to be seen as white and more likely to be seen as black, even though the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that in 2010 70% of welfare recipients are not black. Penner continues, “This result speaks to deeply entrenched stereotypes of ‘welfare queens’ originally made popular by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Knowing that a women is on welfare triggers a racial stereotype that isn’t triggered for men.”

Consistent with other widespread stereotypes, being a single parent affected a woman’s likelihood of being classified as white more than a man’s, while having been in prison affected whether men were classified as white but not women.

Some Additional Thoughts

This study, and their larger research project on racial fluidity, is a major contribution to the sociological understanding of race.  Put bluntly, their work provides further evidence that race is socially constructed.  It is not fixed (i.e., unchanging) nor universal.  Rather, race is contextual, fluid, and, most importantly, an arbitrary way of classifying people.

It is also a commendable extension of intersectionality, wherein the researchers highlight the intersections of gender and social class in racial classifications.  How we view others in terms of race is contingent upon their socioeconomic standing and gender.  To study race separate from other important social characteristics is to paint an incomplete picture.  I particularly appreciate their detailed discussion of doing intersectionality (i.e., applying an intersectional framework) in quantitative research — a practice that remains contentious among (and even antithetical to some) intersectionality scholars.

Lingering Questions

One question that lingers in my mind is the perceivers’ background.  That is, do these dynamics play out the same way for all interviewers?  Are they unique to interviewers of a particular background?  Heck, let me just say what I really mean — is it just white interviewers whose racial classifications appear to be contingent on classed and gendered notions of whiteness and Blackness?  The researchers accounted for various characteristics of the interviewers, including gender, level of education, and age — none of which effected racial categorization.  But, interviewers’ self-identified race did.

In particular, respondents were significantly more likely to be coded as white if the interviewer was white (at least compared to Black interviewers); the reverse was true for coding respondents as Black.  (Maybe these dynamics would reflect other race interviewers’ racial classifications if the survey was more racially inclusive than Black, white, and “other.”)  Since this was merely background noise for the researchers’ primary analyses, they did not dig deeper into this.  Why are white interviewers more likely to see respondents as white, and Black interviewers more likely to see respondents as Black?

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 6.57.11 PM

I suppose from my own experience — notably, as someone who is racially ambiguous — there tends to be just as much racial inclusion as there is racial “Othering.”  Some whites and Blacks have seen me as “one of their own,” while others see me as belonging to some other racial group.  So, I am surprised by this bias of categorizing others as one’s own race.  Certainly more research is needed to better understand these dynamics.

A Clarification

A point that seems lost in the academic press releases, commenting on “how others see your race,” is that those “others” are NLYS interviewers.  Certainly, interviewers and researchers are mere humans; thus, it would be inappropriate to expect them to be totally free of society’s influences (including stereotypes and biases).  I could make an issue of the supposed generalizability of the study — that we cannot assume trained interviewers’ racial classifications reflect those of laypeople.  But, their other work makes this concern unnecessary.

One article about the study noted:

These changes were not random, as one might expect if the interviewers were just hurrying to finish up or if the data-entry clerks were making mistakes. The racial classifications changed systematically, in response to what had happened to the respondent since the previous interview.

Interviewer error is inevitable.  But, this kind of systematic racial misclassification raises some cause for concern.  These “mistakes,” to some unknown degree, biased research based on the NLYS data.  In particular, it may have produced inaccurate estimates of racial differences on some outcome (e.g., health).

Fortunately, NLYS along with many other widely used surveys (and the US Census) have ceased interviewer-imposed race and ethnicity.  Now, respondents themselves provide their self-identified race and ethnicity.  While this eliminates interviewer bias, this approach is still imperfect for the fluidity and complexity of race.  In another study by Saperstein and Penner, individuals’ racial self-identification depended upon prior incarceration.  While this may appear to be evidence that respondents lie about their race (which is possible), it actually suggests that even how individuals see their own race depends upon their experiences and status.  Arguably, these contingent self-identified racial categorizations may reflect how others see them.

In other ways, researchers and interviewers may continue to impose their perceptions on respondents.  I have witnessed first hand the imputing of respondents’ gender.  The rationale given against explicitly asking respondents their gender was to avoid offending them: “can’t you tell by my voice that I’m a man!”  I am confident that most people were accurately classified by their self-identified gender.  But, I worry about the unknowable number of people who were misclassified.  I wondered why, when asking about personal opinions and intimate details of strangers’ lives, there was fear of offending them by asking about something so readily volunteered, constantly provided on official forms.

Concluding Thoughts

Although our openness as researchers introduces messiness and complexity, I feel we owe it to the people we study to willingly capture the messy, complicated details of their lives and identities.  I fear we too often choose the convenience of easily contained categories and quantifiable experiences over the rich complexity and diversity of our social world.  Though barely mentioned in the press for the article, Penner and Saperstein’s study reminds us just how complicated and messy that world is.

On Sexism And Sociology: Who Is Dorothy Swaine Thomas?

Most sociologists know the adage that is fundamental to (much of) sociological thought — “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” — the Thomas theorem.  It is so widely known and used that few actually cite the original source, noting simply, “according to W. I. Thomas…”

I looked to formally cite this notion in my dissertation, which meant having to search for the source.  So easily found: The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs (1928) by William Issac Thomas and Dorothy Swaine Thomas.

Who Is Dorothy Swaine Thomas?

Wait – what?  Never in my life had I heard of Dorothy Swaine Thomas.  It seemed odd that the second of only two others is rarely, if ever, cited when referencing the Thomas theorem.  Is it really that hard to say “Thomas and Thomas” or “Thomas et al.” or “the Thomases”?  I figured the mystery surrounding author number two had something to do with her being a woman academic in the early twentieth century.

I decided to do some digging to see who Dorothy Swaine Thomas is, and whether others had taken note on the conspicuous absence of her contribution to this important sociological theorem.  I thought others may have been wary of her contribution because she was seen as an assisting author, particularly as William’s wife, than a “legitimate” co-author.  Maybe she is otherwise irrelevant in terms of sociological research, theory, and knowledge.

Simply clicking her name on the Amazon page for The Child in America, I saw that she published upwards to 30 books.  Okay, so she is hardly irrelevant, even by the least generous standards.  (By all means, even co-publishing one pivotal book counts as relevant in my mind, but others may have higher standards of “relevance” to the discipline.)

Digging deeper, I saw that she was actually quite influential in sociology, as well as demography.  She began publishing research as early as age 22, and had her PhD by age 25.  She was the first woman professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  And, she served as the first woman President (and, earlier, Vice President) of the American Sociological Association, and also served as President of the Population Association of American.

Let’s call it what it is: she was an academic badass.  Of special personal interest: “Although Thomas considered herself a social activist, [her adviser William] Ogburn persuaded her to become a ‘scientist,’ which in sociology meant a quantitative, preferably statistical approach to social issues” (from the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology online).

So, I am left wondering why I had never heard or read about Thomas prior to my own search.  Especially because:

Thomas’s contributions to sociology were nonetheless substantial. Her high standards and clear thinking helped professionalize a discipline criticized for its armchair theorizing, jargon, and do-goodism. Despite the controversy that surrounded the Evacuation and Resettlement study, the Supreme Court later accepted it as a major resource in documenting a national wrong perpetrated by the government against its citizens.

The quantitative work Thomas pioneered helped gain sociology foundation support and provided a beachhead for women who might otherwise have been excluded from university positions. For her contributions to demography the University of Pennsylvania awarded Thomas an honorary degree in 1970 (from Blackwell).

On Sexism And Sociology

A good guess would be sexism.  Though she was successful, her career was not without the constraints of sexism:

Job prospects were also not encouraging. Although women of Thomas’s generation were earning doctorates in sociology in increasing, if still relatively small numbers through the late 1920s, these graduates were effectively excluded from jobs in university sociology departments through a pattern of formal rules and informal understandings.

Unfortunately, some of her success came with the dilemma that many women scholars continue to face – the tension between authenticity and success/relevance:

Thomas experienced the pressures of being scrutinized by members of an overwhelming majority, however kindly disposed. As a result, she not only shared the outlook, the professional ethos, and the passion for objectivity of Ogburn and other male objectivists, but was one of the most ardent practitioners of their brand of sociology. Otherwise, she would almost certainly not have realized the success she did.

At the same time, had she not had so constantly to prove her professionalism and objectivity, she might not have remained wedded to so narrow a conception of her discipline, might have produced richer and more valuable insights into human behavior and perhaps even a body of theoretical work more to modern taste. Viewed in this way, Thomas’s sex exacted a toll for the very reasons that she was so eminently successful in overcoming the limitations it imposed.

The Erasure Of Thomas’s Contributions

These constraints aside — blocked job opportunities, and the way “trading power for patronage” shaped her career — there appears to be some erasure of Thomas’s contribution to sociology.  In a review 244 introductory sociology textbooks (1945-1994) to assess citations of The Child in America, particularly for the Thomas’ theorem, R. S. Smith (1995) noted:

There  I was surprised to discover that W. I. Thomas was not the sole author of [The Child in America]; rather it was co-authored by Dorothy Swaine Thomas..  It was this experience that started me thinking about all the times I had seen [the theorem] quoted but had never once come across Dorothy Swaine Thomas’s name (p12-3).

Most of the textbooks that cited the “Thomas theorem” merely credited W. I. Thomas.  So, why is Dorothy’s work ignored?  Apparently, she was primarily responsible for the book’s data collection and analyses.  But, those parts are central to the book.  While she later penned a letter that suggested William was the “brains” behind the theorem, the letter’s 1991 publication in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences fails to explain why she was rarely credited for the theorem from 1928 through the mid-1970s.

Unfortunately, the erasure of her contributions, as well as those of other women scholars, has a “ripple effect.”  I seriously doubt that my professors fail to credit Dorothy Swaine Thomas intentionally; rather, they failed to teach me about her because they never learned about her.  Her invisibility is further spread through introductory textbooks.  If it were not for accidentally “discovering” her, I, too, would likely perpetuate her erasure by overlooking her work in my classes.

A(nother) Call For The Sociology of Sociology

As I have written in earlier posts, sociology, and academia in general, is not immune to the biases of society.  But, what may have been intentional exclusion or erasure nearly a century ago (and, to be honest, even more recently) continues on as innocent ignorance.  This is inexcusable.

The erasure of “people like us” does marginalized scholars a disservice because it paints the picture that we have had little role in shaping academia and knowledge.  And, many of the names and legacies that have survived efforts to exclude and erase, as well as innocent “amnesia,” are often stripped of personhood.  For example, some sociological “greats” like W. E. B. DuBois are stripped of their activism and radical politics, characterized, instead, as cooperative, mainstream (apolitical) sociologists.

But, for all of academia, this supposed “amnesia” seems like a detriment to the advancement of knowledge.  Whole scholarly contributions have either been outright blocked, or eventually lost over time.  Who knows whether we are “reinventing the wheel,” missing crucial insights that had once been put forth and lost?

Again, I call for a sociology of sociology, where we turn our critical lens back on our field.  In many ways, exclusion and discrimination are still at play.  And, there are whole careers and specific studies, theories, and insights that are lost in the past.  Besides liberating these scholars and their work from academic “amnesia,” it may also be worth revisiting other “classic” work through a contemporary lens.  (Full disclosure, I remain wary of giving full credit to handful of dead middle-class white men to pen the theories of society.)

To be fair, this line of work would still be a bit too “navel-gazey” for my tastes to pursue as my primary research.  But, I remain intrigued enough to do my own homework in my free time (and, obviously blog about it).  If anything, I would like to know the herstory of the field I love, with specific attention to the stories that are not told, and to those scholars who are not celebrated as the “fathers of sociology.”

I certainly encourage others to reflect more on the past (and present) of our discipline and the academy as a whole.  At a minimum, I hope others take from this inspiration to credit the other Thomas (i.e., Dorothy Swaine) for the Thomas theorem.