Neither young, nor luscious, nor sycophantic
developments in feminist sociology 1968-2002
The Leicester sociology department in which I studied from 1967 to 1972 was large, prestigious, and had a male-dominated academic staff. (Deem, 1996: 7)
or the women who became feminist sociologists in Britain after 1965, what Deem describes at Leicester is instantly recognisable. Deem argues that the Leicester Department operated a tripartite internal market, with an applied sociology track (female-dominated, low status), a theoretical track (high status, difficult, male-dominated) and an empirical track (intermediate in difficulty, and not marked by gender). We do not have detailed data on the staffing, curricula and student enrolments of all the other sociology departments in the UK over the past 40 years, but the male-dominated staff and the prestige of ‘male’ theory were normal in the period from 1960 to 1980, and other women will recognise the same gender regime. Most students would have experienced the gender regimes of their alma mater in the same way as Deem, although not all of them would be as articulate and analytic about it. Let us pay our first visit to the fictional university of Burminster.
Burminster is a university in a cathedral city in middle England: a city with a county cricket ground and a soccer team that moves in and out of the Premier League. There are about 12,000 students in 2002. The university was founded in 1893, with 24 students, and admitted women from the outset. Sociology began at Burminster in a small way in the 1950s, inside Economics, and became a full department in 1964.
Burminster is a ‘typical’ sociology department in 1968. There are eight staff; seven men and one woman. Professor Westwater is the only
professor, and is the head of department. Dr Amysfort is an ‘old’ senior lecturer, in his late fifties. Dr Greenslade is the rising star, a senior lecturer at only 40. The other staff are lecturers, including Miss Glynde, who lectures on social policy and welfare. The male lecturers are mostly in their 20s and 30s. One, Tom Twisdon is a neo-Marxist, who has read Althusser, Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. Another, Homer Scudder, has joined from California and is an ethnomethodologist. Both scare Professor Westwater: they are so modern. However, everyone despises Miss Glynde, who does not publish, and frets about students who get pregnant. None of the courses, except the one on ‘marriage and the family’ taught by Miss Glynde, mention women or gender at all. Theory is an all-male course, methods are quantitative and very ‘macho’, the empirical courses on work, education, developing countries, politics, social movements and religion are all delivered by men, with no women authors on the reading lists, and all valorise class. Apart from Tom Twisdon and Homer Scudder, the staff are either British ‘Fabians’ or draw on the American ‘scientific’ ideas of positivism using Talcott Parsons. There are about 60 students in the three years, roughly half of them women. One of the four PhD students is a woman, Tamzin Wrankester, who is interested in women workers in the textile industry. Her supervisor, Mr Whaddon, is nice, but clearly does not expect her to become a professional sociologist.
Such is our fictional university: as the feminist revolution develops, we 14 will see Burminster change. There are three ways in which the fictional Burminster is very different from a sociology department today: it is much smaller with a more generous staff-student ratio, it is influenced by Parsons or British Fabianism, and it relies on quantitative methods. In the period from 1968 to 1976 all these changed. The discipline grew in popularity so student numbers rose and staff-student ratios began to worsen, as it has continued to do ever since. Such changes were gradual, and not immediately obvious. More noticeable was what Gouldner (1971) called the crisis of western sociology (that is of American Parsonian structural-functionalism). Briefly, the combined impact of the anti-war movement, the student protests, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the industrial unrest and the stirrings of Black Power, Gay Liberation and Women’s Liberation produced a crisis in many social sciences in the USA, including sociology. The dominant orthodoxy had not predicted any of these, and could not explain them. A range of different perspectives, backed by enthusiasm for ‘new’ (or rediscovered) data collection methods rapidly thrust themselves into the academic arena. Four particular types of ‘new’ sociology were advocated:
1 Conflict theories
2 Neo-Marxist theories
3 Interactionist theories (SI, phenomenology, ethnomethodology)
4 Sociology of knowledge
With the skills of hindsight, or as the American term has it, Monday morning quarterbacking, these were not equally successful as successor sociologies to structural functionalism and positivism. The classic American functionalism with positivist methods survived, and is still the most favoured research approach in the USA. A glance at the AJS or ASR, or at the programme of the ASA annual conference shows how well the pre-1968 paradigm has survived. Conflict theories, associated with Randall Collins, never ‘took off’. Neo-Marxist ideas, drawing on the Frankfurt School for a humanist Marxism or on Althusser for an anti-humanist Marxism, or on Gramsci (with his useful term ‘hegemonic’) have survived but never came to dominate sociology. The three types of interactionism remain minority ‘schools’. The symbolic inter – actionists developed the SSSI, a journal and a year book, and live on, but many of their key ideas spread unacknowledged (Atkinson and Housley, 2002; Maines, 2000). Ethnomethodology was infamous and fashionable briefly, but quickly became a small sect. Phenomenology never became widespread in sociology, and its ‘method’ is a travesty of both phenomenology and methods. The sociology of knowledge was not widely adopted either.
The four responses to the crisis of western sociology highlighted by Gouldner, distilled by Giddens (1973) and clearly apparent in the early 1970s (see Delamont, 1976, for an early use of Giddens’s typology as an explanatory framework) were all false trails. Only SI can be seen as a clear alternative to the dominant paradigm in the USA today, and its role is that of loyal opposition. Looking back from 2002 the real, lasting challenges to the dominant paradigm have come, not from within the sociology of 1971, but from the intellectual developments which grew out of the political campaigns of 1968-73. Instead of the four responses suggested by Giddens, there are five anti-functionalist, antipositivist sociologies which have posed a serious challenge:
2 The cultural turn
3 Critical race theory
4 Queer theory
5 Feminist theory
There is not a massive presence of these five sociologies in AJS and ASR, but they are all highly visible in the programmes of the annual ASA conferences of the 1990s. Their absence from the AJS and ASR, paralleling the absence of the neo-Marxist and interactionist approaches of the 1970s, is more revealing about these journals than about what most sociologists find exciting. Abbott (1999: x) states that the AJS has metamorphosed ‘into a narrow, rigid structure, unable to reach beyond
its fixed place’, as it suffers ‘intellectual sclerosis’. Abbott confesses he does not read his copy of AJS, shelving it unread, although he is its official historian. Other books in this series, and other sociologists deal with the successful challenges that postmodernism, the cultural turn, critical race theory, and queer theory have posed to functionalism and positivism. Alongside the rise of the five theoretical approaches there has also been a rapid growth of qualitative methods and increasingly a turn to data collection by interview with an enthusiasm for narrative (Atkinson et al., 2001; Atkinson and Silverman, 1997). Other volumes deal with this methodological concern (Atkinson et al., 2001, for example).
My concern is with the feminist theories, whose success was quite unpredicted and whose very existence was quite unsuspected by Gouldner (1971) who did not see the absence of women or sexist stereotypes as a problem endemic in western sociology and by Giddens (1973) who was totally uninterested in gender. However, the seeds of the feminist challenge had been sown by 1971, in Friedan’s (1963) The Feminine Mystique. Friedan provided a devastating critique of two male thinkers powerful in the American intellectual landscape of the 1950s and 1960s: Freud and Parsons. Freud is discussed in Chapter 6, here the focus is on Parsons. Friedan dared to argue that Parsonian structural functionalism was a pseudo-science, describing 1950s’ America as if it were the acme of human achievement, and labelling all those who felt rebellious or unhappy as ill or deviant. Friedan argued that Parsons’s sociology was being taught in an over-simplified way to thousands of young women in courses on marriage and the family. This was a classic example of Fleck’s (1979) ideas about the gulf between frontier science and textbook science. One such course featured in the film Where The Boys Are, a vehicle for Connie Francis, which included a scene from a class on marriage as part of the safe, but cold and dull world of a snowbound campus in the Mid-West, from which the heroines flee to hot, sunny Florida for spring break. Friedan’s critique was particularly good at exposing how easily functionalist ideas about gender slid from description to prescription. Gouldner neither recognised the deeply ingrained sexism of sociology in the 1960s, nor queried the lack of women in the discipline, especially the lack of women in tenured posts in elite universities, and in the management of the learned societies.
Neither the topic of women, nor the existence of women as sociologists were apparent in 1968. There were some women lecturers, and a tiny number of women professors, but they were not visible in the subject. Sheila Allen (2001: 1) wrote that when she became president of the British Sociological Association: ‘Barbara Wootton, President from 1959-64 was overlooked in 1975 when Network announced I was the
first woman president and replied to my apologetic note expressing no surprise at becoming invisible in so short a time.’
The position of women is well captured by Amanda Cross (1981: 47) in the quote that provides the chapter title. The heroine, Kate Fansler, a distinguished literary scholar from Columbia, describes her reception at Harvard: ‘as a woman, and a woman neither young nor luscious nor sycophantic, she was simply invisible to those who still viewed Harvard as an all-male institution’. Women were, unless they were luscious or sycophantic, simply invisible in sociology. When the three feminist perspectives, liberal, Marxist and radical, developed in the early 1970s, their proponents had to make themselves and their theories visible.
In the early days of feminist sociology there were eight main tasks. These could be grouped into aims for changing the profession, aims for changing the discipline’s intellectual agenda, aims for changing undergraduate curricula, aims for changing the universities, and changing the learned societies. Underlying all these goals was a desire to make the subject a more accurate reflection of women’s lives and careers, and make it a less chilly climate (Smith, 1999) for women studying and teaching it. The goals for changing the discipline included:
1 To develop feminist theories/adapt the dominant theories to accommodate women.
2 To rethink research methods: to develop non-sexist or even feminist methods.
3 To point out the gaping holes in the coverage of the social world where women had not been studied and/or where topics women thought important had not been studied.
4 To get published, especially to get feminist ideas into print.
5 To get feminist work read, and then cited, and then ‘mainstreamed’.
Alongside these five goals, feminists wanted to change the undergraduate curricula, and teach the new ideas to graduate students:
6 To get things feminists thought important into the syllabuses taught by feminists and then by all sociologists.
Part of the agenda for feminist sociologists was to change higher education, and to change the learned societies:
7 To get the learned societies to recognise women members.
8 To get jobs for feminists, both for themselves and their students.
This chapter deals primarily with the first and third of these eight goals. Chapter 4 is all about methods. There are briefer sections on the other goals. Some of them, such as goal 4, are returned to in Chapter 3, where I discuss how feminist sociologists founded new journals to create space for feminist sociology. These were radical, and lofty goals in 1974. They may no longer seem particularly revolutionary. Today, sociology is so different that different goals are required. For many sociologists the challenges of postmodernism loom large. These goals and challenges are addressed in Chapter 8.