Parsons and Merton
In the period from 1930 onwards two Americans are regularly presented as founding fathers to today’s students: Robert Merton and Talcott Parsons. These two American men dominated sociology in the era of Second Wave feminism (1930-68). One of them, Talcott Parsons, became a symbol to feminists of all that was pernicious about malestream sociology, while Robert Merton has been left unattacked. Talcott Parsons (1902-79) wrote extensively on theoretical issues, offering American sociology his version of the ideas of Weber and Durkheim. He wrote about age and sex in the social structure of the USA, and it is his vision of the proper roles of men and women in the economy and the family which has been the symbol for feminists of everything that was wrong with sociology between 1930 and 1970. Parsonian ideas were reproduced in textbooks, and taught widely beyond sociology. The argument was that the stability of American democracy depended on men striving in the world of work, while women ran homes in which men could discharge their pent-up emotions. These ideas can be traced through Catherine Beecher back to de Tocqueville (Sklar, 1973) although Parsons does not cite Beecher.
This sociology was under attack from Gouldner (1971) as theoretically and empirically sterile when the Third Wave feminism blossomed. For feminists, the stultifying sexism of Parsonian theory was laid bare by Friedan (1963). Clearly, neither Marxist feminist sociologists, nor radical feminist sociologists could look to Parsons for inspiration. Miriam Johnson (1989) a liberal feminist, is the only feminist sociologist who identifies as a Parsonian. Parsons’s ideas are simply not flexible enough to allow most feminists to see them as stimulating. It is also striking that not one of the 42 women sociologists whose autobiographical essays have been published (see Chapter 7 for details) remembers him with warmth either as a theorist or as a person. Indeed, Mary Haywood Metz recalled how when she was a student in the 1960s: ‘my male peers at Harvard and Berkeley expected a “real” woman to be on her way to becoming a good Parsonian wife-mother’ (1994: 221). Holmstrom was rejected for graduate study at Harvard by Parsons: ‘I arrived at Emerson Hall in ivy-covered Harvard Yard for my interview with Talcott Parsons. He made it clear that married women were not welcome – not a surprise for anyone who knew his position’ (1995: 263).
The theories of Parsons were taught to many of the feminists whose autobiographies have been analysed. The reminiscences of 42 women only mention meeting him or being taught by him three times, but five of them describe being taught his theories. Cavan (1994: 62) for example describes how Garfinkel taught her ‘the prodigious writings of Talcott
Parsons’. However, the baleful influence of the work is part of what these women are delighted to have challenged.
In contrast to Parsons, with whom he is sometimes associated, Robert Merton (born 1910) used the ideas of Weber to explore American history, and then developed a sociology of science. He has not been pilloried by feminists at all. He is absent from the reminiscences of the 42 women sociologists analysed perhaps because there is no volume focused on women who did PhDs at Columbia where he was based. Four women recall being taught his ideas, and one (Laslett) that he attended her oral. There are distinguished women sociologists who were trained by Merton, especially Harriet Zuckerman (Zuckerman et al., 1991) and Cynthia Epstein (1970), and they have drawn feminist inspirations from his ideas.