were there any founding mothers?

I

n Amanda Cross’s (1981: 33) novel, there is a scene in Cambridge where Kate Fansler is with her niece, Leighton, a student at Harvard and an aspiring actress. Leighton describes Hedda Gabler as: ‘scared sh—, scared to death of being unconventional but seething underneath’. The ways in which First Wave feminists dealt with being ‘scared to death’ of appearing ‘unconventional’, while ‘seething underneath’ are a fascinating study. First Wave feminists developed strategies to challenge orthodoxies while appearing conformist (Delamont, 1989b). The lives and work of the pioneers of feminist sociology and anthropology show how they were revolutionaries in their careers, ideas and research projects. Most of them have been ‘written out’ of the histories of their disciplines in contemporary accounts, which overwhelmingly valorise men.

To take a simple example, there is Jessica Kuper’s (1987) Key Thinkers. This is a student ‘aid’, which has brief entries on the life and works of 111 social scientists, or ancient figures like Plato, who pre-figure social science. Four of the 111 entries are women: Hannah Arendt, Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and Margaret Mead (Arendt for politics, Freud and Klein for psychoanalysis, Mead for anthropolo­gy). Apparently there are no female key thinkers at all in economics or sociology. All the leading male sociologists are included except, by the standards of today, Bourdieu; and among the philosophers, the omission of Derrida seems strange. But, in general, the 107 men are the people one would expect: it is the absence of women (Benedict, Kollontai, Martineau, de Beauvoir, Gilman, Webb, Wollstonecraft) that startles. Apparently, sociology students do not need to know anything about any women. The entries on the men are also stripped of any women or feminism. Althusser’s entry does not warn us that he murdered his wife. Gunnar Myrdal’s entry ignores Alva Myrdal’s work. Sartre’s entry is silent on de Beauvoir. Talcott Parsons’s entry fails to dis­cuss his sexism. It is against books such as this that feminist sociologists
are driven to search for, and promote, founding mothers.

My aim in this chapter is not so much to answer the question ‘were there any founding mothers?’ as to explore why feminist sociology has addressed that question, how they have attempted to answer it, what results they have had, whether they have managed to explain the exclu­sion or forgetting of the founding mothers from the canon as it is taught in the contemporary era and whether they have succeeded at all in changing the canon.

The chapter is in two main sections. First, it explores the general issues around the search for, and discussion of, founding mothers. Then it gives a detailed case study of the founding mothers of one theoretical and empirical school of sociology, and their fate since 1920.