Harriet Presser

Harriet Presser has died. In this post I include the death notice from the Washington Post, as well as some remarks I prepared for the award ceremony at which the Family Section of the American Sociological Association honored her with the Distinguished Career award in 2009. And then a few personal comments.

Harriet Presser in a 2004 photo from the Harvard University Gazette, as she delivered a lecture there.

This death notice appeared in the Washington Post on May 6.

On May 1, 2012, Harriet B. Presser passed away with her daughter, Sheryl, and Harriet’s partner of 32 years, Phil Corfman, by her side. Harriet was a distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her work helped transform the field of demography by bringing a gender perspective to bear on the study of fertility and family processes. She was elected President of the Population Association of America for 1989. The Association named an award in her honor in 2008, to be given to recognize career contributions to the study of gender in demography. In 2010 she was awarded the American Sociological Association’s Jessie Bernard Award for work that “enlarged the horizons of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society”. At Maryland, she had founded the Center for Population, Gender and Social Inequality, and was awarded the Dean’s Medal for meritorious service to the college. A service was held in New York on Friday, May 4, 2012 at the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel. In early summer, Sheryl and Phil will hold a service in celebration of Harriet’s life in Rockville. In lieu of flowers, you may donate to the graduate student Fellowship Fund that Harriet had established. Checks should be made out to the University of Maryland College Park Foundation with Harriet B. Presser Fellowship Fund, Account #: 21-40452 in the memo line, and sent to: University of Maryland College Park Foundation Inc., Office of Gift Acceptance Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center, College Park, MD 20742

In my 2009 remarks, I focused on Harriet’s contributions to family sociology. This is what I prepared, with some links added:

On behalf of my colleagues on the Family Section’s Distinguished Career Award Committee – Bill Marsiglio, Karin Brewster, Michelle Budig, and Michael Rosenfeld – it is my distinct privilege and high honor to announce that Harriet Presser is the winner of the 2009 Distinguished Career Award from the Family Section of the American Sociological Association.

Harriet Presser is one of the preeminent researchers in the area of sociology now known as Gender, Work and Family. But it was in fact her work that helped to define that area, to shape that research agenda from the 1970s to the present day. As David Maume wrote in Contemporary Sociology, she “examined the poor fit between work and family obligations long before the idea of work-family conflict entered academic and public discourse.”

Harriet received a Masters degree from UNC Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. from Berkeley. Her first faculty appointment was in Public Health at Columbia, and her early work concerned fertility and family planning, birth control and sterilization, which was the subject of her dissertation on Puerto Rico. A review of her many published articles shows a path from teen motherhood and pregnancy to work and family, focusing on welfare, work and family formation. She also studied child care challenges for working women and families. Her institutional contributions include an instrumental role in the early Census Bureau data collection on child care, in the 1977 Current Population Survey – and in the Census Bureau’s decision to drop the concept of “head of household” from its surveys (which is itself a great story of life at the intersection of feminism, bureaucracy and demography in the 1970s).

In 1983 she had the rare distinction among sociologists of publishing an article in the journal Science – on the issue of shift work among dual-earner couples. The high rates of shift work among spouses with children had gone largely unnoticed as women’s labor force participation increased. The nurses, waitresses, sales workers and telephone operators of the 1970s and 80s were on the leading edge of the nascent 24-hour economy that would reshape modern family life. For example, these were the first families in which large proportions of men were the primary caretakers for their young children. In fact, viewing career trajectories and strategies from a couple perspective was one of the many research innovations for which we have, in part, Harriet to thank. With a clearness of thought and a prescient view of social trends, with which her work is riddled, at the end of that article in Science she sketched out a research agenda that read in part, “what are the motivations for shift work among couples with children? What is the quality of child care in shift work households? … what are the quality and stability of marriages among shiftwork couples compared with others? What is the distinctive effect of shift work on the division of labor within the home and nonmarital power? Is the effect of female shiftwork on family life different from the effect of male shiftwork?” In fact, each of these questions has become the subject of important research as we attempt to come to terms with the simultaneous effects of the growing service economy, dual earner couple employment, cultural trends in parenting and, always, struggles for gender equality at work and at home.

The subject matter of Harriet’s research was influenced by her own experience going to college at night while trading off child-care shifts with her then husband, in the 1950s. Her feminist orientation drew from her experience as well, including a run-in with my own department, which was not uniformly supportive – shall we say – of a divorced young mother’s academic ambitions.

In the subsequent years Harriet built a career for herself at the University of Maryland, serving as the founding director of its Center on Population, Gender, and Social Inequality in 1988, now the Maryland Population Research Center. She became a Distinguished University Professor. She was the 7th woman out of 53 presidents of the Population Association of America, in 1989, and was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Last year, an award was established in her name by the PAA, to honor scholars with distinguished careers in research on gender and demographic issues.

This is a small sampling of her many research activities, leaving aside her countless contributions to the universities, professional associations, advisory boards, study panels and journals that make possible so much of our work. And the students whom she has advised along the way. In recognition of the use contributions and achievements, we are delighted to name Harriet the winner of the Distinguished Career Award.

[Some of the information here comes from a 1989 interview conducted by Jean van der Tak, then historian of the Population Association of America, available as part of an archive at San Diego State University.]

* * *

Yesterday I led the last meeting in the Gender, Work and Family course at Maryland, a seminar that I took with her in 1996, when I was a graduate student in sociology here. Looking back over the papers I kept from that year, I remember how supportive of my efforts in that seminar she was. My paper for her led to the publication of an article in Gender & Society which has become my most cited sole-authored piece. (She didn’t believe the article should be published because it pushed the data too far — so I was lucky to have her as a teacher instead of a reviewer. In fact it is more influential for the issues it raises than for the answers it provides, which is a testament to what I learned in the seminar.)

Anyway, I came across this snippet, which reminded me of her, and her influence on me: I don’t want to write phrases that would draw an “ugh!” from her even now.

Instead, I wish I could have one more of these:

Addendum: There is now a page for Harriet on Wikipedia.

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