Suzanne Bianchi died on November 4th. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July. Beyond her family and friends, Suzanne’s death is a tremendous loss for family demography and sociology, to which she contributed so much, and to the network of collaborators, students, and former students that she nurtured during her too-short career.
After completing her PhD at the University of Michigan in 1978, she spent 16 years working at the U.S. Census Bureau before joining the faculty at the University of Maryland in 1994. In 2009 she moved to UCLA. In 2000 she was president of the Population Association of America. (Google Scholar profile, UCLA profile, UMD profile.)
I met her at Maryland in 1995, where I took her seminar, Demography of the Labor Force, and she served on my dissertation committee in 1999. We wrote an article together in 1999, and I contributed to another one in 2004. But those bio details don’t tell the story of her impact on my life and career, or those of so many other students.
From my own first job at Census to my move back to Maryland, I haven’t made a major career decision in the last 20 years without consulting her, and for good reason — for a smart, selfless, well-centered interpretation of what was going on, no one was better. Hers was the rare ability to do great social science and great personal interaction, and she cared deeply about both.
This picture, probably from the 2000 Population Association conference, hints at her influence on the students with whom she worked (this CV lists her students through 2011). In academia, policy and demographic practice, the field is littered with people who learned from her and worked with her, directly or indirectly. These are 57 of her co-authors:
Suzanne’s presidential address was titled, “Maternal Employment and Time with Children: Dramatic Change or Surprising Continuity?” If you’re reading this you are probably familiar with it. She reported that, despite dire warnings of imminent harm to children — and countless empirical searches for that harm — the evidence was that women’s employment did not harm their children, perhaps because it wasn’t leading to parents spending less time with them. Instead, lower fertility, changing definitions of ideal childhood, time juggling by parents, and increasing father time had kept parental time with children roughly constant. Plus, parents didn’t spend as much time with their kids in the old days as researchers generally assumed anyway. Her address changed the field, and helped open up research into the dynamics of family time use, which had often been black-boxed as simply non-employed time.
As I thought about her own time cut suddenly short and reread that article, I caught on the last paragraph. With her typical balance of clear-eyed yet completely compassionate, she concluded:
My one concern is that I have given the impression that women have found it quite easy to balance increased labor force participation with child rearing, to reduce hours of employment so as to juggle childcare, and to get their husbands more involved in child rearing; and that fathers have found it easy to add more hours with children to those they already commit to supporting children financially. I do not think these changes have been easy for American families, particularly for American women. Why have women so increased their hours of paid employment? Many observers would emphasize constraints — men’s poor labor force prospects — and this is probably part of the story. But this explanation is not sufficient, for it gives too little attention to the dramatic change in opportunities for women and in women’s own conceptions of what a successful, normal adulthood should entail. Yet I suspect that every mother has felt self-doubt about the path taken, and has been concerned about whether she has done the best thing for herself and/or her children, and that these feelings continue to give women pause and to slow change both in the marketplace and at home.
I’m sure she was reflecting in part on her own life and career as she delivered that speech — at the pinnacle of her career, with her family in attendance. Her life embodied that transformation — those opportunities, and that self-reflection — and in her career she made an indelible contribution both to our understanding of this newer world, and to the lives of many people making their way within it.
Update: Since I wrote this, other obituaries and tributes have appeared. Here are a few:
- New York Times: Suzanne Bianchi, 61, Who Analyzed Family Time, Dies
- Los Angeles Times: Suzanne M. Bianchi dies at 61; UCLA sociologist studied family life
- University of Maryland: BSOS Remembers Suzanne M. Bianchi
- UCLA: Obituary: Suzanne Bianchi, 61, UCLA sociologist who studied American family life