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Ruth Sidel, appreciated


Some of Victor Sidel’s photos from Women and Child Care in China

I just learned that sociologist Ruth Sidel has died. These are a few scattered notes on the influence of some of her work. I always wanted to meet her but never did. I read her early work on China as a student, and I used her later work on poverty and welfare in the U.S. in my teaching.

She had a great influence on American leftists (and me) initially because of her writing on China, especially Women and Child Care in China, which came from a trip she took in 1971, during the Cultural Revolution, with her husband, Victor Sidel (and one of the founders of Physicians for Social Responsibility). At the time of that trip she was a social worker, having written only a masters thesis, invited in her role as wife, but found their hosts willing to open up their visit (which was supposed to be about medical care) to the issues of women’s liberation and education. She remembered in an oral history interview:

They integrated what I was interested in into every single thing we did. It was just remarkable. … Half way through the trip I said to Vic, “There is a book here.”… He said “How can you have a book after two weeks?” And I said “Trust me, there is a book here.” …and I did and wrote a book called “Women and Childcare in China” which was really like successful. People really wanted to read about it. They wanted to read about mutual aid. They wanted to read about how the communist government was trying to take care of children and women. We went to preschools and how the children were taught to help each other, love each other and take care of each other according to the words of Chairman Mao, literally, I’m quoting. The book went into paperback and sold even more copies and I spoke everywhere. I’d never given a speech before in my life, ever. Terrified but I had to do it because I knew stuff that other people didn’t know and I had to communicate it.

One book led to the next book about neighborhood organization [Families of Fengsheng: Urban Life in China] and I helped Vic finish his book on healthcare. The whole 70s I was writing about China and lecturing about China all over the country and in many parts of Europe. We were invited—I mean it was just unbelievable. It was a total life change and thrilling.

I am awed by that spirit of adventure, the confidence to seize that moment, and the commitment to doing social science for the public interest.

Later she got a PhD in sociology and went on to write on poverty and welfare, the work she was known for after the 1990s (see books listed below).

Although writing books promoting the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s is not a fast-track ticket to respectability nowadays, if you go back to those books you will also see how close her observations are, and how incisive. The macro-political context of course is important (and she wrote about that), but that was not her primary contribution. In addition to what she learned (or didn’t) from official documents and statements, she did see some things with her own eyes. One of the key insights she brought back from China was the value of deprofessionalization, the role of non-professionals to improving community health and education. This was essential to the dramatic improvements in public health achieved in that period in China (which I wrote about in a remembrance on another China-inspired American feminist, Janet Salaff.) This was a radical-democratic view of public health in particular. From Families of Fengsheng:

Health care, perhaps better than any other single facet of Chinese society, vividly illustrates some of the principles that guide life in China today: a strong belief in mass involvement; recruitment of health workers from among those who live in the community to be served; short periods of training to minimize alienation from the community; a minimum of social distance between the helper and the helped; attempts to demystify as much of medicine as possible; decentralization; and motivating people through altruism rather than through prestige or material incentives.

Wouldn’t that be something!

I hope there will be more comprehensive remembrances from people who knew Ruth Sidel and her work more fully. This note is just to register my own deep appreciation.

Some books by Ruth Sidel:

  • Sidel, Ruth. 1972. Women and Child Care in China; a Firsthand Report. New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1974. Families of Fengsheng : Urban Life in China. Baltimore: Penguin Books.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1978. Urban Survival : The World of Working-Class Women. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1986. Women and Children Last : The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America. New York: Viking.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1990. On Her Own : Growing up in the Shadow of the American Dream. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1996. Keeping Women and Children Last : America’s War on the Poor. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 2006. Unsung Heroines : Single Mothers and the American Dream. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Suzanne Bianchi


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.


Back: Ching-Yi Shieh, Rose Kreider, Aparna Sundaram, Suzanne Bianchi, Liana Sayer, Philip Cohen. Front: Soumya Alva, Chunnong Saeger, Lekha Subaiya, Jane Lawler Dye, Marybeth Mattingly

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:

Katharine Abraham
Mary Allard
Christine Bachrach
Michael Bittman
Caroline Bledsoe
Lynne Casper
Lindsay Chase-Lansdale
Philip Cohen
Diana Colasanto
Thomas DiPrete
Jane Dye
Paula England
Reynolds Farley
Javier Garcia-Manglano
Shirley Hatchett
Howard Hayghe
Sandra Hofferth
Joseph Hotz
Kristin Hunt
Joan Kahn
Sarah Kendig
Laurent Lesnard
Judith Lichtenberg
Aaron Maitland
Marybeth Mattingly
Kathleen McGarry
Brittany McGill
Melissa Milkie
Kristin Moore
Philip Morgan
Tiziana Nazio
Kei Nomaguchi
Pia Peltola
Joseph Pleck
Joe Price
Tetyana Pudrovska
Yeu Qiu
Sara Raley
John Robinson
Carolyn Rogers
Nancy Rytina
Seth Sanders
Liana Sayer
Howard Schuman
Judith Seltzer
Daphne Spain
Jay Stewart
Charles Strohm
Jeffrey Stueve
Lekha Subaiya
Duncan Thomas
Betsy Thorn
Robert Wachbroit
Wendy Wang
David Wasserman
Vanessa Wight
Jenjira Yahirun

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:






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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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Janet W. Salaff (and the feminists China helped make)

The sociologist Janet W. Salaff has passed away at age 69, according to her department in Toronto and her mother’s hometown paper.

I did not know her, but I am very familiar with a single article she published in 1973, shortly after completing her PhD at Berkeley. In that paper, published in Population Studies, she reported in highly technical terms on the dramatic declines in mortality experienced in post-revolutionary China. She challenged the common perception that health and mortality statistics from local medical teams and journals were not trustworthy, and she showed that China had achieved in less than a quarter century what the U.S. had done in about 100 years — drastically reducing mortality through public health innovation. Their approach was massive application of low-technology, labor-intensive public health campaigns to educate the public as well as prevent and treat common sources of illness and death. It was cheap and quick, and highly effective.

Here is what she found about child mortality in the capital city of Beijing in less than 10 years, for example:

There is a historical context to that work, and her career, that is unique and worth contemplating. At the time, a cohort of (mostly) female feminist demographers and social scientists were breaking into Western academia. (I previously wrote about one of them, Valerie Oppenheimer, who passed away in 2009.) As they were entering the academic scene, China was making such dramatic progress — especially in the fields of public health, education, and women’s rights — that a number of them were motivated to research and publish on the changes underway.

As they matured and their research developed, their analysis became critical of Chinese family and gender politics, but the tone of their work was worlds apart from most of what one reads today — which usually casually attributes Chinese progress to post-1980 reforms, or dismisses its health and education progress in light of human rights abuses that accompanied (or followed) that era. (Most people seem not to know, for example, that birth rates already fell dramatically — with beneficial effects on women’s health and gender inequality — before the “one-child” policy, which introduced new levels of coercion to the family system.)

Some of the flavor of that time is evident in a review essay that Salaff published in Contemporary Sociology, on three books from 1983: The Unfinished Liberation of Chinese Women, 1949-1980, by Phyllis Andors (who died at age 50 in 1992); Women, the Family, and Peasant Revolution in China, by Kay Ann Johnson, a professor at Hampshire College; and Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China, by Judith Stacey, now at NYU. Salaff described the set of books as “sober reflections of how a complex development  process  both  limits  and  enhances women’s status,” and provided a balanced, theoretical description of the issues and controversies raised.

I would include in this rough cohort several other women I don’t know. Ruth Sidel, now at Hunter College, wrote a series of books: Families of Fengsheng (1975), Women and Child Care In China: A Firsthand Report (1976), and The Health of China (1983). In Britain, Delia Davin, now an emeritus professor at Leeds, started her career teaching and translating in China in the 1960s; she wrote, Woman-work: Women and the Party in Revolutionary China (1976). Elisabeth Croll, who got her anthropology PhD studying China in 1977 and wrote Feminism and Socialism in China (1978), and died in 2007.

A number of these women moved away from studying China. Their recent contributions include Sidel’s Unsung Heroines: Single Mothers and the American Dream (2006), and Stacey’s Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late-Twentieth-Century America (1998). Davin and Croll, along with Salaff herself continued to study Asia. Salaff’s most recent book was Hong Kong Movers and Stayers: Narratives of Family Migration in 2010 (with Siu-lun Wong and Arent Greve). From an academic life-course perspective — or the sociology of sociology — it is interesting to see where this early work led them. I imagine them as being imprinted by the experience — though I’ve never discussed it with them.

It is hard to remember (or imagine) now how different it was to be a student in the social sciences when there was such an active debate and analysis of socialism as a legitimate alternative mode of social organization — and especially in the context of gender inequality. Today’s first-year college student was born after the Berlin Wall and Tienanmen Square. But maybe one of today’s graduate students will write the history of the Western feminist academics who cut their teeth, and tested their ideals, on the Chinese revolution.

Source: Palisadian Post

Janet W. Salaff
Source: Palisadian Post


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Valerie K. Oppenheimer

News from UCLA is that Valerie Kincade Oppenheimer, who was on the sociology faculty there since 1972, has passed away. This year, fittingly, Oppenheimer was the inaugural recipient of the Harriet B. Presser Award from the Population Association of America, which is given for a record of sustained contribution in gender and demography.

I did not know her personally, but her work was highly influential in the areas of sociology of gender and family. (An obituary in the Los Angeles Times appeared here.)

In a path-breaking 1967 article in Population Studies, she analyzed the interaction of labor supply and demand to explain the rapidly increasing employment rates of women in the post-war years. That complex dynamic involved demographic trends in population size and composition, economic factors such as the changing industrial composition, cultural changes in the acceptability of women’s employment and political changes in the laws and policies limiting the employment of married women and mothers. A 1968 article in Industrial Relations provided documentation of high levels of gender segregation. In a technique near and dear to my heart, she differentiated occupations across industries in the Census data to uncover the extent of segregation. (For example, 67% of clerical workers were women, but in the communications industry that figure rose to 88% – that’s 1960, when there were a lot fewer women in the labor force.) Her dispassionate and methodical scientific tone in these articles masks the cutting-edgeness of a woman independently doing theoretically ambitious, quantitative, demographic work in the U.S. at that time.

Perhaps her most influential work today, however, was in debunking the myth that married couples are most stable and “functional,” and can best maximize their fortunes, by combining wives’ unpaid work and husbands’ paid employment, known as the “specialization and trading model.” These articles have been cited hundreds of times, establishing a theoretical and empirical pillar for a sociological counter-model to, first, the dominant functionalist model in American sociology (Talcott Parsons in particular); and second to the dominant, and often simplistic, economic paradigm on the family. She did not predict or advocate for the end of marriage, but rather for its reconfiguration as a two-earner partnership, albeit one that would probably be less common and less stable than the trading-based marriages were before.

Here’s a long excerpt from the conclusion to her 1994 article in Population and Development Review entitled, “Women’s Rising Employment and the Future of the Family in Industrial Societies”:

According to the trading model, as women’s wages rise … they experience greater involvement in paid employment and increasing economic independence; hence the major gain to marriage is greatly reduced. But there are other reasons why an institution of marriage based on such a model might become an endangered social form in industrial societies. The stability of such a family is theoretically founded on women specializing in home production, and a major part of this production involves the bearing and rearing of children who, as marriage-specific capital, provide an additional source of marital cohesion. Much of the specialized home production of women in the past was devoted to bearing and rearing children who never survived to adulthood. For women to be equally occupied in contemporary low-mortality societies would mean the production of large families. However, even moderate family sizes in a low-mortality society lead to rapid population growth. Hence, if the stability of marital relationships depends on exponential population growth, it is unclear whether this is a viable societal strategy over the long term. Moreover, couples do not just want to produce children per se, they want to produce children like themselves – that is, they are interested in social, not just biological reproduction. But the cost of social reproduction is high in a society where increasingly substantial and lengthy investments in human capital for each child are required. In short, high fertility does not appear to be a viable family strategy. Contemporary low fertility, however, reduces the need for women’s specialization in home production. Given their long lives, it also means women would be not doing anything highly productive most of the time. Can any society, even a wealthy one, afford to have more than half its citizenry economically nonproductive for a good part of their lives? All in all, if the basis of marriage is specialization and exchange, then marriage seems an increasingly anachronistic social form.

This may seem an exceedingly pessimistic view of the future of marriage but, in large part, this is a function of the specialization model itself. It may not follow from other models of marriage. For example, I have suggested that a more adaptive family strategy for a modern industrial society is one where wives as well as husbands engage in market work. A specialization model of marriage, aside from its other problems, entails considerable risks in an independent nuclear family system – risks for individuals as well as for the family unit. This is because in such a family there is rarely more than one person to occupy any single specialty, and if something happens to him or her, functions vital to the family’s well-being and even its continued survival may cease to be performed. …

Moreover, as societies industrialize and become characterized by highly skilled and relatively high-wage labor, the potential relative contribution of unskilled children is greatly diminished. Wives’ employment, therefore, provides a highly adaptive alternative strategy. It introduces some needed labor redundancy, thereby reducing the risks to the family’s income position, and it also provides a means of helping to maintain living levels over the family’s developmental cycle. But if wives’ employment (whether in-termittent or regular, part-time or full-time) is an adaptive family strategy in a modern society, then we are positing a model of marriage entirely different from that of specialization and trade. Now we are talking about a more collaborative model.

Oppenheimer had been professor emerita at UCLA since 1994. My career, and those of many others, would not have been the same without her.

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