In 2007, I was invited to speak at an event for graduate sociology students at Texas Woman’s University (TWU). A new faculty member in the department, I accepted the invitation. I had no idea what I would talk about.
I had just moved to Texas and felt pretty uneasy about my place. In addition to the heat (100 degree days and 90 degree nights), I was an east coast woman sociologist in a small academic department with no gender focus, in a southern state known for religiosity and gun-toting individualism. I had only been to Texas for my job interview, and I had no shortage of preconceived biases about the lone star state. The gun-toting individualism turned out to be true, relatively. But as we know, sweeping stereotypes misrepresent the nuance of any social context. As a newbie, I had no real sense of context. I just did my best to get along while staying true to myself.
I decided to talk about something safe, the name of the university—Texas WOMAN’s University. What did it mean to use the singular term woman to describe this co-ed university? The Chancellor explained the name by saying that every Texas woman has a place at TWU. It reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s, A Room of One’s Own… which addresses the spaces women have a right to occupy, the paths women are allowed to take. Having a University of one’s own suggested the right to occupy intellectual space, to learn and to create knowledge. I liked the idea. It seemed like an acceptable subject for my talk so down the path of womanism I went.
What is a woman sociologist? What do woman sociologists want?
I recounted the history of the woman sociologists, specifically women’s invisibility in my discipline. Harriet Martineau (1802–1876) considered to be the first woman sociologist; Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935), best known for The Yellow Wallpaper and recognized as a social theorist and public intellectual; Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1964), known for the first systematic analysis in A Voice from The South that no one social category could capture the intersectional reality of gender and race; Jane Adams (1860-1935), who explained how the sociologist could study the alignment of ethical conduct and material interests through empathetic participation in the lives of disempowered groups; Marianne Weber (1870–1954), known for her famous spouse Max, but also for her theorizing of women’s standpoint and analysis of women’s status and the here-to-fore universalized male understandings of the world; and Beatrice Potter Webb (1858–1943), keen on the vital role of social investigation to inform public policy.
I explained that these women were social theorists who analyzed the social construction of knowledge, power, gender, intersectionality, and social inequality from the perspective of wanting to do something to shape it. Their work included applied topics in addition to general theoretical frameworks. They faced discrimination in the area of university employment. They had difficulties when they tried to have serious work published. And the prevailing belief that women were less intelligent than men, and therefore incapable of making academic or intellectual contributions, did not help their cause within the discipline of sociology or their place in the sociological cannon.
The erasure of those women’s work was also based in a struggle over the purpose of sociology and the social role of the sociologist. In the formative stages of the discipline (1890–1947), sociology’s academic elites reached a consensus that the appropriate role for the sociologist was that of the intellectual, committed to the purpose of scientific rigor, value-neutrality, and formal abstraction. No advocacy. No subjectivity.This de-legitimated the work of the women founders, and many men, who practiced the alternative position of a critical, activist sociology.
“That’s all behind us now,” I said, with a smile. In 2004, the American Sociological Association’s official newsletter Footnotes declared, “Sociology is the most open of academic disciplines. Its boundaries and community are not as rigid as, say, the boundaries of economics or physics.” The annual conference that year was even dedicated to public intellectuals who are “doing sociology.” Different from the early days of hierarchical knowledge structures and value-free examination, the new sociology is more fluid, responsive, open, connected to the real world—relatively speaking.
In this brave new sociological world, do the woman sociologists have “a room of our own?” The answer is likely debatable. Less debatable, to me anyway, is that we still need one.
We need a formal communal setting that is open to intellectual curiosity, the musings of everyday life and the emotions that set their tone, and the exploration of how ideas and knowledge are tied to power and influence. We need to contemplate poverty in the midst of riches, subjectivity and neutrality, public power and the linkages between meaning and power, and the social construction of knowledge (What counts as “knowledge”? Who has/lacks access? Who gets to create it?). We need to reflect, with a feminist perspective, on our lives as sociologists and human beings.
The Feminist Reflections blog is a room of our own. Even better, there’s room in this room.
Our Feminist reflections will come from women and men of diverse backgrounds and sensibilities, interests and intents, subject areas and methodological expertise. We’ll engage in feminist conversations about our everyday lives. We’ll kick around untested feminist ideas in an open forum. We’ll remind ourselves that feminist perspectives are about about more than gender alone. We’ll expand feminist networks and celebrate feminist work, online and beyond.
Let’s look at our lives through a feminist sociological lens, and reflect.
The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory, 1830-1930 by Patricia Madoo Lengermann and Jill Niebrugge-Brantley (McGraw-Hill, 1997).
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (Martino Fine Books, 2012); first publication 1929.