adjunct 1Adjunct:  “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part”.

I’ve been teaching Sociology as an “adjunct” for nearly 20 years.  I never liked this descriptor, but I learned early on that most students don’t know or seem to care about my title or my status, and for me, that’s the bottom line. I have found that students are oblivious to stratification within academia – the cascade of titles and honors that starts with part-timers at the bottom, and then officially begins with Assistant Professor, the tenuous first step which initiates the gradual and arduous climb up and up, until – if lucky – one reaches Associate, Full and eventually, at the far end of the career spectrum, Emeritus, the end of the line, after decades of classes taught, research conducted, peer-reviewed articles and books published, talks given and dissertations advised.

Chichén Itzá Pyramid
Chichén Itzá Pyramid

When prospective parents and students tromp around campus, asking all the right questions, they are rarely prompted to ask one of the most relevant questions:  “Will my professors be part-time (low-paid) labor?” No, if they ask anything related to the status of teachers, they want to know if the professors have doctorates, and often the answer is “yes”, avoiding the issue of labor stratification altogether.

That said, most students just assume that their teacher is the professor, unless that teacher is still a graduate student. In fact, in every undergraduate class I have taught, students insist on calling me “Professor”, even when I tell them to call me by my first name. I generally stop short of telling them about my status in the academic chain; I also don’t tell them that they may never see me again because I’m not sure if I’ll be re-hired. I have had some teaching jobs where students are shocked when, at the end of the semester, they hear I might not be back the following year.  Sometimes, that opens up the conversation about stratification within the academic labor market. After all, this is Sociology, where issues of class, gender and race are paramount. Why not insert one’s own “social location” into the mix?

The increase in employment of part-time, adjunct faculty in academia has become an “issue” for some university systems, especially when union contracts or state laws limit the number of part-time faculty. Despite bloated administrative budgets and the building of new athletic centers and sports arenas designed (in some places) to make an institution more “competitive”, the teaching staff is where pennies are pinched.

Adjunct teaching an add-on rather than central

Teaching as an adjunct is not my “full-time work”; it truly is an adjunct to my career, in which I co-run a small social science consulting group called Arbor Consulting Partners ( In other words, thankfully, I don’t depend on this income as my “bread and butter”. Teaching is my passion but it’s really hard to make a living teaching as an adjunct.

I have been lucky to not be at the bottom end of the adjunct pay scale – which can be as low as $2,000 per course, but the wages generally hover around $5,000-6,000 at many research universities, unless you’re teaching at one of the “prestige” institutions. Many adjuncts piece together a string of teaching gigs, sometimes as many as 6 classes per semester and sometimes in different institutions, just to pay the bills. They/we receive no benefits, and while they are teaching a full load, they often don’t have an office – or if they do, they share it with all the other part-timers, so it’s hard to use for meetings with students or to get any work done. Adjuncts can work their butts off and still be poor and disenfranchised.

Adjunct 7 teach for foodGenerally, an adjunct functions outside of the system. We’re not paid to go to meetings or advise students. This is fair, given that we’re only paid to teach. But for those who would like to be more involved – and even be considered for a tenure track position – this status can be a liability. New hires in academia are judged for their ability to teach and advise students, and in research universities, they are judged by their academic scholarship.  Adjuncts rarely have time to pursue their own research, and if they do, it’s on their own dime, unless they have sought and received a grant, which is harder to do without an institutional base. Some universities even disallow part-timers from receiving university grants.

Having the capacity to teach many different courses is central to any adjunct’s survival. I have taught a variety of Sociology courses in a range of academic institutions, including courses on aging, sex and gender, feminist theory, work and family policy, gender and leadership, and most recently, a course on Evaluation Research, which is the work I do as a consultant. For some of those jobs, I had a one-year contract, but mostly, I have been teaching by the course and by the semester, with the possibilities of returning, which I have now happily done in three of the institutions where I have taught. Generally, I have either replaced a professor who is on-leave, taught a course that full-time faculty didn’t have time to teach, or more recently, I have taught courses that no one else has the expertise to teach.

One thing that I love about teaching at the university level is the freedom to design a syllabus, regardless of whether a course has been taught by another professor. Not all adjuncts get to do this. Over the years, I have experimented with incorporating the arts into my teaching, and invariably, other professors (those on the ladder) tell me they think it’s really cool. I have been lucky that, for me, teaching as an adjunct is a choice. I have also had some incredible colleagues, supportive and inclusive. But many adjuncts do not feel they are treated as equals relative to full-time faculty.

Unionizing the adjunct labor force

Adjunct Teacher, Otis College of Art and Design, LA
Adjunct Teacher, Otis College of Art and Design, LA

There is a growing movement to unionize this low-paid contingent labor force, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation (AFT) of Teachers are two of the major unions now leading the charge nationally. A dozen new union locals have been established, including one at Tufts University, where I got a one-year contract right after I completed my doctorate, and another at Lesley University, where one of my friends, a fully tenured faculty member, played a key role. Both were organized by SEIU.

So where do I stand? I strongly believe that it is in the interests of all parties within academia for Part-time Faculty to be paid well and have good working conditions, including consistency in the courses they teach and multi-year contracts, as this contributes to the overall quality of education at the institution. At the same time, Universities should not rely so heavily on part-time labor. The slow creep of an unstable labor force comprised of part-time contracted workers is a disservice to students, their parents and the institution overall.

Tufts University Adjuncts
Tufts University Adjuncts

At Tufts, part-time faculty members successfully negotiated a contract that included 22% pay raises over a 3-year period, longer-term contracts, and the right to be interviewed for full-time positions in one’s department. In addition, their contract stipulates that adjuncts who teach three or more courses over the academic year will have access to health, retirement, tuition reimbursement, and other employee benefits. This is a major victory for part-timers and the University, overall.

Historically, it has always been challenging to organize “professional” workers, given the notion that labor unions are associated with blue-collar workers, not teachers or nurses or social workers, who are falsely considered “above that”. But frankly, this notion is just a way to hold back the collective strength of workers from having more power. The move to organize adjunct labor – just like the move to organize all workers who are underpaid and undervalued – is critical not just to the individuals who directly gain from union representation; it is also critical for the broader society and economy.

Harvard University Widener Library
Harvard University Widener Library

A recent article in the Harvard Crimson describes the working conditions for its “non-ladder” faculty, or put in more plebeian terms, adjunct faculty. Harvard can call these workers what they want, but they are still contingent labor. Adjuncts at Harvard and other Ivy’s get paid sometimes twice or three times what adjuncts at less prestigious institutions get paid.  But unlike tenure track faculty, they are subject to short contracts, far lower wages than their colleagues, and lower status than their colleagues. An exception to this is when the Ivy’s hire former politicians or entrepreneurs who command high wages to teach a course because of the prestige they bring to the institution. For the “average” non-ladder employee at Harvard, the institution affords a status akin to a post-doc, a coveted year following the completion of one’s doctorate which may be devoted to research. This is because teaching at Harvard, even as a “non-ladder” employee, carries the imprimatur of a fancy-labeled institution. Surely, one would think, if that institution is hiring this person to teach their students, they must be smart by association.

Core Faculty, Lesley University
Angelica Pinna Perez, Dalia Llera and Jason Pramas, Core Faculty supporting the union vote, Lesley University

Bigger questions must be raised about whether universities are going to depend more fully on lower-waged contracted workers. The system of tenure, where faculty members are essentially hired for life, has been subject to debate for many years, posting the question: Is the tenure system critical to protecting intellectual inquiry, and/or is it a system that rewards decreasing productivity? But this thinking avoids the real issues. The tenure system is not to blame for the rise in part-time contracted labor in academia. We must, instead, look at bloated administrative budgets and the trend to create amenities to attract students, particularly those paying full-freight.

David Kociemba, President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) at Emerson College, where he teaches in the Department of Visual and Media Arts, is quoted as saying the adjunct movement is “four decades in the making”, but he was able to finish the union drive at Emerson College in only two months. This just demonstrates how ready some part-time faculty members are to get organized, given the opportunity.

So far, I have not been at an institution during a union drive for adjunct labor. That is perhaps another casualty of life as a “sometimes adjunct”, or any adjunct for that matter, given that these part-time workers aren’t tethered to the institutions where they teach. But I imagine that if I do continue to teach courses here and there, I will eventually sit in the eye of the storm, and instead of supporting the movement from the sidelines, writing blog posts and signing petitions, I will add my voice to the collective. While I don’t count on my adjunct jobs to pay the bills, I wouldn’t mind…

While I had already planned and drafted another post for this week, that topic, which would have been important and interesting to me on any other day, suddenly seemed trivial. One of my family members is in critical condition and on life support. By the time this post goes live, he will have passed. In the spirit of Feminist Reflections and talking about everyday life, this week I talk about grief and death. During this emotional time for our family, I have attempted to write this post with clarity. But I have a lot on my mind. I write with a heavy heart as my family experiences grief, and I ponder the meaning of death.mourning-360500_640

How do we mourn and comfort others who are grieving? How do we grieve differently when people die at different ages, or unexpectedly? Can we believe in something that will help us through our grief? How are our spiritual beliefs connected to, or guided by, our scientific training?

Sociologists attempt to use our scientific tools to understand the world, to give meaning and order to things. But as much as we can understand death as a physiological or biological event, the emotional and spiritual experience of someone’s death is often hard to make sense of with social scientific theories (at least, in my opinion). Still, I believe, as do many others, that emotional and “rational” thinking helps to make sense of the death of a loved one.

Thinking Back

As an only child, both of my biological grandfathers died before I was born. My maternal grandmother died when I was five. My paternal grandmother remarried the year that my parents got married, and my “step-grandpa” (but in all honesty, my grandfather) died when I was in graduate school. My grandma lived on her own for a few years until her death.

Grandma died seven years ago on Memorial Day weekend. At the time, I was living about five hours from my hometown in Iowa. She had lived independently in her own house for a few years. When it became clear that she could not live on her own, my family decided to move her into an assisted living environment. She lived there only a short time before ending up in the hospital, for reasons I cannot remember, and then into hospice. Ironically, the hospice was located in the same nursing home where she lived before her death.

My grandma was in hospice for longer than the usual time. Dementia had taken over. She stopped eating. She muttered phrases. No one was clear of their meaning. My mom did not want me to see my grandma in this condition. But I was incredibly close to her. My friends loved her. As many of them said, “she had a lot of spunk.” When I moved away for college and graduate school, I called her weekly; that is, until she went to hospice and could no longer carry on a telephone conversation. Still, I needed closure. I needed to say goodbye.

My spouse, our daughter (age two at the time), and I went to visit my grandma that Memorial Day weekend. Grandma, who lay there in a fragile, non-coherent state, reached out and held my daughter’s — her great granddaughter’s — hand with a strong grip. grandmaThe next day, she finally said goodbye.

I can believe my grandma wanted to see her great granddaughter and me before she died. Is this what was going on? There is no empirical way to prove it. Yet science and spirituality guided me in this belief.

Grandma lived longer than usual in hospice. My family has many questions about why she would not ‘let go’. She would say in her non-lucid state she was sorry, and mutter other phrases too. Since she was a former Catholic, we thought she was sorry for leaving the church and had her last rites read. Beyond this, every family member and friend spoke to her on the phone before she died. But she did not let go until the day after we visited her, and she held my daughter’s hand.

I cannot know, really, if my grandma needed to see us before passing on. But I believe that she did. This is one way I have dealt with my grief.

Seven years later, we have lost others. As much as I miss my grandma, I can accept her death as normative. She was in her mid-eighties. But my father-in-law died from cancer when he was only sixty-three, and the time from diagnosis to death was a short four months (after predictions of a year). The third anniversary of his death just passed. Although I can see my father-in-law, with his positive attitude and shining smile standing from his place above and telling us to live life to the fullest, he left us too early. I can talk sociologically about the factors that might have influenced his health, which helps me understand his death at an younger age. But this does not make my grief easier. And now, another family member leaves us too early, and unexpectedly.

While death is part of life, we often imagine it will happen in old age, near the end of the life course for most people. When it does not, when it is unexpected, it is harder to understand and to know how to comfort others or ourselves. Saying it was someone’s ‘time’ seems callous and lacks empathy, especially when the person was not in pain, was young, or the death was unexpected. Friends and colleagues have lost children at younger ages, and I cannot imagine the pain or the grief they experienced.

I do not study aging, death, dying, or grief. But as a sociologist I want to make sense out of the social world. Death and mourning, especially when we do not expect it, are hard to make sense of. There is no correct thing to say to those in mourning. Grief strikes. We can support our loved ones and acknowledge that there are different ways of grieving. We deal with it in our own ways.



While your death was untimely and we will miss you, we will never forget the memories and your positive spirit. You had a huge impact on your family and this world that will not be forgotten. May you rest in peace.

Originally posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design

photo 1(1)I recently moved to upstate New York.  So, there’s a lot more Victorian-style architecture in my neighborhood.  I’ve posted on the interesting ways that Victorian architecture gender segregates activity within the domestic space before (here and here).  One room I’ve been interested in lately is a room with a few different names and a history that’s not entirely known.  It’s sometimes referred to as a “roofwalk.”  But, it’s more commonly called either a “widow’s walk,” “widow’s perch,” or a “widow’s watch.”  When I first learned about it, it was written about as a widow’s watch.  And there’s a bit of cultural mythology that surrounds these rooms in homes.  Here are two houses in my neighborhood with the room (right and left).

photo 2(1)The story that I’ve always heard about this room is that it was designed for the wives of sailors to watch and wait for their husbands to return.  Women whose husbands died at sea–so I was told–would sit in these rooms, pining for their long-lost lovers.  As it happens, there’s not a great deal of evidence that this was, in fact, the original purpose of the room, nor that this is how these rooms were actually used.  They did initially appear during the period when the sailing industry produced international trade on a level previously unimaginable and during which naval warfare dominated (~1500’s through the mid 1800s).  But the rooms could have equally been intended for (and used by) mariners themselves (rather than their wives) to look out for ships due back in port.  Indeed, in some communities, these rooms are referred to as “captain’s walks.”

And it’s also true that a great deal of these rooms were initially built around the chimneys of homes to provide quick and easy access to the chimney both in case it needed repair, and for a quick way to put out chimney fires–a constant dilemma in early American architecture.  This was the reason people had their chimneys “swept” every so often.  The accumulated ash and soot, if not regularly removed, could ignite.  Sweeping chimneys was serious–and extremely dangerous–business.  victorian style chimney sweep, a child chimney sweep,  hulton piChildren were often used because of their size, but it was a job often given to orphaned children.  It’s also a powerful illustration of historical understandings of children and childhood.  Despite being illegal, it would be unthinkable to ask a child to do something this dangerous today.  Chimney fires were serious business.  So, having quick access to pour sand down might have saved your home.

Yet many of these rooms today are not around chimneys, and if they were intended for either men or women, they were a room gendered by design.  And if intended for women, then they continued a tradition within Victorian architecture of designing rooms specifically intended to segregate (and/or isolate) certain emotional displays of women, keeping them out of sight.

Boudoirs and fainting rooms are similar examples.  Boudoirs, I think, are popularly thought of as rather large closets for women, in which wealthy Victorian women would bathe, dress, sit gazing at themselves in mirrors and brushing their hair (at least this is how they’re sometimes depicted on film).  It was also a private space in which women could carry out hobbies (like reading and embroidery) or entertain lovers away from various others in the house.   Interestingly, men’s private chambers were referred to as their “cabinet” (a term also used in American politics referring to the small group of people who advise and assist the president).  Boudoir is not as commonly used today.  It actually translates to something like “sulking room.”  And, boudoirs were also designed as spaces to which women might flee to avoid having socially “inappropriate” emotional displays in front of others.

Fainting rooms served similar purposes.  Typically on the main level of the house, fainting rooms were typically equipped with fainting couches.  How these rooms were actually used is the subject of some debate among historians.  Some have assumed that women were fainting because of the pain and various bodily restrictions caused by regularly wearing corsets.  Others suggest that these rooms and couches were used in some of the treatments prescribed for hysteria.  In either case, fainting rooms were designed to isolate women during periods of intense duress.

Rooms dedicated to socially “inappropriate” emotional displays from men are absent in Victorian architecture, perhaps because “real men” were presumed not to ever have need of them.  It’s an interesting case in which architecture plays a critical role in our interactions, either segregating or suppressing certain displays.

Lots of time and care consideration goes into the production of new superheroes and the revision of time-honored heroes. Subtle features of outfits aren’t changed by accident and don’t go unnoticed. Skin color also merits careful consideration to ensure that the racial depiction of characters is consistent with their back stories alongside other considerations. A colleague of mine recently shared an interesting analysis of racial depictions by a comic artist, Ronald Wimberly—“Lighten Up.”*  “Lighten Up” is a cartoon essay that addresses some of the issues Wimberly struggled with in drawing for a major comic book publisher. NPR ran a story on the essay as well. In short, Wimberly was asked by his editor to “lighten” a characters’ skin tone—a character who is supposed to have a Mexican father and an African American mother.  The essay is about Wimberly’s struggle with the request and his attempt to make sense of how the potentially innocuous-seeming request might be connected with racial inequality. Skin ToneIn the panel of the cartoon reproduced here, you can see Wimberly’s original color swatch for the character alongside the swatch he was instructed to use for the character.

Digitally, colors are handled by what computer programmers refer to as hexadecimal IDs. Every color has a hexademical “color code.” It’s an alphanumeric string of 6 letters and/or numbers preceded by the pound symbol (#).  For example, computers are able to understand the color white with the color code #FFFFFF and the color black with #000000. Hexadecimal IDs are based on binary digits—they’re basically a way of turning colors into code so that computers can understand them. Artists might tell you that there are an infinite number of possibilities for different colors. But on a computer, color combinations are not infinite: there are exactly 16,777,216 possible color combinations. Hexadecimal IDs are an interesting bit of data and I’m not familiar with many social scientists making use of them.**

There’s probably more than one way of using color codes as data. But one thought I had was that they could be an interesting way of identifying racialized depictions of comic book characters in a reproducible manner—borrowing from Wimberly’s idea in “Lighten Up.” Some questions might be: Are white characters depicted with the same hexadecimal variation as non-white characters? Or, are women depicted with more or less hexadecimal variation than men? Perhaps white characters are more likely to be depicted in more dramatic and dynamic lighting, causing their skin to be depicted with more variation than non-white characters. If that’s true, it might also make an interesting data-based argument to suggest that white characters are featured in more dynamic ways in comic books than are non-white characters. The same could be true of men compared with women.

Just to give this a try, I downloaded a free eye-dropper plug-in that identifies hexadecimal IDs. I used the top 16 images in a Google Image search for Batman (white man), Amazing-man (black man), and Wonder Woman (white woman). Because many images alter skin tone with shadows and light, I tried to use the eye-dropper to select the pixel that appeared most representative of the skin tone of the face of each character depicted.

Here are the images for Batman with a clean swatch of the hexadecimal IDs for the skin tone associated with each image below:


Batman Hex Codes

Below are the images for Amazing-man with swatches of the skin tone color codes beneath:Amazing-Man

Amazing-Man Hex Codes

Finally, here are the images for Wonder Woman with pure samples of the color codes associated with her skin tone for each image below:

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman Hex CodesNow, perhaps it was unfair to use Batman as a comparison as his character is more often depicted at night than is Wonder Woman—a fact which might mean he is more often depicted in dynamic lighting than she is. But it’s an interesting thought experiment.  Based on this sample, two things that seem immediately apparent. Amazing-man is depicted much darker when his character is drawn angry. And Wonder Woman exhibits the least color variation of the three.  Whether this is representative is beyond the scope of the post.  But, it’s an interesting question.  While we know that there are dramatically fewer women in comic books than men, inequality is not only a matter of numbers.  Portrayal matters a great deal as well, and color codes might be one way of considering getting at this issue in a new and systematic way.

While the hexadecimal ID of an individual pixel of an image is an objective measure of color, it’s also true that color is in the eye of the beholder and we perceive colors differently when they are situated alongside different colors. So, obviously, color alone tells us little about individual perception, and even less about the social and cultural meaning systems tied to different hexadecimal hues. Yet, as Wimberly writes, “In art, this is very important. Art is where associations are made. Art is where we form the narratives of our identity.”  Beyond this, art is a powerful cultural arena in which we form narratives about the identities of others.

At any rate, it’s an interesting idea. And I hope someone smarter than me does something with it (or tells me that it’s already been done and I simply wasn’t aware).


*Thanks to Andrea Herrera for posting Ronald Wimberly’s cartoon essay, “Lighten Up.”

**In writing this post, I was reminded that Philip Cohen wrote a short post suggesting that we might do more research on gender and color by using color codes to analyze children’s clothing. The post is here if you’re interested. After re-reading his post, I used the same site to collect pure samples of each hex code and I copied his display of the swatches.  Thanks Philip!

I’ve been researching and writing about breast cancer for so many years that I’ve accumulated a plethora of pink-ribbon-themed items. I’m finished with the baggage. Taking control of my surroundings has been very freeing!

–Gayle Sulik, on Psychology Today

I’m not a hoarder. But I’ve been known, on occasion, to keep things long after they outlived their usefulness or meaning. Like that colorful, Italian bowl with the chipped edge that would be perfect for a huge pasta salad but never sees the light of day. At least I don’t hate it.

Other keepsakes, I despise. Those finely carved mahogany sculptures I bought 20 years ago are still scattered around my house or in the back of a closet. I have nothing against them really, but tastes change. Those books from graduate school, taking up prime real estate on my shelf, are out of date. Unlike my old, yellowed copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, ever reminding me that I am a writer, these objects no longer contribute to my well-being.

I usually realize when I’ve been surreptitiously loathing my stuff. I come to my senses and the purging begins, sometimes immediately. It wasn’t so easy to come to grips with all of the pink ribbon paraphernalia I’ve collected over the years.

I’ve been researching and writing about breast cancer for so long that I’ve accumulated a plethora of pink-ribbon-themed items: awareness magazines, newspapers, advertisements, jewelry, cleaning supplies, teddy bears, M&M bags (contents consumed), and more. Some of these items were gifts to inspire me to keep going with my research. Many of them were gifted to others then bequeathed to me because they didn’t want reminders of their cancer around, or because they too hated the idea of pink ribbon commercialization.

Part of the Pink Ribbon Collection. Photo by Gayle Sulik.

My collection grew large enough that I considered creating an exhibit on the pink ribbon industry. In addition to my own items and others that would be donated, I imagined a 10-foot in diameter gumball machine filled with pink “I heart boobies” bracelets and a life size replica of “Miss Pink Elegance” from the Thomas Kinkade collection.Pink Lady We’d have posters calculating the profit margins of fundraising campaigns juxtaposed against pie charts of budget allocations from charities, themes in awareness campaigns, and the state of misinformation surrounding the disease. It was a good idea.

But since then, bloggers have taken it upon themselves to reveal, quickly and skillfully, the hypocrisy of the pink ribbon marketplace. Journalists have sunk their teeth into investigative reports about fundraising and other controversies. The Canadian documentary Pink Ribbons Inc. gave audiences the visual and narrative content to illustrate key themes within pink ribbon culture and the industry that surrounds it. Breast cancer organizations that have been resisting the status quo for years gained new traction. Even some of the most contentious scientific controversies entered public discussion with renewed vigor and solid evidence. Pink Ribbon Blues served its purpose.

There remains much to be done with the topic of breast cancer, and I’m glad to do it. But I’m finished with the pink ribbon baggage. It will no longer take up valuable space in my closets, on my shelves, or in my life. I feel lighter already. Taking control of your surroundings can be very freeing!

Pink Elegance - Tennis Ball
What’s left of the Pink Ribbon Collection. Photo by Gayle Sulik.

There are two pinked items I’m keeping though. My very own Miss Pink Elegance, given to me by my dear friend Rachel Cheetham Moro, stands proudly above a pink tennis ball signed by sociologists Phil Brown, Kathy Charmaz, Barbara Katz Rothman, and Heather Laube to honor my book’s “Author Meets Critics” session at the American Sociological Association in 2012. These items represent a different kind of breast cancer awareness to me, along with a sense of connection to those who have supported me in this research all along. That’s enough.

Originally published on Psychology Today »

This is the second half of a two-post series on the pro-feminist and activist Chris Norton at Feminist Reflections by Michael A. Messner. The first half of “Learning from Chris Norton over three decades—Part I” can be found HERE.

Flash forward to 2010. I was now a tenured full professor, pushing 60, a number of books under my belt. I was working with two young male Ph.D. students who in some ways reminded me of myself thirty years earlier—inspired by feminism, wanting to have an impact on the world. Both Tal Peretz and Max Greenberg had, as undergrads, gotten involved in campus-based violence prevention work with men. Unlike three decades ago, this work had become pretty much institutionalized; a guy like Tal or Max now can plug in to a campus or community organization, be handed an anti-violence curriculum, and get to work with boys and men. I figured this was a great opportunity to do a study with these two guys, tapping in to the roots of men’s work against gender-based violence in the 70s and 80s, and contrasting it with the work being done today.

NortonCropOf course, I thought of Chris Norton and MASV. I located Chris online. Ever generous, he agreed to be interviewed. In December of 2010, I drove to his house in Sebastopol, and as I knocked on his door, I wondered how different he’d look or be. After all, I had morphed from a long-haired, bearded youngster thirty years ago to clean-shaven gray-haired, gradually balding, stooped-shouldered guy. I spied him through the window as he came to the door, and as he opened it I was mildly astonished to see that he looked pretty much the same—bristly mustache and full head of hair—reddish, but with some gray mixed in. He also still had the same warm smile, accented now by smile lines around his eyes that, if anything, made him appear even more warm and friendly than before.

We went out to lunch, and did what older guys do: caught up on each others’ lives, shared our hopes, fears, and challenges we’d faced with our kids, commiserated about our ageing bodies. On this latter topic, Chris had more serious news to share than I. He was facing, with strength and optimism, a liver transplant in the near future.

We returned to his home, and settled in for the interview in a cozy cabin-like structure behind his and Mary’s home. We fell right in to a nice conversation, and I used bits of the transcript of my 1980 interview with Chris to prod his memory, and to probe ways in which he’d changed, or not, since then.   Most interesting to me were his reflections on the work that MASV had done so many years ago. He joined the several other MASV men whom I would eventually also interview in saying that he was very proud of the work the group had done. But in retrospect, he said he wondered how effective they’d been, and figured that if the group had it to do all over again, they might have done their work differently:

I don’t think I would go at it at all the way we did then, ‘cause I think in some ways, … I think we were doing something to prove something to ourselves and other people of our age group, and I don’t think we were thinking about, like, what’s it like to be a teenage boy in high school, and what are these images going to do to you when they’re shown up on a screen, and is it going to have any of the effect that we’re hoping to have? And I think it would have been really good to kind of get guys to talk about, well, there’s issues of bullying, issues of, you know, being popular, not popular. I mean, it seems like there could be a lot of things that could have been much more valuable, ‘cause in some ways, I think we almost had this stick and we’re going to beat you over the head with this thing. And… perhaps if they felt like they were more understood, maybe they could be more understanding of women and, and where women are coming from. And I think that would be more the way I would go about it now.

[Back then], we were really just making it up, I mean, it was the seat of our pants… we felt like we should be doing something. We were feeling like we need to be also talking about the same things that the women were talking about—but we basically just took their analysis and presented it. You know, it didn’t—it didn’t feel like it was coming from our core, you know, from who we were, other than maybe from our guilt

And, and you know, I think—having more of a positive vision of what a man should be, rather than going in there and telling men what they shouldn’t be doing—having a more pro-active, having a more kind of like, basically creating an ethic of, “This is what a man should do.” You know, this is, this is a positive thing for a man to do, and also like, what does a man want? You know, rather than like, “Oh, you shouldn’t be bad,” but…you wanna have a good relationship, you wanna have a relationship with someone that’s based on some degree of equality, on some degree of, of mutual respect, of everyone having opportunities, or people feeling good about their lives, about who they are. And, that presupposes having some degree of, of understanding of who you are yourself and what you want. And I felt like we weren’t, back then, we weren’t coming at it from that—it was more sort of like, you know, men are bad—Andrea Dworkin told us this—we know men are bad, we are bad, we’re gonna’ go and tell the high school boys that they’re bad too, for looking at pornography, and that pornography’s gonna’ make them badder than they already are. And, there wasn’t that—I think there’s gotta’ be a positive vision. And you have to have, I mean, you don’t want to be blind to the bad stuff that goes on, but there has to be kind of some upside for doing this, ‘cause I don’t think otherwise people are gonna’ really pay any attention or wanna listen to you.

Chris’s statement very neatly encapsulated about thirty years of change in the ways that men now approach doing violence prevention work with boys and men. In Some Men, the book that Max Greenberg, Tal Peretz and I wrote from this research, we chronicle the grassroots of this activism—set in place in the 70s and 80s by community groups like MASV—in part because it is important to honor the foundations of positive social change. But it’s also important because today’s younger activists, however savvy and pragmatic they may be about the ways they approach boys and men with their message, may also have lost something very important that earlier activists like Chris Norton had: a grounding in a larger view of social change that viewed their efforts to stop sexist violence against women as intricately connected with efforts to humanize and bring justice to the world.   For groups like MASV, feminist work with boys and men, Chris explained, was an integral part of a larger transformative movement:

… an important way of sort of humanizing socialism, or getting rid of some of the hard-edged more Stalinistic tendencies that some socialist movements could have. And it also just made a lot of sense [for] those of us too, who also were rejecting militarism and the traditional terms of being masculine or man, and were looking for some kind of a new way—when I came to Berkeley initially I was involved in the anti-war movement, and lived in communal houses, and we’d gotten involved in the food conspiracy, and—it was all part of this whole, you know, sort of community, alternative society in a way that we kinda’ felt like we were creating it back then.

In retrospect, like many radicals of his generation, Chris expressed frustration with the current prospects for transformative social change.

I think I’ve retreated some degree from utopianism. But I do feel that it’s definitely possible to have a far more egalitarian society than we do. And I just, I feel like—and that’s part of my frustration too, is those of us who feel that way haven’t found ways to be very effective in putting forward that vision and, and making that vision something that’s attractive to people, and making people realize that what we’re living under is not actually that great for a lot of people, and it’s very difficult for a lot of people.

Part of my goal in writing Some Men with Max and Tal was to encourage today’s anti-violence activists to re-connect to that larger vision. It is stories from this generation of activists like Chris Norton that help to keep alive this larger vision.

The community bonds that sustain that vision were palpable when I attended Chris Norton’s memorial service in 2012, after he had succumbed to cancer.  Included among the scores of family and friends celebrating Norton’s life were a handful of MASV men—guys who in their youth had pioneered anti-violence work. Now considerably older, they shared a sense of pride in what they had accomplished so many years ago. Following MASV’s demise, they had gone on to do other progressive work: Chris Anderegg worked for years helping women’s DV shelters with their finances; Larry Mandella created workshops for fathers; Santiago Casal did community organizing to get a memorial built in Berkeley for civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. All of them, in their own ways, were clearly in it for the long haul.

Still today, I am not and probably never will be much of an activist. But I hope that my research and writing makes some small contribution to progressive thinking, and progressive social change, a contribution that both honors and learns from the brave and important work that’s been done in the past by the doers of the world, like Chris Norton, whom I so admire, and whose collective work helps to make the world a better and more just place.


Messner2013cMichael A. Messner is professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California, and author (with Max Greenberg and Tal Peretz) of Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women (Oxford University Press, 2015).

This is the first half of a two-post series on the pro-feminist and activist Chris Norton at Feminist Reflections by Michael A. Messner. The second half of “Learning from Chris Norton over three decades” will be published on May 21, 2015 @ 9:00am EST (and linked here).

The guy at the front of the room was saying stuff I’d never heard a man say before, especially to a room full of young college guys.   Through my basketball-player-eyes, I sized him up to be at least 6’5” with the broad shoulders of a power forward. He had medium-length reddish hair and a ruddy face dominated by a bristly mustache that left his mouth a bit of mystery. And what words emerged from this mouth! With a style that seemed simultaneously gentle and passionate, he urged these young guys to think critically about their own relationship to pornography. BlackBlueBacked up with a slideshow that depicted popular album covers (The misogynist public billboard promoting The Rolling Stones’ album Black and Blue was one of them), he pointed to the links between sexual objectification of women, men’s use of pornography, and men’s violence against women.

This stuff was hard to hear for young men—and I include myself in this. It was 1980. I was 28 and in recent years had come to define myself as a “pro-feminist man.” I’d even been in a men’s consciousness-raising group in Santa Cruz. But like many younger men like me who were awakening to feminism, I was still struggling with my own deeply engrained erotic attachments to conventional sexualized imagery of women, as depicted not only in Playboy and Penthouse, but pretty much everywhere around me. So here was this giant guy standing up there, calling us out—calling me out—on my shit. What struck me most, and what made it possible to hear what he was saying, was how he spoke as one of us—self-reflexively talking about his own immersion in a culture of eroticized sexism and violence against women, how it affected and continued to affect him. He revealed that he was part of a group of men, Men Against Sexist Violence (MASV), that did educational work on sexism with boys and men—in schools, on the radio, in prisons—while also supporting each other to become pro-feminist men. (As I watched him in action, the punster in me wondered with a private chuckle whether the other members of his group were so, well, massive.)

I agreed with everything this guy said in his presentation and I admired his courage. I wanted to talk with him, maybe become friends with him, and for sure I wanted to interview him for my new research project for grad school—in-depth interviews with men in pro-feminist men’s groups. After the talk, I introduced myself. He greeted me warmly and immediately agreed to allow me to interview him.

Chris Norton was his name, and it turned out he was a guy of middle class origin who had moved to Berkeley in recent years, taken up work as a carpenter while also immersing himself in the progressive politics of the time. I had initially imagined he might become a basketball buddy, but we were only two minutes into our interview before he assuaged me of that illusion. When I asked him about his boyhood relationship to masculinity, he said,

…in sports, I didn’t feel like being aggressive often times and for instance I’m tall and was supposed to be good at basketball, to stand under the hoop and get all the rebounds, and it just didn’t work out—and people’d get pissed off at me for not getting all the rebounds—and then we wouldn’t end up winning and I’d get resentment back, and frustration from people, because I wasn’t doing what I was expected to do and then I’d feel bad about myself and think, “Well I guess I’m a failure, I’m not strong enough or not aggressive enough, maybe there’s something wrong with me or wrong with my masculinity; I’m not a man.”

Longtime comrades and SF Bay Area pro-feminist pioneers: L-R, Larry Mandella, Men Against Sexist Violence (MASV); Tom Berry, Berkeley Men’s Counseling Center; Chris Norton, MASV; Dana Francis, Men Overcoming Violence (MOVE).

My 1980 interview with Chris Norton not only helped me to complete a study toward the goal of getting my Ph.D.   It also helped to me begin to clarify the sort of person I am. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed thinking of myself variously as a socialist, a radical, a feminist, a progressive, an advocate for social justice. But mostly I don’t do much with these political commitments. Oh, I’ve marched in a few protests and paid dues in some progressive organizations, but I can’t stomach meetings and I hate the grind of building and sustaining organizations. I live so much inside my own head; I read, I write, and the most public thing I do is to lecture and occasionally write an op-ed on some social issue. But this guy, Chris Norton, though he had nearly identical politics as mine, was an opposite character type, a type I admired, even romanticized—a doer, a man committed to acting in the world rather than sitting around thinking about things.

In our interview, Chris spoke of the tensions of being a pro-feminist man, of struggling with how to integrate his commitments to feminism with his daily life as a carpenter, where he worked with men who didn’t always share those commitments. He spoke of MASV’s internal discussions of sexism and pornography, and of his own complicated relationship to feminism and other progressive politics. When I asked him if he called himself a feminist, his response revealed his ongoing self-criticism at his own internalized sexism, while also telegraphing what would become his next major political commitment:

I used to; I don’t know if I do right now. Just because I think I’ve been seeing a lot of limitations to feminism or some of the lacks that it has as far as dealing with class and other things… Some feminists, a certain branch of middle class feminists are sort of like “I want more of the pie” and as someone who’s real interested in changing class relationships and in a more thorough-going revolution I don’t really want to identify with that and I don’t feel real supportive of women executives and women in those positions… In my experience in Latin America, seeing the need to deal with class relationships—I see that as a real difference. The starting point of feminist consciousness between the U.S. and Latin America is really different. I think that any kind of revolutionary movement in the US has to pay a lot of attention to women’s issues, just because that’s where we are. But I think there’s like a bourgeois women’s movement that’s really self-centered and on some level I don’t think I’d call myself a feminist—I think I feel guilty about using that term when I have so much (This whole thing about looks)—I feel guilty because I have so much of this stuff that feels unresolved in myself—It’d be dishonest to call myself a feminist.

It’s two different things. On one level I have objections to some of the tendencies that feminism has and on the other hand I don’t think I’m good enough to call myself a feminist. When we were in the radio collective we called ourselves “pro-feminists,” [which] means that you’re supporting feminism, but not being women, we couldn’t be feminists.

Chris continued working with MASV for the next couple of years, but was shifting his attentions to Latin American solidarity work. I got together with him—maybe around 1983 or 1984 or so—and he told me he was planning to go to El Salvador to work as a freelance journalist, covering the brutal U.S. war that was attempting to suppress a popular uprising. At the time, following the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, there was good reason to believe in the possibility of a succession of victorious liberation movements in Latin America. It was the mid-80s now, and Chris wanted to be a part of this history. He told me he dreamed of being in San Salvador when the victorious FMLA marched in.

I wanted to help—to support Chris, to contribute to the revolution—but of course I’d not stray too far from the local comfort of my oak desk, the very same one upon which I now rest my hands as I write, more than three decades later. I organized a big launch party for Chris at my rambling old rented house in the flatlands of Berkeley. The idea was to gather Chris’s friends and political comrades, as well as some of my own, for a fund-raiser to help Chris get to El Salvador and begin his work as a freelance writer. We cooked up industrial-sized vats of spaghetti for the event, and Chris presented an inspiring El Salvador slide show that outlined the political struggles and stakes. As it turned out, Chris and I had lots of friends; the house was packed to the gills with supporters. And, as it turned out, Chris and I had very few friends who had any money. The pittance we raised may have paid for Chris’s first handful of notebooks.

But he got there. During the latter half of the 1980s, Chris wrote from San Salvador, freelancing for the Christian Science Monitor and other magazines and papers. When I would see Chris’s byline in the CSM I would smile and shake my head in admiration. During those years, still glued to my desk, I wrote my dissertation, prepared articles for academic journals that would hopefully secure me a job, and started my salaried faculty job at USC. Oh, I attended anti-Reagan demonstrations in the early 80s, protested U.S. interventions, donated tiny amounts of money to Latin American solidarity and other progressive organizations—but never did I put my body on the line in the way that Chris Norton did. My admiration for Chris grew… but somewhere starting in the early 1990s, I lost track of him. Immersed in my academic career, building a family in L.A. with Pierrette and our young sons Miles and Sasha, Chris’s life and mine headed in different sorts of directions. I’d think of Chris occasionally, wondering what he was up to.

Part II will be posted on May 21st, 2015 at 9:00am EST and linked here.


Messner2013cMichael A. Messner is professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California, and author (with Max Greenberg and Tal Peretz) of Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women (Oxford University Press, 2015).


diplma and capWhen my daughter went into her final year of college, I started feeling a sense of trepidation about what would come next. She was a Sociology major (yay!), was into the arts (yay again), and had lived in New Orleans for four years (cool). Fortunately, she lined up an internship her senior year and now two years later, things have worked out pretty well.

But you never know. In an economy that rewards those in STEM fields and business, the seniors I now teach are predictably in panic mode as they face a very uncertain future. Regardless of all the internships and community service experiences they are accruing, there’s no avoiding the dour statistics for young college graduates. When one student came to me, asking for advice about applying for a consulting job that was way beyond her reach, I found myself counseling her about the virtues of working in a coffee shop. So what if she’s an international relations major!

Hudson River Psychiatric Center
State Psychiatric Center

My first “real” job after graduating from  college was working in a state psychiatric hospital. This seemed like a “natural” place to be, since one whole side of my family was riddled with serious psychiatric disorders. Between an aunt with agoraphobia who never left her house, an aunt and an uncle who had “manic-depression” (now called bipolar disorder, a more “respectable” name), and a mother who struggled with clinical depression and alcoholism, I was quite at home working in an institution for people with severe mental health problems.

job 6When I graduated, the state psych hospital was hiring tons of young college graduates. This was in the early ‘70s, when thousands of patients, people who had spent years, sometimes decades, living in inside the walls of state hospitals, were released into the community in a move to “de-institutionalize” them. The motive was humanitarian, but the reality for many of the patients was downright cruel because many of them were unprepared for life on the outside. Nonetheless, it did mean that a lot of my friends and I had jobs when we graduated.

I was hired as the institution’s dance therapist. I had been a dancer for many of my young years, and my professional goal – if one could call it that – was to somehow combine my interest in helping people with my passion for dance. I lucked out, since the field of dance therapy was just emerging, and one of the first certified dance therapists in the U.S. was willing to train me during my senior year of college.

I worked with people who were still living “inside” the institution, as well as out-patients who were being transitioned into a day treatment program. Because I was a professional dancer in a mental hospital, many of the institution’s rules did not seem to apply to me. Or at least that’s what I thought and how I behaved… More than once, I led a group of patients in a snake line through the hallways, wearing a leotard and tights. We seemed off-limits to criticism, as this “crazy” activity was “therapy”! It felt downright revolutionary!

While working in an institution wasn’t where I “landed” professionally, it was nothing short of a profound experience for a 21-year-old. I fell in love with schizophrenics who were smart and spoke in metaphors that seemed poetic and deep. I’ll never forget one of my out-patients, a diminutive woman named Ruth, who spent her entire adult life in the psych hospital. Ruth held her body like a tight fist, and stood all day, rocking rhythmically back and forth. I feel teary when I think about her. Another person seared in my mind is a tall, broad gentleman in a perpetual cowboy hat. People called this man of few words, “the Captain”. job 7One of my most glorious days was when I took “the Captain” for a drive in the country, with two other patients. Outside it was minus forty degrees – this was Central New York in winter – but inside the car, with sun shining through the windows, it felt warm and protective. He said little throughout the drive, just smiled…

By the time I was hired to work as a dance therapist at the state psych center, sociologist Erving Goffman had already published his seminal book Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. One of Goffman’s greatest contributions was his critique of what he called “total institutions”, which included mental hospitals and prisons, those institutions with a high degree of regimentation, and an elaborate privilege system. He described relations between staff and patients (or inmates) as caste-like, with detailed “rules” of deference and demeanor.

I knew nothing of Goffman while I was working in that first post-college job. But after studying this brilliant sociologist in graduate school and using his analyses in a class I now teach, it all comes back to me. I lived what Goffman described. Drawing upon those earlier experiences, I could now understand his theoretical frameworks. One of my favorite co-workers, a friendly and clever guy named Willie who was the janitor, surely understood Goffman’s analysis when he changed his first name from Willie to “Doctor”. Whenever anyone wanted his services, they would yell “Doctor”. He always came running with a smirk on his face.

Despite the draw of my first job, I realized within a year that I wasn’t going to last. I was too young, too inexperienced, too overwhelmed with it all. While I found the people interesting, I had no real training. And even though I was a good listener, I fought back tears every time a “client” expressed sadness or joy. Ultimately, what drove me to work at the psych hospital – working with really troubled people – became the reason I had to leave. It wasn’t the right fit, even though it seemed so at the beginning. With a far more robust economy than we have today, I saved up enough cash that year to travel Europe for nearly a year, so that’s what I did!

job2As my father used to say, everything we do in life accrues and has meaning. This has to be true, as well, for college students who are saddled with debt and graduating to a lousy economy and a dearth of employment opportunities that “fit” with their majors. A number of my friends are living at “home” (where they grew up) and working in unpaid internships that they hope will lead to a paid job. I know one person who dropped out of college in her freshman year and learned how to do organic farming. Now she’s running a business where she creates peace gardens for interested clients. I know one person who couch-surfed for a few months, and then got a job sailing someone’s boat to the Virgin Islands. At one point, during an intense storm, he wondered if he was even going to make it… I can imagine that he’s not the only one feeling that way, although perhaps for different reasons.

When I think about my own daughter – and all the young people I encounter these days – what I wish for them is the courage to follow their passion, and then feel okay about whatever job or internship (or whatever) they find, knowing that those things may not be the same thing. At least for now…




Endings & Beginnings

May is full of beginnings and endings — graduations from high school and college propel students on to new endeavors.diplma and cap

Chasity is a student who will always hold a special place in my heart. She’s talented, passionate, and hard working, and while I’m sad that we’ll no longer be part of each other’s day-to-day, I’m excited to see what the future holds for her.

It has been an exciting year, and I’ve enjoyed watching Chasity grow. She has worked with me as a research assistant; we traveled together to a conference where she received a national award. Chasity received our department’s Undergraduate Sociology Student Research Award, served as president of our Sociology Club, and won another award from our university’s Multicultural Center.

On Saturday she’ll walk across the stage and receive her diploma, marking the commencement of her undergraduate studies; she’ll move away with her fiancé and her new chapter will begin.

Working with Chasity as a student has been an honor and I’m incredibly proud of her. At the same time, it’s bittersweet. As teachers, we’re expected to teach and guide our students. But as I reflect on the past year, I’m also reminded of how much our students teach us. Chasity has been my student. She’s been my mentor as well. I’ve learned so much from her about social justice, activism, and staying the course. Teaching in the Deep South has been an adjustment for this Northern transplant, and students like Chasity remind me why I push through.

 Mentoring & Recognizing Our Students

Mentoring relationships are often seen as one way, but I see them as reciprocal. Naturally, there are appropriate professional boundaries, but this does not mean our students do not impact or mentor us. They come to us from different parts of the world; they share their stories. When we are open, we learn.

This post serves as a thank you and a tribute to Chasity, as well as a testament to the importance of mentoring, with emphasis placed on what our students give us. While our job is to help students learn, learning is not just a give and take relationship. We are human. We teach sociology, where many concepts are personal for our students and ourselves. Emotions can not be removed from the learning process. We build relationships with our students, and we care about them.

I want to write this post within a framework of feminist mentoring, but today words fail me. This post is from the heart. At times, I think as faculty we are negligent in recognizing the talents and humanity of our undergraduate students. We may not take the time to tell them how they’ve changed us, taught us, and pushed us to be our best. We all need positive reinforcement and this is especially true of our students.

 “I Just Do It”- Social Justice to Unitechas and me cropped

Each year, SWS requests nominations for the Undergraduate Student Activism Award and Chasity was an obvious choice. Her work on campus speaks for itself. She’s served as a diversity peer educator, worked with the Gay Straight Alliance, engaged in research on racism, women, and mental health. She’s worked tirelessly with the Sociology Club and the Multicultural Student Center, volunteering and mentoring numerous students. She’s part of Model UN, and these are only the things I can remember. She does all this in addition to being an exceptional student.

For Chasity’s nomination for this award, I received letters of support from faculty and staff across campus. As I wrote in my letter,

“Chasity is dedicated to social justice, and is able to use a sociological lens to frame her inquiries. But most importantly, it is not just her experiences that fuel her activism, but her desire to build bridges among diverse groups, to relate to and understand people, and she does so in a professional, reflective way, serving as a role model to others who strive for equality.”

As the letters of support attest, Chasity takes a lead role in advocating for social justice and equality, and she does so with professionalism, empathy, and self-reflection.

Chasity is humble and her work is never self-serving or simply for fame. She does it because she cares deeply for others. She is passionate about social justice. This was beyond evident when we were working on her resume. I asked about her work and she responded, “I just do it; I don’t think about writing it down.”

The world needs more people like Chasity. Chasity is about action, authenticity and living her values. Students like Chasity inspire me to be better — a better person, as well as a teacher and scholar.

Mentoring Our Undergraduates

Chasity has helped me become a better person, but also teacher and scholar. She can tell you what I have helped her with, but this post is not about that. It’s about showing our own humanity and appreciation for students, particularly undergraduate students, who often get left out of the conversation about mentoring and positive relationships. I’m grateful to have been able to work with so many wonderful students in my teaching career. Mentoring undergraduates does not have to take away from our research or teaching. Seeing the humanity and positive attributes of our students can do wonders for their development and by actually listening to them, we can grow professionally and personally.

I encourage you to reach out to students who’ve made a difference in your life. I’ve learned so much from many of my students this year, but today is about Chasity. Join me in congratulating her as she walks across the stage on Saturday and begins an exciting new chapter.

For Chasity

A poet, I may not be, but this is the best way I can tell you and the fabulous folks who read this blog about you.  Here goes…

You have my support and I am forever grateful.

After intense teaching days, you were there.

With a smile, words of wisdom, reminding me how much you learned.

You were the voice of reason when I was ready to run.

You listened and reminded me why I do this important work.

You were the calm during a long day of travel, despite your lack of sleep.

You even didn’t poke me when I snored!

You made me proud; you made me laugh; I cried when you won your award.

You made quite the impression with your authenticity, professionalism, and knowledge.

You worked hard collecting, coding, and analyzing data.

Your awards were numerous,

And you deserve every one!

You have made an impact.

On me,

On your peers,

On your mentors,

On our department,

On campus.

As you move forward, I will miss you,

Yet you will forever be in my heart,

Guiding me, reminding me to build bridges and advocate for justice.

I’ll hear your words to me — you’re worth it!

Never forget how wonderful you are.

You’ve made a difference.

Life is not always easy,

New chapters bring new challenges.

But you are ready.

You are strong and intelligent,

Resourceful and creative,

Empathetic and caring.

You will be okay.

But always remember,

As you care for others, you’ll need support.

Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

Your family, friends, colleagues, and peers,

Will be here for you.

Be brave and take care of yourself.

Chase your dreams!

Congratulations, Graduate!


Please enjoy this re-post of we’re {not} having a baby!‘s interview with sociologist Gillian Ayers on her research on childfree women.

“I could be a father, but I could never be a mother”: Research on Childfree Women in Canada

We here at w{n}hab! love us some research. Especially when it’s sociological (have we mentioned Amy is a sociologist?). So when we came upon an article last summer describing findings from Gillian Ayers’ research on childfree women, we knew we wanted to know more.

Sociologist Gillian Ayers

Gillian Ayers is a Sessional Lecturer at the University of Lethbridge. Her Master’s thesis is entitled “I could be a father, but I could never be a mother”: Values and Meanings of Women’s Voluntary Childlessness in Southern Alberta. Here we chat with Gillian about why she chose to study women in particular and her most surprising research findings.


w{n}hab! – How did you get interested in the topic of childfree women?

G.A. – I became interested in the topic of voluntary childlessness during my undergraduate studies in sociology. The courses I took on sociology of the body, gender, deviance, and feminist theory all challenged my world-view and made sense to me on a personal level as I started to figure out what direction my life would take. I eventually started to question the imperative to mother in my own life, and when I applied to graduate school I decided to explore the topic further through a formal research project. During my research I spoke with 21 women in Southern Alberta who identified as childless by choice.

w{n}hab! – Why study women in particular?

G.A. – Social expectations for women and men are very different. I knew fairly early on in my research project that I would only be speaking with women, as women face particular scrutiny when it comes to domestic life and childbearing decision-making. However, it’s important to note that my study takes for granted the belief that men and fathers are viewed as less involved in childbearing decision-making and childrearing more generally, and the social pressures for them are less. Consequently, women are often the ones who are held responsible for the decision to remain childless, regardless of whether or not the decision was made with a partner. As a result, I was most interested in speaking with women about their experiences of voluntary childlessness.

w{n}hab! – Which of your findings most surprised you? Why?

G.A. – I was most shocked by the “ick” factor explained by many of the women I spoke with regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. This was not an idea I had really thought much about before this research and it truly surprised me because I think many people consider pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding to be beautiful, wonderful, and joyous experiences. In contrast, several women I spoke with were repulsed by these prospects and spoke about wanting to avoid the pain of childbirth, the weight gain, and the feelings of being “hijacked” by a foreign entity during pregnancy. In sum, it was not just the notion of childrearing that women rejected, but also the physical aspects of childbearing.

w{n}hab! – You’ve said that the concept of intensive motherhood was relevant to your research. How so?

G.A. – Sharon Hays (1996) developed the concept of intensive motherhood, which includes methods that should be “child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, and financially expensive.” I found that the voluntarily childless women I spoke with often took up the tenets of intensive motherhood and held motherhood in high esteem. For many of the women, if they couldn’t mother the “right” way, they weren’t going to do it at all. This belief became apparent to me when, for example, 20 of the 21 women I spoke with cited financial reasons for remaining voluntarily childless. Many women viewed intensive motherhood ideologies as an impossible standard, and instead chose to reject motherhood altogether.

w{n}hab! – What’s next for you in this research? What questions remain?

G.A. – Future research could more fully examine the experiences of voluntarily childless First Nations, Métis, or Inuit women, as well as women who are visible minorities. Both these groups have higher than average birth rates in Canada, and they may have different expectations regarding childbearing. Of course, future research could also include speaking to voluntarily childless men about their experiences.