Some Reflections on the Feminist Scholarship in Sociology

Komarovsky, Mirra. 1991. “Some Reflections on the Feminist Scholarship in Sociology.” Annual Review of Sociology. Vol.17,pp.1-26.

Long Blog Post: Erika Primdahl

Some Reflections on the Feminist Scholarship in Sociology by Mirra Komarovsky


The expansion of the Women’s Movement in the 1960’s presented two obstacles to the study of sociology. The more important task is discovering how the problem of the individual translates to the problem of the collective.  The Women’s Movement was a result of economic, social, and cultural changes in American society.

This article looks at how the Women’s Movement contributed to the study of sociology. Feminist criticism in the 60’s revealed not only a lack of knowledge in general, but “flawed interpretations of social phenomena”. Some Reflections on the Feminist Scholarship in Sociologyillustrates contributions to sociology by feminist scholars, and analyzes changes in feminist orientations. The resurgence of the Women’s Movement has contributed to publications by feminist scholars in social sciences, history, the humanities, and the introduction of “Women’s Studies” as a field of study in college and university settings. Feminist contributions can “refute an accepted sociological generalization, fill a lacuna [gap] in our discipline, or chart an origional theoretical direction”.

I. The Missing Problem

  • Feminists made manifest a social problem that was invisible in mainstream sociology prior to the 1960’s.
  • Popular sociological literature  that focused on social issues, such as Contemporary Social Problemsby Merton & Nisbet, ignored gender issues.
  • Latent problem in society was “social disorganization”- the dysfunctions of current social arrangements and accepted beliefs for other values of our society.
  • The issue was not isolated to legal or other inequality faced by women, but a total system of gender stratification.
  • According to W. J. Goode, sociological author mentioned in this essay, men, as other dominant groups tend to assume that their superior accomplishments are not the result of social advantages but of inborn superiority. (Ignoring the fact that they receive unearned privilege.)
  • Human beings take for granted the benefits derived from some social arrangement but are aware of its costs for them.
  • It is likely that men viewed women as the more sheltered sex, free from male pressure to provide and to achieve.
  • If sociologists did not regard gender stratification as a social problem, some advantages women experienced were recognized.
  • Violence against women, in and outside the family, is one of the more dramatic and familiar cases in point. Physical abuse of women existed and acknowledged, but it was an INDIVIDUAL PROBLEM, not a collective Women’s issue.
  • For example, Journal of Marriage and the Family, circulated from 1939  through ’69, did not have a SINGLE article that contained the word “violence” in the title.
  • Today, there is a social concern with rape and violence of women issues. without the feminist movement, these types of developments would probably have not taken place.
  • Feminist criticism does not fail to identify the failure of mainstream sociology to perceive the status of women as a SOCIAL problem. Sociologists around the 1960’s were equally oblivious to gender as a SOCIOLOGICAL issue. In fact, as seen in Some Reflections on the Feminist Scholarship in Sociology, many sociologists even went as far as to criticize the few feminist precursors.
  • “In a society in which men dominate the major institutions and make critical decisions, it is all too easy to assume that the behavior of men, and not of women, is the more significant object of study” Komarovsky

II.  The Precursors 1930-1960

  • Margaret Mead, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935)
  • Mead was the student of Franz Boas and William F. Ogburn in who, in sociology, battled against “prevailing biological determinism”
  • Written at the height of the post-WWII, “new-antifeminism” era.
  • “I found in one [society], both men and women act s we expect women to act- in a mild, parental, responsive way; in the second, both act as we expect men to act- in a fierce, initiating fashion; and in the third, men act according to our stereotype for women- are ‘catty’ ,wear curls and go shopping; while women are energetic, managerial, unadorned partners.” Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies
  • Looked at questions like: How to account for the differences in definitions of femininity and masculinity and in sex roles across different societies and historical periods?
  • “cultural determinism” – culture and society shapes/determines the stereotypes men and women follow.
  • Mead recognized what until and at that point, women had been barred from “the great structures of law and government, religion, art, and science…women become less human.”
  • Emphasis on this book points out the need to acknowledge and apply the unique talents of either sex.
  • Viola Klein, the Feminine Character; History of an Ideology (1946)
  • A study in sociology of knowledge
  • Examines the views of the feminine personality that were developed by eight authorities representing various disciplines.
  • Conceived human personality in “bipolar terms” (ie: Women are what men are not.)
  • The author concludes that as to the typical feminine personality, “there are almost as many opinions as there are minds.”
  • Sociologists of knowledge rely on the diversity of opinion.
  • His recognition of a shift away from the dominant bipolarity of sex stereotypes toward diversity.
  • The industrial revolution shifted familial economic functions to outside agencies and women entered the labor force.
  • The general differentiation of society led to the recognition of diversity of influences shaping personality- apart from sex.
  • Proposes, “Let sociology continue to concentrate on sociopsychologicial differences.
  • Biological sciences today provide more reliable methods of studying hormonal and other organic differences and similarities between men and women.
  • Talcott Parsons, “Age of Sex and the Social Structure” (1942)
  • Prime target of feminist criticism in the 60s and 70s.
  • It’s central thesis was the congruence of sex role differentiation with the functional prerequisites of our social system.
  • Makes no reference to possible alternative social institutions.
  • Called attention to a distinction between two sets of values in which young women were exposed and by which they had to judge themselves. (ie: in academically demanding women’s colleges, students were rewarded for intelligence, initiative, independence, self-confidence, creativity, and persistence. However, in interaction with men, women had to display these qualities cautiously and only when it was called upon.
  • Identified the discontinuities on socialization of girls within the family and some cross-pressures from agents of socialization.
  • Mirra Komarovsky, Women in the Modern World: their Education and Dilemmas (1953)
  • Motivated by the conservative backlash of the Women’s Movement.
  • Variety of role strains and serious discontent of college-educated, full-time homemakers, as well as the costs in our society of combining family life and a career.
  • Many sociologists failed to perceive any problems with full-time homemaking.
  • Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein, Women’s Two Roles: Home and Work (1956)
  • This is the first of the “precursor” works that provided a comparison of the status of women in four industrialized countries in the 1950’s (US, France, Swede, and the UK).
  • Analysis of both the similarities and differences in the status of women in the four countries.
  • In all 4 nations, women make up 1/3 of the workforce.
  • Problem? “…an average housewife can be considered to be employed full-time on tasks which are necessary for homemaking during only one-quarter or one-third of her normal adult life.”
  • Solution? Return to full-time employment when children no longer require their mothers’ full time care.

III. Some Contributions of Feminist Scholarship Since 1960

  • The body of feminist writings in sociology since the 60s covers a large range of areas- women in economic, familial, legal, academic, political, and religious institutions, dual-career families, sexuality, mothering, divorce, life cycle, violence, and more.
  • 60s includes a critique of mainstream sociology and outlines of alternative philosophical and methodological positions.
  • Feminist writings reveal flaws in mainstream sociology.
  • Scare amount of comparative studies of class and other differences within out society that could account from gender stratification.
  • One failing of mainstream society was not ignoring certain issues, but uncritically accepting others. (ie: traditional stereotypes of men and women)
  • 1960’s feminist sociology looks at resistances to women’s entry into male-dominated occupations
  • Expansion of women’s paid employment since the 60s took place in a labor market strongly segregated by gender.
  • Male occupations continue to be higher in prestige, pay and power.
  • Opportunities for women (and other minorities- especially blacks) open up in the labor force.
  • A task for feminist scholars was an analysis of some theories of mainstream economics and sociology that attempted to account for gender inequality in the labor market on grounds other than discrimination.
  • Rational choices/”human capital”: Women and men make choices rationally in order to maximize their utility.
  • Personality differences between the sexes (strengths, weaknesses, preferences)
  • The human capital theory has been tested by comparison of male nd female subgroups who share the same capital status (ie: education, training, work experience).
  • Identification of “work” with paid work, obviously excluding much work done by women.
  • Ferree cites recent statistics showing that both housework and child care “remain overwhelmingly the women’s responsibility”
  • Of the social mechanisms that reinforce the prevailing male advantages is drawn not from the work place but from the college classroom- preparatory to employment.
  • Male students are more likely to get called on (communicating more interest in what they have to say than their female peers).
  • Faculty interrupt women more than male students.
  • Male students tend to be more “coached” to probe for a more elaborate answer.
  • Overall- what men say carries more weight.
  • This reinforces the self-confidence of male and the self-devaluation of female students.
  • Status-sets: the various social statuses occupied by an individual (ie: a male lawyer may be a father, soldier, politician, husband, charitable, religious, etc.).
  • The demands of role partners in various statuses may be intrinsically contradictory.
  • “Sex-typing”: the labeling of social roles as appropriately performed by men or women.
  • Interpretaton of sex-typing in the work force centers around three elements:
  • Sexual identity (internalized component of personality)
  • Difference between the professional role od a lawyer, on one hand  and the feminine role, on the other.
  • When a woman in the workplace is polite and calm and stereotypically feminine, she is deemed not suitable to be a professional and not up for the challenge. But when the woman acts stereotypically male- assertive, aggressive, self-assures, and capable, she is labeled a bitch.
  • Male socialization for superiority over women in the workplace.
  • Finally, opportunity structure shapes behavior.
  • Kanter, feminist sociologist, examined the social structural settings of work. She cites findings that in production and in clerical jobs, women tend to have “shorter chains of opportunity”.
  • People on “high mobility tracks” tend to develop work committment and upward orientations.
  • Lack of opportunity to advance limits or depresses aspirations and enhances the values of sociability of peer groups in the workplace.
  • The opportunity structure and not the sex of the worker proves the stronger determinant of behavior and attitudes on the job.
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