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Profile of the ASA President. . .

Pushing Social Boundaries: Cynthia Fuchs Epstein

by Judith Lorber, Graduate School and Brooklyn College, City University of New York

In 1976, Cynthia Fuchs Epstein and Rose Laub Coser were in England organizing an international conference on women elites at King’s College, Cambridge. Because they also shared a love of gourmet food, they thought they might also consider writing a cookbook – Fast, Easy, and Healthy Food for Women Revolutionaries. The pressures of assembling an international group of scholars to speak about women in elite occupations in Eastern and Western Europe and Israel interfered and they never got beyond the title. Instead they co-edited the papers for a book Access to Power: Cross-National Studies on Women and Elites, published in 1981. That glint of ironic humor is evident in Cynthia’s slight smile in her 1955 senior yearbook picture at Antioch College; her revolutionary determination is also evident in her no-nonsense gaze.

In her essay for a book about her experiences at Antioch, Courses in Courage, Cynthia says that she learned that “knowledge for its own sake is good but requires probing questions and rigor in pursuing answers, and one must always be asking the question, knowledge for what?” Scholarship and political activism were to become the two prongs of her professional career.

Early Influences: Politics

As a student in college, and even before, Cynthia was aware of the processes that defined groups of people as “other.” Her grandfather was an uneducated shoemaker in Poland at the time of Russian pogroms against Jews. The family emigrated to the United States in stages, and grew up in the back of their father’s shop on the lower East Side of New York City.

Cynthia’s father graduated from Stuyvesant High School and had one year of college, where he became a socialist. He outgrew some of his early idealism about the possibility of creating an egalitarian society, but he was an untiring worker in the reform wing of the Democratic Party until his death at the age of 91.

Cynthia participated in a Zionist youth group that subscribed to the socialist ideals of the Israeli kibbutz, which also had the idealistic goal (not always achieved) of gender equality. Cynthia’s parents sent her to Antioch College in Ohio, a place known for its liberal politics. During slavery, it was a refuge on the Underground Railroad that sent runaway slaves to non-slave territories. Antioch was an early innovator in student participation in the running of the college and also had a co-op work program for students.

Politics was very much at the forefront during the early 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy sent his supporters in the Ohio congress delegation to locate and harass left-leaning faculty members, some of whose careers were entirely destroyed. Being exposed to the consequences of labeling and categories, Cynthia became interested in the ways in which marks of status shape popular and social scientific thinking.

Her “progressive” education from grade school through college and her forward-looking family fostered her abilities, but once she graduated, she ran into the sexism of the fifties, which provided few professional opportunities for women. After spending several frustrating years in a dead-end job in a non-profit charitable organization whose executives were women volunteers, Cynthia put her skepticism to the task of figuring out why, despite these women’s administrative abilities, they were regarded as lacking the capacity to run a business or a government. Looking for intellectual stimulation and a way out of her limited prospects, Cynthia went to the New School for Social Research at night and was encouraged by Henry Lennard, a pioneer in social interaction research, to go to Columbia University to get a Ph.D.

Early Influences: Scholarship

At Columbia, the sociological angle of vision, with its focus on trying to peel away ideological and “common sense” explanations for behavior, provided a framework for Cynthia to explore more systematically her discomfort with conventional explanations about women’s abilities, decisions, and activities. Working as a research assistant for William J. (Si) Goode on a project documenting cross-national differences in family structure, she not only saw how much women’s roles differed cross-culturally, but also the way similar rationales about women’s “nature” were used to explain completely different behaviors. Robert Merton’s classes in social theory and social structure suggested how individuals’ choices are made within structural constraints, and his analysis of the dynamics of status and role-sets showed how individuals acquired their places in society according to normative prescriptions and exposure to both public and private social constraints.

With the help of Professor Goode, Cynthia received a grant from the Institute of Life Insurance for $1,000 to study the changing American family. In the course of assembling materials, she saw that women were rapidly entering the labor force, but were limited to jobs that were considered appropriate for women. These differed from country to country, but they were always viewed as “natural” choices. This rationale particularly kept women out of prestigious professions. The few who managed to get professional training and degrees were kept out of colleague networks, did not have mentors or sponsors, and received little acknowledgement of their productivity and creativity. As a result, they had flat rather than upwardly mobile careers.

Using Merton’s theories of status sets and opportunity structures, Cynthia’s dissertation analyzed the factors that contributed to professional women’s inclusion and exclusion. She focused on women lawyers, who were rare and thus constituted a deviant case. They were survivors of a system that was generally hostile to women. Men leaders of all elite professions at the time were clear and vociferous about their antipathy towards women and imposed quotas on their admission to law school and medical school. Once out of school, gatekeepers who recruited lawyers from the largest to the smallest firms, in government work and in corporations, for the most part refused to hire women. (Remember that Sandra Day O’Connor was only offered work as a secretary.) Cynthia decided to examine a sample of the few who circumvented the prevalent gender discrimination.

Feminist Activism

While Cynthia was working on her dissertation, she met Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, which attacked the prevailing sociological idea that the father-headed, wife-at-home family was the best for society. In 1966, Cynthia joined Friedan and other academic and professional women in the formation of the National Organization for Women in New York City. She was also active in several of the fledgling professional women’s groups springing up in response to the women’s movement, such as the Professional Women’s Caucus and Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS).

As an activist and a scholar, Cynthia participated in various hearings on gender discrimination. She testified at the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), which was establishing guidelines to interpret Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Her testimony dealt with the consequences of permitting “help wanted” advertisements in newspapers to be divided by gender. She continued to write and speak of the difficulties women faced as recruits to professions dominated by men and getting ahead in them without the benefit of networks, mentors, and sponsors.

Over the years, Cynthia served as a consultant to the White House under two administrations, and at the National Academy of Sciences on the Committee on Women’s Employment. She was a consultant to the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and General Motors and with Kai Erikson, conducted a research project on the workplace culture at AT&T and its impact on attempts to change gender and racial occupational segregation. She was also an expert witness worked on the Citadel case, arguing for the inclusion of women in this elite military school.

A Non-stop Career

Cynthia’s first book, Women’s Place: Option and Limits on Professional Careers, published in 1971, was groundbreaking in that it located women’s professional advancement in the structures of opportunities offered them, the organizational limits placed on their ambitions, and the recognition and reward of their accomplishments. In expanding the concepts of master status and social structures to include gender, her work made a crucial connection between traditional sociology and the emerging field of women’s studies. Her second book, Women In Law, published in 1981, gave solid empirical evidence about how these processes shaped women lawyers’ careers. She received the 1981 SCRIBE’s Book Award and the Merit Award of the American Bar Association for Women In Law.

Cynthia’s first post-graduate study was of Black professional women. Cynthia interviewed a snowball sample of Black women lawyers, doctors, and businesswomen about the factors that contributed to their unusual attainments in a doubly discriminatory society. The paper from this study, “Positive Effects of the Multiple Negative: Explaining the Success of Black Professional Women,” was published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1973. The findings showed how these few African-American lawyers, doctors and business managers surmounted the odds and worked as professional achievers. Some found opportunity in the “protected settings” of government jobs and black institutions. And respondents in the study suggested that their two disadvantaged statuses cancelled each other out. In an attempt to fill equal opportunity goals on the cheap, an employer could claim double credit for having a woman and an African-American—who was the same person. As several Black women lawyers explained, they were “twofers.” Thus, a very small number of gifted women managed to climb the career ladder in spite of, or perhaps because of, a set of twin prejudices and the changing ethos demanding that institutions diversify their workforces.

The studies of women in professional life led Cynthia to explore the dynamics of stereotyping in all spheres of society. Focusing on the social construction of boundaries—especially those that result in binary distinctions—Cynthia assessed a wide swath of social science studies and explored the underpinnings of what she called Deceptive Distinctions, the title of the book published in 1988.

In the 1990s, because of her experience in studying women lawyers, Cynthia was invited by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York’s Committee on the Status of Women to conduct research that would shed light on why women’s professional careers came to a halt in mid-stream. With the Committee’s financial and professional support, Cynthia fielded a study of women’s mobility in eight large private corporate law firms. This study found that women were no longer questioned about their intellectual competence as they had been in earlier years, but that men in power had questions about their image and interpersonal competence in the evaluation for partnership. Women were often out of the loop in the referral of clients from older men partners, which was the way associates were given the social capital to “make rain”—that is, to get business for the firm—a crucial element in evaluation for partnership. Women also faced the dual burden of an escalation of hours at work through new and higher levels of billable hours, and also greater pressure to be a hands-on mother. There was still the stereotype that women had a different “style” of relating to clients, even though both the women and men lawyers exhibited many different interpersonal styles and personalities. All these factors contributed to the well-known “glass ceiling” effect – women never reaching the top echelons of their professions. Women In Law was reissued in 1993 with an update on the glass ceiling in the legal profession.

In 1994, Cynthia was invited to confer with the vice-president of the Alfred Sloan Foundation, Hirsh Cohen, who thought that flexible and part-time work might stem the loss of trained and talented professional workers because of the pressures of time in their workplaces. Cynthia and her co-researchers, Carroll Seron, Robert Saute, and Bonnie Oglensky, found that less than three percent of lawyers in the firms they studied chose available part-time work schedules because those who did were seen as having less commitment and were given less important work to do. In short, lawyers who worked part-time (often working as long as most other workers’ full-time schedules) suffered from stigmatization. Furthermore, part-time employment was usually granted only to women with children, and so the few men who attempted to take such schedules found themselves even more stigmatized than women, both at work and in their home communities. It was clear that norms at work and in the society supported the idea that women might legitimately work less than men at the same professional level, but they would pay for it by being bumped off an upward career track. The book published in 1999 from this research is The Part-time Paradox: Time Norms, Professional Life, Family and Gender.

Considering time as a construct and analyzing its social meaning is a further spin-off from the research Cynthia has conducted on gender issues in the law. Her current conceptual work integrates time with other indicators and considers the way it is used to maintain gender and other role and status distinctions. Time, she says, is a social control mechanism that maintains boundaries. Her latest paper, “Border Crossings: The Constraints of Time Norms in Transgressions of Gender and Professional Roles,” published in 2004, examines how role transgressions are inhibited by time norms that order priorities for people in certain categories, such as mothers and doctors. It looks at the ways in which time ideologies (the professions as “greedy institutions”) and gender ideologies (women as caretakers of the family) restrict social change.

Distinguished in So Many Ways

Cynthia has been Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center since 1990. Among the many places in the United States and internationally that she has been a visiting professor or scholar are the Russell Sage Foundation and the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and the Stanford and Columbia Law Schools. She was also a Guggenheim Fellow. Cynthia was president of the Eastern Sociological Society and chair of the ASA Occupations and Organizations, Culture, and Sex and Gender Sections. She has received numerous professional awards, among them, the ESS Merit Award, the ASA Jessie Bernard Award, and the first Sex and Gender Section award for distinguished contribution to gender scholarship.

In her research and as a witness and contributor to rapid social changes that altered the rules by which individuals play out their lives, Cynthia has engaged in one long project documenting and analyzing the forces of discrimination—structural, cultural, and personal. If you compare her Antioch yearbook picture of 1955 with her 2005 presidential picture, you’ll find that Cynthia still has that determined look in her eyes, but her broad smile conveys a sense of satisfaction at the accomplishments of the past thirty-five years.