January 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 1

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Reflections on Alice Rossi

We can all look back and reflect on those who inspired and supported our careers. There are many such people in my life, but without a doubt, an early essay by Alice Rossi was one of the main reasons I became a sociologist. In 1968 I was a junior in college, taking introductory sociology to fulfill a general education requirement. I was writing a term paper on abortion, something I felt passionate about; like many of my generation, during the time before Roe v. Wade. At the time, I was more interested in computers than society and was writing a Fortran program to analyze attitudes toward abortion. As part of my project, I found a short article by Alice Rossi in Trans-action—a six-page report on public attitudes toward abortion ("Abortion Laws and Their Victims"). I remember thinking, "Wow! People can study subjects like this and actually get paid to do it!" I was hooked. I dropped my then-computer/business major, switched to sociology, and continued on to graduate school two years later.

Rossi's work—this piece and her many subsequent works—inspired me throughout my early career. Her publication The Feminist Papers, a collection of the then-largely overlooked papers of feminist thinkers; her edited volume, Essays on Sex Equality, about Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill; and, of course, her well-known Daedulus essay, provided the foundation for feminist theory and feminist politics. Inspiring, sometimes controversial, but always a serious and demanding scholar, Alice Rossi influenced a generation of feminist scholars. I never worked with her directly, but, as I reflect on her passing, I am only glad that I had the chance—publicly and privately—to thank her for having charted a course for me to follow.

Margaret L. Andersen, University of Delaware

Alice combined her interest in the Life Course as a focus of scholarship with a sense of purpose in changing women's predicted life course. She was at the conference table when Betty Friedan convened the 1966 organizing meeting that founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in Washington, DC. In addition, she was soon to organize women in the sociology profession as a founder of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) and became its first president.

Alice's seminal essay, "Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal," was one of the very few analytic works about women's poor representation in the professions in the 1960s. It was followed by Women in Science: Why So Few? (1965). Both were important as I turned to my study of women in the law.

Alice Rossi's scholarly work was often informed by her political activities. Serving on President Jimmy Carter's Commission on International Women's Year in 1977 led to a study of women's political aspirations and her political concern for abortion law reform. This interest led to major surveys about public attitudes.

All the while, Alice's personal life was enhanced by the intellectual and personal companionship of Peter Rossi. The mother of three children, she also was an accomplished cook, a fanatic gardener; and an amazing seamstress. I still have the embroidered placemats that she made for me. I have a rich file of the letters Alice wrote over the years, showing the personal insights and feelings of this amazing woman who was also a wonderful friend.

In my "to-do" file there is a letter from Alice Rossi instructing me that she preferred real letters to e-mail, but sadly I didn't get to answer it on time. Years ago, we had struck up an epistolary friendship based on some common experiences and interests. At different times we had been students in the Columbia University Graduate Sociology Department and we shared a passion for women's rights. Both of us integrated our interests with our scholarship and we worked with some of the same players in the scholarly and activist worlds. I will miss this correspondence.

Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Graduate Center, CUNY

Alice Rossi was one of the most significant sociologists in the early phases of feminist remobilization in the 1960s, both intellectually and organizationally. Her classic article "Equality Between the Sexes" in Daedalus (1964) was a clarion call to undo gender expectations limiting both women and men. Her academic feminist activism included her 1973 women's studies "textbook," The Feminist Papers, which combined erudite selections of historical writings with brilliant sociological biographies. As an organizer, Alice was among the group of activists who founded NOW, among the sociological activists who founded SWS, and was its first president in (1971-72). Both groups explicitly embraced the identity of being for women, not of women.

When it came to academic discrimination, Alice knew whereof she spoke. For many years when Peter was on the Johns Hopkins faculty, the university's "anti-nepotism" rules sidelined her to Goucher College. UMass bravely—and opportunistically—broke a longstanding barrier by remarkably offering the Rossis two senior professorships, probably one of the first "partner hires" in a research institution in any discipline. Alice and Peter contributed their complementary strengths to that program for many years.

Alice's commitment to transforming the academy (the continuing goal of SWS) led to research on both discrimination and activism (including her edited volumes, Academic Women on the Move, and Feminists in Politics, her study of the U.S. national conference on women held in Houston preparatory to the first UN conference in Mexico City). Although much feminist sociology today has not chosen to follow her biosocial path to understanding gender, her contributions to feminist struggles have left a legacy of which all concerned with social justice should be proud.

Myra Marx Feree, University of Wisconsin-Madison

I remember reading Alice's feminist essays as an undergraduate in women's studies, and, later, I was Alice's research assistant for a time during my doctoral program at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. I learned so much from her about the discipline and the work involved in doing research. Every day she would give me a stack of index cards typed with the citation of a book or journal article she wanted me to find in the library. After I found all of the materials, I would haul the 20 books and numerous journals back to her office. She would take them home that night, consume them, and return them to me the next day with another stack of index cards. I was amazed at the amount of knowledge and information she could process in a short period of time. Graduate students often joked that she was able to keep up this pace because she only slept four hours per night and worked the other 20. Alice also was known to be a master gardener, a gourmet cook, and an accomplished seamstress. If she did anything, she did it well.

My main project while working as her research assistant was to review the literature on gender measurement from 1960 to 1989. Most of this research was in psychology, and I remember studying all the different theories about gender development and the masculinity/femininity and androgyny scales. I also remember feeling relieved when she complimented me on my work after I turned in the final 100-plus-page document. Alice had very high expectations, and I did not want to disappoint her. I also worked with her as a teaching assistant in her Sociology of Parenthood class, where I learned a great deal.

I am saddened to hear the news of Alice's passing. She was a powerful life force who mentored me and generations of women graduate students. Thank you, Alice, for everything.

Susan Ferguson, Grinnell College

Alice Rossi was truly a pioneer. Among us humans, pioneers are those who, even in the absence of social support, do what they think is right. Most of us are lemmings. We stand up for what we believe when we see others around us more or less approve of what we do. Alice began to fight for women's equality in the early 1960s, the only sociologist who was doing so then. Her modest proposal for equality and, a little later, for the right to legal abortion, represented a new conception of women's place: Women would share the costs and benefits of earning wages and salaries and men would share the costs and benefits of housework and childcare. These ideas set many teeth on edge. In 1969, for example, a sociologist who was attending the ASA Annual Meeting walked right up to Alice and spat in her face. There was more. It was hard to take. And it is worth remembering.

Joan Huber, Ohio State University

I remember first meeting Alice S. Rossi in 1969 at the Sociology Women's Caucus held, not at the ASA hotel—the ASA wouldn't let us meet there—but in the basement of Glide Memorial Church nearby. Being in my last year of graduate school, I listened closely with ever increasing respect as our senior colleagues, Alice Rossi and Gertrude Jaeger Selznick, told us personal stories about their experiences as women and wives in the profession.

Alice next reported on her recent study of the representation or rather the lack of representation of women within graduate sociology faculties (1970). As planned, building on Alice's survey, we in the room finalized and approved a "Women's Caucus Statement and Resolutions," which we presented to the ASA General Business meeting September 3. The statement read in part:

What we seek is effective and dramatic action: an unbiased policy in the selection of stipend support of students; a concerted commitment to the hiring and promotion of women sociologists to right the imbalance that is represented by the current situation in which 67 percent of the women graduate students in this country do not have a single woman sociology professor of senior rank during the course of their graduate training, and when we participate in an association of sociologists in which NO woman will sit on the 1970 council, NO woman is included among the associate editors of the American Sociological Review, or the advisory board of the American Journal of Sociology, and NO woman sits on the committees on publications and nominations. We urge every sociology department to give priority to the hiring and promotion of women faculty until the proportion and rank distribution of women faculty at least equals the sex ratio among graduate students with a long-range goal of increasing the proportion of women among graduate students. In working toward such a goal, this must supplement rather than detract from department efforts to train, hire, and promote black and Third World personnel and students.

A day later, at the ASA business meeting, all of the nonvoting members and all but two of the voting members endorsed the spirit of the resolutions. Soon after, the ASA Council did the same. It also urged all sociology departments to study the resolutions, which it voted to publish along with the "Women's Caucus Statement" as part of the convention proceedings in The American Sociologist. Alice later observed: "It seemed to me preferable to have the 'facts' in advance of any political action for two reasons: For one, it would help forestall setting up an ASA committee to do this fact-gathering, a step sure to dull the edge and postpone the bite of 'doing' something instead of merely 'studying' something. Second, I was convinced that a survey would get a higher response rate if it preceded rather than followed political action" (1985). In fact, Alice's survey had a 78 percent response rate.

At the time, after working for 15 years in various research positions and while still raising three children, Alice, then 47, was about to assume her first academic faculty position as an associate professor at Goucher College (1988). She was already an active feminist scholar. In the early sixties, as Alice later wrote, she had had her "first consciously defined experience with sex discrimination" when a University of Chicago Professor of Anthropology seeing "a good thing in a study" she had designed, supervised the field work for and begun to analyze, fired her as a research associate days after the National Science Foundation funded the proposal she had drafted (1990, 1988). Alice's resulting burn inspired her "first sociological study of gender and first feminist publication," the 1964 Daedalus article, "Equality Between the Sexes" (1990). Withstanding collegial warnings against her doing so, she also plunged into abortion law reform in Illinois in 1960 and the founding of NOW with 20 other women in 1966.

A year after the 1969 Women's Caucus, many of us who were at the Caucus again met, this time in Washington, DC, where others joined us. We debated what to call our group and very deliberately, and at long length, decided to call ourselves Sociologists for Women in Society so that our organization could include all feminist sociologists and so that our goals would not be limited to the liberation of women in sociology but extend to the liberation of all women. In that one meeting, thanks largely to Alice's circulating model by-laws in advance, 20 SWS members finalized by-laws and selected acting officers in an effort to solidify the new organization into one that might have ongoing effectiveness. The group enthusiastically chose and Alice agreed to serve as SWS's first Acting President.

I am thankful that Alice Rossi has been part of my life in these and other ways. I will forever be inspired by her feminist leadership and sharp mind.

Pamela Ann Roby, University of California, Santa Cruz logo_small


Alice S. Rossi. 1964. "Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal," Daedalus, 93:607-652.

_______, 1970. "Status of Women in Graduate Departments of Sociology, 1968-1969," The American Sociologist, 5:1-12.

_______, 1985. "The Formation of SWS: An Historical Account by a Founding Mother," SWS Network News, November, pp. 2-4.

_______, 1988. "Growing Up and Older in Sociology," pp. 43-64 in Sociological Lives, edited by Matilda White Riley, Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications.

_______, 1990 "Chapter 13: Seasons of a Woman's Life," pp. 301-322 in Authors of Their Own Lives: Intellectual Autobiographies by Twenty American Sociologists, edited by Bennett M. Berger, Berkeley: University of California Press.

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