January 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 1

download pdfDownload full issue pdf

Alice Rossi (1922-2009):
Feminist Scholar and an Ardent Activist

by Jay Demerath, Naomi Gerstel, Michael Lewis, University of Massachusetts - Amherst

Alice S. Rossi—the Harriet Martineau Professor of Sociology Emerita at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, a founding board member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) (1966-70), first president of Sociologists for Women in Society (1971-72), and former president of the American Sociological Association (1982-83)—died of pneumonia on November 3, 2009, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Rossi was a towering figure in American sociology as well as a nationally preeminent feminist scholar and an ardent activist.


Alice Rossi (1922-2009)

Born to German Lutheran parents on September 24, 1922, in New York, Alice Emma Schaerr was a true daughter of that city. A 1947 graduate of Brooklyn College, she earned her PhD in sociology from Columbia University 10 years later, primarily under the tutelage of Robert Merton. Due to prejudicial attitudes toward women seeking faculty positions, she was employed at Cornell University, Harvard, the University of Chicago, and John Hopkins as a "research associate"—a position often used at the time for academic women married to someone in the same field. She did not receive her first tenured appointment until 1969, when she joined the faculty at Goucher College, and her first appointment to a graduate department did not come until 1974, when she and her husband, Peter H. Rossi, moved to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst as Professors of Sociology. She remained on the UMass faculty until her retirement in 1991.

Alice Rossi became a leader in a variety of venues. She served as Vice President of the American Association of University Professors (1974-76) and Chair of the Social Science Research Council (1976-78). President Carter appointed her to the National Commission for the Observance of International Women's Year (1977-78), and she served on the Advisory Council for the National Institute on Aging (1985-89). There were other honors too: The Ernest W. Burgess Award for Distinguished Research on the Family (National Council of Family Relations, 1996); the Commonwealth Award for a Distinguished Career in Sociology (American Sociological Association, 1989); elected American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fellow (1986); and honorary degrees from six colleges and universities.

As an original thinker, Alice managed to combine her successful activism with published work that always illumined issues of consequence in the lives of contemporary women and men. Her major books include: Academic Women on the Move (1973); The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir (1973); Feminists in Politics: A Panel Analysis of the First National Women's Conference (1982); Gender in the Life Course (1985); Of Human Bonding: Parent-Child Relations Across the Life Course (with Peter H. Rossi, 1990); Sexuality Across the Life Course (1994); and Caring and Doing for Others: Social Responsibility in the Domains of Family, Work and Community (2001).

To know Alice was to know a scholar who believed that science could and should trump ideology even in the cause of social justice. She was fearless in the face of the controversy that this belief sometimes provoked. Publishing her 1964 path-breaking article in Daedalus, "Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal," she complained of the waning of feminism and argued that women's primary responsibility for child rearing—indeed the making of motherhood into a full-time occupation for the first time in history—made it impossible for women "to participate on an equal basis with men in politics, occupations and families." This article brought vituperative attacks in which she was called an unnatural woman and unfit mother, but it served as a virtual blueprint for the political and academic project called "second wave feminism." Her several articles beginning in 1966 urging abortion rights had similar reverberations. Later, Alice immersed herself in the study of endocrinology and primatology. She concluded that to understand sex roles (a term she preferred to "gender"), scholars and proponents of equality needed to move from models of parenting based only on social causation to models recognizing the combined contributions of biology and social practices. She maintained this position despite vigorous opposition and critique from many of those who had praised her earlier work.

Anyone who had the good fortune (and courage) to work with Alice soon learned that she worked intensively to realize high standards and expected others to do the same. She was an accomplished tailor, expert gardener, and superb chef (pity the waiter who asked perfunctorily how she liked a sub-par meal). Although not always easy to get along with, she was little different from many other influential academics in this regard. An unstinting correspondent, she quickly accommodated requests by colleagues and students to review their written work. Because her detailed responses were always honest and often severe, those seeking uncritical praise quickly learned to turn elsewhere while those willing to learn hard lessons invariably concluded their work had been improved.

Even toward the end, Alice's 87 years were marked by considerable achievement and considerable recognition. At a recent national convention of NOW she was honored as one of that organization's two surviving founders. Delegates to the meeting went out of their way to thank her for past contributions but soon found out that the older Alice was not finished. When asked to comment on presentations, she displayed the same fire that years earlier had moved her to best Betty Friedan in a dispute over the meaning of NOW's identifying acronym. While Friedan wanted it to be the National Organization of Women, Rossi argued successfully that it should be the National Organization for Women to indicate that men were welcome as long as they put their shoulders to the feminist wheel.

Alice held dear not only her work but also the love and life she shared with her husband, Peter H. (also a past president of the American Sociological Association, who died in 2006), her children, Peter E., Kristin, and Nina, and her six grandchildren. At the same time, she clearly belongs in the pantheon of such pioneering 20th-century feminists as Simone de Beauvoir, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Margaret Mead, who also intertwined scholarship and activism to achieve profound influence. Alice Rossi helped to provide an important bridge from the 20th to the 21st century. As an exemplar, colleague, and friend, her passing leaves a deep loss but a far-reaching legacy. logo_small

Back to Top of Page

Print this article share this article discuss this article

Featured Advertiser:

rwjf ad

Back to Front Page of Footnotes