July-August 2009 Issue • Volume 37 • Issue 6

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The Significance of the
Jessie Bernard Award

This is the second in a series of three articles about
ASA’s named awards

by Patricia Yancey Martin, Florida State University

The American Sociological Association Council established the Jessie Bernard Award in 1976 to recognize "work that has enlarged the horizons of the discipline of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society." Upon her death, the New York Times wrote that Bernard’s "wide-ranging research and writings on women’s issues provided scholarly foundation for the modern feminist revolution," (October 11, 1996). By naming the award after her, the ASA honored the work of a brilliant, productive, and courageous woman. Her research inspired feminist sociologists to demand incorporation of women’s lives into sociological theories, research, publications, and professional associations. Her personal story epitomizes the experiences of many women, not only sociologists, in 20th century America.


Jessie Bernard

Jessie Sarah Ravitch (1903-1996), the third of four children born to Romanian Jewish parents, entered the University of Minnesota at age 16, where she completed a BA in sociology in three years and an MA in one more. At Minnesota, she studied with Pitirim Sorokin, N. S. B. Gras, Karl Lashley, and Luther Lee Bernard (an eventual ASA president known as LLB). She worked for LLB as a research assistant and later married him, despite his being 21 years her senior and not Jewish, prompting her family to reject her. Jessie stayed with LLB for 21 years, until his death. She had three children, the first at age 37, and raised them as a single-mother after LLB died.

Jessie’s master’s thesis was published in the American Sociological Review in 1925, and, although she followed LLB to several institutions where she held ancillary positions, she completed her PhD at Washington University at age 32. In later years, LLB followed Jessie, and when he died she held a permanent faculty position at Pennsylvania State University. Over the years, she spent substantial time in Europe and Washington, DC, and as a visiting professor at—among other universities—Princeton. After retiring at 62, she wrote 10 books, many of which became classics. In all, she authored 14 books, was co-author or co-editor of seven more, and was author of 60+ journal articles and 85 book chapters. Bernard’s key books included The Sex Game: Communication Between the Sexes (1968), Women and the Public Interest (1971), The Future of Marriage (1972), The Sociology of Community (1973), The Future of Motherhood (1974), and The Female World (1980). She was perhaps best known for claiming that heterosexual couples experience marriage differently, producing a "his" and "her" marriage.

Bernard’s intellectual journey entailed both compliance and rebellion, characterized by seismic shifts in perspectives and methods. Trained in the positivist tradition, she believed that studying "the objective" world was the goal of the "science of sociology" (Lipman-Blumen 2001). Later, she challenged positivism, focused on the subjective aspects of social life, and rejected the notion that "science will save the world." She nevertheless maintained a life-long commitment to evidence and all of her scholarship was empirically based. Along with shifts in methodological foci, she also moved theoretically—from functionalism to interactionism to feminism.

Jessie described herself as experiencing four "sociological revolutions" (Bernard 1973). The first, in the 1920s, was led by W. F. Ogburn and pushed sociology toward "quantifying" and away from (only) grand theories. The second, in the 1930s, came when LL Bernard, with others, helped U.S. sociology institutionally "escape from the clutches of the University of Chicago sociology department." The third was her co-founding the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP), with Alfred McClung Lee and Arnold Rose in 1951, to challenge the American Sociological Association’s "elitism" and refusal to address pressing social issues. Her fourth revolution, feminism, "came as a surprise to me," although she said it should not have. Her 1964 book, Academic Women, failed to anticipate the coming women’s movement and she always regretted this (atypical) lack of foresight.

Jessie’s goal as a feminist was to eliminate "the sexist bias in the discipline." Sociology was, she said, "a science of male society" and "when women have been dealt with in this sociology of male society, it has usually been in a chapter or footnote on ‘the status of women,’ thrown in as an extra, rather beside the point, rather than, as an intrinsic component of a total society." In the 1970s, she helped found Sociologists for Women in Society and participated in a New Orleans "sit-in" that objected to a male-only restaurant. She often joked about becoming a feminist after becoming a grandmother.

Jessie Bernard regularly challenged received wisdom and acted against the grain. Upon being elected president of SSSP, she refused to give a presidential address, saying such talks were boring. She also refused nomination as president of the ASA. Jessie’s unpretentious style in her written work and personal and professional life made her a beloved mentor and inspiration to those fortunate enough to know her. Well into her 80s, she sat in the front row of ASA sessions on gender and offered encouragement and advice to the often junior scholars presenting. The ASA memorialized her lifetime of achievements to acknowledge those who study gender, have improved women’s status in society, and have notably incorporated women and gender into sociological theories and research. Only time will tell if Jessie’s hopes are realized. logo

Sources consulted:

Bannister, Robert C. 1991. Jessie Bernard: The Making of a Feminist. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Bernard, Jessie. 1973. My four revolutions: An autobiographical history of the ASA. American Journal of Sociology 78 (January):773-791.

Lipman-Blumen, Jean. 2001. Bernard, Jessie. International Encyclopedia of the Behavioral and Social Sciences, Vol. 18.

Written with the help of Judith Lorber (CUNY Graduate Center), Barrie Thorne (University of California-Berkeley), Myra Marx Ferree (University of Wisconsin), and Irene Padavic (Florida State University).


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