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American Sociological Association


SWS Activism: A Brief History

by Heather Laube, University of Michigan-Flint, and Beth Hess

(This article was written in 2001 and appears on the website of Sociologists for Women in Society at http://newmedia.colorado.edu/~socwomen/about/history.pdf.)

The “status of women in sociology” emerged as a public issue at the 1969 ASA annual meeting in San Francisco, when Alice Rossi, then a professor at Goucher College, confronted the organization’s leadership, including ASA Secretary, Peter Rossi, at the Business Meeting. Speaking on behalf of the newly formed Women’s Caucus, Alice Rossi presented nine resolutions covering topics that ranged from hiring and promotion practices to child care, as well as the inclusion of women in research designs, and the development of course material that acknowledged the experiences of the other half of the population. Although her proposals met with approval from the Business Meeting participants, the Caucus decided to meet during the winter, rather than wait for the bureaucratic wheels to turn (Bart 1985; Rossi 1985; Women's Caucus 1970).

The group that convened at Yale in 1970 debated the structure of a formal organization to pursue the twin goals of (1) supporting colleagues in the discipline, and (2) the rights of women in the society (Daniels 1985; Lorber 1985; Tuchman 1985). In 1971, Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) was born. Its first battle, however, was not at an ASA business meeting, but at the hotel restaurant which refused to serve women during the “men’s lunch hour” lest the female chatter disturb the men’s serious discussion. SWSers Charlotte Wolf and Jessie Bernard, along with Erving Goffman and Peter Berger, conducted a “sit-in” at a table, and others picketed, bringing the police (called by the hotel) and the media (called by the women) to the site. The brouhaha pushed ASA Council to insist that the hotel management allow women full access to its facilities, which it did (Wolf 1985).

SWS then turned its attention to the ASA and sociology in general around such issues as job security and salaries, sensitivity to child care needs, representation in governance, and research priorities. In the beginning, however, feminist sociologists were very much the outsiders. Because they were not yet seated at the table, SWS would send observers to Council meetings. Because its members had not yet been nominated themselves, SWS collected information on and endorsed candidates for ASA offices (Bernard 1973; Wilkinson 1979; ASA 1980). Over the next two decades, slowly but steadily, SWS members worked their way up the academic ladder and into the hallowed halls of the sociological power elite. The content of journals was broadened. Courses in Sex & Gender proliferated in college catalogues, and when ASA Council did not want to sponsor a journal on gender issues (expressing fears that good articles on gender would be lost to the journals they already published), SWS took on this challenge. The core of the discipline was transformed – epistemology and methodology never to be the same again. Literally, the face of sociology has changed – no longer all white or all male.

Truly, these are remarkable changes – all in the space of three decades. It is not too much to say that SWS has been instrumental both in degendering the ASA and in bringing gender to the center of the discipline (Roby 1992). It is perhaps ironic that these very successes have led so many to assume that the battles have all been won. Thus, when academic women, enjoying the benefits won with struggle by SWSers, proudly declare that they are “not feminists, but…” – it is clear that the revolution remains unfinished.

References

American Sociological Association Committee on the Status of Women in Sociology. 1980. "Sexist Biases in Sociological Research: Problems and Issues." ASA Footnotes, Vol. 8 (January): 8-9.

Bart, Pauline. 1985. “Anniversary Remarks and Two Poems.” SWS Network, Vol. 14 (November): 6-7.

Bernard, Jessie. 1973. "My Four Revolutions: An Autobiographical History of the ASA." American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78 (January): 773-791.

Daniels, Arlene Kaplan. 1985. “A Founding Mother’s Reminiscence.” SWS Network, Vol. 14 (November): 4-5.

Lorber, Judith. 1985. “My Fifteen Years (A Lifetime) with SWS.” SWS Network, Vol. 14 (November): 9-10.

Roby, Pamela. 1992. "Women and the ASA: Degendering Organizational Structures and Processes, 1964-1974." American Sociologist, Vol. 23 (Spring): 18-48.

Rossi, Alice. 1985. "The Formation of SWS: An Historical Account by a Founding Mother." SWS Network, Vol. 14 (November): 2-4.

Tuchman, Gaye. 1985. “I Remember Well.” SWS Network, Vol. 14 (November): 5-6.

Wilkinson, Doris. 1979. "A Report: Status of Women in Sociology, 1934-1977.", Vol. 10 (March): 4-6. (Reprinted 1980). Wolf, Charlotte. 1985. In SWS Network Vol. 14, No. 2, November.

Women's Caucus. 1970. "Women's Caucus Statement and Resolutions to the General Business Meeting of the American Sociological Association. September 3, 1969." American Sociologist, Vol. 5 (February): 63-65.

Note: Special thanks to Doris Wilkinson for her work compiling resources on the ASA SWS connection.


Last Updated on January 26, 2005
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