I was born in the north of England in 1926 -- a long time ago, another world. It’s hard to connect who I am now with the girl and young woman who lived back there then. I had worked as a young woman in a variety of jobs, ending up doing secretarial work in the book publishing industry. When I was twenty-five, I was fed up. I’d tried to get on in publishing, but it was a no go for women at that time. I thought I could get a better secretarial job if I had an undergraduate degree so I applied to the London School of Economics and was accepted. I took a degree in sociology, with a major in social anthropology. I was fascinated.
I came to the United States to go to graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley in 1955. I had met Bill Smith (William Reid Smith, now dead) while I was studying at the London School of Economics and we had decided to get married and to pursue graduate studies at Berkeley. While I was working on my doctorate, we had two children, the last born nine months before I finished. Then Bill left and we were divorced. It was a shock to be the one responsible not only for the children and household, but also for earning a living (something Bill wasn’t into at that time). I taught sociology at the University of California at Berkeley for a couple of years but only had a lecturer position. This was around 1964 or 1965. Women’s issues were just beginning to be raised during my last two years at Berkeley. When I was teaching there, I was for most of the time, the only woman teaching in a faculty of forty-four. And, of course, I was not in a regular position.
Something was happening among women then. There was a big conference in San Francisco on “the potential of women” and although all the main speakers were men, we women got together and talked. About that time also a sociologist called Jessie Bernard had published a book on academic women which described the kinds of inequities women experienced in the university. I gathered my courage together and put on a session with women graduate students in which I first went through the Berkeley calendar describing for each department where women were (in history there were none at all; in psychology some eminent women who were, like myself, on temporary appointments). I then invited their stories and they had many.
Being an immigrant is a bit tough even though you know the language and can earn a decent salary. No family to fall back on. And then there was none of the after school day care as there is now. I thought I’d do better if I were in England so I got a job there for a couple of years. But we didn’t like living in England and I was terribly overworked. I had three jobs offers, one at Berkeley, one in New York and one at the University of British Columbia. We didn’t want to go back to the United Sates (by this time my sons were involved in the decision) because we were very much opposed to the Vietnam war. We looked at the map and saw that north of Vancouver, in those days, there was a magical region that, in those days, had no roads. That settled it. Canada was our destination.. .
In my intellectual life there have been three big moments: One was going to the London School of Economics when I was twenty-six and becoming fascinated with sociology; the second was a course given by Tamotsu Shibutani at Berkeley on George Herbert Mead which laid the groundwork for a later deep involvement with the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (I encountered his work accidentally by picking up one of his books in a bookstore and knowing instantly that that’s where I belonged); and finally and perhaps biggest of all, the women’s movement which was for me a total transformation of consciousness at multiple levels. It led me into the strange paths I’m still pursuing of undoing, among other things, the sociology I’d learned so thoroughly to practice.
Part of that transformation came about at the University of British Columbia because I taught in one of the first women’s studies courses (but not the first–that was, I think, at Concordia in Montreal) in Canada. There were four of us, Helga Jacobson (anthropologist), Meredith Kimball (psychologist), Annette Kolodny (English) and myself (sociology). We started out with little if anything in the way of books or other materials to teach with so we had to make it up. That was a powerful impetus to go from the kinds of deep changes in my psyche that accompanied the women’s movement to writing those changes into the social. In these changes, my experiences of being a mother and housewife were central; I made them central.
It was in the context of the last that I rediscovered Marx whom I’d read at the London School of Economics, but at that time using a distorting interpretation. His work became very important to me in many ways, partly because of the politics, but much more so as a method of thinking that helped me develop a sociology for women and what I now think of as a sociology for people.
At the same time and largely by accident, I became involved in the formation of a women’s action group at the University of British Columbia that worked to change the status of women at all levels of the university. I also became involved in establishing a women’s research centre in Vancouver outside the university and aimed at providing action-relevant research to women’s organizations and was part of building an organization among women academics that connected women faculty in community colleges and universities
In 1977 I went, accompanied by a group of graduate students, to teach in the sociology department at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), at that time a remarkable place of openness to new thinking. At arrived just after the hiring of another feminist, Margrit Eichler, and at the same time as Mary O’Brien. Though it wouldn’t be true to say that OISE was progressive in its views on women, the sociology department had a number of feminist students and all of us working together were successful in introducing transformations that I don’t think could have taken place at that time anywhere else. It was there that I began to write a sociology for women, discovering and formulating an uneasiness that had indeed been there since my days at Berkeley when, even back then, I’d thought that there was something very wrong with how sociologists thought and, for the most part, still think.
I have built my written/published work up paper by paper. Developing a sociology for women/people started with the idea of beginning in the standpoint of a housewife and mother in the actualities of her everyday world and anchoring an investigation of the social in the concrete actualities of the everyday and of everyday doings. Starting with experience was what we knew how to do in the women’s movement. Indeed we needed it because we came to see more and more clearly how the intellectual and cultural world we’d participated in had been put together from men’s standpoint (doesn’t mean that it was misogynist, just that we women weren’t there as speakers and knowers). Starting to build a sociology that started in the everyday experiences of our lives launched a work of discovering how to do it, a work that still occupies me though I am no longer alone in pursuing it.
My first formulation of this was “women’s perspective as a radical critique of sociology.” It was written for a conference at the University of Oregon in Eugene and I drove down with two or three friends (in those days, early seventies, crossing the border was as tricky politically as it has become since September 11, 2001). I had had such difficulty before this paper in writing and completing anything for publication. I think I had difficulty in recognizing my own authority to speak in the discourse of male-dominated sociology. But this time, it was quite different. I knew I was writing for women, that I’d put forward what I had to say as best I could, and it would become part of an ongoing conversation with women in many places. Before I’d had this image of a panel of judges waiting to pounce on my work. Now they were gone and I was able to see conferences papers and publications as a way of “talking” to women rather than as exposing me to judgment. In those early days, I also put together with Sara David a collection of papers representing a feminist critique of psychiatry (Women look at psychiatry: I’m not mad, I’m angry, Press Gang, Vancouver BC, 1975
I wrote and published many papers after this, some political, among them a pamphlet called Feminism and Marxism: a place to begin, a way to go, and some more strictly out of research and thinking sociologically. In 1987 I discovered the power of publishing a book of my own. In 1986 Evelyn Fox Keller, then at Northeastern University started a series of feminist books and asked me to do a collection of papers. The Everyday World as Problematic: a feminist sociology was published in the next year. In 1990 I published two more collections of papers: The Conceptual Practices of Power: a feminist sociology of knowledge (Northeastern University Press) and Texts, Facts, and Femininity: exploring the relations of ruling (Routledge); and then in 1999 Writing the Social: Critique, theory and investigations (University of Toronto Press). I am currently writing a book on institutional ethnography, an approach in sociology designed to realize the objectives of a sociology for people. If I finish it in time, it will be published in 2004 by Altamira Press.
I have taken a great deal of pleasure in this quest for a sociology for women. Conceived simply, it is a sociology in and of the same world as that in which it’s written and read, and relies on that world to complete the sense it can make. So it looks outward, towards discovering how people are actually putting things together. Its feminism is foundational but not always its topic. Finding out how to do it, how to teach it as a skill to others, and what I can learn by practising it, is a continuing pleasure for me. Being an old women, as I am now, is so far only an opportunity to deploy what I’ve learned how to do. I’m lucky in that there were many excellent graduate students at OISE who have gone on to take up and further this kind of work (Marie Campbell and Ann Manicom have collected some of their work in a book they edited -- Experience, Knowledge and Ruling Relations: Explorations in the social organization of knowledge, University of Toronto Press, 1995) so I have some company and people to learn from.