Jessie Bernard: Master Scholar, Feminist, and Working Mom

June 03, 2014

It’s a struggle that we hear about all the time: How can women balance demanding careers with raising a family? For single moms, the weight of both kids and career is even heavier.

A picture of the book cover for The Jessie Bernard Reader showing Bernard's portrait

The Jessie Bernard Reader is a compilation of much of Bernard’s work on marriage, the family, sexuality, and changing women’s roles in the United States.

Yet Jessie Bernard, the 1976 AAUW Achievement Award winner, was able to realize extraordinary success. After several years of struggling to find traction in academia despite her brilliant mind for sociology and feminist theory, Bernard blazed a path for future scholars and made a profound contribution to social science and feminist epistemology. And she did all this after her husband battled and ultimately succumbed to cancer in 1951, leaving her the sole breadwinner and caretaker of their three children.

Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Bernard received her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Minnesota in 1923 and her master’s degree in the same field the following year. She was proactive in legitimizing sociology as an academic discipline, pushing to include empirical research in the meetings of the American Sociological Association (ASA).

Bernard continued her professional career in sociology, earning her doctoral degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1935. She focused on understanding institutionalized sexism and its effect on women, particularly in research and academia.

Bernard faced barriers throughout her career. Early in her academic pursuits, Bernard struggled to stand out in her field. The family kept relocating for her husband’s job. Luther Lee Bernard was a sociology professor at Harvard University at the time of their marriage and worked at various universities before settling in at Washington University in St. Louis in 1929. These constant upheavals inhibited Bernard’s research and scholarly contributions. And after her husband’s death, Bernard faced an increasing need for her academic work to be taken seriously since she was the sole provider for and caretaker of her children, but that work was further encumbered by the fact that she was the sole provider for and caretaker of her children.

Despite those challenges, she ultimately wrote 15 books, including Academic Women and The Future of Marriage. Other feminist scholars built on the work that she produced, making Bernard’s work the foundation for many later texts. She also wrote more than 60 journal articles and 25 book chapters.

Over time Bernard moved away from sociology and focused more on feminism, and her works are often credited with spurring discussion and further study on women’s roles in society, marriage, and the professional world. The ASA’s Jessie Bernard Major Awardis proof of her incredible contributions — “work that has enlarged the horizon of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society.”

(It is also a small AAUW world — the recipient of the Jessie Bernard Major Award in 1997 was Nona Glazer, who received an AAUW fellowship in 1978 for her own work on gender.)

We are proud to recognize Jessie Bernard. Not only did she make incredible contributions to sociological and feminist theory, but she did all this while facing numerous obstacles as a working woman and mother, which she overcame on her journey of studying women’s lives.

This post was written by Fellowships and Grants intern Emily Carroll.


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