Veteran Feminists of America

ALICE ROSSI - Scholar, Teacher, Mentor

Excerpts from a Invited Lecturer Honoring Alice Rossi given
by Sheila Tobias, in September, 2008 at the Univ. of Mass.-Amherst
with Alice Rossi in the Audience.

I The Daedelus Article: An Immodest Proposal

Alice Rossi

With her stunning 1964 article," Equality between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal" published in the prestigious Daedelus Magazine, Alice Rossi put the "E" word -- "Equality" -- into the conversation about women.

It may be hard to believe - given that it was already 1964, just two years before the founding of NOW, -- but "equality", no less "equality between the sexes" was neither a presumption nor yet a goal for a lot of well-meaning scholars and politicians, even as late as 1964.

Rossi didn't use the term "sexism". But she might have, because her article was intended to shift the focus from a "woman's problem" to a problem of a male-dominated society, unable and unwilling to accept women as equal to men. That's what made her article so radical and why it has never in the 45 years since it was published ceased to inspire and astound all who return to it.

More ground was broken when Rossi, defined "androgyny" in that same article and insisted that "women participate on an equal basis with men in politics, occupations, and the family." She went on to write: "Just as tenderness needs to be cultivated in men and boys, achievement needs, workmanship and constructive aggression should be cultivated in girls and approved in women"

Her sense of urgency appeared to be in response to the then dominance of psychoanalytic thinking which was making women more than before, as she put it, "prisoners of their sex and sexuality." Also by her observation that - and this was extremely radical for its time -- "continuous mothering, even in the first few years of life, does not seem to be necessary for the healthy emotional growth of a child." This Truth could be simply stated but it was hardly "simple" in its wide-ranging implications.

Rossi was not content simply to define "sex equality", she offers a three-pronged program to achieve it: First was the provision of a network of child care centers and not just for those in the working class (as was done during WW II on a modest basis by the Federal Government).

Her second "lever" was to alter the residential pattern of the American middle class, still in 1964 making their move to the suburbs. She wants to shrink the geographical distance between work and home.

And her third, anticipating much of the early work of second-wave feminists (most especially Lenore Weitzman's
Images of Males and Females in Elementary School Textbooks (1974), is to de-sex-link [her term] occupations and to focus on how girls and women make occupational choices.

This, she fully anticipates, will involve re-socializing children's views, eradicating stereotypes as to who belongs in which occupations, starting in the earliest grades.

And in her conclusion, she touches on what second-wave feminists would develop in full (though with only modest success in implementing) namely the role of the father in parenting:

She writes:

…unless the man can make room in his life for parenthood, he should not become a father. Amen.

II Rossi's Historical Studies

Rossi's Daedelus essay started with a quotation from John Stuart Mill about equality between the sexes, so it is not surprising that her work in the next decade should return to print a number of antecedents in the historical debate on sex roles with impassioned Introductions and Commentaries.

The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir published in 1973 retrieved for many of us re-discovering our antecedents, a set of essential essays by 24 men and mostly women whose lives spanned the period 1744 to 1972- with long Rossi introductions to each!

It's interesting that she calls these writers "feminists" when the term actually came into common use in about 1911.

But what she really wanted to document was their diversity (except on the issues of women's value to society), perhaps reflecting her concern with a growing intolerance of diversity among "second wave" feminism which, by 1973, was beginning to show fissures (over abortion, over lesbianism) and with the arguments about essentialism just over the horizon.

III Rossi's Political Activism

Rossi was not just a scholar observer but an activist in her own right.

She was one of 66 women who co-founded the National Organization for Women in 1966.

In time, NOW would grow to 400,000 members but in 1966, it took insight, courage, and commitment for a woman of Professor Rossi's stature to sign on.

From 1969 to 1972, academic women were "on the move" (the title of another of Rossi's many books.) In professional societies ranging from Modern Languages to Philosophy, (and eventually physics, chemistry, microbiology, and computer science), women scholars interested both in their status within their professions and in the emerging field of women's studies, formed so-called "women's caucuses" in their disciplinary associations.

Rossi took the lead in sociology to form a women's caucus which, over the next decades, would significantly expand sociology's research focus as well as the proportion of women among the leadership.

Just as Rossi's scholarship fueled her activism, her active participation in the women's movement finally gave rise to a scholarly study: the participation and the change in attitudes of the thousands of women who participated in the 1977 International Women's Year Conference in Houston.

The analysis published as
Feminists in Politics would be of special interest to social psychologists who study attitude formation and to political sociologists concerned with the structure of beliefs associated with political movements.

IV The Essays on Sex Equality

There is no "typical" piece of work in Rossi's rich and varied scholarship. But there is one book that epitomizes what she did for feminism and what she cared most about.

That book is Rossi's 1970 re-issue of John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill's
Essays on Sex Equality, including, "The Subjection of Women," "The Enfranchisement of Women" and the Mills' jointly written early essays on marriage and divorce. [1]

Rossi had long revered the Mills' work on women originally published in 1861. She considered The Subjection of Women the first of only three landmark works on "the long history of the women's movement for political and economic rights, and of intellectual analyses of sex roles and relations between the sexes.

The others are Charlotte Perkins Gilman's
Women and Economics (1908) and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1948). [2]

Thus, when asked by the University of Chicago Press in 1969 to supervise a reissue of the Mills' essays on sex equality, she enthusiastically dug in to the history surrounding the remarkable relationship between the co-authors and the origin and impact of their work on women.

Were it not for Rossi's new edition, my generation might not have had ready access to the essays; nor to the rich interpretation offered in her 63-page introduction to the book.

The reason: Mill's collected works since his death in 1873, though often reissued and reviewed, tended not to include, "The Subjection of Women". And so while it was oft cited and known in general to students of women's history, it was not readily at hand. And how impoverished we activists and women's studies teachers and scholars would have been without these gems:
This one:

"What is wanted for women is equal rights and equal admission to all social privilege, not a position apart, not a sentimental priesthood." [3]

Or this one:

"High mental powers in women will be but an exceptional accident until every career is open to them and until they, as well as men, are educated by themselves and for the world, not one sex for the other."

"Women are wives and mothers only because there is no other career open to them."

John Stuart Mill & Harriet Taylor

How to reconcile marriage with intellectual independence - with an intellectual life altogether - had been Harriet Taylor's personal challenge.

John Stuart Mill was more reconciled to women's need to be married than Harriet Taylor. So it was he, more than she, who tried both to define and to live an egalitarian marriage. Alice Rossi in an egalitarian and intellectually productive marriage of her own would certainly have resonated with this.

And with this:

"We have had the 'morality of submission' and 'the morality of chivalry' and the 'morality of generosity.' It's time now for the morality of justice."


Another reason for the especial appeal to Alice Rossi of the Mills' Essays on Sex Equality is that:
"They are not burdened by the dead weight [her words] of psychology and social science theories. They were written pre-Darwin, pre-Marx and pre-Freud and, for that reason, (she writes) are even more relevant today."

Let's give Alice Rossi the last word on Mill and on women's liberation:

"To the generation of the twentieth century who have seen tyranny and suppression of human liberty in all forms of government, John Stuart Mill's invocation of the rights of men and women to liberty and justice have a strong continuing appeal. And to the women of the twentieth century who have seen very little difference in the actual conditions, if not the formal rights of women under any existing form of government, The Subjection of Women continues to serve as a resounding affirmation of women's human right to full equality and a sophisticated analysis of the obstacles that bar their way to it."

Thank you, Alice Rossi, for your love and leadership.

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