Remembering Joan Acker

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I first came to know Joan when I arrived at the University of Oregon, ostensibly to replace her, over twenty years ago. At the time, I knew full well that that was an impossible task. She was a grande dame of Marxist-feminist sociology, a researcher of work and organizations who came out of the Old Left. I was a member of younger generation of feminists who was influenced by the New Left, and by the “cultural turn” in sociology. My generation was more skeptical about the category of “woman” –which we believed was a socially constructed identity. “What’s all this fuss about identity?” Joan used to ask me, when we spoke about my work. She was always more of a materialist, and also more of a radical feminist—even a separatist, at times.

Once, when I suggested that she read the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, she responded: “I only read work by women.” She suggested, in an interview with Jennifer Pierce for Contexts, that she thought we should outlaw football: it was dangerous, and it propped up a masculinity that was far too aggressive—and anachronistic. Joan always spoke her mind. She got that from her mother, she said—and from her experience as a woman in academia when there were far fewer of us around, when one had to fight much harder to be heard. As she once wrote, much of her work was dedicated to “getting the man out of her head”—devising ways of thinking and being that placed women at the center, and moved toward a more egalitarian world.

Some will certainly recall Joan’s passion for social justice, her intellectual achievements, and they should. Tristan Bridges and James Messerschmidt have recently posted a wonderful summary of some of her contributions. But I will remember Joan most for her wit, her refusal to suffer fools, and her sense of fun. There were stories about her that circulated in the sociology department: that when she taught in Europe, she had a romantic liaison with a hunky younger man, who came to visit her in Eugene, and whom she installed at her office, at least for a short while. Well into her 70s, if there was a good party, Joan was often the last person to leave the dance floor.

 

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Joan and I shared a birthday, and we sometimes celebrated together when I lived in Eugene. Even though she was 35 years my senior, she always seemed ageless to me—until the last few years of her life. The last time I saw her was at the assisted living center. She had lost a lot of her vision, dementia was setting in, and she was, at that point, mostly bedridden. I wasn’t entirely sure she knew who I was any longer. I asked her about the facilities, and whether she was getting good care. She told me that there were a number of other older women there whom she liked very much. In fact, she planned to undertake a new research project in which she would interview them. But first, she said, she would need to do a literature review on women and aging. A sociologist to the very end!

I will miss Joan’s friendship, her irreverence, her tireless dedication to her craft and to making a better world. But most of all, I will miss her laugh.