Sociology Index

Jessie Shirley Bernard

Jessie Shirley Bernard (1903 – 1996) was a sociologist and noted feminist scholar. She was a persistent forerunner of feminist thought in American sociology and her life's work is characterized as extraordinarily productive. Jessie Shirley Bernard studied and wrote about women's lives since the late 1930s and her contributions to social sciences and feminist theory regarding women, sex, marriage, and the interaction with the family and community are well noted. Jessie Shirley Bernard garnered numerous honors in her career and has several awards named after her, such as the Jessie Bernard Award. Her book American Community Behavior is heavily based on Raphael Lemkin's work and is considered one of the earliest sociological studies of genocide. Bernard studied with Pitirim Sorokin, founder of the sociology department at Harvard.

To sum up her contribution to sociology in her own words: "I am concerned, as any fair-minded person must be, with the effects of sex, sex typing and sexism on the position of women in our profession and in our society; but I am also concerned, as any dedicated sociologist must be, with its effects on our discipline as well. Important as are the costs to women of the male bias in sociology, on which a considerable literature exists, I am concerned here not with them but rather with the costs of this bias to the discipline itself. I am not, therefore asking what sociology can do for women - for example, by filling in the gaps in our knowledge about them, itself a significant contribution - but rather what women (and sympathetic male colleagues) can do for sociology."

Jessie Shirley Bernard's research published in The Paradox of the Happy Marriage (1971) and The Future of Marriage (1972) illustrated that marriage was good for men, but not for women. She argued that men and women live in different worlds and perceive of marriage differently. She attributed this to the gendered nature of social structures in society. Jessie Shirley Bernard later published The Female World (1981) and The Female World from a Global Perspective (1987). In "The Female World" (1981) she argued that although men and women move in geographically similar places, households, political and economic arenas, they actually live in different single-sex worlds. In "The Female World from a Global Perspective" (1987) she mapped differences among women in terms of life expectancy, nutrition, wealth, literacy, work and politics as well as how racism, classism, and imperialism divide their worlds.

At Penn State University, Jessie Shirley Bernard managed to establish her own academic independence and became a Full Professor of sociology. She remained here for the larger part of her academic career. During her time as professor she became a founding member of the Society for the Study of Social Problems and helped legitimize feminist studies.

Following the events of World War II, in particular the Nazi Holocaust, Bernard started to move away from the positivistic approach dominant in social science and became increasingly supportive of the social contextuality of all knowledge. This time also marked her movement toward a feminist position in sociology as seen in the qualitative research and critical analysis prevalent in her later work.

Jessie Shirley Bernard's life saw her as president of the Eastern Sociological Association, president and founding member of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, founding board member of the Center for Women Policy Studies as well as member of the boards of Urban Institute Women's Program and the Women's Equity Action League. During this time she was also a visiting professor at Princeton University. Bernard lectured at professional meetings and universities around the world and met women from all over the world in international women's meetings. In 1977, Bernard became an associate of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press.