10 Great Woman Sociologists and Their Contributions

The women scholars of Sociology have gained little to no recognition, despite their contributions in shaping prominent subfields of sociological enquiry. Moreover, male dominance in the field of Sociology has resulted in a flawed representation of women and their struggle, very often overshadowing their role in society, home as well as in academia. Hence, it’s important to take a look at the eminent women sociologists who played roles as important as their male counterparts but have been constantly overshadowed by them. Hence, this article seeks to briefly discuss the contributions of ten women sociologists, and how they had made their place in the male-dominated academic sphere.

Women Sociologists of Twentieth and Twenty-first Century: Their Contributions in the Field of Sociology

Famous Women Sociologists and Their Contributions

  • Harriet Martineau (1892–1876)
  • Irawati Karve
  • Jane Addams (1860–1935)
  • Marianne Weber (1870–1954)
  • Mirra Komarovsky (1905–1999)
  • Leela Dube (1923–2012)
  • Neera Desai (1925–2009)
  • Dorothy E. Smith (1926–Present)
  • Arlie Russel Hochschild (1940–Present)
  • Patricia Hill Collins (1948–Present)
  1. Harriet Martineau (1892–1876)

Harriet Martineau is regarded as the first woman sociologist, or as the “Mother of Sociology”. She is known for translating August Comte’s ‘Cours de philosophie positive’ into English. It is also believed that Comte started reading Martineau’s translations instead of his original work and even translated Martineau’s work back into French again. However, besides being a translator, Martineau herself was a prominent writer and journalist of the Victorian era. The most prominent source to know about Martineau’s life is her ‘Autobiography’ which was written in 1855 and later published posthumously in 1877 together with Maria Chapman’s ‘Memorials of Harriet Martineau’. Her contributions to the field of Sociology centres around three major works– A Methodological Treatise (1838), Pre-Civil War America (1837), besides translating Comte’s work. Her study focused on American slaves, democracy, equality and so on. In her work, her role as a feminist gets highlighted with her focus on the lives of women slaves in America. She is recognised for her contributions to symbolic interactions and she was one of the first sociologists to elaborate both a method and a methodology for studying social life.

  2. Irawati Karve

Dr. Irawati Karve, a student of G.S. Ghurye, one of the founding fathers of sociology as an academic discipline in India, is regarded as the first Indian woman sociologist, for her contributions in the field of Sociology and Anthropology. Karve, after having completed her postgraduate degree in Sociology, had gone to Germany to obtain a doctorate in Anthropology. She rose to prominence through her work Yuganta, originally written in Marathi. She bagged the Regional Sahitya Academy Award for it. Later in her life, since the 1930s, she served as the head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Deccan College, Poona. She wrote actively on socio-political issues in India and was deeply interested in the study of Hindu society. She is also regarded as one of the most prominent women ethnographers.

Karve’s pioneering work is “Kinship Organisation in India”. In fact, she emphasized mostly on the Indian kinship system and her contributions to this field of study remain magnificent. This book provides a comparative picture of kinship organisation in four cultural zones of India, as identified by Karve— the Northern, the Central, the Southern, and the Eastern. Other brilliant works of Karve include— ‘Hindu Society: An Interpretation’ (1968), ‘Family in India’ (1964), and ‘Succession in Matrilineal Royal House’ (1960).

 3. Jane Addams (1860–1935)

Jane Addams was an American sociologist, social worker, reformer, public administrator, and settlement activist. She pioneered the introduction of Sociology as an academic discipline in the United States. Addams played an important role in the United States’ history of women’s suffrage. In 1910, Addams became the first woman to receive an honorary Master of Arts degree from Yale University. She co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930, making her the first American woman to have bagged the award. She is also recognised as the founder of social work as a profession in the United States.

She delivered lectures at the University of Chicago. She was also a charter member of the American Sociological Society. In an article published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1896, Addams emphasized on domestic labour to address the plight of women.  Her books, ‘Youth and the City Streets’ (1909) and ‘The Long Road of  Woman’s Memory’ (19are based on the experiences and memories of first-generation immigrant women. Her works also focused on feminist care ethics, and on the public health-related to mothers and children of America. She closely worked with American philosophers and sociologists John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, on issues like child labour, women’s rights, and so on. Her notable works include ‘Democracy and Social Ethics’ (1902), ‘Twenty Years Hull-Houses’ (1910), ‘Newer Ideals of Peace’ (1907), and so on.

 4. Marianne Weber (1870–1954)

Marianne Weber was a German Sociologist and women’s rights activist. She was the wife of Max Weber. Weber’s sociology focused on women in a patriarchal society. She challenged the male-dominated institutions of law, history, religion, and economy through her works which mostly focused on the experiences of German women. She challenged patriarchy associated with the institution of marriage. Her book, ‘Wife and Mother in the Development of Law’ was entirely devoted to the study and analysis of marriage. Her other works include ‘Occupation and Marriage’ (1906), ‘Authority and Autonomy’ (1912), and ‘Women and Objective Culture’ (1913).

 5. Mirra Komarovsky (1905–1999)

Mirra Komarovsky was an American sociologist and a pioneer in the sociology of Gender. Born to a Jewish middle-class family who fled from Russia to the United States after the 1917 Russian Revolution, she completed her Master’s degree from Columbia University. She widely researched American families and her work focused on the “cultural lag” whereby women were assigned with a secondary role. She was also the second woman president of the American Sociological Association

Her research emphasised life changes in response to the feminist movement. Her notable works include ‘Leisure: A Suburban Study’ (1934), ‘The Unemployed Man and his Family’ (1940) which was a prominent qualitative study of fifty-nine families, ‘Blue-Collar Marriage’ (1964), ‘Sociology and Public Policy’ (1975), ‘Dilemmas and Masculinity’ (1976) and ‘Women in College: Shaping New Feminine Identities’ (1985). Komarovsky is also regarded as the first woman sociologist to analyse critically the role of women in society and the perspectives and constructions of gender.

 6. Leela Dube (1923–2012)

Leela Dube was the wife of renowned sociologist Shyama Charan Dube. Her works majorly focused on women in India and she heralded the introduction of women’s studies in mainstream Sociology— she played a crucial role in framing the “Towards Equality” report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (1974), Government of India, which formally led to the inclusion of Women’s Studies in Indian Academia through the University Grants Commission (UGC). She was one of the well-known figures of the Indian Sociological Society in the 1970s. She also largely contributed to the study of rural society in India. Her argument regarding a debate in the Economic and Political Weekly (182-86) on selective abortion and violence against women is noteworthy.

Dube served as the visiting faculty at several universities. Her most prominent book, ‘Visibility and Power: Essays on Women in Society and Development’ (1986), which she co-edited with Eleanor Leacock and Shirley Ardener provide anthropological perspectives on women in the contexts of Iran, India, Brazil, Malaysia, and Yugoslavia. Her book, ‘Anthropological Explorations in Gender: Interesting Fields’ (2001) is an important feminist anthropological work in India. In ‘Doing Kinship and Gender’, an autobiographical essay published in 2000 in the Economic and Political Weekly, Dube described the early influences of her life which determined her works— her being born in a Marathi Brahmin family, her mother’s generosity reflecting the sufferings, subjection, and oppression of women and other family politics which would time and again corner women. Her Ph.D. Thesis was on three adivasi groups’ women whose lives she compared with that of the privileged, upper-caste women.

Her other works include ‘Matriliny and Islam: religion and society in the Laccadives’ and ‘Women and Kinship: Comparative Perspectives on Gender in South and South-East Asia’ (1997). In 2007, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Indian Sociological Society.

 7. Neera Desai (1925–2009)

Neera Desai was one of the most prominent proponents of Women’s Studies in India. She was a researcher, professor, political activist, academician, and social worker. She was the head of the Department of Sociology, SNDT University, Mumbai. Desai gave up formal education when she joined the Elphinstone College in 1942, to take part in the Indian freedom movement. However, later, she eventually completed her Ph.D. in Sociology in 1965. She was married to Akshay Ramanlal Desai, another prominent sociologist of her generation.

She was one of the founding members of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies and founded the Research Unit for Women’s Studies (IAWS) in 1975. Her notable works include ‘Woman in Modern India’ (1957), ‘The Making of a Feminist’ (1995), and ‘Traversing through Gendered Spaces: Insights from Women’s Narratives’ (2002). She also raised her voice against the invisibility of women in academia. In 2005, she was one of the thousand women to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

 8. Dorothy E. Smith (1926–Present)

Dorothy Edith Smith is a Canadian sociologist whose research focuses on feminist theory, women’s studies, educational facilities, and psychology. She specializes in the sociology of knowledge, methodology, and family studies. She is the founder of the sociological sub-disciplines of institutional ethnography and feminist standpoint theory, through which she developed Marxist feminist sociology and challenged the institutional hierarchies.

Being influenced by scholars such as Karl Marx and Alfred Schütz, her study focuses on alienation with a gendered perspective, in a capitalist society. In her book ‘The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology’, she challenges male dominance in prominent institutions. Her work is considered to be the most important sociological intervention in the 20th and 21st centuries. She has received several awards from the American Sociological Association, Canadian Sociological Association, and so on. Her other works include ‘Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People’ (2005) which has been suggested to be considered a contemporary classic, ‘Writing the Social: Critique, Theory and Investigation (1999), ‘The Conceptual Practices of Power: A Feminist Sociology of Knowledge’ (1999), ‘Feminism and Marxism: A Place to Begin, A way to Go’ (1977) and so on.

 9. Arlie Russel Hochschild (1940–Present)

Arlie Russel Hochschild is one of the most prominent contemporary American sociologists, who is heralded for being the founder of a new subfield in Sociology— the sociology of emotions. She completed her Master’s degree and PhD. in Sociology from the University of California, where she currently teaches. Her book ‘The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling’ (1983) focuses on the commodification of emotion and states that it has an exchange value. Her theory encompasses a range of emotions including depression, anger, frustration, fear, guilt, contempt, love, compassion, shame, embarrassment, jealousy, envy, grief, anguish, and anxiety.  She emphasized the commodification of feelings of women and analysis of the same. She coined the term ’emotional labour’. She says:

“I use the term emotional labour to mean the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labour is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value.” (Hochschild, 1983)

She claimed that jobs calling for emotional labour are characterised by three features, namely, face-to-face and voice-to-voice conversation, production of or triggering an emotional state of a person by the worker with whom they are interacting, and the freedom of the employer to exercise control over the emotional activities of their employees. Most of these jobs required women employees, studied from the position of flight attendants, and their ability to sympathise, trust, and care. She challenges the subjugation of women that forms an important part in the exploitation and use of emotional labour, both in workplaces as well as at homes. She is one of the most well-known symbolic interactionists of her time. Her other notable works include ‘The Second Shift: Working Families and Revolution at Home’ (1989), ‘The Time Blind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work’ (1997), ‘Global Women: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy’ (2003), ‘The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times’ (2012) and ‘Strangers in Their Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right’ (2016). She is the owner of several honorary awards and accolades.

 10. Patricia Hill Collins (1948–Present)

Patricia Hill Collins is an American sociologist, specializing in gender, race, and class. Currently, she teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is also the former president of the American Sociological Association and was the first African–American woman to have held this position. Her study emphasises on social inequality prevalent in the African-American community, in terms of gender.

While growing up, Collins was surrounded by children like her— children of domestic workers, labourers, and factory workers. Later when she became the only African-American working-class woman in her schools, she became quieter and visually silent because of the daily assaults. She completed her Master’s degree from Harvard  University in 1970 and her PhD. in Sociology from Brandeis in 1984. She rose to prominence when her book ‘The Black Feminist Thought’ was published in 1990. In this book, she challenges the white male interests in the field of Sociology. She developed an epistemological framework, as she relied on the voices of Black women from all walks of life.

Despite such contributions, it is saddening that these women sociologists have been lost in the pages of the history of sociology, which only goes on to prove how mainstream sociology is equivalent to ‘male-stream’ sociology. However, the future is up to us and we must try to make a change.

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Sukanya is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is a feminist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist and hopes to document the lives of remarkable women so that their stories don’t vanish into anonymity.