➠ Whose ideas, whose life, and whose voices serve as the model from which we take the measure and meaning of all scholarly thought and research?

For decades, the study of women’s lives was subsumed under the study of “mankind.” The social sciences, the sciences, the arts, and the professions were all studied through the male perspective —or, as the literary feminists would argue, through the male gaze. In the first part of my career, this male bias in all of our disciplinary studies was my focus.  

➠ What does it mean for the acquisition of knowledge if a “universal male” (predominantly white, middle class, Western, Christian) represents the normative model to which all others are compared and contrasted?  

The cognitive and intellectual functioning and moral reasoning of men were seen as the valued standard from which all “others” should be measured. Therefore, differences from those expectations were less, not just different. My co-authored book, Achievement and Women: Challenging the Assumptions, explored the ways in which, throughout the life cycle, males’ motivational patterns for achievement were systematically used to gauge women’s patterns. Theories about achievement suited the life experiences and expectations for men (white, middle class males at that).

Achievement and Women dealt with these theoretical and methodological issues in two fields: sociology and psychology. From the early studies on achievement at Harvard through the 1970s, it was clear that, both theoretically and methodologically, public achievement was associated cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally with men. Any discussion of differences in achievement motivation and attainment raises larger questions about innate differences between the genders.   

➠ What is the relationship between the social institutions that define our lives and our gender behavior?

I looked to the structural barriers and power relationships within and between major institutions (familial, educational, and work) that reinforced gender stereotypes about masculinity and femininity, through early and late socialization processes, by constraining women from participating in the very experiences that would afford them the opportunities they needed to achieve in the public sphere.

Achievement and Women looked to the socio-historic context to explain variations in the separation of public and private spheres and the powerful structural constraints that kept men and women in their achieving places. I was as much interested in the process (biases in the development of theories and measures both in psychology and sociology) as in substantive differences between males and females.  

➠ What accounted for differences in achievement between men and women?

Were differences in achievement primarily a product of irreversible psychological traits (either biological or through socialization) or realistic responses to the rewards and punishments (structural arrangements) society imposes on males and females to conform to their gender positions? Did “fear of success” explain, as the popular media would have it, women’s “lesser” achievements in comparison to men? Or were opportunities, cultural expectations, and structural barriers as limiting—if not more than equal to—such internalized fears?  

A research grant from one of the “Big Eight” accounting firms allowed me to continue writing about achievement and professional women from a more empirical perspective, looking primarily at how real the recent gains were. I wrote a chapter on this topic for the very popular edited volume Women: A Feminist Analysis, edited by Jo Freeman. Through a reanalysis of the occupational index of the labor market, I found that despite the real changes in women’s labor market participation, their standing was still stratified by profession (women entering into the lesser prestige professions and once within those professions into the lesser prestige specialties).


➠ What attracts women to the most patriarchal if not parochial religious traditions?

My research has always been tied to my personal life history—my concerns as a wife, mother, professional, and (as I aged) increasingly as a Jew. I was intrigued if not concerned about the growth in religious fundamentalism, especially among women. I turned my research attention to women of the religious right. I was particularly concerned about a “return” to the fundamentalist principles of Judaism (Jewish Orthodoxy) among Jewish women. A third of the women in my sample had been part of the countercultural movements of the 1960s in their growing-up years and their identity politics had turned in a totally different direction. This challenged all my identity politics as a woman, as a feminist, and as a Jew.

My book Rachel’s Daughters explored this “radical” identity change. The larger questions driving my work then (and still of great interest among many scholars of religion today) were: What is the meaning of contemporary fundamentalism? What are the gendered dimensions of contemporary fundamentalism? Is what’s preached necessarily what’s practiced? What does fundamentalism tell us about feminism and what does feminism tell us about fundamentalism? In what ways do the goals of feminists and the religious right compare and contrast? What do feminists have to contribute to the study of religious identity?


Although my feminist politics and the sociology of gender had led me to study these women who turn to Jewish Orthodoxy, or baalot teshuvah (as they are called in Hebrew), I had now entered into a new field of study, the sociology of religion. So began the second half of my career. I was hooked on contemporary identity studies within the fields of religious studies and building bridges between Jewish social studies and feminist sociology. In stark contrast to the baalot teshuvah, an increasing concern within the field of Jewish studies and religious studies in general, was with the seemingly secular trends (low institutional religious participation) among all religious groups (except for the fundamentalists). I turned my attention to contemporary young adults and the meaning and measure of contemporary Jewish identities.   

Among Jewish scholars, a popular thought was that the Holocaust was the impetus or the basis for most contemporary Jewish identity (anti-Semitism) and that religion was becoming a thing of the past for most contemporary Jews (reinforced by Pew findings in 2013). I then entered my third major research exploration: post-Holocaust identities among 20 to 30-year-olds in the U.S. and in Israel.

Perhaps there is no area more resistant to a feminist analysis than Holocaust studies. My research was not specifically about the Holocaust but rather its place in the collective memory of contemporary young Jews. The first big questions that occupied my work were: Why were there such tensions around gender and the study of the Holocaust? Why were there so few sociological studies of the Holocaust? Why was there such resistance to a feminist analysis among Holocaust scholars? Why the persistence of anti-Semitic invective and historical distortion despite legal verdicts to the contrary, historical correctives, and media reportage? What are the assumptions and methods of any discipline that limit or enhance the ability of any single approach (historical, legal, journalistic) to challenge the racism and anti-Semitism that underlie the persistence of such forgeries as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and the fallacies of Holocaust denial?  


My interest was not necessarily in children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors but what role, if any, the Holocaust plays in the identity narratives of young contemporary Jews, a population somewhat neglected in the study Jewish identity.

Although many scholars conjectured that the Holocaust (and not religion) was the basis for Jewish identity among the younger generation, for the most part there was little if any empirical evidence to support these conjectures. Initially, the major question driving my research on contemporary identity narratives was: What place, if any, does the Holocaust play in contemporary identity narratives for Jewish young adults? But the study of religious identities post Holocaust brings into question many issues about memory, history, and religious identities. What is the connection between and among history and memory in the study of religious identities, especially around traumatic events such as the Holocaust? Who “owns” the Holocaust? Has it become a “Western trope” for trauma and collective identity?  

My data provided insights that move well beyond post-Holocaust narratives to contemporary identity narratives and the meaning of religion among contemporary young Jews. It forced me to deconstruct the ways in which we measure and take meaning from such categories as religion, ethnicity, the sacred, and the secular. It led to such questions as: How much of the sacred is there in the secular and how much of the secular in the sacred? Whose experiences and interpretive tradition define what we mean by Jewish? Whose experiences, whose lives, and whose “Judaism” serve as the yardstick from which we measure decline, intensity, strength of identity, religiosity, ethnicity, symbolic or not, and secularity? How do we capture the fluidity of identity, its social and linguistic spaces, its cultural and structural sources, and a "living tradition" (experienced living) in our metrics and models?   

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Several years ago, I was asked to join the Socio-Demography of American Jewry Conference as a plenary speaker to help broaden the topics we envisioned as important to demographic research and contemporary American Jewry. Every stage of our research is subject to narrative influence of some sort, either personal or professional. The questions that have guided this stage of my work come back to the questions with which I began my career. Who decides what the big questions are? Whose voices, whose concerns are at the center of our academic inquires? How does who we are affect what we know and how we come to know it? Is objectivity a neutral concept? What place does story telling have in the social scientific study of religion? How do we hold ourselves accountable for our choices (methods, sampling, theories and interpretive models) when we do social science research?  

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