Pauline Bart, Sociologist Who Mapped Women’s Challenges, Dies at 91

She researched the ways gender biases harmed women, and she wrote about her findings in studies laced with compassion and wry humor.


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Pauline Bart, a second-wave feminist sociologist who wrote with rigor and dark wit about depression among 1950s-era housewives, gender inequities in health care and violence against women, died on Oct. 8 at a hospice facility in Raleigh, N.C. She was 91.

Her daughter, Melinda Schlesinger, said the cause was Alzheimer’s disease.

“She was one of the earliest, maybe the earliest, feminist sociologist,” said Catharine A. MacKinnon, the feminist law professor who pioneered the legal claim that sexual harassment is sexual discrimination. “Pauline took the insights of the women’s liberation movement and turned them into knowledge. She took the insights from consciousness raising and made them into scholarship.”

Dr. Bart documented the ways in which society’s gender biases had harmed women. One of her studies, published in 1973, looked at the language and directives of gynecology textbooks.

Pointing out that almost all gynecologists at the time were male — 93.4 percent, Time magazine reported in 1972 — she showed how medical books that were theoretically geared toward women’s reproductive health focused instead on the happiness of their male partners.

She cited textbooks that noted how “women’s sexual pleasure was secondary or even absent” and that suggested women submit to their husbands in all ways — “the bride should be advised to allow her husband’s sex drive to set their pace” — and learn to fake their orgasms. “Innocent simulation” is how one book phrased it. One textbook compared the gynecologist to a god.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Orifice” was the wry title of Dr. Bart’s study, which she often said was an “ovarian, rather than a seminal, work.”

“Pauline could have been Lenny Bruce,” said Phyllis Chesler, the feminist psychologist and co-founder of the National Women’s Health Network.

Instead she turned to sociology. It was a deeply personal choice driven by her own experiences and challenges. “I turn my personal life into sociology,” she said, “and use sociological analysis to cope with my personal life.”

An illegal abortion, performed by a male doctor, had been so painful that she vomited. Its fallout — when she sought treatment, the hospital demanded she divulge the doctor’s name before helping her — propelled her years later to study the Jane Collective, an underground abortion service run by women that had successful (which is to say safe) outcomes.

Her mother’s depression — and perhaps her own, as a divorced mother of two young children struggling to earn advanced degrees and find work — led her to interview women who had been hospitalized for depression. They were 1950s housewives who had become empty nesters; when they found themselves without purpose or job skills, their self-esteem had plummeted.

“Portnoy’s Mother’s Complaint,” as Dr. Bart called her study, was a compassionate, and often hilarious, analysis of her interviews with mostly Jewish women, the so-called super mothers who were the butt of jokes but suffered terribly when deprived of their primary roles.

“There is no bar mitzvah for menopause,” she wrote.

During her interviews, the women fussed over her, gave her advice about when to remarry and offered her candy; one patient promised to throw her a party when she was released from the hospital.

“It is very easy to make fun of these women,” Dr. Bart wrote, “to ridicule their pride in their children and concern for their well-being. But it is no mark of progress to substitute Molly Goldberg for Stepin Fetchit as a stock comedy figure.”


Dr. Bart in 2012. “What I study — violence against women — is something people, including women, don’t like to talk about,” she once said.Credit…Dorothy Teer

While teaching women’s studies at the University of Chicago, Dr. Bart began to focus on rape because so many of her female students told her they had been assaulted, many by men they knew. That led to a 10-year study of what she called rape avoidance, and the strategies used by those who had deflected an assault. Those strategies, she found, largely boiled down to fighting back, a finding very much against the prevailing wisdom of the times — that it was safer for women to remain passive.

In 1983, Dr. Bart testified at the anti-pornography hearings that Professor MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, the feminist author and anti-pornography activist, had organized in Minneapolis. She appeared alongside Linda Boreman (otherwise known as Linda Lovelace, of “Deep Throat” fame), rape survivors and others.

At that point, Dr. Bart had been studying the subject for 10 years, and had noted pornography’s role in incidences of coercive sex. She also presented research by Diana Russell, the feminist activist and sociologist who studied violence against women and popularized the term “femicide.”

After Dr. Bart gave her testimony, she read a poem by an anonymous author that was a somber homage to Virginia Woolf — “who as you recall,” Dr. Bart said, “walked into the river and drowned.”

“She was outspoken, insightful and very, very funny,” Professor MacKinnon said. “She did not suffer fools at all. She was never unkind, but she could be pointed.”

In 1992, Dr. Bart’s classes at the University of Chicago, where she had taught on and off for 21 years, were reassigned when a male student complained that she had referred to him in sexist and racist terms. She had already fought and lost a bid for salary parity with her male colleagues, and university officials said at the time there were other incidents that led to her sidelining. She retired in 1995.

“What I study — violence against women — is something people, including women, don’t like to talk about,” she told The Chicago Tribune, which reported her clashes with the university. “It deals with the harm men do to women, and it’s not symmetrical — there are not as many female rapists as male rapists. It gets men where they live.”

Pauline Bernice Lackow was born on Feb. 18, 1930, in Brooklyn. Her mother, Mildred (Prozan) Lackow, was a homemaker; her father, Emil Lackow, manufactured leather goods. In grade school, as she wrote in an essay called “How a Nice Jewish Girl Like Me Could,” the mostly Jewish students were made to sing Christmas carols. Pauline protested by refusing to sing the words she thought were too religious.

She married Max Bart, a chemical engineer, in 1949. They divorced in 1960.

She earned her undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees, all in sociology, at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In addition to her daughter, Dr. Bart is survived by a son, William Bart; a sister, Charlotte Prozan (who took their mother’s birth name as her own); two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Dr. Bart was the co-editor, with Eileen Geil Moran, of “Violence Against Women: The Bloody Footprints” (1993), and the co-author, with Patricia H. O’Brien, of “Stopping Rape: Successful Survival Strategies” (1985). She and Linda Frankel wrote “The Student Sociologist’s Handbook,” first published in 1971.

“Everything is data, but data isn’t everything,” one of Dr. Bart’s oft-quoted insights, at one point made its way onto a Sociologists for Women in Society T-shirt.

Still, she couldn’t help quantifying the political positions of the guests at Dr. Chesler’s 50th-birthday party, which was held in Kate Millett‘s downtown Manhattan loft, a storied feminist locale at the home of a storied second-waver (Ms. Millet was the author of “Sexual Politics,” the 1968 cultural polemic and best seller). She divided them into pro- and anti-pornography advocates; the latter, she proclaimed proudly, had a slim majority.

“My work on violence against women,” Dr. Bart wrote in 1993, “has made cocktail banter difficult and has thrown a damper on my social life generally. As Andrea Dworkin said, ‘I’m a feminist, not the fun kind!'”

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