A warrior for womankind

The Ann Oakley Reader

February 17, 2006

The distinguished feminist sociologist Ann Oakley, who retired last year from her post as director of the Social Science Research Unit at the Institute of Education in London, is an influential figure whose research on the position of women in contemporary society has helped shape the development of the field. This first-ever collection of her writings, edited and selected by the author herself and interspersed with reflections on how the original studies relate to more recent debates, is an informative read.

The book is divided into four sections that consider sex and gender; housework and family life; childbirth, motherhood and medicine; and doing social science. It is generally acknowledged that Oakley's first book, Sex, Gender and Society (1972), introduced into social science and popular vocabulary the distinction between biological "sex" and cultural "gender".

This text, together with Subject Women , which appeared nine years later, bore the hallmarks of what Oakley terms an emerging "feminist" social science that felt it "had to do battle with such repositories of myth as Freudian psychology and simplistic forms of biologism that reduced women to weepy uteruses on legs, ill-fitted for most forms of public life".

While such a challenge held considerable sway in the early 1980s, feminist social science has come increasingly under attack from sociobiologists and postmodernists. The former stress that gender differences can be explained by genes rather than culture, while postmodernists challenge the stability of the very categories "women" and "men", refuting grand narratives about "gender" differences that account for women's unequal position. Oakley, however, pleads for theory and political claims to be grounded in the evidence of real women's lives rather than on the abstractions and wordy expositions so favoured by postmodernists.

"Real" women, of course, have always been a feature of Oakley's research, evident in her ground-breaking 1973 study on women's experiences of housework as a gendered aspect of modern family life. The five extracts reprinted here from The Sociology of Housework reveal how housework was researched as labour akin to other forms of employment, most of which were paid. Unsurprisingly, Oakley found that the housewives in her study had a 77-hour working week, the physical side of child rearing being particularly seen as their responsibility. Although childcare today is shared more equally in two-parent households, "keeping house" is still a highly gender-segregated occupation, being 97 per cent female. "Housework remains," Oakley reflects, "an incredibly important limit on what women are able to do and become."

Rightly, Oakley established an international reputation for her qualitative research into housework, childbirth, motherhood and medicine. Indeed, many women in the 1970s cut their feminist teeth on her illuminating analyses.

In later years, however, when she moved from a department of sociology to a healthcare research unit, she engaged much more in quantitative analysis.

Although the "old" Oakley is preferred by many of her admirers, the "new"

Oakley defends vigorously her change of research practice. Women and other minority groups, she argues forcibly, need "quantitative" research because without this, it is difficult to distinguish between personal experience and collective oppression. "Only large-scale comparative data can determine to what extent the situations of men and women are structurally differentiated."

This collection of readings, spanning 40 years, helps to explain why Oakley is widely cited within social science and beyond. She is a pioneer in her field, and we are all in her debt.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

The Ann Oakley Reader: Gender, Women and Social Science

Author - Ann Oakley
Publisher - Policy Press
Pages - 306
Price - £55.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 1 86134 692 1 and 691 3

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