Pioneering women in the social and behavioral sciences have established programs, institutionalized critical bodies of knowledge, and pursued their personal passions to help improve society. This International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we recognize some of those who have succeeded to push boundaries, contributing high caliber research for the betterment of society. In the process, these women have broken down barriers and helped to increase equitable access for women, particularly minority women, in fields such as sociology, economics, anthropology and more. Their literature has transgressed generations and their contributions to their respective fields continue to help develop opportunities for present generations. Thanks to them and so many others, the social and behavioral sciences have continued to be relevant, pertinent, and groundbreaking for everyday citizens.
On work life balance and workplace inequality
Bringing together the fields of psychology and sociology, the work of South African sociologist Rhona Rapoport was fundamental in shifting the dialogue on what ‘work-life balance’ means. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, Rapoport completed a social sciences degree at the University of Cape Town and earned a PhD in sociology at the London School of Economics. She trained as a psychoanalyst at the London Institute of Psychoanalysis and together with her husband, American social anthropologist Robert Rapoport, established the Institute for Family and Environmental Research in 1973. Serving as co-directors, they committed themselves to never taking full-time work so they could maintain the quality of personal life they advocated for.
Rapoport was a consultant at the Ford Foundation for twenty years and helped to develop policies and legislation to reduce inequalities in the workplace. She wrote or co-wrote more than 20 books and articles advocating for personal life considerations in the workplace, including a 1969 report that argued for the need to rethink the ways in which paid work and family work were done by men and women.
On trans-continental Asian American history and the Asian American experience
UCLA Professor Emeritus of Sociology Lucie Cheng led the development of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and was its first permanent director. Cheng helped to establish the field of Asian American studies within a transpacific context and became the founding director of the Center of Pacific Rim Studies at UCLA.
Cheng was one of the first scholars to engage in joint research with Chinese universities, brokering fieldwork projects between Sun Yatsen (Zhangshan) University and UCLA. Cheng’s research was particularly pioneering in that she focused on Asian American experiences from the perspective of class, gender, labor, and country of origin. As such, her research strayed from the assimilation and modes of acculturation so heavily emphasized in earlier frameworks of Asian American studies. After her retirement from UCLA, Cheng served as the Founding Dean of the Graduate School for Social Transformation Studies at Shih Hsin University in Taipei, Taiwan, where she established the Cheng She-Wo Institute for Chinese Journalism.
Zora Neale Hurston
On arts education and African American experiences in the South
Zora Neale Hurston was a world-renowned writer and anthropologist. Her work in anthropology examined Black folklore, while her novels, short stories, and plays often depicted African American life in the South. Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891. In 1925, Hurston studied at Barnard College and graduated with a BA in Anthropology three years later.
Hurston dedicated herself to promoting and studying Black culture. She studied religion and folklore, travelling to Haiti and Jamaica with support from the Guggenheim Foundation to do so. While there, Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, arguably her most famous work. Her research and findings were featured in several newspapers across the U.S. as well as in her own writing. While her work was not widely known during her lifetime, in death she ranks as one of the best writers of the 20th century and one of the faces of the Harlem Renaissance.
On the economic history of African Americans, and Black women and work
Dr. Nina Banks is an associate professor of economics at Bucknell University who has spent years researching and working to right the historical record on behalf of Black women. She grew up in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania and earned her PhD in economics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. During her undergraduate studies at Hood College in the 1980s, she experienced first-hand the biases present in economics education when her professor explained the gender and racial wage gap with theories about human capital and worker productivity, suggesting that white men are more productive.
Today, Banks is an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and in Africana Studies at Bucknell University, the latter a program that she co-developed. Her publications focus on social reproduction and migrant households, Black women and work, and the economics of the first Black economist in the U.S. – Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander. Banks is a faculty mentor for the Diversity Initiative for Tenure in Economics (DITE) Program and serves on the Board of Directors of the National Economic Association (NEA) and the editorial boards of Feminist Economics and The Review of Black Political Economy. Banks is working on several book projects including a biography and an edited volume of the speeches and writings of Sadie Alexander.
On international disaster relief and refugee aid
Margareta Wahlström is a Swedish diplomat and social scientist who has held leading roles with the Red Cross and United Nations, including UN Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction, and head of the United Nations Office for disaster Risk Reduction. Since May 2017, Wahlström has served as President of the Swedish Red Cross.
The first in her family to go to university, Wahlström studied diplomacy, economic history, and social anthropology along with French and Spanish at Stockholm University. She went on to work on a development project in South America and travelled to Vietnam where she took part in an aid initiative. These experiences confirmed for Wahlström that she wanted to assist people struck by major disasters, and she has continued to take a hands-on approach throughout her career. Wahlström has worked in Cambodia with the refugee organization UNHCR, in South Africa as an administrator with the Swedish Red Cross during the final years of apartheid, and in Afghanistan where she worked on a UN assignment aimed at reconstructing the country as part of its disaster recovery agenda. In 2015 under her leadership, the UN adopted the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.
On labor economics and the economics of education
The work of labor economist Cecilia Rouse spans public service and academic scholarship, using economic policy to make a difference. Rouse worked in the White House at the National Economic Council from 1998 to 1999 and was a member of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors during the early years of his presidency. Under the Biden administration, Rouse is the first Black chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Rouse’s primary research interests are in labor economics with a focus on the economics of education. She earned a doctoral degree in economics at Harvard University and is currently the Dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, Lawrence and Shirley Katzman and Lewis and Anna Ernst Professor in the Economics of Education, and Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Her public service work and academic scholarship continue to overlap and influence each other, as she utilizes her research to impact policies and public service, and in her role as academic Dean is shaping the curriculum for students.
On data sets on political activity in authoritarian regimes and China’s political order
As an assistant professor at Stanford University’s Department of Communication, Jennifer Pan focuses her research on political communication and authoritarian politics. She uses experimental and computational methods with large-scale data sets on political activity in China and other authoritarian regimes to answer questions about how autocrats perpetuate their rule, how political censorship, propaganda, and information manipulation work in the digital age, and how preferences and behaviors are shaped as a result.
Pan graduated from Princeton University and received her PhD from Harvard University’s Department of Government. She has published her research most recently in her book Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for its Rulers, which shows how China’s pursuit of political order transformed the country’s main social assistance program, Dibao, for repressive purposes. Her work has appeared in peer reviewed publications such as the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Politics, and Science.
On gender relations, youth activism, and reproductive rights as human rights
Nevenka Petrić was a Serbian writer, poet, educationalist, and an expert on family planning and gender relations. Born in 1927 in Maslovare, Petrić’s political engagement began from a young age and continued throughout her life. Her education was interrupted when all schools in Yugoslavia stopped functioning due to the April 6, 1941 invasion of Yugoslavia, and she later joined the Partisans in their fight against the German Axis. She has gone on to hold a variety of influential positions including president of the District Committee of People’s Youth for Bosnian Krajina, and secretary for the Assembly of Representatives of Women of all Republics and Autonomous Provinces of Yugoslavia, and president of the Family Planning Council of Yugoslavia.
Representing Europe on the Central Council of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Petrić carried out elective functions at the European and international level in education and at Planned Parenthood. Between 1982 and 1992 she worked with the United Nations’ Population Fund to implement research projects in countries including India, Greece, and Indonesia. Petrić graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy of the Belgrade University and got her doctorate at the Faculty of Philosophy of Sarajevo University.
Mary L. Gray
On identity through the digital economy and queer, rural youth identity formation
Anthropologist and media scholar Mary L. Gray investigates the ways in which labor, identity, and human rights are transformed by the digital economy. She is Senior Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and Faculty Associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. She maintains a faculty position in the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering with affiliations in Anthropology and Gender Studies at Indiana University.
Gray focuses on how people’s everyday uses of technologies transform labor, identity, and human rights. She earned her PhD in Communication from the University of California, San Diego and in 2020 was named a MacArthur Fellow for her contributions to anthropology and the study of digital economies, technology, and society. Her 2009 book Out in the Country: Youth, Media and Queer Visibility in Rural America examines queer rural youths’ use of digital media to negotiate emerging identities and to find community. Gray’s research uncovers new insights into how these processes play out in rural contexts and presents a corrective to assumptions that the only viable option for queer individuals to live visibly is in urban environments.
On human rights, U.S. foreign policy and democracy
Samantha Power is Professor of the Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard University. She is also the William D. Zabel ’61 Professor of Practice in Human Rights at Harvard Law School and former United States Ambassador to the UN She served as a member of President Obama’s cabinet, becoming the public face of U.S. opposition to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria, negotiating sanctions against North Korea, lobbying to secure the release of political prisoners, and helping to build new international law to hinder ISIS’s financial networks.
Power began her career as a journalist, writing for outlets including TIME, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. She has served on the National Security Council, where she focused on issues including atrocity prevention, UN reform, LGBT and women’s rights, the promotion of religious freedom, and the prevention of human trafficking. Power has been called “a powerful crusader for U.S. foreign policy as well as human rights and democracy” by Forbes and has been selected twice as one of TIME’s “100 Most Influential People”.
On genetics, social inequality, and experiences of Black women
President of the Social Science Research Council and Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Alondra Nelson was recently appointed Deputy Director for Science and Society for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. A scholar of science, technology and social inequality, Nelson’s research interests include genetics, social inequality and the experience of Black women.
Nelson received a B.S. in Anthropology from the University of California, San Diego and earned her PhD in American Studies from New York University. She was an assistant and associate professor of African American Studies and Sociology at Yale and the first African American woman to join the Sociology Department faculty in its 128-year history. In 2009, she became the first African American to be tenured in Columbia’s Sociology Department. There, she directed the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality, founded and co-directed the Columbia University Women’s Gender and Sexuality Council, and became the first Dean of social science for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She also helped to establish several initiatives such as the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity Program and the Eric J. Holder Initiative for Civil and Political Rights. In October 2020, Nelson discussed her research on genetic testing and ‘root-seeking’ among African American communities on the SAGE-sponsored Social Science Bites podcast. You can read more about Nelson’s career in this recent bio.
On identity, migration and the German perception of Muslims and the Islamic world
Naika Foroutan is the director of the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research and the Project Director of JUNITED (New Islam-related-topics in Germany). The German social scientist studied political science, romance Philology and Islamic Studies at the University of Cologne, and now specializes in integration and migration research with a particular focus on countries of immigration, their shifting identities, and their attitudes towards minorities. She has published on themes of shifting identities in Germany, attitudes towards Muslims in Germany, and on post migrant societies.
Foroutan serves as an advisor and consultant to German political parties and other national and international institutions and is a board member of the Council on Migration in Germany. Since 2012, Foroutan has been co-head of the research project “Concepts for the development of intelligence, security and prevention” which is sponsored by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.
Catherine Coleman Flowers
On the impact of structural inequality on rural development and access to clean water
Environmental health advocate Catherine Coleman Flowers brings attention to failing water and waste sanitation infrastructure in rural areas of America. She is the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ) which works to reduce health and economic disparities and improve access to clean air, water, and soil in marginalized rural communities by influencing policy, inspiring innovation, and amplifying the voices of community leaders. Flowers is an internationally recognized advocate for the human right to water and sanitation, and she works to make the UN Sustainable Development Agenda accountable to frontline communities.
Flowers’s research highlights the role of structural inequalities in perpetuating health and socioeconomic disparities. Her publications have examined unequal access to sanitation and clean water within a framework of human rights, and the role of environmental justice in rural America. Flowers was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2020 for her work as an environmental health advocate.
On the U.S. economy, unemployment, and the Federal Reserve
In her decades long career, secretary of the treasury Janet Yellen has been the first female to hold many of the roles she has worked in. The first female to serve as the chair of the Federal Reserve and the first female to become secretary of the treasury in its 232-year history, Yellen’s work addresses the relationship between the U.S. economy and everyday concerns for American citizens. Yellen chaired the Council of Economic Advisers in the Bill Clinton administration and was nominated by Barack Obama to succeed Ben Bernanke as chair of the Federal Reserve.
Since her first encounter with economics as an undergraduate student at Brown University, Yellen has skillfully applied her knowledge of markets, policymaking, and economics to serve the public. Yellen earned her PhD in economics from Yale University and has taught at Harvard University and the London School of Economics. She was named Eugene E. and Catherine M. Trefethen Professor of Business and Professor Economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and has been awarded Haas School’s outstanding teaching award twice.
Evelyn Nakano Glenn
On immigration, the Japanese American experience, and racialized and gendered citizenship
Evelyn Nakano Glenn is a professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and the founding director of the Center for Race and Gender. Her research interests lie in comparative race and gender studies focusing on political economy, immigration, labor, and citizenship. She also focuses on critical race and feminist theory and transdisciplinary methods.
Glenn conducted a long-term project that documents the story of certain West Coast Japanese Americans who avoided internment during the second World War by ‘voluntarily’ relocating to inland areas. Currently, she is working on a book length project titled Foundational Violence: U.S. Settler Colonial Articulations of Racialized and Gendered Citizenship. It takes the settler colonial origins of the U.S. as foundational to the formation of an American national identity rooted in whiteness and masculinity and traces the concept of endangered whiteness and white victimization to settler-Indian relationships and its continuation through tropes of Black violence and alien immigrant invasion.
On criminal justice reform, indigenous studies, and the challenges that Native American communities face
Justice Sarah Deer is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Kansas and Chief Justice for the Prairie Island Indian Community Court of Appeals. Her legal scholarship focuses on the challenges facing Tribal Nations in the United States, particularly criminal justice. As a tribal jurist and scholar, Deer’s scholarship focuses on the intersection of federal Indian law and victims’ rights, using indigenous principles as a framework. Her 2015 book The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America is the culmination of over 25 years of working with survivors and criminal justice personnel and has received several awards.
Deer’s efforts to address criminal justice reform on Indian reservations have received national awards from the American Bar Association and the Department of Justice. She has testified before Congress on four occasions regarding violence against Native women and was appointed to chair of the federal advisory committee on sexual violence in Indian country. Justice Deer was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 2014 and a Carnegie Fellow in 2020. In 2019, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.