Jessie Bernard once wrote of feminism, “Once you ‘catch it,’ it makes all the difference in how you see the world.” Bernard’s feminist “epiphany” came at age sixty-seven at a meeting of the Woman’s Caucus of the American Sociological Association in the spring of 1969. Already the best-known woman sociologist of her generation, she quickly became an important voice of American feminism.
Born Jessie Sarah Ravitch in Minneapolis on June 8,1903, she was the third of four children of David and Bessie Kanter Ravitch (later Ravage), Jewish Romanian immigrants. Modestly successful, her father worked his way from dairy deliveryman to real estate broker. Having arrived in the 1880s before her future husband, Bessie had toiled in the New York garment district and reportedly once marched in a woman’s rights parade. But to Jessie, her mother’s “complete satisfaction” in marriage robbed her of personality. Her youthful hero was instead her maternal grandmother who lived with the family, dispensed discipline, and “set the Jewish stamp on our home.”
In 1923, Jessie earned a B.A. at the University of Minnesota, and in 1924 an M.A. for a thesis on Changes of Attitudes of Jews in the First and Second Generation. There she also met Luther Lee Bernard, a sociology professor two decades her senior, whom she married on September 23, 1925. Stormy from the start, their union limited her opportunities for more than a decade, as they followed Luther’s peripatetic career before settling finally at Washington University in St. Louis in 1929. During these years, Jessie Bernard unsuccessfully pursued a literary career, earned a Ph.D. from Washington University in 1935, and was research assistant for the Bernards’ jointly written Origins of American Sociology (1943). Separating from Luther in 1936, she worked in Washington for four years before returning to her marriage and a teaching post at Lindenwood College. In 1947 both Bernards were appointed to Penn State, from which she retired in 1964. They had three children, Dorothy, Claude, and David, whom Jessie Bernard raised as a single parent following her husband’s death in 1951.
Throughout her early years, Bernard struggled with her Jewish heritage, changing her given middle name “Sarah” to “Shirley” in high school and listening to her older sister lecture the family on “American” food and life-style. Luther’s openly hostile attitudes toward Jews, her family in particular, blighted their marriage. As she worked her way through her own conflicted feelings, she wrote extensively on Jewish culture and her own “bicultural identity” as a “Jew in a WASP world.” In 1938, she joined the Society of Friends.
As a sociologist, Bernard specialized in the family, sexuality, and gender, often anticipating new approaches in a fast-changing discipline. Her most widely discussed books were Academic Women (1964), The Future of Marriage (1972), and The Female World (1981). Methodologically, she moved from a narrowly quantitative approach to a critique of the alleged male bias of this position, and thematically, from a resigned acceptance of women’s traditional role to an analysis of the “female world” that historically has limited women’s opportunities.
Bernard’s many honors included election as president of the Eastern Sociological Society (1953) and the Society for the Study of Social Problems (1963), and vice president of the American Sociological Association (1953–1954). In retirement, she served as visiting professor at Princeton (1959–1960) and elsewhere, and received several honorary degrees and almost annual awards from various professional organizations, including the Association for Women in Psychology’s first Distinguished Career Award in 1978. A personal, more permanent legacy, however, is preserved in the many letters she received during the 1970s and 1980s from dozens of younger women sociologists for whom she served as mentor and role model.
Jessie Bernard died in Washington, D.C., on October 6, 1996.
SELECTED WORKS BY JESSIE BERNARD
Academic Women (1964); American Community Behavior (1949. Rev. ed. 1952); American Family Behavior (1942); “Biculturality.” In Jews in a Gentile World, edited by Isacque Graeber and Steuart H. Britt (1942); The Female World (1981); The Female World from a Global Perspective (1987); The Future of Marriage (1972); The Future of Motherhood (1975); Marriage and Family Among Negroes (1966); “My Four Revolutions.” American Journal of Sociology 78 (1973): 773–791; Origins of American Sociology, with Luther L. Bernard (1943); Remarriage: A Study of Marriage (1956); Self-Portrait of a Family (1978); The Sex Game (1968); Social Problems at Midcentury (1957); The Sociology of Community (1972); Women and the Public Interest (1971).
Bannister, Robert C. Jessie Bernard: The Making of a Feminist (1991); Bernard, Jessie and Luther L. Bernard. Papers. Labor Archives, Pennsylvania State University Library, University Park; Deegan, Mary Jo. “Jessie Bernard.” In Women in Sociology: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook (1991); Howe, Harriet. “Jessie Bernard.” Sociological Inquiry 64 (1994): 10–22; Lipman-Blumen, Jean. “Jessie Bernard—A ‘Reasonable Rebel.’” Gender and Society 2 (1988): 271–273; Obituaries. NYTimes, October 11, 1996, B9, and Washington Post, October 10, 1996, E4.
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Bannister, Robert C.. "Jessie Bernard." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 23, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bernard-jessie>.