Why Women Are So
By Mary Roberts Coolidge
(Humanity Books, Paperback, 9781591021612, 370pp.)
Publication Date: February 1, 2004
Published in 1912, this trenchant yet little-known study is arguably the first introductory text in the field of women’s studies. Its author, known as both Mary Roberts Smith and Mary Roberts Coolidge, was the first woman to attain a fulltime academic appointment in sociology. While teaching a variety of sociology courses at Stanford University, she published a major academic study in 1896 called Almshouse Women and also wrote professional articles for the American Journal of Sociology and Publications of the American Statistical Association. Later in her career she published another important sociological study called Chinese Immigration (1909).
In Why Women Are So Coolidge broadened her focus to the overall role of women in American society. Her key thesis is that "sex traditions rather than innate sex character have produced what is called ‘feminine’ as distinguished from womanly behavior." Coolidge was thus a pioneer in exploring the social construction of gender by emphasizing that a woman’s social roles should not be defined by her biology. While mothers no doubt would always make a vital contribution to society, she argued that men should not assume that motherhood is woman’s only possible contribution. Further, she contended that the reason so few women exceeded the traditional child-bearing role was that male-dominated society had constrained women throughout their lives by dress, language, and the organization of the marketplace, particularly in the nineteenth century. Looking to the future Coolidge urged society to allow women to assume "wider citizenship," namely by affording them opportunities of achieving economic, political, and personal liberation.
With a very informative introduction and bibliography by University of Nebraska professor of sociology Mary Jo Deegan and an autobiographical essay by Mary Roberts Coolidge, this new edition of a farsighted work by a remarkable and unfortunately neglected early feminist will be of great value to anyone interested in the history of women’s rights.