Keeping it in the Family

For a while when people asked what I did for work, I’d mumble that I’d gone into the family business. Then I took to calling myself the “Tori Spelling of sociology.” Now, in what might be optimistically called my mid-career stage, I just kvell about my parents. So when the Contexts editors asked me to suggest interview subjects, I thought first of my mother Zelda and my father William, whose illustrious careers carry on well into their 70s. They both spent more than 20 years at the University of Michigan before moving East in the 1980s. In Boston, Zelda became the founding Director of the New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE) and co-founder of the Doctoral Program in Higher Education at U-Mass Boston, and Bill joined the Sociology Department at Boston College, where he co-founded the Media Research and Action Project (MRAP) with Charlotte Ryan. Zelda’s work has centered on the ways higher education is and can be organized for civic engagement and the common good. She now also writes poetry and review essays, organizes locally on affordable housing and climate change, and gardens. Bill has written many classic books and articles on political discourse, the mass media, and social movements, and was president of the American Sociological Association. He still teaches at Boston College and co-directs MRAP, and he is working on the development of game simulations as a tool for social change. I wanted to know how their careers in academia and activism intersected with their lives as spouses and, well, my parents. So I asked.

Joshua Gamson: Did your own family upbringing influence your eventual career paths?

William Gamson: I grew up in a pretty bourgeois Philadelphia family. My mother had been an actress, and that part of her life was very vivid, full of story. My father had a company that manufactured wholesale women’s coats and suits. My father always had this interest in progressive causes, like utopian communities in the late 19th century, and that search for a better kind of society probably influenced me. But what I really wanted to do was manage a baseball team. And somehow, from my baseball interest, I got the idea early on that you could influence people’s behavior by changing the rules, with incentives and obstacles. I figured that could be applied more generally.

Zelda Gamson: Both of my parents were born in Ukraine. I lived for the first nine years of my life in a very lively immigrant neighborhood full of color and smells and life and fun and different backgrounds. I worked in my grandfather’s shoe store on Marshall Street in Philadelphia. I heard and spoke Yiddish, I heard Russian, Polish, all kinds of languages. Then we moved up in the world to the lower-middle class section of Northeast Philadelphia, and I hated it. I couldn’t stand the people. I missed all that Marshall Street represented to me, and in many ways that’s been the formative part of my life. When I was an undergraduate, first at Penn and then at Antioch, I was very interested in how language works, and then I became a philosophy major—maybe to find some kind of larger meaning in all these experiences I’d had that went uninterpreted.

Zelda and Bill, early in their relationship, 1955.  Courtesy of Zelda and William Gamson.
Zelda and Bill, early in their relationship, 1955. Courtesy of Zelda and William Gamson.
JG: You got married when Zelda was still in college, and clearly this was a time when women went where their husbands went. But as Bill was in his first job, Zelda was also on her way to becoming a professional social scientist. I’m wondering how that experience differed for each of you, given the gender roles and expectations of the 1950s and 1960s.

WG: When I took my first job at Harvard, in Public Health and the Department of Social Relations, the question was what Zelda was going to do in Boston. I didn’t have the kind of consciousness where I even recognized that there were two of us.

ZG: But he also had gone to Michigan for graduate school because of me, since it was within driving distance of Antioch, so it went both ways. When we went to Boston, I got into the Department of Social Relations at Harvard. I interviewed for an SSRC fellowship, and one of the interviewers said, “Why should we give you this? You’ll just have kids.” I felt like hitting him. Where I grew up, we didn’t talk to people like that, and my parents thought I could do anything, and I thought I could do anything. So I got the fellowship anyway. Then when we moved to Michigan in 1962, Jenny was two and you were on your way, and I faced what I call the “Women’s Auxiliary problem.” I was not only one of a very few free-floating female academics, but I was also a faculty wife. Faculty wives were putting on these fancy dinner parties: The women would knock themselves out preparing, and be so exhausted by the time the party happened that they could barely talk, and sometimes the faculty husbands would actually denigrate their wives in front of other people after they’d done all this work. So I said, “This is not for me. I’m not doing this.”

WG: One time in the 1970s, I was hosting a social event at our house in Ann Arbor, and Zelda had a meeting at the Residential College. As she was going off to her meeting, some of the older faculty and their wives were shocked that she wasn’t going to be there, and I was sort of amused and pleased by their reaction. By that time, because of the women’s movement, I had a much different consciousness. This was a new world. Before that, I wasn’t aware of any of this, and I acted in ways that, when I think back about it, I’m ashamed. It took me a long time to realize that it was not about “helping” around the house and with kids, but about taking responsibility.

ZG: I knew a lot of women whose marriages didn’t survive the struggle between their professional ambitions and the traditional female roles of our generation. Most women I knew, even with advanced degrees, did the traditional wife-mother thing and tried to get jobs within their fields, and it turned out they couldn’t do that within their marriages. I didn’t actually pursue my preferred interests—I backed into sociology by default. I chose my dissertation because it was something I could do from Ann Arbor with two kids. I didn’t really have the freedom to make a lot of choices. My way of doing it was to improvise, to find free spaces where I could do what I wanted and find ways of doing interesting work outside a sociology department, first at the Institute for Survey Research, then at the Residential College, and then in the sociology of higher education. And Bill and I stayed together.

JG: Were there distinctive things, positive or negative, about being married to another social scientist?

WG: We were in different subfields, so we talked about shared intellectual and political interests, but not really sociology things. I don’t think we ever really collaborated on a professional—

ZG: I would never collaborate with you. Are you kidding? I discovered early on that any idea I had that I shared with Bill people assumed was his idea, and I was very proud. I knew I was as good as the people who were judging me. But we read each other’s work, and that was very productive. When I was working on my dissertation, I was kind of doing it with my left hand because I had two kids and no context. Besides David Riesman, who was wonderful, the guys at Harvard who were supposed to be on my committee weren’t giving me much feedback. Bill would help me get clarity about what it was I was trying to say.

Joshua Gamson, the self proclaimed “Tori Spelling of sociology” with his parents.  Photo by Nicole Friedler
Joshua Gamson, the self proclaimed “Tori Spelling of sociology” with his parents. Photo by Nicole Friedler
JG: Did being a couple of sociologists have an impact on how you approached raising children?

WG: The slogan at Antioch, from Horace Mann, was “Be ashamed to die until you’ve won some victory for humanity.” I was cynical about that at first, but it has stayed with me my whole life. And when you and Jenny were growing up, we were both very involved in political activism. It didn’t even seem separate from life as an academic sociologist, but like an aspect of it—I was teaching political sociology, and a lot of people in the courses were activists. In the Vietnam War teach-ins, we were transmitting knowledge to people, but also exposing official myths and lies. So that way of relating to the world was all around you. I stayed home with you kids while Zelda went to the March on the Pentagon in 1971 and got maced, and she took care of you and Jenny while I worked on the teach-ins. You were at a March on Washington when you were still in a stroller.

ZG: I don’t know if it’s being social scientists that affected how I related to you and Jenny, but certainly being academics in an institutional sector that was designed for liberating people—even though it didn’t act that way for everyone. Antioch, and later the Residential College at Michigan, were very liberating places for me. It was part of this zeitgeist that I occupied within academia, to be free people. What the social sciences represented for me was a constant questioning of assumptions, that social reality was not given, that it could be questioned, that you could fight for things you thought were important that went against the grain. I felt like, I’m not going to tell my kids they should be like all the other kids. So maybe I encouraged too much liberation, too much being different. I hope you didn’t get too freaked by it.

JG: Not so much. So it’s interesting to me that when I turned out to be different than a lot of the other kids, as in gay, it wasn’t easy for you to question assumptions and go against the grain. How do you put that together, looking back?

ZG: There wasn’t much discourse in our generation about sexual preference. I don’t think we had any gay friends, cer- tainly not out gay friends. My model of a gay guy was a flaming queen, and I wanted you to be an accepted person in the worlds that I valued.

WG: There were definitely blind spots. I certainly had internalized homophobia and in some sense had to have my consciousness raised about that, and also the culture was so different, full of stereotypes. My first imagery was of harassment and stigma. Now not only does it not seem stigmatized, but it’s sort of—

ZG: Now you have bragging rights.

JG: Were you surprised that you raised a sociologist son?

ZG: I wanted you to study anthropology. I was glad you chose an academic life, because it gave you material security and intellectual and spiritual freedom. I didn’t really care that much whether you were a sociologist or some other thing.

WG: I felt the same way. My concern was that it made it harder for you to be in the same professional world as me, that it would be difficult for you to distinguish yourself and be taken seriously as you rather than as somebody’s son.

JG: It was a problem at the beginning… WG: But you ended up doing your own thing. There are connections between the sort of stuff we do, but you made your own way.

JG: I’m afraid the dynasty may be coming to an end. I don’t think we’ll be getting a third generation sociologist, at least not from my kids. Reba currently says she wants to be a pediatrician, an artist, and a rabbi or preacher. And Maddy, ever the little sister, says she wants to be a rabbi or preacher, a pediatrician, a cowgirl, and a rock star.