8 Trailblazing Women in Sociology

As is true in too many fields of science, male names dominate lists of prominent thought influencers. In sociology, famous figures like Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer, W.E.B. DuBois and Emile Durkheim are highly publicized — but the findings of female sociologists are less commonly found, even in sociology programs.

If you are a woman pursuing a BA in sociology, you might be encouraged to learn that there have been dozens of female sociologists who have made major impacts on the field. Here are a few of their stories:

Harriet Martineau

Highly regarded as the mother of sociology, Harriet Martineau’s most famous contribution to the field is her outstanding English translation of August Comte’s “Cours de philosophie positive,” which Comte himself preferred to read. Besides her work as a translator, Martineau published two other prominent works focusing on the lives of enslaved women before the American Civil War. Incredibly, Martineau was one of the first sociologists to detail her methodology in studying social life, laying a groundwork for all sociologists to follow.

Irawati Karve

A student of G.S. Ghurye, Irawati Karve is recognized as the first Indian woman to make contributions to the fields of sociology and anthropology. Her seminal work, “Yuganta: The End of an Epoch” was originally written in Marathi, one of Karve’s native languages, and critically explores the Mahabharata, one of the foundational epic works of Hinduism. Throughout her life, Karve was committed to studying Hindu society, and for her efforts, she is known as one of the most thorough female ethnographers in the field.

Jane Addams

As a charter member of the American Sociological Society, Jane Addams is to thank for academic institutions in the United States integrating the discipline of sociology for students and other academics to explore. Most of Addams’s work focuses on the experience of women in America during the 19th century, and in addition to observing and preserving the stories of immigrant women in Eastern cities, Addams also fought for various social reforms to improve the plight of American women. In fact, Addams was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, due in part to her radical improvements to the field of social work.

Marianne Weber

Wife of notable German sociologist Max Weber, Marianne Weber deserves celebrity in her own right. Like Addams, Weber focused her sociology studies on women, writing about how aspects of a patriarchal society such as law, history, religion and economy affect how women live. Much of her most famous works center the institution of marriage and challenge established traditions within the patriarchy.

Mirra Komarovsky

Another woman in sociology dedicated to understanding the role of women in society, Mirra Komarovsky pioneered gender studies within the field. Living through the feminist movement, Komarovsky was able to document major changes to women’s lives as a result of feminism, to include the rise of women workers, the adoption of masculine characteristics and clothing and the development of a new female identity.

Dorothy E. Smith

Only recently passed, Dorothy E. Smith was an incredible British-Canadian ethnographer responsible for founding several new sub-disciplines, to include institutional ethnography and feminist standpoint theory. Influenced by big names like Karl Marx and Alfred Shutz, Smith focused her studies on the concept of alienation through a gendered perspective in a capitalist society. In challenging male dominance, Smith develops a critical sociological intervention that continues to influence sociologist thought, theory and practice to this day.

Arlie Russel Hochschild

A remarkably prominent contemporary sociologist, Arlie Russel Hochschild is actively pioneering a new subfield in sociology: the sociology of emotions. Hochschild studies how emotional states have been commodified in the modern world, especially for women, who she argues are expected to perform the majority of society’s emotional labor. Known in the field as an interactionist, Hochschild suggests that all institutions need to evaluate their abuse of women as emotional laborers and find more equitable solutions.

Patricia Hill Collins

The first African-American woman to serve as president of the American Sociological Association, Patricia Hill Collins has dedicated her career to studying gendered social inequality within the African-American community, but she has become prominent as a result of her attacks on white male interests in the field of sociology. Using a new epistemological framework, Collins has been able to elevate the voices of Black women in sociology and elsewhere.

Despite these outstanding contributions to the field of sociology, these women are not well known outside their academic niche. Studying their works in a sociology program and sharing their stories will help spread awareness of the efforts of women in sociology.