Alice Rossi, 87, noted sociologist, leading feminist

Alice Rossi taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for 17 years. Alice Rossi taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for 17 years. (Globe/ File 1982)
Globe Staff / November 10, 2009

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Alice Schaerr Rossi, a prominent sociologist, proponent of women’s rights, and retired professor at the University of Massachusetts, died Nov. 3 of pneumonia in Northampton. She was 87.

As an early and ardent supporter of abortion rights, a champion of female professors, and one of the founding board members of the National Organization of Women, Dr. Rossi was a strong feminist voice across many spheres of American life. Her early writings helped form the philosophical underpinning of the women’s movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. But her influential research and teaching, while puncturing societal myths, also sometimes challenged long-held feminist assumptions.

In the late 1970s, for example, she argued that gender roles, particularly in parenting, can be defined as much by biological impulses as by societal pressures.

“The differences between men and women are not simply a function of socialization, capitalist production, or patriarchy,’’ she wrote.

The traditional division of child-care, she argued, has a strong biological basis, with women able to care for children better than men can. Women, she said, had an “innate predisposition’’ for child-rearing.

The reaction in some circles of the feminist movement was harsh.

“I found myself being screamed at this time by the very people whose cause I had supported,’’ she wrote.

That support extended more than half a century. A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., she earned a bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College and a doctorate in sociology from Columbia University. Her doctoral dissertation, “Generational Differences in the Soviet Union,’’ was later published in a book.

In 1963, she presented her paper “Equality Between the Sexes: An Immodest Proposal’’ at a meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In it, she argued that motherhood as a full-time endeavor limited the capacity of both women and men and hindered societal progress. Parity of the sexes, in all roles, was essential, she argued.

“By later feminist standards my argument for equality was mild indeed, but the reaction of traditionalists in 1964 was not,’’ Dr. Rossi later said at a Cambridge Forum. “I was considered by some a monster, an unnatural woman, and an unfit mother. My husband, also a sociologist, received an anonymous condolence card lamenting the death of his wife.’’

In 1966, she joined with Betty Friedan and a small group of women leaders to form NOW, which became the leading political organization for women’s rights.

About the same time, she became one of the most resolute voices for liberalizing abortion laws. Her first sociological survey assessed attitudes on abortion, and she wrote articles in Redbook and Dissent calling for changes. In 1968, she attended the First International Conference on Abortion; after the Supreme Court allowed abortions in the Roe case, Dr. Rossi became a leader in developing effective abortion counseling and clinics.

Despite her stature and the success of her early studies, Dr. Rossi struggled to receive a full-time teaching position at a university. She did research at Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and Johns Hopkins University before finally teaching full time at Goucher College. She joined the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1974 with her husband, Peter, a sociologist who also received a faculty appointment there.

“I am a pure product of my cohort,’’ she told the Globe in 1982, “meaning namely that academic women, particularly if they were married to someone in the same field, rarely got on an academic tenure ladder. We were what were known as the free-floating research associates on soft money. I spent 15 years on soft money of that kind, working largely on studies not of my specification.’’

That experience made Dr. Rossi an advocate for nurturing and promoting female professors in the sciences. In the mid-1960s, she had presented a study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology she called “Women in Science: Why So Few?’’ She would battle for easing the paths to tenure for women over the rest of her career, including stints as president of the American Sociological Association and of the Sociologists for Women in Society and in leadership roles with the American Association of University Professors.

Dr. Rossi retired from teaching in 1991.

Colleagues remember her as a demanding teacher and caring friend.

“She was a woman of high standards,’’ said UMass professor emeritus Michael Lewis, her colleague and friend since 1973. “For example, if you wrote something and asked her to take a look at it, you would expect to get back a detailed and highly critical analysis. And you had better be prepared to respond to her queries; she would not tolerate sloppy thinking.’’

In addition to publishing her studies, she was the editor of many books on gender and aging, including “Of Human Bonding: Parent-Child Relations Across the Life Course’’ (1990), which she wrote with her husband; ’’Seasons of a Woman’s Life: A Self-Reflective Essay on Love and Work in Family, Profession, and Politics,’’ (1983); “Gender and the Life Course’’ (1985); ’’Sexuality Across the Life Course’’ (1994); and “Caring and Doing for Others: Social Responsibility in the Domains of Family, Work, and Community’’ (2001).

She also was the editor of “The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir’’ (1974), a collection of documents from the history of feminism.

Dr. Rossi’s first marriage ended in divorce. Peter Rossi died in 2006. She leaves her son, Peter of Chicago; two daughters, Kristin of Keene, N.H., and Nina of Montague; and six grandchildren.

A private memorial service will be held Sunday.