Portrait: No prima donna

According to colleagues, she is one of the most important scholars on children and gender in the world. So how come she is proofreading texts for colleagues at the Centre for Gender Research at the University of Oslo?
Professor Barrie Thorne. (Photo: Heidi Elisabeth Sandnes)

Some years ago I realized, a little too late, that I had just missed a lecture by the scholar whose theories made all my field notes for my master thesis fall into place, Barrie Thorne. She had already left after staying one month at my university. I was rather annoyed at this, as I did not expect to get at second chance to hear this Professor of Sociology as well as of Gender and Women's Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.

Thus I was very happy to learn that Thorne had become Professor II at the Centre for Gender Research at the University of Oslo for 2009-11. Six years later I am finally sitting at another seminar, listening to her lecture on what is currently her focus of interest: children and class. And it was certainly worth the wait. But why did this well-known scholar choose to become a Professor II in Oslo? 

“The Scandinavians and the British have really taken the lead in child research in the way I like to think about it, focusing on the social context of childhood, and not just the individual child”, says Thorne.

“And I love coming here, it’s like my other life!”
And her colleagues seem to love having her:

“We knew Barrie as an incredible important scholar in the field of children and gender research. She is also amazingly generous and committed. And as far from a prima donna as you can get,” says Professor Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen, until recently Director at Centre for Gender Research and instrumental in getting Thorne as Professor II from 2009.

The idea of travelling to Norway a few times a year was not foreign to Thorne: It is a trip she has been taking for years already. From 1998 to 2008 she was one of the editors of the journal Childhood, which is published by the Norwegian Centre for Child Research in Trondheim. She has been invited to speak on a number of conferences and seminars both in Trondheim and Oslo through the years.

From anti-war into feminism

But to start with the beginning – of the academic career, that is:
As a graduate student at Brandeis University in the 1960s, Thorne started her life of activism in the anti-draft movement during the Vietnam war.

“I got my first glimpse of women’s liberation when I heard a feminist speak at a national draft resistance conference in Illinois, and at first I was sceptical,” she relates.

The scepticism did not last long, however. The speaker invited the women present to a meeting afterwards, and they all stayed up far into the night discussing women’s subordination in the draft resistance movement and in society. Back in Boston Thorne took part in starting a consciousness raising group that eventually merged with other groups to become Bread and Roses, a socialist women’s liberation organization

“This has been so important in my life. We started asking the question ‘where are the women?’ in our studies, and the movement gave us the courage to challenge our male professors,” Thorne says. Her dissertation was an ethnography of the draft resistance movement, and she included a chapter on women’s liberation. Thus feminism became integrated with her academic career.

The fad of feminism

“In 1971, when I was in my first faculty position at Michigan State University, I asked the sociology department chair if I could create a course on sex roles, as we called it then. But I was told no, because this ‘women’s lib’ thing was a ‘fad’,” she relates.

A few years later though, as the fad was not waning, both Thorne and scholars in other departments were teaching courses about women in society. The interdisciplinary field of women’s studies was born.

“I love to teach in interdisciplinary contexts, to work with scholars from, for instance, poetry or film studies and create courses together, it is so liberating! I also love to teach introductory women’s studies courses, and see the students get their eyes opened for the first time,” says Thorne, who still shares her teaching time between sociology and gender and women’s studies, and enjoys both.

How to raise a feminist man?

But how did she get from the draft resistance movement into the study of children?

“I had my first child in 1973, and when he started in day care, I noticed how girls and boys often separated into groups. My husband and I were intent on being feminist parents, and we always wondered how to raise an egalitarian son who was good to women,” Thorne relates.

This interest in the gendered play of children led her to repeat the question from a few years earlier, but with a twist: Where are the children in sociological studies? She found that, historically, when children were pulled out of the labour market and put into schools, the definition of “child” was altered. Children were no longer seen as little adults. In the 1970ies the academic study of children was still the study of child development, whereas there was no study of the social world of the child.

“I realised that we as sociologists and anthropologists were not doing our jobs,” she says.

She found that just as views of women in the 1970s were shaped mainly by male authors and theorists, views of children are shaped by adults. 

“My idea was to try to view children on their own terms, not as defined by adults, just like in feminism we tried to overcome male definitions. I tried to find children’s spaces and get access to their worlds, and find out how they see and create gender,” Thorne says.

When she first started theorizing about children and gender, she was influenced by theories that see boys and girls as dichotomous or opposites. However, she soon found that this did not fit the lived world of children very well. Girls and boys on the playground have ever shifting ways of displaying their gendered identities. Thorne moved away from dichotomous difference as a starting assumption.

“I shifted paradigms, so to say, into a situated and complex approach to gender”, she explains.

And did you manage to raise a feminist son?

“Yes I think so,” Thorne laughs. “He likes to tease me and say sexist things just to get under my skin, but he basically has the right spirit. He worked for the World Food Program for eight years, so he’s very humanitarian. He’s married to a woman who works in Gender and Development, so my daughter-in-law and I have a lot in common.”

The couple has given Thorne two grandchildren, and the twin boys are included in her staff photo at Berkeley.

“That was a political choice! It is to show; this is who I am, work/family, in your face!”

Barrie Thorne with her two grandchildren, the same picture Thorne uses in her official presentation as Berkeley professor. (Family photo)

“I learned very early not to preach at my children, to give them autonomy. Like the sociologist Nancy Chodorow once said: ‘How do you know the daughter of a feminist? She is the four-year-old with the most nail polish!’ My daughter went through a phase like that. They have to find their autonomy just like we did. She is now a city planner who works with green planning, and married to a poverty lawyer, so we’re all involved in the public good you could say.”

Moving into the study of social class and immigration

In the 1980s Thorne and her husband moved California to teach at the University of Southern California, later to Berkeley in 1995. She had spent some time in California as a student at Stanford in the 1960s, and was struck by the increase of immigrants since then. This trend has continued to grow, and by the year 2000 the amount of children in the state that spoke a language other than English at home reached 40 per cent.

“This got me thinking about immigration and ethnicity in relation to childhood,” Thorne says.

She was invited to join a research network sponsored by the McArthur Foundation, which gave her funding and ties to child researchers all over the US. She used her grant to do field work at a school with eleven different language groups, and variation in class backgrounds.

“I did not leave gender behind, even when my main focus was trying to learn more about the dynamics of racialized ethnicity, social class and migration. Gender is part of that story,” she says.

Motherhood and academic career

In Norway we often hear that it is a lot harder to combine motherhood and an academic career in the US than it is here, do you agree with this?

“Yes, it is very hard. I think in Norway many people take for granted all the supports you have from what some Norwegians call ‘the friendly state’. In the US, and this is a terrible thing, the attitude has become ‘get the state off my back’, as if it is some foreign object, when the state should be us”.

But you seem to have managed?

“Yes, I was very fortunate to have a partner who was committed to parenting, and we lived in college communities when our children were young, where there were day care centres and students who could babysit.”

This experience also found its way into Thorne’s academic work: With sociologist Arlie Hochschild she co-directed the Center for Working Families at Berkeley. One of the aims of this centre was to push for social policies that would help the work-life balance of families. The funding for this centre has ended, but not because the problems are solved. In Thorne’s opinion.

”The situation for young families in the U.S. is as bad as ever, or even worse with the recent economic cutbacks. We were hopeful that we would make improvements, and especially with Obama, but it looks bad. It is a country of widening, deepening class and equality divide.”

Back to the spirit of the 1960s

As Thorne herself is getting closer to her retirement, her commitment to social justice seems as strong as ever.

“I’ve gotten involved again in a very active social movement, it is in my blood”, she relates with a laugh.

The current economic crisis has had huge consequences in the state of California. There are huge cuts in social services, including public education. In the 1960s it was decided that there would be comprehensive, free, public higher education accessible to all high school graduates. However, California public universities that offer this ‘free’ education now charge students as much as 10 000 dollars a year.

“Higher education is now seen as a private investment, not a public good. When dramatic cut-backs in state funding became visible last summer, a group of us on the faculty and many students started to organize. I’m now on the coordinating committee of ‘Save UC’.”

This group has organized educational forums, lectures, a rally of more than 5000 people and a strike. Also some of the students seized a building, which led to arrests and beatings by police.

In the middle of her newest project of social change, however, Thorne still found time for her planned visit to Oslo last November. With typical commitment to everything she does, especially in regard to her students, she asked to go with the PhD-students on the school ethnographies project to visit their field sites. Says Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen:

“I don’t know how she finds time for it all.”

Is it hard for you to say no?

“Yes! It’s hard for me to say no. I’m a very sociable person. But I’ve learned to say no to reading things for others, I get too much of a pile-up of written obligations. My students are my top priority. Working on my own research has too often suffered”, says Thorne.

But apparently you don’t say no to all questions of reading things for colleagues – Harriet Bjerrum Nielsen says that you proof-read the English papers of people here at the centre?

“Yes – that is my penance for being in the language empire! I do know some French and German, but I have never had to scramble to learn another language in order to move ahead in my work. So if I can help make their English run a little smother, I’m happy to do it.”

Not a prima donna in sight.

The scholar

Barrie Thorne (born 1942) is a Professor of Sociology and of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and Professor II at the Centre for Gender Research at the University of Oslo.

From 2003–2008 she was Chair of the Gender and Women's Studies Department at Berkeley, and 1998-2002 she was Director/Co-Director of the UC Berkeley Center for Working Families.

Co-editor of the journal Childhood from 1998 to 2008.


Selected Publications

«The Chinese Girls and the ‘Pokémon Kids’: Children Constructing Difference in Urban California». In Jennifer Cole and Deborah Durham, eds., Figuring the Future: Children, Youth, and Globalization. SAR Press: 2008, pp. 73-97.

«Pick-Up Time at Oakdale Elementary School: Work and Family from the Vantage Points of Children», in Rosanna Hertz and Nancy Marshall, eds., Working Families. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, pp. 354-376.

Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. New Brunswick, NJ.: Rutgers University Press, and Buckingham, England: Open University Press, 1993.

«Re-visioning Women and Social Change: Where are the Children?» Gender & Society, 1 (1), 1987: 85-109.

Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne, «The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology», Social Problems, 32 (4), 1985: 301-316.

Language, Gender and Society, edited by Barrie Thorne, Cheris Kramarae, and Nancy Henley. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1983.

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