Mirra Komarovsky papers available

Born into a privileged family in Tsarist Russia, Mirra Komarovsky’s (2/5/1905 – 1/30/1999) life took a sharp turn when the 1917 Russian Revolution forced her family to immigrate to the United States. Shortly after arriving in the country, she enrolled at Barnard and immersed herself in studying the social sciences. She later became a nationally recognized sociologist, specializing in the sociology of gender, and was a Barnard professor from 1937 to 1992.

Mirra Komarovsky at Barnard. Photo from Barnard College Archives.

Komarovsky’s parents were Zionists and landowning Jews in Akkerman, Russia, until tsarist police drove them from their home. They moved initially to Baku (in what is now Azerbaijan) and then to Wichita, Kansas after the Bolshevik Revolution, when Mirra was 16. In Baku, Komarovsky lived a solidly middle-class lifestyle; she was homeschooled by private tutors and learned Russian, English, Hebrew, and French, as well as playing the piano. Once in the United States, she graduated from Wichita High School within a year and was admitted to Barnard’s Class of 1926.

At Barnard, Komarovsky double-majored in sociology and economics and also took advanced courses in anthropology and psychology. One of her mentors was sociologist William Ogburn, who—despite taking a liking to Komarovsky and recommending her for the graduate fellowship that would allow her to earn her master’s degree at Columbia—once told her to reconsider her goal of becoming a sociology professor, saying, “You are a woman, foreign-born, and Jewish. I would recommend some other occupation.”

Fortunately, Komarovsky did not take Ogburn’s words to heart. She completed her master’s at Columbia in 1927, taught for two years at Skidmore College, and then returned to Columbia for her Ph.D. on another fellowship. Her dissertation topic, which she stumbled upon in 1935 through a research position with mathematician Paul Lazarsfeld at the New York Institute for Social Research, was “The Unemployed Man and His Family,” and it earned her her Ph.D. in 1940.

Later published as a book, The Unemployed Man was “an intensive study of fifty-nine families, modeled on work Lazarsfeld had just completed in Europe” (Rosenberg). The project introduced Komarovsky to the sociological methods she would use throughout her career—namely close case studies and survey research—and she would have ample opportunity to pursue this research at Barnard, where she had begun teaching as a part-time lecturer in 1937. In 1948, then-Dean Millicent McIntosh promoted her from assistant professor to associate professor, and to full professor in 1954, and her career took off.

Komarovsky built her legacy on researching the social and cultural attitudes of families. Much of her work focused on the idea of “cultural lag,” in which “cultural attitudes lag behind technological change” (Rosenberg). In addition to her research on adult families, most notably in her books Women in the Modern World and Blue-Collar Marriage, she conducted several studies of Barnard and Columbia students’ attitudes toward family life and women’s work. In her obituary, the New York Times wrote that her work “initiated the contemporary analysis of gender roles.”

In 1973, Komarovsky became only the second woman to be elected president of the American Sociological Association; years earlier, from 1955 to 1956, she had been president of the Eastern Sociological Society. She retired from her full-time position at Barnard in 1970, but continued to teach part-time as professor emeritus until 1992, and served briefly as chair of the women’s studies department when it was launched in 1978. She died in 1999 at age 93.

Komarovsky teaching a seminar at Barnard. Photo from Barnard College Archives.

In the very early years of her career, from 1933 to 1935, Komarovsky was married to a dentist named Leo Horney, but they divorced when it became clear that Horney wanted a traditional housewife, not a groundbreaking career woman. She remarried in 1940 to businessman Marcus Heyman, who died in 1970. She had no children.

While Komarovsky was extremely private and destroyed most of her personal papers (Rosenberg), the Barnard Archives has many of her professional papers, which were recently inventoried. This includes copies of published articles, works she used as sources, professional correspondence, newspaper clippings, and notes. Some examples of the available documents:

  1. In a folder titled “Publications and Awards, 1988” (Box 2/5), the Archives found an article titled “The New Feminist Scholarship: Some Precursors and Polemics,” published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family in 1988; a nomination letter from Barnard sociology department chair Madeline Engel for a “Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award”; and correspondence with colleagues.
  2. In a folder titled “Professional Compliments and Honors, 1970-1983” (Box 2/5), we found a Barnard Alumnae Magazine feature on Komarovsky; a clipping from City News, headlined “Sex Attitudes Subject of Talk,” on a speech she gave; and a summary of students’ evaluations of her courses.
  3. In a folder titled “News Clippings: Wichita High School,” (Box 2/5), we found two newspaper articles about Komarovsky’s impressive work as a high-schooler: one was headlined “Russian Girl Tells of Her Experiences,” and the other “High School Teachers Laud Work of Russian Refugee.”
  4. In a folder titled “Conference Programs and Brochures” (Box 3/5), we found programs from the Eastern Sociological Society’s annual conferences from 1950-1952, 1956, and 1965, as well as programs from a variety of other sociological conferences.
  5. In a folder titled “Lorber” (Box 4/5), we found copies of published articles by sociologist Judith Lorber that Komarovsky used as sources for her research, along with several pages of handwritten notes she took while reading those sources.
  6. In a folder titled “Course materials, 1992” (Box 5/5), we found a copy of Barnard’s official calendar for the 1992-1993 academic year; a syllabus for her “Female and Male: A Sociological Perspective” course; a clipping from the New York Times that she presumably used in that class, titled “Bias Against Girls Is Found Rife in Schools, With Lasting Damage”; and handwritten notes.

The Archives has copies of much of the research she published from 1933-1991. The articles available range from excerpts from her book Blue-Collar Marriage reprinted in various peer-reviewed journals; to a 1949 article, cowritten with Stansfeld Sargent and printed in Culture and Personality, titled “Research into Subcultural Influences Upon Personality”; to a 1982 study of Barnard undergraduates titled “Female Freshmen View Their Future: Career Salience and Its Correlates.” The Archives also has a number of published reviews of her articles.

Written by Maggie Astor ’11

Sources

  1. Pace, Eric. “Mirra Komarovsky, Authority on Women’s Studies, Dies at 93.” New York Times, 2/1/1999. http://www.nytimes.com/1999/02/01/us/mirra-komarovsky-authority-on-women-s-studies-dies-at-93.html?pagewanted=2.
  2. Rosenberg, Rosalind. “Mirra Komarovsky.” http://www.columbia.edu/~rr91/3567/sample_biographies/mirra_komarovsky%20black%20board.htm.
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Archives donates Gabriela Mistral collection to Chile

After 32 years in Lehman Hall, the Barnard Archives’ Gabriela Mistral Collection has found a new home.

This month, the Archives will donate the collection—which consists of approximately 900 books owned by Mistral, a renowned Chilean poet and Nobel laureate—to the Gabriela Mistral Museum in her hometown of Vicuña, Chile. The museum already holds 700 books from Mistral’s personal library and additional books from the estate of Doris Dana, BC ’44. Barnard is donating its volumes—many of which contain Mistral’s notes in the margins and inscriptions from the authors—to complete the Vicuña collection, in honor of the International Year of Gabriela Mistral and Chile’s bicentennial celebration.

“It is Barnard College’s opinion that there is great academic value to consolidating this material to facilitate scholarly research,” Carol Falcione, Barnard’s outgoing library dean, wrote in a Feb. 1 letter to Chilean museum officials. “The College also recognizes the great cultural significance of Gabriela Mistral to her native country.”

Dana originally donated these 900 books to the Archives in 1978; Mistral taught at Barnard from 1930-31 and become close with Dana when she presented a lecture here after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945. In exchange for its gift to the Vicuña museum, Barnard will receive copies of any electronic or microfilm versions of the museum’s Mistral materials that may be created, which will allow Barnard and Columbia students continued access to the books, papers, and ephemera of one of the College’s most distinguished affiliates.

“Gabriela taught at Barnard in 1930, and I, myself, graduated from Barnard in 1944,” Dana wrote upon donating the books to Barnard in 1978. “It was here at Columbia University, in the Hispanic Institute, that Gabriela’s first book of poetry was published in 1922—Desolación. My first meeting with Gabriela took place in Milbank Hall in March 1946, when she addressed the Spanish Department upon her return from Stockholm after receiving the Nobel Prize. Above all, in giving this library to Barnard, a college which has done much for the rights of women, it is my hope to call attention to one of the great women of our time.”

Among many others, the collection includes books by Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke; Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore; Cuban poet José Martí; Belgian playwright, poet, and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck; American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson; and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Of special personal significance to Mistral were books by José Vasconcelos, Don Miguel de Unamuno, Jacques Maritain, Rubén Darío, Eduardo Frei, Victoria Ocampo, and Esther de Caceres. There are also a number of children’s books that Mistral used to teach herself English, and in which she wrote notes and made lists of new vocabulary. Scattered throughout the margins of the entire collection are fragments of poems and notes Mistral jotted down.

Gabriela Mistral—a pseudonym for Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga—was born in Vicuña in 1889. She began writing poetry in earnest after her lover, railroad worker Romelio Ureta, committed suicide in 1909. In addition to teaching at Barnard, she taught Spanish literature briefly at Middlebury College and Vassar College in 1931, and at the University of Puerto Rico from 1931-33. Her second-to-last book of poetry, Lagar, was published in 1954 and included many poems inspired by another suicide in 1943, that of her 17-year-old nephew, whom she had raised with her close friend Palma Guillén. Her last book, Poema de Chile, was edited by Dana and published posthumously in 1967. The capstone on her career came in 1945, when she became the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She died of pancreatic cancer in 1957 at the age of 67.

Written by Maggie Astor ’11