ACR Fellow's Address on Being a Female Fellow: My Life As an Oxymoron

Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University
[ to cite ]:
Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1996) ,"ACR Fellow's Address on Being a Female Fellow: My Life As an Oxymoron", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 6-9.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 6-9

ACR FELLOW'S ADDRESS

ON BEING A FEMALE FELLOW: MY LIFE AS AN OXYMORON

Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University

It is a very weighty task talking to you today as number 17 in a line of ACR Fellows. I feel a tremendous intellectual burden pressing down on me from the combined talent and giftedness of my 16 predecessors, all of them highly productive, extremely creative contributors to our field.

In my search for an appropriate topic, I found myself casting about for a point-of-view somehow unaddressed by those who had come before meCa vantage point not yet surveyed. I thought there might be three possibilitiesCthree characteristics that set me apart from those who had preceded me. First, as a confessed substance abuser, I thought perhaps I could discuss my philosophy of better living through chemistry. However, upon reflection, I realized that I had already talked about that subject and that, given the identity of some recent fellows, I was not likely to be the first controlled substance consumer to address you.

Then I considered describing my history of emotional volatility. After all, I have never been a normal person and perhaps recounting my struggles with emotional highs and lows would give encouragement to those similarly afflicted. However, once again upon reflectionCand considering the behaviors of some prior recipientsCI realized that I would probably not be the first crazy person to address you.

And so I turned to a third characteristic that I believed did truly set me apart from previous fellows. Unless one of them has really been keeping something "in the closet," I am the first woman to become an ACR FellowCa wondrous distinction, indeed: a female fellow. It had a sort of oxymoronic quality to it, kind of like "jumbo shrimp," "military intelligence," and "Protestant sexuality"Ctwo concepts that just don't seem to belong together and yet are forced upon one another in an ungainly pairing.

Upon reflection, I realized that metaphorically my entire life could be viewed as one long, awkward struggle to marry together the two concepts implied by the terms "female" and "ACR Fellow," for example, "woman" and "scientist," "mother" and "researcher," "wife" and "professor."

Origins

The origins of this oxymoronicCand existentialCjourney can be found in a long-ago time, called the 1950's and a far-away place, called Kingsport, TennesseeCa very different time and a very different place than the world as we now know it.

Kingsport, Tennessee in the 1950's was much like the rest of the United States in the 1950's, only more so. The dads went to work in a suit and tie, while the moms stayed home and kept house wearing shirtwaist dresses and comfortable shoes. The kids went to school and belonged to Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Our family very much conformed to this pattern. My Dad, John Caldwell, who died this past July, was a research scientist at the Eastman-Kodak Corporation. During the course of his career he generated over 300 chemical patentsCa feat matched by few other scientists in the country. He was certainly a brilliant and creative researcher.

My Mom, Virginia, was also a chemist who had graduated as valedictorian of her college class and been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She was very attractive and had excellent managerial skills. But she was a woman, and it was the 1950's, and so she was a mom. She took care of me and my brother, cooked the meals, cleaned the house, made the beds, went to the grocery store, attended the PTA meetings, led the Girl Scout troop and took us to the Presbyterian church every Sunday. Just like all the other moms.

Around the age of 9 or 10, after almost a decade of careful participant observation, I discerned that there were basically two career paths in life and which one you took was determined by whether you were born a girl or a boy. If you were a girl, you got to grow up to be like your mom; you got to wash clothes, make meals, vacuum floors, change diapers and go on Girl Scout camping trips. If you were a boy, you could be President of the United States, an astronaut, a Supreme Court justice, a scientist, a policeman, a fireman, a doctor, a lawyer or an Indian chief.

Girls and boys were groomed for these two career paths from birth onward. Girls were taught to be polite, wait their turn and be considerate of others' feelings. Girls were encouraged to make good grades in school, so that they could go to a good college, meet a man, who would be a good provider, marry him and then devote themselves to caring for his childrenCpreferably sons.

Boys were taught to play hard, be strong, and learn to get ahead. They made good grades in order to get into a good college so that they could graduate and get a good job, doing something that was challenging, personally meaningful and paid a good salary.

Early Philosophical Musings

By about the age of 11, I realized that women in the U.S. were encased in what has been termed the patriarchal tradition. Women's lives were in all ways subordinate to those of men. Their task was to serve as caretakers for their husbands and sons who carried out the real business of life. Trapped in a female body, women were at best excellent caretakers for those whose gender entitled them to act upon the world. This was very much the state of things, as I grew up in the 1950's.

However, things were not as bleak as they seemed, for as I entered my second decade, two entities were about to rebelCBeth Caldwell and the rest of the culture. My rebellion began very slowly and cautiously. I always triedCovertly at leastCto be a good girl, to do the right thing, to behave in the right way. However, I did not always succeed. Quite hyperactive as a child, I once returned home from school in the fifth grade and proudly told my mother, "Mom, they gave me a whole row all by myself." At the age of 13, I resigned from the Presbyterian churchCour family religion for at least ten generationsCover the doctrine of Predestination. In brief, Predestination holds that all people are born either Elect, that is Good or Saved, or Non-elect, that is Bad or Damned. We Presbyterians, of course, knew that we were among the ElectCwe were white, well-to-do, and respectable. We were successful, we were American, and we ran the country.

However, by age 13 I was beginning to have doubts about Predestination and the whole culture in which it was embedded. Where were the places for Negroes, for Catholics, for Latinos, for poor people and especially for women? I was as smart as most of the boys I went to school with, and I was easily as ambitious. Why couldn't I have a life!? I did not want to cook, clean, and iron shirts for a living. I wanted to do something.

Fortunately, for small, skinny Beth Caldwell in Kingsport, Tennessee, the non-white, non-male majority of the culture was asking the same question. The decades of the 1960's and the 1970's saw enormous upheaval in the accreted layers of white Anglo Saxon male privilege that had encrusted the country since its founding. All kinds of previously invisible folk came trudging forward bearing their grievances on placards. We stood thereCin front of the Lincoln Memorial, surrounding the Pentagon, marching down Christopher Street in New York CityCand said, collectively, as Blacks, as women, as gays, as Hispanics: We want a Life! Life with a capital "L."

And in many ways we have been able to fashion one, although many types of compromises have been made along the way. I passed the late 1960's and early 1970's at the UniversityCthe "in" place to be during that time period. My time there was well-spent, although as I look back on it now I see that many of the most valuable lessons were not learned in the classroom.

Good Beth/Bad Beth

In college I continued my Good Girl/Bad Girl pattern. From Sunday afternoon until Friday afternoon, I was a very good girl. I always studied hard, made good grades and remained consistently on the Dean's list. However, from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning I was Bad Beth. I was on what would later be titled Experiential or Hedonic Consumption TimeCthis was akin to Miller Time, but was usually produced by imbibing wine and inhaling marijuana, rather than drinking beer. My left-wing politics flourished during this period. I was a hippie; I lived in a communal house, wore bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyed t-shirts, buffalo sandals, belonged to the SDS and engaged in several demonstrations, marches, and other forms of political protest.

It was a rather schizophrenic existence. Good Beth followed the rules and worked slavishly for high grades and other traditional forms of achievement. Bad Beth broke the rules, challenged their underlying authority and basically misbehaved in every possible way.

A vignette about a bad drug experience during this time period will provide a somewhat metaphoric illustration. One night a group of us were dabbling around with acid. I had a nightmarish trip in which my mind and body separated. My mind floated up to the ceiling, which seemed to be about 10 or 12 feet high, while my body remained sitting on the floor eating a box of vanilla wafers. What was so terrifying about this experience is that my body really enjoyed eating the entire box of cookies, which tasted indescribably delicious, while my mind hovered above it, in constant fear of falling, unable to connect-up to my physical being. Finally, I came "down," literally and figuratively, and re-integrated myself.

Keeping my mind and body integrated has proved to be the central challenge of my adult life on two levels. The first, most essential basis for this dualism arose very early in my childhood when I realized that I had my father's creative scientific "male" head stuck atop my mother's female body. My head had always told me I wanted to be one thingCa researcher, a scientist, which was culturally reserved for males. My body told me I wanted to have children and be a mother, which was culturallyCand biologicallyCgiven to women. For the first 30 years of my life I resolved this by letting my head predominate over my body. I masqueraded as a consumer researcher who just happened to be running around in a female body.

Raymond Arrives

Two events acted to moderate this dualism. The first was that I moved "up North" for a brief time after undergraduate school and, while there, I met and married the only poor, Jewish boy in all of New York City, Raymond Hirschman.

Alice and Carol Appear

When Ray and I got married I made it clear that I didn't want to get trapped into doing all those things that women and wives were supposed to do. I didn't want to cook, I didn't want to clean, and I didn't want to have children. Shortly after we married, I entered graduate school with the intention of getting my Ph.D. and settling down to a nice small college and a career in teaching. It was an enormous step for me to seek a career at all; the notion of my actually pursuing research seemed completely beyond the realm of possibility. And then two miraculous events occurred right in the middle of my Ph.D. program. Their names were Alice Tybout and Carol Scott. Like angels from some female-inhabited heaven, they appeared in the field and began conducting and presenting and publishing research. Women were doing research, in my field. And they were doing it very well.

This was for me, and I am sure for many other women, a watershed event. It opened up a psychological door, it breached a sociological barrier that hitherto had remained tightly shut to us. Now I could see myself doing this thing that only men didCresearch. Alice and Carol's pioneering efforts were central to myCand other women'sCprogress (and even presence) in the field. If Alice and Carol had not come along when they did and how they did, in all honesty I can say, Beth Hirschman would not be standing here before you today.

Jerry Shows Up

A third very important figure for me during this critical early part of my career was an errant sociologist I encountered at the AMA doctoral consortium, Jerry Zaltman. Jerry, as many of you know, is not only a highly gifted scholar, but also an iconoclast and an intellectual rebel. Perhaps because of this, Jerry hasCin addition to producing many scholarly contributions to the fieldCalso been the foremost male promoter of women as researchers.

Over the course of his career, Jerry served on the dissertation committees of both Alice Tybout and Carol Scott, and also those of Melanie Wallendorf, Robin Higie-Coulter, Meera Venkatramen, Debbie MacInnis, and Christine Moorman. And most importantly for people like Linda Price and me, Jerry has served as mentor, guide, friend, constructive critic and adviser. It was through contact with Jerry that my interest in the cultural and subcultural aspects of consumer behavior were both encouraged and strengthened.

Melanie

Coincident with meeting Jerry, I also met my first female ally in the field, Melanie Wallendorf. I was fortunate the year I was at the University of Pittsburgh to serve on Melanie's dissertation committee. Melanie's topic was sociological in content, having to do with the communication of information across groups, and being associated with it, and with her, served to further strengthen my interest in the cultural dimensions of consumption.

Morris Moves In

After a year in Pittsburgh, Ray and I moved to New York City. Ray was working at Young and Rubicam and I was at NYU. Shortly afterwards, at the 1979 ACR Conference, I presented a paper that would change my life. It was a simple, typical conference paper titled "Attributes of Attributes and Layers of Meaning." In it I was critical of the work of another young assistant professor whom I had never met, but whose ideas I thought were just completely off-base. And so, with all the fervor of misdirected youth, I trounced him soundly. At the conclusion of my talk, which I felt had gone brilliantly, a young, somewhat forlorn-looking man approached me and extended his hand in a gesture of friendship. "Hi!" he said, "My name is Morris Holbrook and I'm really sorry you don't like my work." I remember thinking to myself, "Uh, oh. I'm in big trouble now." (Actually, to be ethnographically accurate, what I really thought was, "Uh, oh, this guy is going to beat the shit out of me for sure!").

Remarkably, instead of being violently angry, Morris invited me to attend his session on consumption aesthetics the following day. I did. It was interesting. We hit it off; we even learned that we lived next door to each other on Riverside Drive. It was the start of a long and lasting friendship that still, quite happily, endures.

After organizing the Symbolic Consumer Behavior Conference in 1980, Morris and I began collaborating on two papers designed to address a second type of mind-body dualism which both of us were experiencing. The basic problem was that neither of us acted in ways consistent with the then-prevailing view of consumer behavior as logical, rule-guided information processing. We were weird. In contrast, I believe that, for example, Jim Bettman, whom I admire, like and respect very much, does act in a logical, rational fashion. I think if you opened up Jim's head, you would find a very efficient, highly intelligent, rational, orderly place. Everything would be neat, clean and organized.

In contrast, if you opened up my or Morris' head, you would find a jumble of randomly occurring, enormously digressive and contradictory thoughts. Morris' head would be more upscale and sophisticated than mine, but we would have the same topical categories. For example, under "Drama," Morris would have plays by Tina Howe and Shakespeare, whereas I would have 15 years of "The Young and the Restless," my soap opera, stashed away. Under "Good Things to Eat," Morris would have cabernet, escargot and arrugula, while I would have salsa and chips, chocolate, and buttered popcorn. Under "Emotions," Morris would have complex, elaborate feelings such as anomie, ecstasy and existential angst; I would have "really happy," "really sad" and "bored." All of these various categories would be tied together in a hodge-podge of neuron wirings that mixed fantasy and fact, myth with musings and big thoughts, e.g., "What does life mean?" with little thoughts, e.g., "Is it time to eat yet?"

We decided to formalize our disjointed thinking and published two papers describing it in the Journal of Consumer Research and the Journal of Marketing. Remarkably, upon publishing these models of our hopelessly disorganized and emotionally overwrought minds, some sparks of self-recognition arose from others in the field who experienced a similar level of mental chaos. Thus inspired, Morris and I have gone on to collaborate on several other papers and books over the past 15 years. It's been a lot of fun and, hey, we actually got tenure.

Baby Time

In 1983 a different kind of mind-body struggle arose for me. I had hit 30 and my proverbial biological clock was going "Ding, Dong!, Wake Up!, it's time to make a baby!" And following my usual careful, cautious and conservative path of rational decision making, I made an immediate 1801 swing from declaring "I never want children" to "If I don't get pregnant right now, I'll kill myself!"....

[I told some people about my decision, and then some bad things happened to me....]

The following month I did become pregnant and nine months and four days later, Alix Hirschman was born. As her mother and an objective social scientist I can attest that she was, and is, a real cutie. At age one she posed as cover girl for the 1984 ACR Conference Proceedings, as drawn by that Picasso of consumer research, Morris Holbrook.

.... Neither my research nor my teaching fell apart. Around 1985, Ray and I decided that the first baby had turned out so well, it was time to make another one. This time I made doubly sure to cover all bases professionally. I published two papers in JCR and the "Humanistic Inquiry" piece in JMR. I served as Treasurer of ACR and on the AMA Marketing Thought Task Force headed by Kent Monroe. In addition, I headed the AMA's Academic Division as Vice President of the Educators' Council. I continued to teach my full course load and earned high teaching ratings. So, when Annie Hirschman was born in May 1986, I felt confident that I had fulfilled my professional duties responsibly.

Three days after I returned home from the hospital after giving birth, I was told to come into New York City.... I loaded 8-day old Annie and myself into my car, drove to the train station, unloaded all our paraphernalia from the car and onto the train and rode into Grand Central Station. Upon arriving there I hailed a cab and clutching Annie to me, we hurtled downtown.... [and then some more bad things happened to me]....

I gathered up Annie and all of our baby stuff, hailed the cab, caught the train, got back in the car, and went home. By the time I arrived there, I had decided that I was tired of struggling... over being female and being a professor. I could do it, I had done it. I was tired of awaiting... recognition and approval. And so I began looking around for a happier place to be me. A year and a half later, I received a very generous, cordial offer from Rutgers University and I happily, gratefully accepted it.

My Glorious Coauthors

Life at Rutgers over these past seven years has been happy and productive. I returned to a behavior pattern that I had all but abandonedCworking with really gifted coauthors. I had noticed some super bright and talented young people on the horizon over the past few years while I was at NYU, but they were at other schools and I was too distracted fighting the gender wars to approach them. Now I had both the time and the motivation.

I began with Barbara Stern, who fortunately was right up the road at Rutgers-Newark. Barbara is a remarkable pioneer in her own right. Over the past decade, she has carved out an excellent career for herselfCand research path for the rest of usCby applying the methods of literary criticism to advertising and consumer behavior. She also was one of the first researchers in our field to bring a feminist perspective to bear on important research issues. Through my collaborations with Barbara, I've been able to soak up some of her large knowledge about literary genres and formal analysis.

A second, very stimulating intellectual partnership has been forged with Craig Thompson. From Craig I've gained a great reverence for the works of Michael Foucault and found true happiness working with a fellow phenomenologist. Craig, as you may know, also comes from Eastern Tennessee and I figure the karma on our working together has to be pretty powerful. The odds against two existentialists both emerging from the Appalachian mountains and actually discovering one another must be long indeed.

Even more recently I've been working with our field's second Lit-Crit pioneer, Linda Scott, and an advertising research veteran, Bill Wells, on the cultural meaning of product categories. Linda has taught me an enormous amount about discourse theory, reader-response theory and rhetoric, while Bill has kept both of us honest about the pragmatics of doing grounded research.

I've also teamed up with fellow bleeding-heart liberal, commie-pinko, left-winger, Ron Hill, in our never-ending battle to overcome social injustice, wherever it may rear its ugly head. Thus far, we have tackled the Great Depression and are now moving onward to even more depressing topics.

Finally, true to my sociological roots in Pittsburgh, I've cajoled Clinton Sanders to join me in a series of collaborations on human-animal research projects. One of our central findings is that animals have much to teach us about human virtue.

Girl Babies Are the Hope of the World

Working with all these extremely gifted and talented people has not only been very stimulating, it's also been highly productive. I re-discovered something I had already learned from working with Morris Holbrook. That is if you pick the right coauthors, they will do all the work and you will get half the credit. What a deal! I soon found I had excess time on my hands. What to do? So, I went and had another baby! Yes, little Shannon Hirschman was born March 15, 1994.

The birth of Shannon, my third child, was a wonderfully happy event. But I was also very happy about two other births that occurred during the early 1990's. I had known Alice Tybout and Carol Scott by that time for many years. I had enormous personal affection and professional respect for both of them. And over the course of time I had known them, the thought had often occurred to me that both of them would make great moms. But as the years passed, I began to despair that this would never happen for them. And I felt guilty, because in many ways I believed that Carol and Alice, because they were the female pioneers, had to pay the highest price for being first. Their professional sacrifices had eased the way for all the rest of us women who had followed in their wake.

And so, I was filled with great joy when, first, Carol and then Alice had babies, both girls. What a miracle! Next to those babies' parents, I was the happiest person on the planet.

It's been a long journey from Kingsport, Tennessee, to this place. The world has changed enormously since I was a little girl, and mostly, I believe, it's changed for the better. It is a place now where little girlsCmy little girls, Alice and Carol's little girls, your little girls, can grow up to become pretty much anyone they want to beCa U.S. Senator, a University President, a Supreme Court Justice, an astronaut, a firefighter, a police officer, a doctor, a lawyer, or an Indian chief. And if they are really fortunate, they just might grow up to be an ACR fellow.

Thank you!

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