Joan Acker—Capturing the Spirit of Oregon

Joan Acker is one of eight people who will be honored during Lane County’s Sixth Annual Older Americans Month celebration on May 6. The theme this year is “Lane County Honors Older Americans Who Capture the Spirit of Oregon.” Following is the nomination letter submitted by the Center for the Study of Women in Society.

Joan Acker

Joan Acker

by Carol Stabile, Director, CSWS

In order to understand how Professor Joan Acker embodies Oregon’s pioneering spirit, one would first have to understand the grounds upon which Joan herself might object to the stories we typically tell about pioneers and the motivations that led them west. For a woman and a feminist to succeed in the university in the 1960s, at a time when female PhDs and professors were the exception rather than the rule, she needed the kind of determination and hard work we typically associate with pioneers. But Joan’s career and activism were not based on a belief in individualism and isolated success—she did not work in order to stake out acreage for herself and people who looked like her. Instead, Joan has consistently worked to create a climate in which diversity is valued, and where differences that make our communities so rich and exciting are cause for inclusion and celebration, rather than for exclusion and the establishment of communities that flourish at the expense of others. Unlike the statue of the Pioneer Woman on the University of Oregon campus, so near to the Center for the Study of Women in Society that Joan helped to establish, Joan Acker is no demure founding mother, but a true pioneer who has taken on challenges directly, with great passion, dedication, and principle.

Joan Acker arrived in Eugene in 1966, as an assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon, where she quickly established herself as a pioneer in the study of gender, class, and social inequality. In addition to the demands of career and family, Joan also became active in state policy-making.  As Margaret Hallock, director of the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics, puts it, Professor Acker’s career “spanned the time of one of the greatest revolutions in the labor market, the enormous influx into the labor market of working women. The causes of the influx are many, ranging from the income needs of families, the changing nature of work and the capitalist market, and women’s own desires for independence. Professor Acker both studied and participated in this revolution. She wrote about women’s roles in the workplace, women’s jobs and wages, the burdens of women’s dual responsibilities, and the fate of poor women, both urban and rural.  Her fresh and critical perspective has informed policy about work and family issues for decades.”

Acker bookcover

As a member of the Oregon Task Force on Classification and Compensation Equity, more popularly known as the Comparable Worth Task Force, Joan met throughout the 1980s to examine and recommend reforms to the state job structure and wage system. The committee surveyed 44,000 state jobs and recommended a new system of evaluating jobs based on skill, effort and responsibility, rather than basing wages primarily on the market. According to Professor Hallock, “Joan was an integral part of the study, and her analysis of job evaluation systems helped us formulate new criteria for estimating comparable job values. Five years later the governor signed pay equity legislation awarding significant wage increases to female-dominated jobs such as nursing, librarians, social workers, food service workers and, most importantly, clerical workers.” Professor Acker documented and analyzed this project in a popular book called Doing Comparable Worth: Gender, Class and Pay Equity, published by Temple University Press in 1989. In the academy and outside, Joan’s research broke new ground in the study of gender, class, and race. In addition to her now feminist classic Doing Comparable Worth, she has also published influential studies of wage differentials and welfare policies. Joan remains an active and engaged scholar:  her most recent book, Restructuring Welfare: Myths and Lived Realities, written with Sandra Morgen and Jill Weigt, will be published by Cornell University Press in 2009.

Like other feminist scholars and activists of her generation, Professor Acker’s research built the foundation that made possible the work of subsequent scholars, while the struggles she waged within public institutions in Oregon have directly supported the presence and work of those of us who followed. In addition to her scholarly work, Professor Acker helped to found the Center for the Study of Women in Society, which has provided funding for research on women and gender for over 30 years. To say that Professor Acker has been a role model and inspiration to feminists in Oregon and throughout the world is no exaggeration. She remains an active and vital part of local, national, and international communities of feminists today.

In addition to her work as a scholar and educator, Joan has always used her formidable intellect and energies to ensure that diverse groups are supported, valued, and accorded both respect and social justice. Dan Goldrich, a retired professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon and a colleague of Joan’s for over 45 years, said of Joan’s commitment to diversity in Eugene in the 1960s that Joan “was involved in working to create a climate supportive of full social and economic participation of community members of color (then a very small portion of the population, mostly African-Americans). “Reflecting that commitment,” Professor Goldrich adds, “a few years ago, at the 80th birthday celebration of one of the leading African-American mothers of that community, Joan was one of the honored invitees.” Joan has also been a powerful voice for efforts to hire and support diverse faculty members, as well as students, at the University of Oregon.

Joan’s career and everyday life have been committed to bettering and celebrating Oregon’s unique and diverse culture and resources. In many ways her work has paved the way for the present diversity of Oregon and the United States. With over 50 percent of college graduates being women, and given the changing demographics of Oregon (particularly a growing Latina/o community), Joan’s work continues to remind us of ways to promote the forms of inclusion and climate that are, as Professor Goldrich puts it, “supportive of full social and economic participation” for people of all classes, genders, races, ages, and abilities—a climate, in effect, that will allow Oregon’s pioneering sensibility to flourish in decades to come. Joan is, in Professor Goldrich’s words, “an invaluable lifelong educator—in the classroom, or the legislative committee hearing or in a community forum or in conversation with friends and acquaintances.”

She is an inspiration to all of us. I cannot imagine anyone whose commitment to serving the women and men of Oregon, in all their diversity, better captures the Oregon spirit. It is my distinct pleasure to be able to nominate her for this award.