We asked Professor Jennifer Utrata to tell us a little bit about what she’s been up to this summer and beyond. Here’s her update!
I realize it’s already week 4, but I persist in thinking of September as late summer. After all, savoring dwindling sunny days seems only fair given the Pacific Northwest’s notorious “June gloom.” This summer I continued working on my book manuscript titled Women Without Men: Single Mothers and Gender Crisis in the New Russia. The book centers on Russia’s “quiet revolution” in family life since the collapse of state socialism, and I analyze the fluidity of family and gender relations through examining growing single motherhood. Unlike in the West, single mothers are normalized in Russia, seen by most as a nearly inevitable by-product of two other intractable problems—a critical mass of weak men and a weak state. I plan to submit the complete manuscript for review by December.
Shortly before classes started I travelled to Denver, Colorado for the American Sociological Association’s annual conference. I enjoyed catching up with far-flung colleagues and friends, but was also honored (and genuinely surprised) to receive this year’s Distinguished Article Award from the ASA’s Sex and Gender section for a piece I published last year in Gender & Society (October 2011), titled Youth Privilege: Doing Age and Gender in Russia’s Single-Mother Families. Committee members said the article represents the best of recent gender scholarship, describing it as “sophisticated, theoretically and empirically rich, and an excellent example of intersectional analysis.” Sociologists tend to emphasize gender, race, class, and sexuality as major axes of inequality, but in the article I demonstrate that age, too, is an important power relation, wielded in tandem with gender. In Russia, labor and marriage markets put a higher premium on the relative youth of single mothers, and this “youth privilege” shapes negotiations for mutual support between single mothers and grandmothers as they “do gendered age.” Given state cutbacks and the new demands of a nascent market economy, many grandmothers are expected to serve as a “reserve army” of feminine self-sacrifice. It is the unpaid labor of grandmothers (incidentally, women often in their 40s and 50s) which enables adult daughters to try their chances at “making it” in neoliberal market capitalism.
I’m hoping the award will help to bring postsocialist Russia as a comparative case more fully in to broader theories of family and gender change. (To hear a podcast about the article, check out Gender & Society’s website). While at the conference, I also presented a paper on Russia’s normalized gender crisis at a panel on Constructions of Family and Kinship.
I also have a publication to announce. I’m the lead author on a chapter (with Jean M. Ispa and Simone Ispa-Landa) in a new book out this month called Fathers in Cultural Context(Routledge). The book puts research on fathering in a global and comparative perspective, with case stories and analyses of fathers from 14 different societies. My chapter, “Men on the Margins of Family Life: Fathers in Russia,” provides a comprehensive review of what we know about fathers in Russia. It argues that with so many men in crisis in Russia (e.g., men are drinking more than ever and dying much earlier than women), fatherhood, while in transition, remains on rather shaky ground. Since my overall focus in Russia has centered on women, while in the field I had some initial hesitation about broadening the scope to include fathers’ perspectives on family life, especially given issues of access and Russia’s history of prioritizing and politicizing motherhood.
Many fathers themselves (tellingly) asked me: “Why are you bothering to interview men? In Russia, mothers are everything.” Yet the perspectives of Russian fathers have been eye-opening, and I’m pleased to have my work included in this volume full of original research on fatherhood around the world.
Besides work, this summer I enjoyed spending some time near Lake Quinault in Olympic National Park. There my sons introduced me to the joys of hiking while slug and spit bug spotting (and counting!). I also overcame my fear of dirt and now really enjoy gardening. Besides several kinds of dahlias and zinnias, we started growing Swiss chard, carrots, beets, radishes, lettuces, and herbs of all kinds. I’m patiently waiting for four kinds of tomatoes to fully ripen before the first frost. In the meantime, I’m excited to be back in the full swing of the semester, where we’re having some super discussions so far in both social theory (CSOC 295) and family change (CSOC 202AB).