Fifty Years of Relationships with Pepper Schwartz

Submitted by Ari Asercion on

article by Ulrika O'Brien

With a career bibliography of thirty books—popular and academic—including two on the Best Seller lists, and an article-publication record stretching back over more than five decades, it seems fair to say that Pepper Schwartz has spent a lifetime turning research about human relationships into practical help for people to lead better lives. Indeed, she started on that path early. When 11-year-old Pepper began to ask about human reproduction her mother gave her a book on sex education and made a place to keep it in the household linen closet so that Pepper could go in at her leisure and read it in peace and privacy. Her reading meant Pepper was prepared to help when a friend came to her in tears. The girl’s mother had found her touching herself and had told her she was wicked and perverse for doing it. She was going to Hell. Armed with the best information available, Pepper was able to reassure her friend that she was neither abnormal nor evil for having sexual feelings. In the aftermath of this incident, there turned out to be pent up demand for better information about sex among Pepper’s other friends. With parent permission, Pepper convened a series of conversations about human sexuality with her peers, down in her parents’ knotty pine basement. She even began producing a small newsletter.

Since then, Pepper’s interest in human sexuality and intimate relationships has come out of the closet, and out of the basement. Looking back, it might seem an obvious destiny. But the path from grade school seminars to a long and distinguished research career in the academy wasn’t entirely straight. Pepper first went to graduate school with an eye to combining her interest in graduate level sociology with a law degree. She saw that women were getting a bad deal in divorce, so she took her feminist impulse to Yale with a goal of becoming an attorney, to represent women who were disadvantaged by the system and the law. 

But as fate would have it, just as Pepper was starting graduate training in sociology, Yale was admitting its first “coeducational” class. Along with one of her fellow graduate students, Pepper decided that studying the experiences of these young women pioneers would be an excellent sociological project. To better meet and interview undergraduate women, Pepper signed up as a teaching assistant to one of the few undergraduate courses on human sexuality in the country at that time, as taught by Phil and Lorna Sarell. Working on that course was an entrée into the academic lives of Yale’s first women—the research eventually became a book—Women at Yale, 1971 (co-authored with Janet Lever) as well as a dissertation—but it also made Pepper mad. The readings for the class were full of claims about the sexuality of women that struck her as wrong-headed, patronizing, and paternalistic. Worse, the books offered no data to support these claims. Finding better data became an even more compelling project than becoming a divorce attorney. Uncovering and analyzing quality data to support her hypotheses became a guiding principle and underlying driver for a lifetime of research into the mysteries of human intimacy.

But the road isn’t always smooth for pioneers. While the admission of women to Yale signaled that things were starting to change for women’s higher education, change was not immediate. Women faculty and graduate students outside the nursing school were so rare that most of them knew each other and many became friends as the isolated minorities they were—as in Pepper’s collaboration with Janet Lever. They were also united by shared adversity; still treated as second-class by their male peers. Even Elga Wasserman, the full professor in charge of the new undergraduate women, was titled “Special Assistant to the President,” rather than “Associate Dean,” because it would “demean her male colleagues if a woman held the same title.” When attending meetings of the President’s cabinet, which met at Mory's, a private men's club right in the middle of the Yale campus, she was told she must use the service entrance lest anyone see a woman entering the building. 

These fights to be treated equally and taken seriously were everywhere. When the university refused to convert even one out of four bathrooms to women’s use in a particular building, the women were forced to take one over. One otherwise sympathetic professor called Pepper in to suggest she think about giving up her full fellowship to a male graduate student who had a family to support. Another of her partisans took her to visit a colleague in charge of a nearby research institute, in hopes of broadening her collegial network. When he introduced her to the head of the institute as one of his brightest and most promising students, who had just published a book, the head leaned down from a great height and patted her on the head, saying, “Well, isn’t that nice!” Pepper’s understandably intemperate reaction shocked both men and her mentor never took her on another networking expedition. Women still had to be ladylike under all provocations. 

If Pepper stayed mad through most of her time at Yale, it didn’t hurt her productivity. By the time she finished her dissertation she had also co-authored not just one but two books—acting also as a co-editor on the latter: Sex and the Yale Student, 1971. Even at Yale, publishing two books before completing the PhD was a singular accomplishment.

Pepper was hired as an assistant professorship at the University of Washington in 1972, where she met her wonderful collaborator Philip Blumstein. Together, Pepper and Phil began an extensive research project that became their groundbreaking book on pair-bond relationships, American Couples: Money, Work, Sex. The book surveyed over 6000 couples in four categories: straight and married, straight and cohabiting, as well as gay and lesbian couples. The book also makes extensive use of interviews with six hundred anonymized couples, divided equally among each category, to explore the couple dynamics of power and communication. Perhaps most surprising in the findings was how often there were strong similarities in the trials and experiences of different kinds of couples. The study was the first to study the inner workings particularly of same-sex couples in depth, and still stands out as the foremost scholarship on the subject.

At UW, Pepper continued to walk the line between academic and “public” sociology—often bringing the insights of sociology research to a popular, lay audience. In the early days of her academic career it was generally regarded as professionally disqualifying to write for the general public. However, Pepper’s research was no less rigorous or data-driven than that of her colleagues, and she continued to believe that her work should be available to ordinary people. Her career has been devoted to the study of romantic and sexual relationships, including the romantic lives of women and LGBT couples, subjects that have always been deeply and personally important to people, but which were, for many years, dismissed and stigmatized in the academic world. Once she received tenure she felt more comfortable including her popular works in her vita—and perhaps in part thanks to her example, and her receipt of the ASA's Public Understanding of Sociology Award, the academy is now much more friendly to public sociology as a legitimate endeavor.

Now, after a fifty year career at University of Washington, Pepper is gearing up for the next phase of her life. The time of COVID finally taught her that she could be productive even without a daily commute to the university: Pepper retired from teaching at the end of this academic year. She has realized that she enjoys being able to take a gardening break in the middle of whatever current writing project she’s working on, and is looking forward to having to struggle less to maintain her shooting schedule with the television show, Married at First Sight. But she won’t be gone from public sociology or academic life, not by a long shot. She will still mentor and serve on committees for her graduate students, she will continue her media and enterprise collaborations, and she will always continue to write. She loves writing, being able to share her (data driven!) opinions in the hope that they will help people. Her latest project is a series of columns for Seattle Magazine so her fans can continue to find her there.

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