May 22, 2014

Sandra Bem, feminist scholar and psychologist, dies

Sandra Bem
Bem

Sandra L. Bem, past director of Cornell’s Women’s Studies Program and professor emerita of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, died May 20 in Ithaca. She was 69.

She studied, published and lectured on the social construction of gender and sexuality, and for a time had a psychotherapy practice in Ithaca.

Born in Pittsburgh, Sandra Lipsitz was educated at Carnegie Institute of Technology (B.S., psychology, 1965) and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (Ph.D., developmental psychology, 1967). She taught psychology at the renamed Carnegie Mellon University and at Stanford University before joining Cornell as associate professor of psychology and of women’s studies in 1978.

The Women’s Studies Program Bem headed is now called the program in Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies. She remained on the faculty until her retirement in 2010.

Daryl Bem, Cornell professor emeritus of psychology, survives her, along with a son, a daughter and one grandchild. The Bem’s marriage – and attempts to raise children “to be as free from society’s gender restraints as possible” – was the subject of Sandra Bem’s 1998 memoir, “An Unconventional Family.”

James Cutting, the Susan Linn Sage Professor of Psychology and department chair, said: “Sandy was a kind and astute reader of people. Long before she became a clinician, she could often be counted on to say wise and insightful things at departmental meetings. Her early work on androgyny was important for decades, creating a theoretical system in which masculinity and femininity were not opposites on a continuum but orthogonal dimensions in a two-dimensional space where anyone might fall.”

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Cutting noted, Bem’s course Sex Roles was among the most popular at Cornell.

Bem’s received the American Psychological Association’s 1976 Distinguished Scientific Award, the Association for Women in Psychology’s 1977 Distinguished Publication Award, and the American Association of University Women’s 1980 Young Scholar Award.

Her 1993 book, “The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Equality,” was selected by the Association of American Publishers as the best book in psychology that year.