This year, the University of Maryland sociology community lost a valued colleague, a formative influence, and a beloved friend. Suzanne Bianchi changed our ideas of how American families function with her contributions to demography, feminist theory, and time use studies. Her most notable work debunked the long-held notion that mothers’ labor force participation had an adverse effect on children by demonstrating that working mothers make concessions in their leisure time and their work expectations to be able to spend more time with their children.
Suzanne lived her work. Before she was the Dorothy Meier Chair in Social Equities at the University of California at Los Angeles, she was a professor of sociology and a population scholar here at the University of Maryland. The department recruited her directly from the United States Census Bureau, where she was Assistant Division Chief for Social and Demographic Statistics in the Population Division. When she transitioned to UMd, she juggled her duties as a professor of sociology with her position as Founding Director of the Maryland Population Research Center, as well as President of the Population Association of America and Editor of Demography. Coupled with a prolific and highly regarded publishing history, Suzanne kept busy, but was never too busy to raise her three children with husband Mark Browning.
Suzanne passed in early November shortly after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was 61 years old. She will be dearly missed by her family, and her absence will be keenly felt by the men and women who have called her a colleague, a mentor, and a friend. We asked a few of her former collaborators and students to reflect on Suzanne’s life, her influence on their lives, and her lasting impact on the field.
“I think my favorite story about Suzanne is the time Al Gore (yep, the vice president) called her because he was working on a book about the American Family and of course she was one of the nation’s leading experts on family demography.
“She was in her office at the time and when he told her who he was, she said, ‘Yeah, right!’ She suspected it was one of her male colleagues in the economics department playing a trick on her. Then he said, ‘No really. I get that a lot. I’m working on a book about the American family,’ and proceeded to ask her several questions. I think she was on the phone with him for about a half hour or so, but I think it reflects her Midwestern humility that she didn’t believe Al Gore would be calling on her expertise.”
-Sara Raley. Sara also shared a photobook that she and some of Suzanne’s former students put together. Click here to share in their memories and reflections.
“Suzanne was more than a mentor and advisor: she was an academic mother, who knew how to be both understanding and demanding, depending on whether her students needed encouragement or correction. There are three aspects of her work and her character in which she will always be a role model for me:
“Not making herself indispensable: she knew she didn’t ‘own’ the students whom she was supervising, and was very keen in getting them connected with other people. Two examples, among many, exemplify this aspect of her character. The first example takes us back to January of my first year at Maryland, when she told me that she would be leaving us to take a position at UCLA. It was bad news for me, since she was key to my research plans at UMd. Moreover, the other professor with whom I had worked during my first months at Maryland also left the department about the same time. Suzanne took it upon herself to make the transition easy for me, and helped me connect with Joan Kahn, with whom I had had little contact during the first semester of my PhD studies. Even better, she volunteered to stay in my Dissertation Committee, and later on suggested that I spend time with her at UCLA after my dissertation proposal was approved. In Los Angeles, she helped me connect with a number of scholars. The second example takes us to the end of my degree, when I was looking for postdocs: she fully accepted my decision to return to Europe, and helped me make the necessary connections that would land me in Oxford.
“Giving thorough feedback and not dodging the difficult piece of advice: if you gave her something to read, you knew what to expect: a printout of your work, full of comments at the margins about all sorts of things, from grammatical errors (very much appreciated by foreign students) to substantial challenges to your arguments and methods. Some people found this daunting and a bit scary (I know this well, from conversations with fellow students), since Suzanne would not leave anything unsaid, if she believed there was something you could do to improve your work. I always appreciated her straightforward advice.
“Being always there: she responded promptly to messages and emails, and made a real effort to be available to talk on the phone or in person whenever possible. This applies equally to the past few months, after she was diagnosed with her illness. At the time, I was making my transition to my new position in Europe, and knew that she enjoyed (with a good amount of healthy pride) to read about my whereabouts in Oxford. So I kept her posted periodically about life on the other side of the Atlantic. She send me a total of six emails between July and October, the last one less than a month before she passed away. Up to this last email, she encouraged me to make good connections in my new department and College, suggesting over the last few months a total of 5 people with whom I could collaborate.”
“Suzanne was a phenomenal mentor. She understood the challenges faced balancing work and family having studied them, but also lived them. I remember how frightened I was as a graduate student to tell her I was expecting my first child…worried I would be seen as less serious. Such worry was wholly unnecessary as Suzanne’s reaction was pure joy. Over the years she grew into a colleague and cherished friend. Suzanne was intense, but had such keen interest in the world around her and brought others into her investigations, be they academic, travel, foodie or otherwise. Though she was a passionate scholar, determined and unwavering in her standards, she was also kind, thoughtful and looked out to bring others, especially junior colleagues and graduate students, opportunities for advancement. Her untimely death is a loss to her students, friends, family and to our field. She is sorely missed.”
“I was fortunate to become one of Suzanne’s earliest students in UMD 20 years ago, and am honored to be one of her earliest pupils to graduate and proud winner of the ASA Best Dissertation Award under her guidance and tutelage. But Suzanne was not only my academic advisor and mentor. She was also my friend.
“I still remember the many meetings we had in her office on the third floor of Art-Socy Building. Our conversations went beyond my research and dissertation; we also talked about our lives and our kids. I had always marveled how she managed to do it all – besides publishing in the Census Bureau, she had written books in her ‘spare’ time, did running, swimming, skiing, piano… and above all, raised three wonderful kids. Whenever I asked her how she did it, she would just smile.
“Fittingly, her research on time diaries solved the puzzle. She just slept less and had less leisure time for her own. Her drive and selfless devotion to work, family, students, and friends were a perfect case exemplifying the modern day mothers. If they are not ‘superwomen,’ then who are?
“I will miss you, Suzanne. Rest in peace. You had walked miles and earned your sleep.”
“Suzanne and I collaborated on many projects…I think we co-authored 7 articles together, plus the book, over the years. Our last published piece together was 2012.
“A very memorable period with Suzanne was when we were working on Changing Rhythms of American Family Life (2006) together, with John Robinson and with many graduate student researchers. It was a great team—a demographer, a time use scholar, a social psychologist, and these very bright students—all of us looking at the data, brainstorming about the layout of the book, and how it would all be argued. Suzanne was brilliant in figuring out great angles, as well as the best tables to present. I admired that and learned from it.
“It was an exhilarating time, because we knew the book would be excellent—we already had a lot of outside interest in the ideas, we had already published together on some of the topics, and we had great new data to analyze (not to mention a book contract). Our meetings were long, but it was a real high to discuss and debate our ideas within the team. There was time for stories to share and tangents happened. No doubt we got a little slap happy after really long meetings.
“Over the main years of the book project (2002 to 2005 was when we actively generated the data and wrote/edited), I added two new babies to our family (and we already had one). Suzanne, on the other hand, launched two of her older kids off to college, leaving her youngest, who was in high school, as the only one home. So while we were writing, she started with a lot of kids in her household, but somehow I ended up with a lot of kids. I learned three was ‘a lot’ because she often looked at me with a knowing smile and said, ‘three kids is a LOT of kids!’ At that time (and still today), there were very few academic women with three.
“Suzanne would do these lovely things. She gave me gifts of children’s books with little yellow post-it notes inside them explaining why her children had loved them. Favorites included ‘Five Minutes of Peace’ (probably minutes that never get measured in a time diary….) and ‘A Quiet Night In’ by Jill Murphy, about the ‘Large Family,’ three kid elephants and their exhausted elephant parents. We still have these books on our shelf, with the Post-Its. I realize that the fact that Suzanne helped make me who I am professionally actually pales in comparison to the small acts like these that showed me that she saw the whole picture of who I was—not just the scholar—and her grace about and respect for life outside Art-Socy showed me it was OK to fit my professor role in around my life. And except for the exhausted part, it would all work out fine.
“Because Suzanne was such an important mentor and part of my work life for so long, and because I guess I assumed she would be around forever, it has been very hard to lose her. She was a joyful presence in my life, and I am extremely lucky to have shared such a long time at Maryland (and beyond) with her. We are planning an ASA session in Suzanne’s honor in San Francisco next August. Anyone wishing to talk with me about this or to help out should please contact me.”
“I will, of course, be always grateful for Suzanne stepping up to initiate the rotating chair ‘tradition’ when the department all agreed that rotation should be the norm but no one volunteered. For my term, she left me a specific, prioritized list of objectives the department should pursue. Eighty percent of what we were able to achieve during my three years (and probably much of what we didn’t!) was on that list.
“Perhaps less well recognized is my intellectual debt to Suzanne. I have a strong memory of a presentation Suzanne gave at the Population Reference Bureau years ago. This was pre-intergenerational transfers, pre-time use, maybe even pre-Maryland Suzanne Bianchi. She was talking about time trends in US gender inequality, perhaps as preparation for her book with Daphne Spain, Balancing Act. I remember thinking that this is exactly the kind of work I should be doing because of its mix of micro- and macro-processes and its obvious importance for understanding changes in inequality. The result was a string of papers with Maryland alums David Cotter and Joan Hermsen and our web page of gender inequality trends: http://www.vanneman.umd.edu/endofgr/matrix.html. I am still trying to understand those trends and thank Suzanne for providing years of interesting questions.”
“I was the Chair when Suzanne was recruited from Census to join our faculty. I remember, still, discussing with her the freedom and autonomy she would have as a professor versus being a Census employee. It would be fair to say that at Maryland, Suzanne’s sociological imagination flourished. She was already a well-known demographer and in a short time, her reputation as both demographer and more general sociologist increased dramatically. She was elected President of the Population Association of America, served as Editor of Demography, published prolifically, but as much as anything, when I think of her time at Maryland, her most important role and contribution may have been the era during which she led the demography program from being departmental to becoming a university-wide activity. She helped craft a proposal for University funding to enlarge and establish the Maryland Population Research Center.
“It’s worth noting and reminding people (or perhaps, they will learn this for the first time) that our proposal was ranked first among all UMd proposals in a competition for ‘enhancement’ funds. This led to us getting two new faculty lines and the money to fund them; it provided support for MPRC staff, renovated space, and graduate students; it also led to our initial proposal to the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development for a ‘Center’ grant. It was truly a joyful occasion when we were informed that the proposal would be funded, something which happened a second time under Suzanne’s leadership. When it was initially funded, the Dean told me that the Provost and President had stated that ours was the most successful proposal they had funded. It gave us considerable credence when we subsequently made other requests for University funding.
“In my nearly 40 years of being a professor, I can honestly say that Suzanne Bianchi is one of the two most selfless, prominent colleagues I have ever had the good fortune to know. She gave more and asked less than she needed to or, perhaps, should have. She was always willing to take on thankless tasks that others might have avoided. This led to chairing search committees, chairing promotion committees and, in time, chairing the department. It was a huge loss for us when she left for UCLA. But my sense of her is and will, I suspect, always be that in her heart, Suzanne was a Terp. Further support for my saying this is a brief personal anecdote.
“When she had only been in L.A. for a short time, I met her for coffee while visiting my oldest son who lives in Redondo Beach. She had told me on the phone that I might not recognize her. Why? ‘I’m a California girl now – blond hair, lots of make-up!’ She wasn’t of course but we had a good laugh over the idea of this. When I met with her again in L.A., shortly before she died, she said as I left, ‘Still not a California girl, Bill.’ Whether Californian or Washingtonian or Terp or Iowan, Suzanne Bianchi was a treasure. It was truly a privilege to know and work closely with her.”