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Dorothy E. Smith, Groundbreaker in Feminist Sociology, Dies at 95


While she first applied her approach as a middle-class, educated, heterosexual mother and wrote about it in feminist terms, Dr. Smith saw it as a tool available to anyone marginalized by conventional sociology’s dominant forms of inquiry. And, indeed, subsequent scholars have used her methodology to study things as disparate as the lives of gay men and the way the police treat Black teenagers. It was, she said, “a sociology for people.”

Dorothy Edith Place was born on July 6, 1926, in Northallerton, a small town in northern England. Her father, Tom Place, was a timber merchant. Her mother, Dorothy Foster (Abraham) Place, was a university-trained chemist who as a young woman had been active in the women’s suffrage movement. She spent time in jail for breaking windows at Harrods department store in London, alongside Sylvia Pankhurst. When Ms. Place left the movement in the 1920s, her parents bought her a small farm, where she met her future husband.

Young Dorothy grew up amid a brilliant brood: Her brother Ullin became a renowned philosopher, while another brother, Milner, became a widely published poet. All three, as well as another brother, David, went to boarding school, though Dorothy’s education was primarily to prepare her for motherhood.

She resisted that path as much as she could. She took a two-year course in social work at the University of Birmingham, then moved to London, where she became active in Labour Party politics. She worked as a secretary for a publishing company. To widen her career opportunities, she applied to study at the London School of Economics. She was 25 when she was accepted.

She received a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1955. Along the way she discovered Marxism and the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, both of which would greatly affect her work; that same year she married an American, William Smith, who was studying in London on the G.I. Bill.

They both entered graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her doctorate, also in sociology, in 1963. She defended her dissertation nine months after giving birth to her second son. Around that time her husband abandoned the family.


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