Mary Romero's Presidential Address

Mary Romero’s Presidential Address August 2019 in NYC

In this paper, she dismantled the false history of sociology that ignored African Americans, persons of color, women, and social activists. At the same time, it is a cry from the heart for sociology to use the data we have collected to shed light on the world’s current disasters.

Mary Romero
Mary Romero

Imagine writing a dissertation on cultural appropriation 40 years before it became a widespread topic of conversation in the discipline. Mary Romero, Professor of Justice Studies and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University, was an innovative social thinker even as a graduate student at the University of Colorado in the 1970s. A standout in her rather large cohort of approximately 30 students, her keen insight into the dynamics of social inequality led her to investigate how U.S. government programs appropriated Mexican culture in the service of white diversity narratives, ultimately leading to the subordination of Mexican culture and people. This work, like much of her work since then, was groundbreaking. 

Like many women of color in the discipline of sociology, Mary watched her work go underrated or uncited when topics she already published came into vogue in mainstream sociology. Yet Mary has been unflinchingly committed to exposing the mechanisms of social inequality and shining a light on the experiences of those who have been marginalized in society as well as in our discipline. Her scholarship, mentorship, and service have all developed from her fundamental commitment to social justice. As Marlese Durr (Wright State University) wrote: “Mary is a wonderful scholar-mentor, which she will bring with her as our newest President of the American Sociological Association.”

Smart, Savvy, and Fierce 

As a pioneering woman of color in the early 1980s, Mary conducted foundational research on women of color—whose experiences had been marginalized or excluded in the historical production of sociological knowledge. Like many women, she found academia to be less than welcoming. Her savvy as a researcher was disregarded by a largely white, male, and elite academic landscape and her first jobs out of graduate school were predominantly in teaching institutions. Mary taught at the University of Texas-El Paso, and the University of Wisconsin-Parkside before she secured a position as an Assistant Dean at Yale University. The job at Yale was prestigious, but she experienced what many scholars of color still experience, the institutionalized expectation that she would serve as tireless mentor and service provider for the university’s diversity needs. While in this administrative position, Mary maintained her active research agenda. When she was selected for the competitive two-year Presidential Fellowship at the University of California she finally could write full-time. As a result, she was able to complete her trailblazing and award-winning book Maid in the U.S.A., a study of Chicana private household workers. The study highlighted struggles over the work process and fights for dignity—challenging universal notions that domestic labor and care work “united all women”. 

Mary’s fierce commitment to social justice enabled her to push the boundaries of sociological knowledge production, as well as to the dynamics and demographics of our profession. A winner of the Founder’s Awards for both the ASA’s Section on Latino Sociology and the Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities, Mary integrated her keen insights on social justice into the very fabric of our discipline. Selected as a Carnegie Scholar in 1999 and recipient of a Pew National Fellowship for Carnegie Scholars, Mary engaged in a “sociology of sociology” interrogating barriers for teaching about race and inequality and developing strategies for teaching methods that develop deep understandings of justice. 

“It is important to highlight that Mary has made the choice to engage, rather than to critique from the sidelines.”

— Judith Howard

Judith A. Howard (University of Washington) wrote that, “it is important to highlight that Mary has made the choice to engage, rather than to critique from the sidelines.”Throughout her career, Mary has never yielded in her commitment to making sociology more inclusive and social-justice oriented. In addition to her professional service, she has tirelessly mentored young scholars. 

As Abby Ferber (University of Colorado— Colorado Springs) said, “Mary is a constant role model for me and so many of her former and current students because she always acts in concert with her high moral ethics, commitment to social justice and social change, and dedication to improving the lives of women of color within the academy and beyond…Her presidency is a positive step forward in advancing ASA’s goal of becoming a more inclusive organization that truly represents and serves all sociologists.”

Similarly, as former student Sheruni D. Ratnabalasuriar (Saginaw Valley State University) notes ”…as a mentor, Dr. Romero pushed the boundaries of what I thought was possible in social science research. Guiding me through the often messy, chaotic, yet exciting process of research, she insisted on integrating a reflective practice connected directly to the communities we work with.

Expanding the Canon: Advancing a Critical Race, Class, Gender Scholarship

Mary Romero’s scholarship speaks powerfully to sociologists who seek to develop nuanced understandings of the connections between individual and group identities and social structure. Her work on Chicana domestics and reproductive labor exposes the ways that race, class, and gender intersect under a system of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy. Mary reminds us that sociological research examining such power structures may be devalued or dismissed by mainstream sociology as #mesearch; but her work has provided the analytical tools for many to push back against and transcend the traditional cannon. 

Victor Rios (University of California, Santa Barbara) explained: Professor Romero’s scholarship has been an inspiration for my own work ever since I was a graduate student… Her work has contributed to the discipline of sociology and beyond by producing new methodological and theoretical insight about the lives of marginalized populations. 

Echoing these sentiments, Tiffany Davis (Chicago State University) notes: Professor Romero’s groundbreaking text, Maid in the U.S.A, helped guide my own research on Mexican migrants and their experiences with discrimination in the Midwest. The way Professor Romero was able to give a voice to migrant women domestics in such a critical and nuanced manner set the standard for all researchers… Made in the U.S.A, definitely shaped the field of race and migration studies as well as qualitative research. 

Mary’s contributions to the sociological canon began with Maid in the U.S.A., but since the publication of that work she has continued a prolific scholarly career, incorporating previously excluded voices and experiences of women and men of color and contributing cutting-edge theoretical interventions. Mary was among the first to utilize the theoretical tools of critical race theory and LatCrit in sociology (also publishing in Law Reviews). These theoretical frames developed by scholars of color in the legal academy, were similarly met with opposition by a normatively white corpus of scholarship. 

“Mary’s work is foundational across fields and has raised sociology’s profile nationally and internationally as a result,” said Joyce Bell, University of Minnesota. “Maid in the USA and The Maid’s Daughter are truly required reading for people studying domestic labor, immigration, gender and families across fields.” 

Mary’s empirical and theoretical contributions have been trailblazing for scholars interrogating intersectionality. Manuel Barajas (California State University Sacramento) wrote: Mary Romero powerfully illuminates and challenges the savagery of intersectional oppressions in the lives of lxs de abajo (those at the bottom)—who suffer historical and systemic abuses making them manageable, exploitable and disposable. For example, her book The Maid’s Daughter achieves what no other intersectionality book has done as effectively. It illuminates a life story at the intersections of marginalization and inspires by showing the spirit of survival, resistance, and transformation not in the direction of the hegemonic order but to an alternative one where crossing borders and weaving worlds offers hope for a better future.” 

“Mary’s pioneer intersectional scholarship on domestic labor and immigration anchors an exemplar public sociology movement that reaches beyond social theory to our most critical applications in policy and activism,” said Jennifer Fish, Old Dominion University.  With this professional trajectory, it is clear why Mary received ASA’s Cox-Johnson-Frazier Award, awarded for a lifetime of research, teaching, and service to the community or to an academic institution for its work in assisting the development of scholarly efforts in this tradition in 2017.

Creating Change from the Inside Up 

In 1998 Mary, with coauthor Eric Margolis, published the manuscript “The Department is Very Old, Very White and Very Conservative” in the Harvard Educational Review. The piece examined racism, classism, ageism, and conservative political dominance in sociology departments. The piece received wide-spread attention and has since been reprinted in two edited volumes. This piece, as well as her other outspoken critical assessments of academic inequality have often earned her institutional and professional hostility. Yet these hostilities have been matched by a groundswell of hopeful critical race, class, gender scholars who view Mary as a pioneer in the field making the negotiation of academia easier for those of us who follow in her footsteps. 

Zulema Valdez (University of California, Merced): As a naïve assistant professor, I reached out to Mary for advice on publishing to secure tenure. Little did I know that—in addition to some sage wisdom and advice on that front—I was about to be schooled in how the sociology-in-the-academy-sausage was made. And it wasn’t pretty. It was, however, critically important information that I, as a working-class Latina and first-generation college student, in my second year of a tenure-track job, desperately needed to hear. If only to recognize that “imposter syndrome” was not a psychological weakness I needed to overcome, but rather, was a manifestation of structural oppression in the academy.” 

A Social Justice President

Mary’s lifetime of scholarship, teaching, mentorship, and service has focused on inclusivity, equity, and social justice; it is no wonder that her selection of theme for the 2019 ASA annual meeting is “Engaging Social Justice for a Better World.” 

Judith A. Howard (University of Washington) said of Mary: Mary is in every ounce of her soul committed to what now has become almost a buzzword, social justice. Her theme for the 2019 Annual Meeting is now widely shared. But it is a theme she has been committed to all of her life; she has championed this purpose of sociology long before it became fashionable. That she is ASA President at a time when the need for social justice could not be more acute, is a godsend to the discipline, to the country, and to the globe. Let us all try to live up to the mission she has set for us.  

By Wendy Leo Moore, Texas A&M University and originally published in Footnotes, Volume 46, Number 4.

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