Distinguished University Professor
Department of Sociology
University of Maryland College Park
Professor Presser’s significant impact on the field of sociology and the subfield of social demography is reflected in her efforts throughout her career to mainstream a feminist perspective—that is, being sure that gender issues are included in research on social inequality. She founded the first population center in the world dedicated to such concerns, naming it the “University of Maryland Center on Population, Gender and Social Inequality,” and directing it from 1987 to 2002. Throughout this period, she generated external funding that sustained a program of graduate training focused on gender and population in developing countries. In the Department of Sociology, she also developed a novel curriculum on gender, work and family back in the late 1970s that was then unique among sociology programs in the country. As President of the Population Association of America, and through her involvement in the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP), Harriet Presser consistently encouraged the demographic community to become more inclusive, not only of women as individuals, but also of issues important to women.
Harriet Presser spent most of her career working on gender issues, in particular the intersection of gender, work, and family, both nationally and internationally. Her early work on female sterilization in Puerto Rico, which uncovered its widespread practice, was followed by novel and path breaking research on teenage childbearing, parental work schedules and child care. Later, she focused on the worldwide trend toward work at nonstandard hours (with the emergence of 24/7 economies) and its consequences for families in the U.S. and other countries.
Her early work in Puerto Rico and subsequent research in the United States alerted the demographic research and policy community to the pervasive use of sterilization among mainland U.S. couples with emphasis on the social and demographic implications. While at Columbia in the early 1970s, her NIH-funded project on the significance of first birth timing on the well-being of American mothers, with a focus on teenage childbearing, again generated findings of great interest to policy makers and was a forerunner of research on this topic over the subsequent decade. After moving to Maryland in 1976, she began to focus on the then understudied areas of child care and parental work schedules and included successful advocacy for including data on this topic by the Census Bureau and other national surveys in the U.S. and elsewhere. This work culminated in her book, published in 2003, entitled Working in a 24/7 Economy. Virtually every article written on work-life balance cites her work and this book in particular.
Harriet Presser received training in Sociology and Demography from University of North Carolina and University of California, Berkeley and worked at The Population Council and Columbia University before coming to Maryland in 1976. Professor Presser served as the President of The Population Association of America in 1989 and has received numerous awards including Founders Distinguished Senior Scholar Award, American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation and was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
Nowhere is her impact on the field more lasting than on the students and colleagues she mentored, many of whom have become not only scholars but institution builders in their own right. Her students and colleagues knew her as a tough critic whose approval was a seal of quality they continually sought, a cheerleader who was always there to support them through critical hurdles and a role model with rare ability to combine work with family and devotion to high quality research with feminist activism.
Harriet’s students and colleagues feel proud to be a part of her family that includes her daughter Sheryl Presser and partner Phillip Corfman, the first director of NICHD’s Center for Population Research and a long-time women’s health activist.