Donovan, Frances R.

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DONOVAN, Frances R.

Born 1880; died 1965

For years, the places and dates of birth and death of this American sociologist were a mystery, though a birthdate of 1880 and death in 1965 are now accepted as fact. Until recently, she was not listed in the usual or even the more obscure sources; biographical information was often obtained from personal correspondence or from the Special Collections of the University of Chicago library.

From 1923 to 1927, Frances R. Donovan attended some classes at the University of Chicago as well as evening meetings of the Society for Social Research. At these meetings, which were open to students, faculty, and those outside the formal university network, some kind of presentation of research was given with informal discussion following. The distinguished sociologist Robert Park was nearly always present at these gatherings and talked with Donovan then as well as later discussing her books in his classes. During this period the urban behavior research emphasis was particularly strong in Chicago, culminating in almost two dozen books in less than two decades. Many of these were published as part of the University of Chicago Sociological Series. Donovan's second book, The Saleslady (1929), became part of this series. She also wrote The Woman Who Waits (1920) and The Schoolma'am (1938), but except for these three books (all of which were reprinted in the 1980s), Donovan's work has disappeared. Ryan's Womanhood in America (1975) makes scattered references to her books, although there are minor inaccuracies regarding dates and places of her research.

Donovan was a qualitative sociologist who focused on three social worlds in her writings: that of the waitress, salesperson, and teacher. Her major contribution is in the area of the sociology of work occupations, particularly those held traditionally by women. She moves from the largely descriptive The Woman Who Waits and The Saleslady to a greater analytical emphasis in The Schoolma'am. She was a keen observer, with a sense of humor, and her perceptions of women as a devalued group are particularly incisive.

The Woman Who Waits is based on Donovan's experiences as a waitress from the "hash houses" in the Loop to tea rooms and department store lunchrooms, to some of the more fashionable places in other parts of the city. Throughout this work the following threads prevail: (1) a perceptive analysis and recognition of the lowly, nonprestigious occupation of waitress; (2) a recognition that the problems of waitresses must be solved from within by organizing, and, when necessary, from the outside by legislation. Within this context, Donovan discusses the Waitresses Alliance, formed in 1915, whose objectives included trying to obtain proper working conditions for members as well as protecting them from unjust treatment; (3) general observations on the status of women in this occupation (many are equally germane today): the lack of security, "the sex game," the "costs" of emancipation.

The Saleslady is based on two summers Donovan spent in New York playing the role of "saleslady" or "salesgirl." Although pseudonyms are used, evidence points to prominent New York department stores as places of employment. While this role is somewhat more prestigious than that of waitress, the salesperson has, nonetheless, little bargaining power in her interactions with employees and customers. Donovan's conceptualization of the store as theater is an insightful one; subtle distinctions and hierarchies both within the role of "saleslady" as well as in her interaction with others in her world are noted.

The Schoolma'am, Donovan tells the reader, is largely "personal testimony" from one "who has spent 19 years as a teacher" and "three years as a department manager of a large teachers' agency." Her trenchant observations on women in the teaching occupation include the following: the preponderance of male administrators; the discriminatory practices against hiring or retaining married women (they neglect home and children, and are not as prompt or regular in school attendance); the view of women as poor marriage risks by some men "who insist upon gentle, appealing, little girls like Copperfield's Dora who can't add up the grocery bills." With the reappearance of Donovan's books it is to be hoped that her circle of readers will be considerably enlarged.


Kurent, H. P., "Frances R. Donovan and the Chicago School of Sociology: A Case Study in Marginality" (dissertation, 1982). Ryan, M., Womanhood in America (1975).

Other reference:

Nation (23 Oct. 1929). NR (21 Sept. 1938). Survey (5 Feb. 1921).