Komarovsky, Mirra (1906–1999)

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Komarovsky, Mirra (1906–1999)

Russian-born educator in America who produced significant sociological studies in the 1930 and 1940s. Born Mirra Komarovsky in Baku, on the Caspian Sea, in Russia, on February 4, 1906; died at her home in New York City in January 1999; daughter of Mendel Komarovsky (a Jewish banker and writer) and Anna (Steinberg) Komarovsky; attended high school for a year in Wichita, Kansas; graduated from Barnard College, A.B., 1926; Columbia University, M.A., 1927, Ph.D., 1940; married in 1926 (divorced 1928); married Marcus A. Heyman, in 1940 (died 1970).

Selected writings:

(with George A. Lundberg andAlice McInerny ) Leisure: A Suburban Study (Columbia University Press, 1934); The Unemployed Man and His Family (1940); Women in the Modern World: Their Education and Their Dilemmas (Little, Brown, 1953); Women in College: Shaping New Feminine Identities (1985).

Mirra Komarovsky was born in Baku, on the Caspian Sea, in Russia, in 1906, the daughter of Mendel Komarovsky, a Jewish banker and writer, and Anna Steinberg Komarovsky . In 1921, Mirra immigrated with her parents and younger sister to the United States. Five years later, she graduated from Barnard College in New York City, having studied under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict , and soon received her M.A. before being appointed an assistant professor at Skidmore College. She was later a research assistant at the Institute of Human Relations, Yale University (1930–31), and research associate at Columbia University's Council for Research in the Social Sciences (1931–35).

In 1938, Komarovsky was hired as an instructor in sociology at Barnard, where she rose rapidly to assistant professor, associate, and then chair of the department in 1947. Her contributions were in the study of leisure time, suburban life, the effect of unemployment on the status of the man within the family, and changing attitudes of women. Writing of the standards applied to women in 1944, Komarovsky called them a "veritable crazy quilt of contradiction" and asserted that "it is the girl with a 'middle of the road personality' who is most happily adjusted to the present historical moment. She is a perfect incarnation of either role (e.g. homemaker or career woman) but is flexible enough to play both." As a sociologist, she tried to remain impartial in the gender debate then underway: "Social changes have disturbed one type of equilibrium without as yet replacing it with another. Men as well as women are victims of the confusion." But Komarovsky was puzzled by Barnard's predilection for "extolling intellectual excellence while discouraging women from pursuing careers."

After 32 years on the Barnard faculty, Komarovsky retired in 1970, then returned to Barnard to chair its women's studies program. In 1985, using interviews with over 200 students from the Barnard class of 1983, she wrote Women in College: Shaping New Feminine Identities. Some of her conclusions echoed her 1981 New York Times editorial:

Young women are becoming aware that the call to equal opportunities for women outside the home is an empty slogan as long as the society insists on traditional role segregation within the family. Some women react to this discovery with equanimity, others with frustration, resignation or indignation. But the real touchstone of their aspirations is the longing for a society in which the rhetoric of equality will be realized as fact. There is no denying that this would require major institutional changes.

In 1991, Mirra Komarovsky was given the Distinguished Career Award of the American Sociological Association.


Candee, Marjorie Dent. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1953.

"Mirra Komarovsky, Authority on Women's Studies, Dies at 93," in The New York Times. February 1, 1999.

suggested reading:

Deegan, Mary Jo, ed. Women in Sociology. CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.