Diversity Spotlight: Dr. Theda Skocpol

March 23, 2022 - Becky Jensen

When asked what is one of the biggest challenges facing women today, MSU alumna and Harvard professor Theda Skocpol asserts it is still an ongoing issue of balance.

Theda Skocpol“I think the changes in women's lives have been enriching for the most part, but still challenging. We still have to think about how parents - men and women alike - balance their family responsibilities and their paid work responsibilities. And that has become a tougher thing to do in a period when women are also in the paid labor force. They always work, but their work will involve volunteering and family work, which still needs to be done. American women were and still are building community based organizations and voluntary associations that I've studied in my work…when you get right down to it… who holds meetings and who makes things happen? It's always women, even in groups that are dominated by men,” said Skocpol.

Skocpol, a Wyandotte, Michigan native, is an internationally known political scientist and sociologist who has authored dozens of award-winning books that have helped shape understanding of social policy and civic engagement. Throughout her rich and well rounded career so far, Skocpol has brought innovative thinking and influence to a variety of topics, including the role of women in social movements.

“I follow a philosophy of asking questions about real world political phenomena, political change, public policymaking reforms. I don't always study the same thing. I started out working on comparative economic development and the revolutions that I wrote my first book about in France, Russia and China. And then I moved to American history, and wrote a book that probably is the one that I'm proudest of in a way, called Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, which was about the development of civil war pensions and policies for mothers and children in the United States in the 19th and early 20th century. It changed my whole way of thinking about public policy and social movements, and ultimately, civic organizations, voluntary groups in the United States. And I've moved on to other things. And now, I study things in the current period but with a historical perspective.”

Skocpol majored in Sociology at MSU, then earned her PhD from Harvard. 

“I was delighted when I was admitted to Michigan State University in the Honors Program. I came for four years. I majored in Sociology, partly because I thought it was kind of open-ended. I found the professors very exciting. But I also took a lot of other things, French Literature, History, Political Science,” said Skocpol.

Skocpol met her husband Bill Skocpol, a retired Boston University physics professor, at MSU during her time on campus in the late 1960s.

“It was the beginning of the women's rights movement. I was pretty determined that I was going to go to graduate school and my husband wanted to go to graduate school too. That was not the normal pattern back then. The normal pattern was that if you were married, that the husband would go on and you would support him, but we did both.”

The couple has given back to MSU in many ways, including support of the Social Science Scholars program.

Skocpol has some solid advice for students. “Listen. Even to people who think differently from you. You don’t have to agree, but listen. You will learn a lot.”

Skocpol was recently named as a MSU Distinguished Alumni for 2022 and will be officially honored on campus in the fall.