Valerie Oppenheimer, a UCLA sociologist known for pioneering research on the effects of employment trends on marriage and the American family, died Nov. 2, 2009 of a stroke and heart attack at her home in the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles, said her son Chris Oppenheimer. She was 77.
The author of more than 25 studies on gender, employment, marriage and the family, Oppenheimer taught for 25 years at UCLA, rising from a lecturer to a full professor. But even after retiring in 1994, she remained active in her field, publishing an influential study in 2003 about the role economic instability plays in men's tendency to delay marriage to increasingly older ages.
Oppenheimer was the recipient of two of her field's most prominent prizes. In 1979, the American Sociological Association honored her with the Jessie Bernard Award, which recognizes achievement in "scholarly work that has enlarged the horizons of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society."
This year, she became the inaugural recipient of the Harriet B. Presser Award from the Population Association of America, a biennial award honoring a record of sustained contribution in gender and demography.
"Valerie was the first demographer to document and explain the great increase in married women working outside the home, which has been one of the most important demographic trends of the last half-century," said Andrew Cherlin, a former student and the Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University.
Having conducted postdoctoral research at the London School of Economics after earning a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, Oppenheimer first nabbed attention for her research on women surging into the workplace in the 1960s.
In a pathbreaking article published in 1967, Oppenheimer analyzed the interaction of labor supply and demand to explain the rapidly increasing employment rates of women in the post-World War II years, wrote University of North Carolina sociologist Philip Cohen in the blog "Family Inequality."
In a 1968 article, Oppenheimer provided documentation for high levels of gender segregation in the workplace at the time, finding that 67 percent of clerical workers were women and that women made up 88 percent of the workforce in the communications industry.
"Her dispassionate and methodical, scientific tone in these articles masks the cutting-edgeness of a woman independently doing theoretically ambitious, quantitative, demographic work in the U.S. at that time," wrote Cohen, an associate professor and director of graduate studies at UNC–Chapel Hill.
Oppenheimer's 1970 book "The Female Labor Force in the United States" was the first extended treatment of the rise of married women in the U.S. workforce, said Cherlin, the author of the new book "The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today" (Random House).
Oppenheimer also is credited with debunking the "specialization and trading model," a theory that held that marriages are most stable and that couples best maximize their fortunes when they combine wives' unpaid work with husbands' paid employment.
"She did not predict or advocate for the end of marriage, but rather for its reconfiguration as a two-earner partnership, albeit one that would probably be less common and less stable than the trading-based marriages were before," Cohen wrote.
Oppenheimer's most famous piece was published in 1988 and dealt with an emerging demographic trend: couples who postponed marriage, said Megan Sweeney, a UCLA associate professor of sociology who specializes in family research. At a time when prevailing wisdom held that women were putting off marriage because new opportunities in the workplace made the institution less attractive to them, Oppenheimer argued that the situation was more complex. By applying job-search theory from economics to the process of looking for a spouse, she introduced important new ideas about marriage timing.
"Part of the process of evaluating potential mates is figuring out how compatible partners will be in the future, which Oppenheimer argued was at least in part related to the kind of work people do," Sweeney said. "If a woman anticipates staying at home throughout much of her marriage, the nature of her future work is fairly straightforward to anticipate, although the nature of men's future work in the labor market may be less certain.
"Oppenheimer was interested in how this process of finding a spouse changed as women increasingly expected to remain employed throughout their adult lives and as young men's future position in the labor force became less predictable," she said. "She argued that uncertainty about the future characteristics of potential mates complicates the process of finding an appropriate spouse and leads to a delay in marriage."
Oppenheimer's studies have been cited in more than 1,000 other publications, Sweeney said. Nearly a quarter of those citations have occurred in the past five years, meaning that fellow sociologists are finding the work increasingly relevant as time goes on.
"We look at marriage completely differently, thanks to Valerie Oppenheimer," Sweeney said.
Born in London and raised in New York City, Oppenheimer rarely spoke of her upbringing, said her son Chris, 39.
Oppenheimer's husband, the pulmonologist Edward Anthony Oppenheimer, died in 2005.
"They were married for 40 years," said Chris, a construction supervisor in Indio, Calif. "I never heard them yell at each other. If they disagreed, they'd exchange three or four words about it and then go into separate rooms. Then five minutes later, they'd come back together and everything was fine."
In addition to her son Chris and his wife, Jackie, Oppenheimer is survived by four grandchildren, Brandon, 20, Marley, 15, Tiara, 9, and Teagan, 6, as well as a great-grandchild, Carlitos, 6.
The Female Labor Force in the U.S.: Factors Governing Its Growth and Changing Composition
Dissertation Book Title
The female labor force in the United States; demographic and economic factors governing its growth and changing composition