With Demie Kurz, conversation about life, family, work, and beliefs is laced with phrases of feeling—"I love . . . ," "I’m passionate about . . . ," "I’m deeply interested in. . . ." Yet she speaks thoughtfully, in measured tones, with a calm demeanor that is a contrast to her enthusiasm. Demie Kurz identifies the important aspects of her life as her marriage of 31 years to Bruce Birchard; their two sons, Ethan (25) and Joshua (22); being an active Quaker; her work as a sociologist, writer, scholar, teacher, and co-director of Women’s Studies at University of Pennsylvania; and her residence and participation for 27 years in a small Quaker farm community in New Jersey.
Demie grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Wellesley College, spent a year after college in India on a Fulbright scholarship, came back to Chicago, met Bruce, and undertook graduate work at Northwestern University, completing her Ph.D. in Sociology in 1976. For a year, she and Bruce went around the world "on the cheap," including six months in India visiting Gandhian development projects. On their return, in 1974, they settled in the Philadelphia area, finding it an ideal place for them to be among Quakers and for her to find academic work.
Out of a family setting that was "kind of lapsed Protestant," she tried in college to reconnect somehow with a religious experience, and it didn’t happen. She came to Quakerism in Chicago, although she admits she "heard about Friends and may have attended one meeting" near the end of her time in college. Her interest in sociology came much earlier. She says, "Since I was young I was just terribly curious about how societies work—it has been a passion." That passion has been exercised and refined through her academic work, her research and writing, and her Quaker beliefs and practices.
She credits her early discovery and embracing of Quakerism with adding depth and challenge to her work as a sociologist and feminist. She recalls realizing that "the rational mindset was just not enough. It precluded me from talking about a whole range of things that were really important to me, such as love, compassion, faith, and hope." In conversation with academic and intellectual colleagues, she learned that within the faith communities of many, "there was no space for feminist ideas at all—there was hostility." Happily, she was "getting involved in the religious faith that included the incredible tradition of Margaret Fell, who was really a ‘feminist’ pioneer."
Demie has been co-director of Women’s Studies at Penn and has helped to shape the program since 1988. She says, "Change is a constant in Women’s Studies. The conceptualization of women and men in gender is dynamic, growing, changing, and exciting. It has been pushed and challenged to expand and to look at the lives and experiences of women from many classes, ethnic and national origins, and educational levels, as well as of men." Gender studies and research also includes religion. For Demie, being a Quaker and having access to Margaret Fell and the many other Quaker feminists and religious women through the centuries has broadened her perspective to include religious studies as a ripe field for feminism, which is changing our understanding of history and of the church.
Demie bases her sociological research on extensive interviewing. She has co-authored or written chapters in several books, and she is the sole author of For Richer, For Poorer: Mothers Confront Divorce. Currently she is conducting research about parenting. One of the reasons she’s interested in parenthood is that "sociologists have left the study of parenting to psychologists, who have their own agenda. So there has been this big vacuum in understanding what parents do. It’s not been studied primarily because it’s been women who have been parenting and we could assume that it was ‘natural,’ meaning we used to grow up in communities where we saw it being done. Now we don’t see it so much and we know it’s learned; it’s very skilled.
"So some of us in the social sciences (history, economics, psychology, sociology) have been interested in this new area we’re calling ‘care work.’ This is what I love to do in my work: take a picture of reality and alter the lens—in this case, ‘care work,’ just the way it is, women do it, a little housework, raising some kids, helping sick people. My work on parenting comes out of the impulse to describe the reality more accurately—to show what’s really going on here."
Demie says, "Truth is very, very important to me—truth in my spiritual life and truth in my professional life. We’re barraged with mythology about life, from our increasingly market-oriented society and the forces that are eroding a common belief in the public’s responsibility for social welfare. Beyond the facts, it is the challenge of naming things: finding the accurate and effective language to challenge these forces. Friends’ voices have always been desperately needed as an antidote to powerful, elite, governing ideologies that pretend to speak for everyone and absolutely do not!" She is deeply appreciative of Quakerism’s melding of activism and the spiritual, feeling it is the "genius of Quakerism."
Regarding nurturing her spiritual life and growth, Demie is challenged to practice what works for her: "going to meeting; making some space each day to just sit quietly and be open to the Spirit, doing some reading." Her goal is "living in the present in a spirit of compassion and love." Her challenge is nurturing her "inner spiritual work in a really disciplined way." She finds it "easier to take action on things, having always been drawn to issues of justice." She met someone in graduate school who told her, "Friends are so important to social justice movements because their deeper spiritual base means they keep a balanced and larger perspective—they don’t burn out, but find hope and joy even as they are upset by inequality, violence, and injustice."
Though her life may sound intense, she knows how to relax and have fun. She loves to read, and she and Bruce "do lots of outdoorsy things, like canoeing and hiking." She also finds the arts very important in "sustaining the spiritual side" of her life, as they reflect the themes of joy and beauty, as well as despair. Demie loves to learn, not only from reading, but also from students, friends, and colleagues.
She speaks quietly about her sense that "life is very precious"—a growing sense that comes from living through Bruce’s cancer and recovery more than 20 years ago, and also of just getting older and having a different perspective on what’s really important. She also acknowledges that the war in Iraq found her "doing more praying. Among other things, prayer helps me stay in touch with all the goodness, beauty, and love around us."
© 2003 Kara Newell