A political scientist and social activist, Jean Hardisty respected the power of political conservatism as adamantly as she opposed it. In 1981 she founded Political Research Associates (PRA), a research center, started in Chicago and currently based in Boston, that studies right wing and anti-democratic trends, in order, as she said, “to get people to take the right seriously.” For over thirty-five years, she offered cogent and far-reaching analysis about its impact on women, people of color, immigrants, educators, and the LGBTQ community. “She understood that the right wing was a potent movement with the goal of building institutional power,” said Chip Berlet, former Senior Analyst at PRA. “She helped us see the right as a complex set of actors and institutions and not just as cartoons,” noted Urvashi Vaid, long-time activist in the LGBT movement. “She was a prophet,” added Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. Magazine, about Dr. Hardisty’s prescient work on the right.
How do you do it? someone would invariably ask after one of her presentations. How do you do this work year after year? What do you wear to right-wing conferences? It’s a constant challenge, she admitted, but a strong commitment to individual rights and human dignity undergirded her steadfastness. And with her trademark humor, wry charm, and dead-on seriousness she added: “always dress comfortably.”
Dr. Hardisty, who died March 16 in Somerville, Massachusetts at 69, wrote about what she called “kitchen table backlash”—the anti-feminist women’s movement; the systematic construction of homophobia; the right wing roots of marriage promotion, cancer and poverty—she herself was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the early 1980’s and was acutely aware that the treatment options received were not available to the economically disenfranchised—and most recently, race and childcare in Mississippi. In 1999, her landmark book, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers, was published by Beacon Press.
Described by colleagues as “fierce,” “a brilliant analyst,” “a tireless educator and organizer,” she held them to the same rigorous standards she held herself. When a distinguished sociologist consulted with Dr. Hardisty about her book on sex-education and the right wing, Dr. Hardisty noted that one particular chapter was “too jargony.” She told Jean Entine, former Executive Director of Women for Economic Justice and the Boston Women’s Fund, that one of Ms. Entine’s speeches was “too lame and too tame,” and painstakingly suggested how to change it.
Dr. Hardisty grew up in what she described as a “genteel, white, upper-middle class southern family” in Washington D.C. and later on a farm in rural Maryland. She went to boarding school, attended cotillions, loved and rode horses, and saw how racism was woven into the patterns of everyday life. Profoundly influenced by the Vietnam War and the civil rights and women’s movements, she got her Ph.D in political science from Northwestern University. She taught in academia for eight years before founding PRA. At the time of her death, she was a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Research on Women at Wellesley College.
As a social activist, Dr. Hardisty had far-reaching impact. She was one of the founders of the Crossroads Fund, a Chicago-based foundation that provides support to groups focused on racial, social, and economic justice. She served on the board of directors of the Highlander Research and Education Center, Ms. Foundation for Women, Center for Women Policy Studies, Grassroots International, Center for Community Change, and the Women’s Community Cancer Project. In addition, she was a consultant for ten years to the Women Donors Network, where she led seminars on the political right wing. In 2010, she was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by Community Change, Inc., a Boston-based anti-racism organization.
Dr. Hardisty mentored several generations of activists, providing advice, encouragement, and, on occasion, an overt push. When recruiting Chip Berlet to work at PRA, she told him, in her candid way, “You’re wasting you’re skills at a time when we really need them.” Mr. Berlet added, “She changed my life.” “She was like the North Star; she would always give a true direction,” said Carol Rose, Executive Director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “She helped me see you can defend both civil rights and civil liberties and needn’t choose between the two.”
Dr. Hardisty is survived by Peggy Barrett, her spouse of sixteen years; two stepchildren Roben Kleene (Jen Liu) and Katherine Uttech (Joseph); a granddaughter Abigail Jean Uttech; her brother, John Hardisty (Merrily); a niece Christine Eldreth (Myles) and nephew Kirk Hardisty (Kelly); and a wide circle of friends.
In the weeks before her death, Dr. Hardisty, her deft humor ever intact, said she wanted to die “the way Jackie Onassis did: be with family and friends and then just go.” “We sit, we talk, we laugh,” read a card she once sent to a friend. She was a storyteller, a champagne drinker, and a lover of life.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to The Highlander Center, 1959 Highlander Way, New Market, TN 37820, 865–933–3443, highlandercenter.org or to the Boston Women’s Fund, 14 Beacon Street, Suite 805, Boston, MA 02108, 617–725–0035. bostonwomensfund.org or to a justice organization of your choice that embodies Jean’s values and spirit.
Information compiled and written by Peggy Shinner, Chicago, Illinois.