Thelma Herman McCormack
Written by Peter Simonson and Lauren Archer
Thelma Herman McCormack is an urbane and publicly-engaged communication scholar and feminist who has rarely been recognized as the creative and pioneering figure she is. Since the 1940s, she has creatively crossed disciplinary and organizational boundaries, writing on media, politics, and culture in erudite and penetrating ways. After a circuitous and sometime rocky route from Columbia in the 1940s, she became an expert on pornography and censorship in the 1970s, and a leading feminist voice writing about the media. An American who moved to Toronto and became a citizen there, she helped develop communication study in Canada, and is one of the three or four most important women media scholars of her generation.
Thelma Herman was born March 14, 1921 in Rochester, New York. Her parents were both born in Russia, and came to the U.S. with their families to flee the anti-Jewish pogroms. Her father was a tailor who opened a successful men’s clothing store, for which her mother served as bookkeeper. They lived near the Women’s Campus of the University of Rochester, in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood. She learned to read from newspapers, and developed into an avid reader and writer. The family listened nightly to radio shows like the popular Amos and Andy and to great sporting events like Joe Louis’ patriotically charged heavyweight fights against the German—and Hitler favorite—Max Schmeling. She graduated from Rochester’s Monroe High School in 1938 and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, where she studied philosophy and economics, taking her degree in 1942. In Madison, she wrote book reviews and articles for the school newspaper and aspired for a time to be a journalist, then shifted toward social work, working one summer at Chicago’s Hull House
. She was drawn into politics through fellow students and local activists in a hothouse environment stoked by economic crisis and war raging in Europe. She read and was drawn to pragmatist philosophy, studied with the émigré Spanish philosopher Eliseo Vivas, and also took a course from a young graduate student who would later become one of the most famous American sociologists of the twentieth century, C. Wright Mills
. Their paths would cross again at Columbia several years later.
In 1943, Herman began graduate work at Columbia, where she took classes from the sociologists Robert S. Lynd and Robert K. Merton and the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, among others. (She also took a class from the émigré critical theorist Max Horkheimer at the New School for Social Research). It was not uncommon for women students to be a majority in Columbia sociology courses during the war, though few would get the chance at an academic career, and none would enjoy the success of men like Herman’s classmates, Seymour Martin Lipset and Alvin Gouldner. (Her friend Patricia Kendall
would advance furthest among the women.) Herman developed interests in culture and personality, social change, and the sociology of knowledge, and published an early essay on American pragmatism (Herman, 1946). She worked with Merton (who played a role in the pragmatism paper), but Lynd was formally her advisor, and she started a dissertation on the nineteenth-century British Socialists, a subject Lynd’s wife Helen had written a book about. Like many Columbia graduate students of the era (and other places and eras as well), she never finished the dissertation, though it did feed into two articles on the social motivations of radicals and propagandists (McCormack, 1950, 1952).
She worked at Columbia’s Bureau of Applied Social Research
in 1944-45 as a way to help support herself financially. She interviewed and coded, mostly for smaller marketing studies of the sort the Bureau often did to fund its operation and provide work for the graduate students and refugee scholars Paul Lazarsfeld
took in. In this role, Herman worked with Herta Herzog
, who oversaw much of the Bureau’s commercial business and was transitioning to serving as research director at the McCann Erickson advertising agency. Herman found many of the Bureau’s studies intellectually dreary, but enjoyed her daytime interviewing of housewives from many backgrounds, whose lives she found interesting.. “You know, women like to talk or listen to other women talk,” she said. “I still enjoy talking to people. I enjoyed that kind of listening”
Beginning in 1945, Herman took jobs in a number of places where Columbia sociologists had connections--the Office of War Information
, Barnard College (as a teaching assistant, 1945-47), Brooklyn College (as an instructor in 1947). From 1947-49 she worked in the Scientific Research Department of the American Jewish Committee, directed by Lazarsfeld’s first wife, Marie Jahoda
who also hired Bureau alumna Helen Schneider Dinerman
. In 1948, Herman married Canadian Robert McCormack, a graduate student in literature at Columbia. The next year, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., and Thelma took a job doing consumer preference research for the Division of Special Surveys of the Department of Agriculture (where Rensis Likert had put the scale
that now bears his name into practice). Robert McCormack took a job at Northwestern, where Thelma worked at Paul Hatt’s Laboratory for Social Research from 1950-54, becoming Associate Director and lecturer in the Department of Sociology. In 1954, she had twin girls (one of whom, Naomi, directed and produced Out of the Question
), and six months afterwards, the family moved to Montreal, where Robert had taken a job helping produce programs for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Two years later they moved to Toronto, where Thelma would remain for the rest of her career.
With young children at home, McCormack worked as a freelance researcher in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and managed to publish three articles on different facets of communication. In 1964, she landed a job teaching sociology at Toronto’s York University, a new school founded with social optimism and openness to conducting itself differently. At a moment when Marshall McLuhan was beginning to establish himself as an international media guru at the University of Toronto, McCormack was following up a fine article on mass media and social theory (1961) with a series of book reviews on media, politics, and bureaucracy. At York, she would teach one of the first courses on communications in a Canadian university. Though she had not formally earned a degree beyond her bachelors, she eventually earned a full-time, tenured professorship in sociology at York.
In the 1960s, McCormack published a number of interesting articles on mass media, mass society, politics, and culture. In 1969, her husband died unexpectedly, widowhood turned her into what she call a “non-person,” and she deepened her contact with feminism (Robinson, 1989). On the national scale, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women
(1967-70) galvanized the Canadian women’s movement, and set in motion changes that swept the country. McCormack grew into an authority on pornography and censorship, publishing a number of articles, and serving as an expert witness for several legal cases, including a landmark case involving the gay weekly newspaper, The Body Politic
. She was a feminist who took the side of civil libertarians against censorship, a position that alienated some of her feminist friends. Since the late 1970s, she has published a number of provocative articles and edited an urbane series of five books examining social, cultural, legal, and political issues in mass media. She helped establish a Women' Studies Graduate Program at York in 1992 and was awarded honorary doctorates from Mount St. Vincent University in 1989 and Dalhousie University in 1998. She has continued wide reading, publishing, and attending conferences into her late eighties.
Thelma Herman, letter to the editor in the journal, politics (1944), responding to C. Wright Mills, “The Social Role of Intellectuals” (published in April)
-----, “Pragmatism: A Study in Middle Class Ideology,” Social Force
s 22 (1946), 405-420
Thelma Herman McCormack, “The Motivation of Radicals,” American Journal of Sociology
56 (1950), 17-24.
“The Motivation and Role of a Propagandist,” Social Forces
30 (1952), 388-94.
“The Druggists' Dilemma: Problems of a Marginal Occupation.” American Journal of Sociology
61 (1956): 308-315.
“Canada’s Royal Commission on Broadcasting,” Public Opinion Quarterly
23 (1959), 92-100.
“Anxiety and Persuasion,” Public Opinion Quarterly
23 (1959), 127-133 (with Frederick Elkin, and William A. Westley).
“Social Theory and the Mass Media” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science
27 (1962), 479-89, rpt. in John Durham Peters and Peter Simonson, eds., Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts
(Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2004), 457-464.
“Machismo in Media Research: A Critical Review of Research on Violence and Pornography,” Social Problems
25 (1978), 544-555.
Studies in Communications: A Research Annual, Vol. 1.
Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1980 (editor).
“Feminism, Censorship, and Sadomasochistic Pornography,” in Studies in Communications, Vol. 1, 37-62.
Culture, Code, and Content Analysis. Volume 2 of Studies in Communications: A Research Annual Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1982 (editor).
“Content Analysis: The Social History of a Method,” in Studies in Communications, Vol. 2
News and Knowledge. Volume 3 of Studies in Communications: A Research Annual
(Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1986 (editor).
“The Media and the Controlled Drinking Controversy,” in Studies in Communications, Vol. 3
“The 'Wets' and the 'Drys': Binary Images of Women and Alcohol in Popular Culture.” Communication
9 (1986), 43-64.
“Pornography and Prostitution in Canada: The Fraser Report." Atlantis
"The Censorship of Pornography: Catharsis or Learning?" American Journal of Orthopsychiatry
58:4 (1988) 492-504.
Censorship and Libel: The Chilling Effect. Volume 4 of Studies in Communications: A Research Annual Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1990 (editor).
“Body Count: The Media and Revisionist Histories of Vietnam,” in Studies in Communications, Vol. 4
“Must We Censor Pornography? Civil Liberties and Feminist Jurisprudence,” in David Schneiderman, ed., Freedom of Expression and the Charter
(Toronto: Thomson Professional Publishing Canada, 1991), 180-208.
"Questions in the Aftermath: Engineering and Feminism,” in Graham Lowe and Harvey Krahn, eds., in Work in Canada: Readings in the Sociology of Work and Industry
, 2nd ed. (Scarborough, Ont.: Nelson Canada, 1993), 195-202.
The Discourses of War and Peace. Volume 5 of Studies in Communications
. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1995 (editor, with Robert K. Avery.
“From ‘Triumph of the Will’ to ‘Shoah.’ From ‘Shoah’ to “Schindler’: The Americanization of the Holocaust.” In Studies in Communications
“If Pornography is the Theory is Inequality the Practice?” in Suggestive Poses: Artists and Critics Respond to Censorship
(Toronto: Toronto Photographers Workshop and The Riverbank Press, 1997).
“Fetal Syndromes and the Charter: The Winnipeg Glue Sniffing Case.” Canadian Journal of Law and Society
14:2 (2000), 77-99.
“Canadian Feminism without Quebec,” in Margaret Conrad, ed., Active Engagements: A Collection of Lectures by the Holders of Nancy's Chair in Women's Studies, 1986-1998
(Halifax: Mount Saint Vincent University, 2001) .
“As Time Goes By,” in Politics, Social Networks, and the History of Mass Communications Research: Rereading Personal Influence, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 608
Margrit Eichler, “Women Pioneers in Canadian Sociology: The Effects of Politics of Gender and a Politics of Knowledge,” Canadian Journal of Sociology
26:3 (2001), 375-403 (esp. 386-87)
Gertrude Robinson. Editor’s Column for issue dedicated to Thelma McCormack, Canadian Journal of Communication
14:1 (1989), i-vi.