Dr. Abby Stewart in 2018

Dr. Abby Stewart is passionate about recording, analyzing, and celebrating women’s life stories—both the kinds of stories represented by a factual recording of events and the more personal, subjective stories women tell to explain their own experiences. Across her nearly 50-year research career, she has examined women’s life narratives through a myriad of methodological approaches and sociocultural lenses, including a 43-year longitudinal study on a group of 1960s Radcliffe College graduates, as well as a growing database of interviews with politically engaged women from around the world. Although the type and scope of Stewart’s projects have varied, they are all grounded in one fundamental belief: that recording and studying such narratives is crucial, both for understanding each woman’s rich individual experiences and for exposing—and ultimately improving—the shared sociocultural contexts in which those experiences take shape.

Given that focus, it is appropriate that Stewart’s career shows such a remarkable narrative consistency of its own. Now the Sandra Schwartz Tangri Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Women's and Gender Studies, Stewart has initiated several long-running projects, some of which have their origins in the earliest stages of her career. The Radcliffe Study, for example, began as part of her dissertation research in the 1970s and has continued until her planned retirement in late 2022. Begun during a time when the field of psychology was largely ignorant or dismissive of women’s stories, the Radcliffe Study has contributed to understanding how this cohort of women’s experiences intersected with broader social and historical changes (in gender expectations, for example) to influence their personalities and the courses of their lives. It has also provided an example of the power of using both narratives and numbers (qualitative and quantitative methods) to illuminate these processes. Moreover, by focusing on the diversity and range of women’s experience, it made a case for the importance of analyzing variations within groups, rather than solely examining differences between groups as many studies did in the past.

Stewart in 1974, the year she began the Radcliffe study

Despite the influence and longevity of that study, however, it began almost by accident, with Stewart’s unearthing a collection of psychological tests mistakenly given to Radcliffe women a decade earlier. But before even reaching that point, Stewart had to review the existing literature on women, which was disheartening for both its scarcity and its dismissive, misogynistic assumptions about women’s lives. 

Stewart recalls: “I knew I wanted to do something about women, but there was very little research on women at the time. My advisor, who was a man, was completely supportive. He had the view that since women do after all constitute half of humanity, we should know more about them. But he was also aware of his own limitations, so his stance toward me was to kind of let me do what I wanted. I began by reading what little literature existed, and it was very frustrating. To the extent that women were studied at all, people basically said their lives are defined by the man she marries. Of course, there are all sorts of problems there with heteronormativity and assumptions about gender and so on, but that was the way it was talked about back then. Essentially, the husband would control or set the agenda for the entirety of a woman’s life. This representation of women as completely lacking agency drove me crazy!”

For Stewart, it was critical to reframe and correct those assumptions in a way that simultaneously acknowledged both women’s agency and the very real cultural limitations placed upon it. She continues: “So my idea—and my advisor really listened to me about this—was to think of it somewhat differently: While women’s agency always operates under the constraint of gender roles, it is still there. Thus, the way any given woman responds to a situation will partly be a function of things about her, such as her personality. But it is also a function of her cultural context, including the constraints of gender roles and many other complex factors. I hypothesized that there would therefore be an observable relationship between a woman’s personality traits and the kind of choices she makes in her life, within constraints. My advisor was a personality psychologist, so this all made sense to him as a basic premise.”

But even with that hypothesis decided, the era’s dearth of data on women made it difficult to determine the next steps. How does one test such a hypothesis about a group that has been studied so little? 

Luckily, that is where those mistakenly administered tests come into the story. “My advisor remembered that there had been a very well-known and well-funded project called the Harvard Student Study, which followed a group of Harvard men longitudinally every year after college,” Stewart says. “And he said, ‘You know, I think there was a personality test given to the women by mistake. Those tests must still be kicking around somewhere. If you want, maybe you could look at whether those women’s personality traits had mattered when it came to their life choices.’ So he and I went to the health services center, where he believed a man had them in storage. We went down into the basement—and indeed, there was a dusty old box of Thematic Apperception Tests with the women’s names on them! At that point, the women were already 31 years old, and nobody had even looked at the tests since they were administered back in 1960. And why? Because it was a mistake. Nobody ever intended to test the women at all. We asked the guy if I could take the tests and contact the women if I could find them. And he said, ‘Sure, whatever. Take them away.’ So I did, and that became my dissertation studying. I later published this personality-and-situation study in Psychology of Women Quarterly.

While conducting that research, Stewart became increasingly interested and personally invested in the women and their stories—so much so that after finishing her PhD, she decided to follow up and interview them herself. That decision would turn out to be a critical one. Hearing the women tell their stories for the first time was a moving and ultimately career-defining moment. 

“Those first interviews sealed my interest in continuing this study and this kind of research,” Stewart reflects. “Actually talking to them and learning their stories made me aware of just how interesting they all were. Even in the written documents, I included a lot of open-ended questions, and they wrote so beautifully and articulately about their experiences. And the women were just so surprised and so grateful that someone was interested in them and their stories at all. I knew immediately that this information and this work was valuable and much needed.” 

Stewart has continued to follow up with the Radcliffe women ever since. In prior decades, the interviews focused on examining the women’s identities and decisions to have families, careers, or both, as well as the impact of those decisions on their mental health and emotional wellbeing. Over time, as the women and Stewart herself have neared and entered retirement age, the focus has increasingly shifted toward exploring the women’s sense of regret (or lack thereof) about those major life decisions, as well as the various ways they have (or have not) made changes to their lives in response to those regrets.

Stewart with Dr. Nicky Newton at Newton's PhD graduation in 2011

Dr. Nicky Newton, Stewart’s former graduate student and ongoing collaborator, describes Stewart as a trailblazer and an inspiring role model. Dr. Newton comments: “Depictions of women’s agency—while certainly more common now than they were in the 1970s—are still worthy of research focus. As one of very few longitudinal studies of women, the Radcliffe Study is groundbreaking and provides invaluable insights into the lives of women who lived during the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. As such, it continues to be an invaluable source of rich data as the women in the study approach their 80s.”

Of course, for all the value offered by studying a group of highly educated, exceptionally articulate women throughout their adult lives, any study focused on such a small and privileged cohort has substantial limitations. Lessons learned from the life stories of mostly affluent, mostly White Radcliffe College graduates may not generalize to women from outside of that socially privileged group. Stewart has been aware of those limitations throughout her career, and several of her other projects have explicitly aimed to bring a more diverse set of stories into the conversation.

The project that provides the most striking contrast may be the Global Feminisms Project (GFP), an ever-growing collection of over a hundred interviews with politically engaged women from around the world. Initiated by Stewart and other Women’s & Gender Studies faculty, the GFP seeks in part to address and begin to remedy the American-centric bias endemic to the fields of psychology and women’s studies since their inception. The interviews, which are conducted by local researchers in each country, cover a range of topics. But they are all loosely focused on factors in women’s lives that inspired them toward activism or political engagement on behalf of women. The women’s narratives are diverse, moving, and at times harrowing: the story of a woman from India whose daughter was murdered in a dowry dispute, for example, or the stories of women whose childhoods in war zones or under totalitarian governments made activism into matters of personal survival rather than personal choice.

Of the importance of the Global Feminisms Project, as well as its connection to her earlier work, Stewart says, “GFP is a highly collaborative project shaped by U-M Women’s & Gender Studies, with the goal partly of making its curriculum less ethnocentric. But it is also very personally important for me and fed by my experience with what the Radcliffe Study taught me about the power of narrative—about the power of being exposed to a woman’s story. There is a richness and complexity to experiencing someone’s personal narrative that affects you and changes you. You see the similarities women often share, but you also see the differences and what makes each of them unique. My colleagues and I see GFP as a pedagogically valuable way to help students be less ethnocentric. But we also see it as a way to help them be less prone to homogenizing people from another place. Because if you just show students, say, a single French feminist or a single Chinese feminist, it would be easy for them to think that all feminists are like that. But when you look at them together, you realize that they are really not alike at all; they are wildly different. And no one French feminist is exactly like another French feminist either. What they share is that they are working in some way on behalf of women.”

Throughout those and other projects, Stewart has been especially interested in how exposure to significant events or novel ideas (such as losing a family member, growing up in a politically oppressive environment, or being exposed to the Women’s Movement in the 1960s-70s) affects women differently depending on whether that exposure occurs in childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.

Like many of Stewart’s interests, she can trace that one to earlier events in her own life: in this case, not just back to graduate school and the Radcliffe Study but to her childhood and adolescence. In a chapter from the book Reflections from Pioneering Women in Psychology, she explains that growing up with her parents—both highly politically engaged and progressive for their time—helped inspire her lifelong drive to work for social justice. But her parents also inspired her work in less positive ways. For one thing, despite their progressiveness for their era, they were part of a transitional generation deeply marked by the complex ideological residue of World War II and the Great Depression, and their responses to the revolutionary ideas of the late 1960’s were decidedly ambivalent. Stewart also remembers watching her mother struggle to find fulfillment after giving up a career to have children, only to eventually find that fulfillment in a new career once her children had grown old enough. Those experiences contributed to Stewart’s career-spanning interest in generational gaps and the varying ways women respond to experiences at different stages of their lifespan.

But Stewart also writes about another fundamental philosophy—inherited partly from her father—that has shaped much of her life: the belief that when confronted with two attractive apparent “either-or” choices, the best and most productive solution is often to find some way to do both. She writes: “One of my father’s recommendations to the young people who often turned to him for advice about their life and career choices was ‘choose both.’ He tended to do that when faced with a frustrating choice: between two—or ten—books in a bookstore; two appealing desserts; two alternative plants for the garden that he loved; or two alternative paths in his own career. And he believed that making single choices when you didn’t have to was foolish and self-limiting.”

Stewart writes that her tendency to avoid making such limiting choices manifested in several career-defining ways, including her overarching decision to ground her work in both psychology and the then-burgeoning field of women’s studies, long before such interdisciplinarity was widely practiced.

U-M ADVANCE leadership committee in 2003 (L-R: Pamela Raymond, Abby Stewart, Sam Mukasa, Carol Fierke, Tony England, Martha Pollack, John Vandermeer and Mel Hochster)

But a particularly troublesome “either-or” choice for Stewart has been between her decision to maintain a career in academia and her desire to instead engage in direct, real-world activism. It was partly her drive to “choose both” and collapse that supposed binary that led to another major phase of her career: her role as co-founder and Director for 15 years of U-M’s ADVANCE Program. Originally created in 2002 by Stewart and an interdisciplinary group of colleagues, the initial goal of U-M ADVANCE was to address the lack of gender diversity among STEM faculty at U-M. Since then, the program has expanded its mission to that of improving faculty diversity (in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and other factors) across the university. Over the years, ADVANCE has supported faculty engagement in developing fairer hiring and promotion practices, as well as documenting the challenges posed by an academic climate that does not always welcome diversity and supporting local efforts to improve that climate.

Stewart with a group of former students in 2006

Dr. Lilia Cortina, one of Stewart’s ADVANCE colleagues and collaborators, notes that “Stewart’s many contributions to this campus have been stunning, from launching new interdisciplinary degree programs, to building new homes for gender scholarship, to making science safe for women. The ADVANCE program she founded is unique in the nation, using data-based insights to enhance recruitment, retention, inclusion, and development of a diverse and excellent faculty. Thanks to her efforts, other universities look to U-M as a model when they want to work on faculty diversity.” Cortina adds that Stewart has also been a generous mentor to countless early career scholars. Many faculty, at Michigan and beyond, are deeply grateful for her warmth, wisdom, and guidance.

Indeed, while Stewart sometimes wryly frames her many refusals-to-choose as examples of a lifelong “pattern of evasion,” they are instead manifestations of two tenets that form the beating heart of her career: a refusal to accept simple either-or binaries and a belief that no one perspective or methodology is adequate on its own. In Stewart’s work, the oppressive cultures in which women worldwide must operate is always one critical element of the story. But equally important is the beautiful intelligence and ingenuity each woman uses when constructing her own unique life, even while constrained by those oppressive hegemonies. At its most fundamental, Stewart’s “choose both” philosophy is about taking the nuanced view, about collapsing binaries into mutually illuminating dualities, and about the humanitarian and scientific imperative of recognizing a multiplicity of perspectives.



Bookwala, J., & Newton, N. (Eds.). (2022). Reflections from Pioneering Women in Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108891004