U-M psychologist Elizabeth Douvan died June 15 at age 76

June 24, 2002
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ANN ARBOR—Elizabeth Douvan, a social psychologist who tracked the momentous mid-century changes in the American psyche through national surveys, died June 15 at her home here after a long illness. She was 76.

Her pioneering research on the social and psychological condition of Americans before and after the changes that swept the country in the 1960s painted an intriguing portrait of shifts in American mental health, family life, the roles and status of women, and adolescent development and behavior. The co-author with Joseph Veroff and Richard Kulka of “The Inner American” and “Mental Health in America,” published by Basic Books in 1981, Douvan was also the co-author with historian Natalie Zemon Davis of “Operation Mind,” a 1952 pamphlet that attacked the activities of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

In the books, Douvan and her colleagues reported on the results of two pioneering national surveys conducted at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). These surveys, first conducted in 1957 then replicated in 1976, were among the first to document many of the social trends that have come to define The Sixties: the shift away from taking comfort in fulfilling culturally established roles and toward obtaining personal satisfaction from self-expression and self-fulfillment; the decrease in an unconditional positive regard for parenthood; and the growing acceptance of divorce when marriage does not provide the desired degree of emotional closeness and personal satisfaction.

“In ‘The Inner American,’ Libby Douvan brilliantly traced the historical changes in men and women’s sense of self over the second half of the 20th century, as American society moved from an emphasis on community connections to an emphasis on intimate relationships,” says Veroff. “It was within marital life that she saw a major support for psychological well-being, and as a result, spent many of her later years doing research on the marital stability of couples.”

Her last book, “Marital Instability,” co-authored with Veroff and Shirley Hatchett, points to the different ways that African-American and white marriages founder. Douvan, who directed the Family and Sex Role Program at the ISR, had a particular interest in the development and changing roles of women and was instrumental in establishing one of the nation’s first women’s studies programs in the early 1970s at Michigan.

While she was a passionate advocate of women’s rights, she was equally intense in her support of family life. “Libby saw absolutely no conflict between commitment to feminist values and family values, at a time when many people saw the two as incompatible,” says U-M psychologist Toni C. Antonucci, a former student and longtime colleague and friend. Born Nov. 3, 1926, in South Bend, Ind., Douvan received a B.A. degree from Vassar College in 1946, then earned a Ph.D. degree in social psychology from the U-M in 1951. She joined the U-M as a lecturer and was professor emerita when she died as well as a senior research scientist at the ISR and the Catherine Neaffie Kellogg Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies.

The recipient of numerous awards, she was a fellow of the American Psychological Association and founding president of its Division on the Psychology of Women. In addition, she was an emerita professor of the Fielding Graduate Institute, a Santa Barbara-based educational institution offering doctoral programs for mid-career professionals. Douvan is survived by her husband, Victor of Ann Arbor, Mich.; her son Tom (Janet Iverson) of Alameda County, Calif.; her daughter Kate Douvan (Sidney Levitt), a longtime resident of Los Angeles, Calif., who currently resides in Toronto, Canada; and grandchildren Skye Chamberlain; and Isabel and Phoebe Douvan. A memorial tribute is being planned for the fall in Ann Arbor.