Brilliant Psychologist Chooses the Day of Her Death

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I was in graduate school from 1975 through 1979, and during those years, and some years afterwards, the field of psychology was riveted with the concept of androgyny, especially as measured by the Bem Sex Role Inventory, devised by the brilliant Sandra Bem. The scale classified people as feminine, masculine, androgynous, or undifferentiated. Androgyny was the “it” category '€“ the news was that it was psychologically advantageous in many ways for women not to be (just) traditionally feminine and men not to be (just) traditionally masculine. Instead, we all benefit from embracing the best of both.

You could hardly pick up an issue of any relevant journal at the time and not find an article about sex roles. Checking Psych INFO just now, I found 2,114 articles and other publications about the Bem Sex Role Inventory. Back in the day, scholars used to send each other postcards requesting reprints of journal articles, and recipients would mail those articles to the requesters in manila folders. After a while, all we would get back from Sandra Bem was a postcard saying that she received so many thousands of requests for her articles that she could no longer afford to mail her articles in response.

I met Sandy Bem a few times, including once when she was an invited speaker when I was a graduate student at Harvard. I was part of a group who took her out to dinner. I still remember that she ordered a lobster dish. I wondered whether I would ever have the nerve, even as a guest speaker, to order the most expensive item on the menu. (No, I never have.) But wow, did she deserve it.

Eventually, androgyny and the Bem Sex Role Inventory were no longer all the rage, and Sandra Bem’s name mostly disappeared from the scholarly journals I read. I never knew until just now what significant twists and turns her own life had taken, nor did I realize the many other contributions she had made beyond to social science and to society.

For example, I did not know that she wrote important books such as The Lenses of Gender or An Unconventional Family. I didn’t know that she testified against AT & T in a case contesting sex discrimination in their hiring practices. I didn’t know that her expert testimony was part of the case that went all the way to the Supreme Court and resulted in the decision that it was illegal to categorize job ads by gender.

I also did not know that decades after her initial work on sex roles, while she continued her academic career, she went back to school to train as a clinician, and began a psychotherapy practice at age 56.

I learned all this and more because I just read an amazing article in the New York Times Magazine on the story of her death. When Sandra Bem learned in her sixties that she had a disease that would progress to full-blown Alzheimer’s, she decided that she would end her life before she lost too much of who she really was. But when should that be? She wanted to live as much of her life as possible, and not end it when she still had the capacity to savor it, but she didn’t want to wait too long, and then not have the presence of mind to make the decision and carry it out, without involving anyone else or legally implicating them. Reporter Robin Marantz Henig’s account of Sandra Bem’s decision, of how friends and family drew closer (or didn’t) and how they accepted her choice (or didn’t), and how this celebrated psychologist changed (and didn’t) over the course of the time she had left, was moving and powerful, yet not the least big maudlin. It is the story of a good death thoughtfully planned by a good person. Read it if you are interested, and share your thoughts.

    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 25 May 2015    Published on All rights reserved.


About Bella DePaulo, Ph.D Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard; Project Scientist, UC Santa Barbara), an expert on single life, is the author of several books, including "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After" and "Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It." Dr. DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been described in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, and magazines such as Time, Atlantic, the Week, More, the Nation, Business Week, AARP Magazine, and Newsweek. Visit her website at

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