The University Record, July 1, 2002


Elizabeth ‘Libby’ Douvan

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

Her pioneering research on the social and psychological condition of Americans before and after 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. Co-author with Joseph Veroff and Richard Kulka of “The Inner American” and “Mental Health in America,” Douvan also co-authored “Operation Mind” with historian Natalie Zemon Davis. This 1952 pamphlet attacked the activities of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

In the books, Douvan and her colleagues reported on the results of two pioneering national surveys conducted at the 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 defined the 60s—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 twentieth 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 the University. 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 long-time colleague and friend.

Born in 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.

Douvan is survived by her husband Victor of Ann Arbor; her son Tom (Janet Iverson) of Alameda County, Calif.; her daughter Kate Douvan (Sidney Levitt), a long-time resident of Los Angeles, who currently resides in Toronto; and grandchildren Skye Chamberlain; and Isabel and Phoebe Douvan. A memorial tribute is being planned for the fall in Ann Arbor.

—Submitted by Diane Swanbrow, News and Information Services