Lopata, Helena Z.

Helena Znaniecka Lopata has published over ten books on the social roles of women, role modification, aging, and social support. Born in 1925 in Poznan, Poland, she is the daughter of Florian Znaniecki, a well-known sociologist in both Poland and the United States. Lopata's family emigrated to the United States to escape Nazi occupation when she was a teenager. She is Professor Emerita of Sociology at Loyola University of Chicago and a leading expert on widowhood.

Her first book on widows, Widowhood in an American City (1973), focused on the metropolitan Chicago area. In Women as Widows: Support Systems (1979), she introduced cross-cultural studies. In a collective effort, she coauthored Widows and Dependent Wives: From Social Problem to Federal Program (1985) with Henry P. Brehm, and edited Widows: The Middle East, Asia and the Pacific and Widows: North America, two volumes in 1987. Current Widowhood: Myths and Realities (1996) culminates over thirty years of research on this topic. Her work has been supported by funding and research assistance from diverse sources, including the Midwest Council for Social Research on Aging, Social Security Administration, and a Ful-bright Fellowship to India.

Her father's theory of social roles as sets of social relations has influenced much of Lopata's work. The methodology of symbolic interactionism was acquired from professors and fellow students such as Herbert Blumer, Howard Becker, Erving Goffman, Rhoda Blumberg, Gladys Lang, Joseph Gusfield, Everett Hughes, Louis Wirth, and Ernest Burgess at the University of Chicago where she received her doctorate degree in sociology in 1954.

Her work has contributed to an understanding of aging and the recognition that marriage is, in many ways, a temporary status or stage that women experience. She focuses on women and widowhood because there are many more of them than widowers, and they remarry less often than men. Her research on widowhood investigates transition and status reconceptualization. She has noted the role of modernization in shaping the various ways in which women experience this role transition (or social development) around the world; in addition, she has also studied different social, ethnic, and class positions in the United States. An important finding of her comparative and historical approach is the diversity of experience women have in the role of widows.

Lopata looks at widowhood in diverse social systems such as India, where sati (the widow's self-immolation on the funeral pyre of her dead husband) was once common, and Israel, where the status of wives who lose their husbands varies by whether he died from "hostile acts" of Palestinians or another cause. Her comparative analysis also covers Korea, Turkey, China, the Philippines, Canada, and Australia. She has concluded that women's loss or gain of status in old age and widowhood depends on their control over societal resources such as money (e.g., Social Security checks) and family support.

Lopata defines herself as a symbolic interactionist concerned with the construction of reality, or the meanings of life. She speaks from personal experience as well. After more than forty years of marriage, Lopata lost her husband, a successful businessman whom she describes as a "Renaissance Man," while writing her latest book on widowhood. In her transition to widowhood, Lopata found the support system she has written about through her work, colleagues, friends, children, and grandchildren.

See also: Continuing Bonds ; Widow-Burning ; Widowers ; Widows ; Widows in Third World Nations


Lopata, Helena Znaniecka. Current Widowhood: Myths & Realities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.

Lopata, Helena Znaniecka. Women As Widows: Support Systems. New York: Elsevier, 1979.

Lopata, Helena Znaniecka. Widowhood in an American City. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman, 1973.

Lopata, Helena Znaniecka, ed. Widows. 2 vols. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.

Lopata, Helena Znaniecka, and Henry P. Brehm. Widows and Dependent Wives: From Social Problem to Federal Program. New York: Praeger, 1985.


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