When writing about the hardships that poor, single mothers and their children face, Ruth Grossman Sidel drew from meticulous data to show how public disparagement and certain government policies make life worse for many of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens.
Having seen that fallout close up as a psychiatric social worker in Roxbury before she turned to writing books as a college professor, Dr. Sidel was quick to remind readers that dry statistics are “people with the tears washed off.” To counter that, she interviewed scores of poor women over the years and wove their voices and stories into her books.
“I try to really make the statistics and the policy come alive through the lives of people whom I have interviewed,” she said in a 2012 interview for the Welfare Rights Initiative Oral History Project. “I think that’s really what my work is about.”
During a nearly 60-year career from her early days as a caseworker at Massachusetts Mental Health Center and Judge Baker Guidance Center to her years as a Hunter College professor, she consistently spoke out on behalf of those who have little or no clout among policy makers.
Dr. Sidel, who taught at Hunter College in New York City for nearly three decades before retiring about a year ago, died May 12 in Weill Cornell Medical Center of complications from surgery. She was 82 and lived in New York.
“Her passion for growth, for leadership, for pushing the frontiers of what single women and their children could do in society is what got her up in the morning and drove her,” said her nephew Steven Grossman, a former state treasurer.
Beginning with “Women and Child Care in China,” which she wrote after she and her husband were among the first US visitors allowed into China in the early 1970s, Dr. Sidel published several books. Among the most significant were “Unsung Heroines: Single Mothers and the American Dream” (2006), “Women and Children Last: The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America” (1986), and a sequel several years later, “Keeping Women and Children Last: America’s War on the Poor.”
Her nephew said that when he ran for governor in 2014, he reread “Women and Children Last” and quoted from it at campaign appearances. Dr. Sidel’s words always drew a response, he recalled. “What she wrote still has a contemporary and relevant tone and content 30 years later,” Grossman said.
In a New York Times review of “Women and Children Last,” Alice S. Rossi, who was a founder of the National Organization for Women and a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, wrote that “with grace and persuasiveness” Dr. Sidel “provides us with the tools that would permit America to ‘wash away the tears’ of millions of women, men, and children who now live wasted lives for the lack of help an affluent society can afford, but has chosen not, to give.”
“She certainly felt that people who did not have their own voice ought to have a voice, and she went out of her way to speak for those who might not have someone to speak for them,” said Dr. Sidel’s son Kevin of Elizabeth, Colo., a mediator who is a former County Court judge and District Court magistrate.
The youngest of three children, Ruth Grossman was born in Boston, where she was raised by her father, Maxwell Grossman, after her mother died when she was young. He had founded Massachusetts Envelope Co. and served as the state correction commissioner.
She later wrote that her comfortable childhood shed light on the unjust treatment afforded poor, single-parent households, particularly those headed by women. In “Keeping Women and Children Last,” she said that “the major difference between my single parent and the vast majority of single parents now being criticized — some would say vilified — is that my single parent was my father. Furthermore, we were not poor and he had become a single parent through the most acceptable route possible: my mother had died.”
The women who were her clients as a social worker, and her interview subjects for books, fared not nearly as well. “The demonizing of poor single mothers has been an integral part of the recent onslaught on the safety net, meager and inadequate as it is, that existed in the United States since the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935,” she wrote in the 1990s at the outset of “Keeping Women and Children Last.”
Dr. Sidel was part of a family of influential Massachusetts Democrats that included her nephew Steven and her brother, Jerome, whose party activism helped usher liberal Democrats such as Barney Frank and John Kerry into office.
Yet she pulled no punches in her criticism of President Bill Clinton, a Democrat who signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 while seeking reelection. “Euphemistically known as ‘welfare reform,’ the Act ended the 61-year-old federal guarantee of aid to poor children,” she wrote.
Dr. Sidel said in the oral history that her brother Jerome, who died in 2013, “was a tremendous influence on me. I would not have my politics if it weren’t for Jerry.” Her brother Edgar, a philanthropist whose children included Steven Grossman, died in 1999.
She graduated from the Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, and from Wellesley College with a bachelor’s degree in history. She received a master’s in social work from Boston University in 1956, and married Dr. Victor W. Sidel the day she graduated.
“They really bonded over their commitment to social issues and social justice,” said their son Mark, a professor of law and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin Madison.
Victor Sidel is a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. With her husband, Dr. Sidel traveled to the Soviet Union and to China. Along with the books she wrote alone, she coauthored books with her husband.
After his work brought their family from Boston to New York City, she received a doctorate in sociology from Union Graduate School in 1978, the year she began teaching at Hunter College. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had and I love it and I love the students,” she said in the oral history.
A service has been held for Dr. Sidel, who in addition to her husband and two sons leaves three grandchildren.
Though much of Dr. Sidel’s career was in New York, her nephew said she looked back at her time at the Judge Baker Center as a defining professional experience. “Boston for her was always a place where her intellectual fires were stoked,” Steven Grossman said.
Her son Mark said that as a mother “she was extraordinarily loving,” and that affection extended to her many friends, too.
“She was devoted to friends and relatives in Boston and around the country, always calling people,” he said. “She was legendary for keeping birthday lists and believed in what she called celebrating every good thing. That was her phrase — ‘every good thing.’ She believed that when good things happened, they should be celebrated with phone calls, with lunches, with small presents.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.