In the introduction to her 1999 book, “Mobilizing Resentment,” which examined the evolving conservative movement in the United States, Jean Hardisty described herself as “a baby boomer who grew up in a genteel, white, upper-middle-class Southern family. In that setting, racism was woven into my everyday life.”
Dr. Hardisty, who founded and led Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank based in Somerville, added in her book that “as my parents’ daughter, I went to the right boarding school and attended the right cotillions. I was seldom exposed to the ugly realities of poverty and violence.”
Social activism and left-leaning politics may have seemed an odd choice for a horse-loving young woman whose family lived on a 100-acre farm in Maryland, but friends say that idyllic childhood helped shape her into someone dedicated to economic equality and civil rights for women, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, and others she believed were marginalized.
“I think that because of her privileged background, she was able to see that it wasn’t right for people to live in abject poverty,” said Pam Chamberlain, a longtime friend who cowrote articles with Dr. Hardisty. “The idea of there being a privileged few — she just felt that was wrong.”
A senior scholar for the past decade at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, Dr. Hardisty died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on March 16 in her Somerville home. She was 69 and had moved to Greater Boston from Chicago when she was diagnosed in the 1980s.
Dr. Hardisty and her spouse, Peggy Barrett, who became a couple 16 years ago, met through mutual friends when both were working on the Women’s Community Cancer Project, a Cambridge organization that addresses issues faced by women with cancer. They married in January 2013.
“She was an incredibly gentle person, and also incredibly sharp,” Barrett said. “She was brought up with Southern hospitality, but she was always upfront. She always told people just what she was thinking, and she expected the same trust and honesty in return.”
Dr. Hardisty’s cancer was in remission for 25 years before returning less than three years ago, Barrett said.
In a 1990 Globe interview, Dr. Hardisty said she considered herself more fortunate than many female patients, since she had a job, a home, good health insurance, and had neither children nor aging parents to care for.
“I am acutely aware that this is the result of a lot of luck and a lot of privilege, and we can’t deliver health care this way,” she said. “I don’t believe women can sit by and let that happen. I don’t believe society can sit by and let that happen.”
The second of two children, Jean Virginia Hardisty grew up in Washington, D.C., until her family moved to a farm in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County when she was 12. She went to Holton-Arms, a private girls’ school in Bethesda, Md., and graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in art history.
“At some point, she got really immersed in the political life and its impact on the country,” said her brother, John of Bethesda. “When I think of her as a young girl who was really interested in art, I wouldn’t have seen that coming.”
She received a master’s and a doctorate in political science at Northwestern, where she taught for eight years before founding Political Research Associates in 1981.
Dr. Hardisty was diagnosed with cancer in 1985 and moved to Boston two years later for treatment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. When doctors recommended a bone marrow transplant at a Nebraska hospital, “I went out with no children and a job I could leave without disaster coming down on me,” she told the Globe in 1990, “but those are further circumstances most people don’t have.”
Upon arriving at the hospital, a social worker remarked that Dr. Hardisty must have health insurance “or you wouldn’t be here,” she recalled. “It was the first time I had been hit so hard by the fact that this process is only available if you have the means to afford it.”
A staunch liberal, Dr. Hardisty focused much of her research, teaching, and writing on the emergence and evolution of the political right in recent decades and the development of groups such as the Tea Party movement. She often attended conservative meetings and conferences in an effort to understand and analyze the impact of organizations such as the John Birch Society and Promise Keepers.
Barrett said Dr. Hardisty was always forthright about her own politics when attending such events. Through open discussion, she wanted to learn how conservative leaders influenced their followers.
“She was able to have to really deep conversations with people with whom she was in deep disagreement,” Barrett said, adding that Dr. Hardisty’s gentle nature contrasted with “her incredibly incisive analysis of the political right. Her criticism was sharp and pointed, but it was always directed at the leadership.”
In her book, Dr. Hardisty wrote: “I have a persistent streak of idealism that often blinds me to the right’s astounding cynicism and will to power. I’m inclined to defend religious conservatives from the arrogant dismissal and even disdain they have received from liberals, progressives and the political mainstream because of their religious faith and lack of sophistication. That defense, however, can make me slow to see the full extent of intolerance, hate, and reactionary backlash that the right, especially its leaders, represents.”
Dr. Hardisty wrote for many publications and served on the boards of organizations including the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Ms. Foundation for Women.
Her most recent work focused on poverty and issues poor women face. In a 2012 interview posted on a Wellesley Centers for Women website, she said that “living on welfare is not the American dream. Most poor single parents would like to raise their children in a stable and prosperous family, and would be more than willing to work for a living wage to further that goal.”
In addition to Barrett and her brother, Dr. Hardisty leaves a stepson, Roben Kleene of Queens, N.Y.; a stepdaughter, Katherine Uttech of Evanston, Ill.; and a step-granddaughter.
A service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in First Church Somerville UCC in Somerville.
When Dr. Hardisty realized she probably wouldn’t live until her 70th birthday in June, she moved ahead the party she had planned and “invited all her best friends over,” Chamberlain said. At the party, Dr. Hardisty spoke for a few minutes about what each guest meant to her.
“We all thought of ourselves as her best friends,” Chamberlain said.
Shortly before Dr. Hardisty died, her brother visited her in Somerville. She was surrounded by friends, many whom said “she changed their lives by opening their eyes to things they hadn’t been aware of,” he recalled. “That really said a lot about all she did in her lifetime.”
“There were so many people who considered themselves her very close friends,” Barrett said. “She was so open and so good at welcoming people into her life.”