Retired Professor of Sociology Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, a pioneering researcher in rape counseling and trauma whose interests also extended to other compelling social issues—such as the challenges faced by two-career families and controversies surrounding intensive care for newborns—died on February 6. She was 81.

The Sociology Department’s first tenured female faculty member, Dr. Holmstrom—who served as department chair for six years—taught at Boston College for four decades.

In 1972, Dr. Holmstrom, along with Connell School of Nursing faculty member Ann W. Burgess, founded a rape victim counseling program at Boston City Hospital—among the first to be based in a hospital—that, in addition to offering therapeutic services, provided the two with insights into the plight of women who endured sexual violence. They spoke with victims at the hospital, did follow-up work, and took some cases to court; they also trained the BCH nurses to continue the counseling, remaining as supervisory consultants for the program.

Burgess, who praised Dr. Holmstrom as “a visionary scholar, a trailblazer for interdisciplinary collaboration before it was popular in academia,” recalled that the two had met through interdisciplinary teaching on health care. Dr. Holmstrom was aware of the gathering revelations about the trauma of rape through feminist literature and women’s consciousness-raising groups, Burgess recalled, but it was not yet a widespread research topic.

The two discussed a study of rape victims in the context of institutional processing, and when Burgess suggested adding a counseling dimension, “Lynda asked, ‘Can a sociologist and a psychiatric nurse work together?’ We decided to try. We had to learn the language, concepts and methods of the other and basically taught each other the relevant aspects of our respective fields.”

Two years later, Dr. Holmstrom and Burgess published a study, “Rape: Victim of Crisis,” that drew upon their experiences and observations through the BCH program. Discussing their research in an interview with BC's student newspaper The Heights, the pair described the persistent trauma felt by rape victims and the harmful impact on their day-to-day lives and relationships with family members—the kind of details that, at the time, were largely absent from the general public understanding of rape. “Rape: Victim of Crisis” also remarked on the many misperceptions and stereotypes perpetrated about rape victims.

"Many people see the victim as being the pretty, short-skirted woman who walks alone at night,” said Dr. Holmstrom, noting that victims in the study ranged in age from three to 73 years old. “Rape victims can be anyone."

These findings formed part of the basis for Dr. Holmstrom and Burgess’s 1977 book The Victims of Rape: Institutional Reactions, the first empirical study to detail the encounters of rape victims with three major institutions: police, hospital, and court. The co-authors tracked 115 victims, 113 of them female, and detailed their emergency room experiences, interactions with police, and odyssey through the legal process. As reviewers noted, the book made clear that rape does not end after the attacker leaves: The victim’s suffering can be heightened or diminished based on the response of the three institutions.

Among other things, The Victims of Rape noted that hospital personnel tended to be “professionally polite” in dealing with rape cases, since in addition to providing medical care their task also was to gather evidence for potential court cases, and thus did not express sympathy toward victims. Dr. Holmstrom and Burgess stressed the importance of training nurses to help address victims’ emotional needs.

The book pointed out that of the 113 cases involving rape of females, nine led to convictions, with most sentences ranging from six to 15 years; the maximum sentence was life in prison, the minimum three years of probation. Interviewed by The Heights, Dr. Holmstrom explained the reasons why a rape victim chooses to drop charges against an assailant—the major one being fear that even if convicted and jailed, her rapist would gain freedom at some point and seek revenge.

“The second reason is that they [the victims] don't want to go through the hassle of court. They know it's going to be hard, and they just feel that they can't cope with it,” she added.

Said Burgess, “Lynda was a born teacher and taught me methods of participant-observation fieldwork and how to record raw data in the fantastically detailed and meticulous way good field notes require. Through countless discussions, we made analytic sense out of our 2,900 pages of field notes with one important result being a new conceptualization of sexual victimization.”

Prior to embarking on the groundbreaking research project with Burgess, Dr. Holmstrom had scrutinized another then less-explored aspect of contemporary American society: how married couples tried to balance professional ambitions and family relationships while both trying to pursue high-level careers. She interviewed 20 such couples—wives and husbands separately—and a comparison group of seven couples where wives had given up careers.  

In her 1972 book, The Two-Career Family, Dr. Holmstrom explained that the interdependencies of family and occupational structure lay in the woman performing domestic duties and so allowing her husband to devote himself single-mindedly to his career. This was especially true for child-rearing—16 of the 20 couples interviewed had children—because the couples tended to lack easy access to adult relatives, household help, or child care centers; women would modify their career plans, usually putting them in jeopardy in doing so by being unable to keep current with professional developments while caring for children. She proposed flexible work schedules, among other ideas, to help couples deal with such situations.

 In the 1980s, Dr. Holmstrom and Sociology colleague Professor Jeanne Guillemin tackled an emerging dilemma in medical science. Advances in intensive care technology had increased the survival rate for premature babies, but also created a host of quality-of-life issues: Some babies would face a future of health challenges, severe retardation, or early death. The two sociologists undertook the first in-depth study of the approximately 300,000 babies in the 500-600 neonatal intensive care units in the United States.    

Their 1986 book, Mixed Blessings: Intensive Care for Newborns, addressed such questions as who should be the guardian for these babies’ interests, what constitutes “good” treatment, and how parents of premature babies should approach such an emotionally fraught scenario. The authors included examples of cases that demonstrated the range of outcomes: a toddler who endured hydrocephalus and three brain operations and was able to walk; a severely premature baby with severe neurological problems who went through three heart surgeries and was given cardiac medications, but died.

“We don’t offer answers, but try to show both sides,” said Dr. Holmstrom in an interview with the Boston College Biweekly. While medical science might have the means to possibly prolong life, she said, inevitably difficult, moral questions need to be addressed: “When you keep intervening aggressively in a hopeless case, at what point does it become a ‘latent’ experiment, which follows no protocols?”

 “Lynda was ahead of her time: Her research projects were at the cutting edge of her field and were often interdisciplinary,” said Professor of Sociology Sharlene Hesse-Biber. “She was an outstanding colleague and friend. When I was an assistant professor, Lynda always found time to mentor and encourage me along my academic journey. She fostered a deep sense of community within our department, had a wonderful sense of humor and a great smile. She was always deeply interested in what scholarly activities her colleagues were working on. Even in her retirement years, she remained deeply connected to our department.”

The Sociology Department recognized the contributions of Dr. Holmstrom, who retired as a full-time faculty member in 2009, by naming an award after her. The Lynda Lytle Holmstrom Award recognizes the best class paper on the topic of gender with sociological implications submitted to an undergraduate course in the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences each calendar year. [Holmstrom’s colleague William Gamson, who died March 23, was similarly honored with a namesake award by the department.]

A native of Seattle, Dr. Holmstrom earned a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, a master of arts degree from Boston University, and a doctorate from Brandeis University. Prior to joining BC, she worked as a research assistant at Stanford University and at a research institute in Virginia.

She is survived by her husband, Ross, and children Bret and Cary.

Condolences may be sent to: Ross Holmstrom, 66 Sacramento St., Cambridge, MA 02138.

University Communications | April 2021