Frances Rosenbluth, who redefined Japanese comparative politics, dies at 63
The long-serving professor of political science is remembered for her teaching contributions and for paving the way for women after her.
Frances McCall Rosenbluth arrived on campus in 1994 as one of few women within her department and the broader political science field. A titan of comparative political economics, she would go on to pave the way for young women professors and students behind her.
A scholar of comparative politics, Rosenbluth’s early work identified key misconceptions about the Japanese government and economy. She would go on to research issues of gender in political spheres and more recently, American hyper-partisanship and political parties. The professor was also a 2010 Guggenheim Fellow and was elected to the Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2007. She was the first woman chair of the Political Science department and over her three decades at Yale served in a slew of other administrative positions, most recently as the director of the Ethics, Politics and Economics program.
On campus, she is remembered as an attentive mentor and teacher. For years, Rosenbluth taught the highly-popular undergraduate course “Sex, Markets and Power.” Over two decades, she shepherded hundreds of graduate students through Yale and as an administrator strived to promote diversity and gender parity among the student body and the faculty in her department.
Rosenbluth, 63, died in her Hamden home on Saturday, Nov. 20 after fighting a glioblastoma. She had been teaching an undergraduate course, “Japan and the World,” and she continued to lecture right up until a few weeks before her passing.
“In her passing, we have lost a valued colleague and friend, gifted teacher, and immensely impactful scholar and administrator,” political science department chair Gregory Huber wrote to community members. “For lack of a better description, Frances was a force of nature who was a ceaseless advocate for her students, peers, and the larger Yale and scholarly communities.”
Born and raised in Osaka, Japan as the daughter of missionaries and spending part of her childhood in Taiwan, Rosenbluth spoke flawless Japanese as well as Mandarin. That background would continually influence her scholarship as she studied as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Tokyo and earned a doctorate in political science from Columbia.
When she entered the comparative politics field as one of few women, scholars had concluded that Japan, a rising international economic star in the 1980s, had a clean government that defied typical political theory. Rosenbluth’s own analysis, however, warned that the Japanese political system was neither as corruption-free nor as viable as many believed. Her work, initially scorned by her peers, ultimately proved correct, establishing her firmly as a leader in comparative politics.
“She turned the field upside down,” said Rosenbluth’s longtime partner and fellow political science professor Ian Shapiro.
Soon, Rosenbluth expanded her research to include the wage gap and underrepresentation of women in politics. Her knack for intuiting the counterintuitive would serve her well; she determined that Japanese women had made less ground in the workforce in part, unexpectedly, because higher overall job security in the country made employers more hesitant to hire women. She was an unabashed “woman who studies women,” as she told students. Her prize-winning book with Harvard economist Torben Iversen — “Women, Work, and Politics: The Comparative Political Economy of Gender Inequality” — became a standard-bearer in political science classrooms.
Later in life, Rosenbluth would conduct joint research with Shapiro on American voter dissatisfaction and the unintended consequences of democratizing political parties. Together, they published her most recent book, “Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself” and penned opinions for the Washington Post. Her wide range of other scholarly interests included military history, imperial Japan and bonobo monkeys.
Rosenbluth’s profound research, however, never overshadowed her investment in her students. She was known for constantly being interested in her mentees’ ideas and for giving immense amounts of personal, straightforward feedback, and she avoided talking about herself as much as possible, many recalled.
As director of graduate studies she also oversaw recruitment of new scholars to the University; her office was a welcoming space, typically containing a big bowl of candy and Rosenbluth’s large yellow labrador. Many of her graduate students say that her warmth was the ultimate factor that convinced them to study at Yale.
“I’m not sure if there’s anybody who taught me more about what it means to be an adult,” Thomas Pepinsky GRD ’07 said.
Rosenbluth also particularly looked forward to teaching her many undergraduate course offerings. Her lecture “Sex, Markets, and Power” typically filled the 460-seat Yale Law School auditorium to its brim. She would later become director of the Ethics, Politics and Economics Program and was awarded the William Clyde DeVane Medal for Teaching Excellence in 2018.
Women in academia, Rosenbluth often told students, tend to be categorized as either uncaring “witches” or overly soft “mothers.” She broke out of both boxes, her mentees and colleagues recounted.
“She was like an iron fist in a velvet glove — a person of extreme strength, wouldn’t back down or compromise on her principles, but still very gentle and diplomatic,” said professor of political science Helene Landemore.
As a department chair, Rosenbluth spearheaded efforts to recruit a diverse faculty, often pushing back on hiring searches when initial applicant pools didn’t include enough people from marginalized groups. She was a mentor to the many women who joined the department during her tenure and directed special attention towards plugging the “leaky pipeline” of academia. She was a trailblazer in voicing the struggles of working women, one of few professors to enthusiastically discuss her role as a mother of three young children with students and colleagues.
As deputy provost of the social sciences and faculty development, she would work with other women faculty to procure funding for The Nest at Alphabet Academy, a University-sponsored child care center on Science Hill for children under three.
“She showed us a way to do this profession while caring for others, for our teaching, and for children,” said Dawn Teele, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.
Rosenbluth is survived by Shapiro and three sons, Ben, John and Will.