News | 2 November 2012

Gail Hershatter: Bringing women’s stories to light


Gail Hershatter

Professor Gail Hershatter (photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

Gail Hershatter built a career by talking to people left out of history. She has traveled to rural parts of China uncovering stories that would otherwise have been lost. She listened to the tales of 8-year-old girls sold as child brides, and the stories of women who survived famine and became political activists during the Communist Revolution.

Hershatter grew up in the 1950s, during a time when the United States had an “oversimplified view of China,” she said. Like many in her generation, she learned about the country from news reports about the U.S. table tennis team’s visit to China and Nixon’s attempts at diplomacy. She became curious about Asia during the turbulent 1960s.

“I’m of the generation very much influenced by the Vietnam War,” said Hershatter, who is a professor of history and History Department chair. “The other major influence on me was the second wave of feminism in the United States.”

In 1979, Hershatter moved to China for two years to work on her Ph.D. dissertation for Stanford, about workers in the north China city of Tianjin. She became part of the first generation of U.S.- based scholars allowed to do field research in China. A subsequent project led her to uncover details about prostitutes in Shanghai. Her book, Dangerous Pleasures, was published in 1997 and later translated into Chinese. She brought a suppressed world to life by drawing from an unusual variety of sources—from gossip columns, guidebooks, and interviews to medical records.

Her methods sometimes resemble those of an anthropologist rather than a typical historian. Her grass-roots approach to recovering oral histories shows a side of China that has seldom been explored by scholars before. She is one of the few Western women to travel to some of these far-flung areas. She teamed up with her research partner, Gao Xiaoxian, and spent more than 10 years making her way through the rural Shaanxi province. She spoke to 72 elderly women—and a few surviving men—about their lives before and after the Revolution.

Last year, she published The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past(University of California Press, 2011). The book is filled with stories of the poor, rural women who were left out of history books. Many of these women never had an opportunity to share their life stories before.

“My work is really looking at the connections between ‘Big History’ and the daily life and local consciousness of these rural women,” Hershatter said.

Hershatter’s groundbreaking work has helped to influence some Chinese historians and the way they conduct their research. More academics in Asia are starting to write down the oral history of underrepresented people before it’s lost for good.

“If you look at my work and the work by historians in China, we’re having diverse but overlapping conversations,” said Hershatter.

Hershatter holds the title of distinguished professor, having climbed to the top of the ladder in academia with her impressive teaching and publishing record, said Bill Ladusaw, dean of humanities, who describes her as “one of the most distinguished faculty members on campus” and one of the world’s most expert scholars on Chinese women’s history.

Last year, Hershatter served as president of the Association for Asian Studies. Her recognition in the fields of history and women’s studies helps boost UCSC’s academic and teaching reputation, said Ladusaw.

Hershatter has been selected to give the Faculty Research Lecture, the top honor bestowed by the UCSC Academic Senate. She was honored at the Founders Day gala dinner in October and will deliver her talk on February 12, 2013.

Article written by By Amy Ettinger. Originally published in the Fall 2012 Review magazine.