Gail Hershatter, "The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past" (U California Press, 2011)


When I teach my course on gender, sexuality, and human rights, my students invariably want to talk about China's one-child policy. They imagine living in a state where the government tells you how many children you can have - and they're horrified. One thing I learned from reading Gail Hershatter's new book, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past (University of California Press, 2011), was that rural women of a generation earlier would have loved to have the state take charge of their fertility. The state was already controlling so much - like how many bushels of grain they had to produce even as they tended to their very large families - why couldn't it do something about how many children they had? Once their children were grown, those same women became proponents of the one-child policy, hoping to spare their daughters the grueling fates they'd endured. Their daughters, needless to say, didn't fully appreciate their efforts. That's only one of the stories that emerges from this remarkable book. Based on seventy-two oral histories conducted with Hershatter's collaborator, Gao Xiaoxian, The Gender of Memory explores rural women's experience in the transition to Communism. We learn of their harrowing experiences during the preceding era of famine and civil war, and we learn of new opportunities women discovered as activists and model laborers. But we also learn of the crushing burdens of work and the persistence of poverty and hunger. Most of all, we hear voices that are rarely heard. If you want to be reminded of how moving history can be, then read this book.

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Elizabeth Heineman

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