“How Could I Not Love You?” American Women and US-Chinese Detente

Saturday, January 6, 2018
Atrium (Marriott Wardman Park)
Kazushi Minami, University of Texas at Austin
This poster explores the role of women and gender in U.S.-Chinese relations during the Cold War. Although a few scholars have shed some light on female activism in American foreign policy during the Cold War, women and gender continue to be understudied subjects in U.S. foreign relations—unsurprisingly so in light of the male dominance of American diplomacy. The history of U.S.-Chinese relations during the Cold War is no exception. Historians have focused on male policymakers and intellectuals, while ignoring women, who sought to reduce the mutual hostility between Americans and Chinese.

American women’s interest in U.S.-Chinese relations surged in the mid-1960s. When the Vietnam War threw U.S. foreign policy in Asia into question, women’s organizations identified China as a key to building peace in the region and started to challenge U.S. containment policy toward China. Particularly active was the League of Women Voters, one of the leading organizations for the women’s rights movement. Openly advocating an end of U.S. isolation of China, the League organized grassroots activities nationwide, varying from academic conferences to community education programs, to promote understandings of China among ordinary Americans and bolster public support for resumption of bilateral contacts with China. By the end of the 1960s, most of the League members—hundreds of thousands across the country—supported an opening to China to varying degrees. When thousands of Americans started to visit China after Richard Nixon’s trip in 1972, the Chinese arranged a variety of activities to impress them with accomplishments of Chinese socialism, especially the liberation of women from feudal oppression. To achieve this goal, they took American visitors to model households in communes, organized meetings with female factory workers, and showed revolutionary operas featuring Chinese heroines that fought evil male landlords before the Communist Revolution in 1949. Chinese efforts succeeded in convincing many Americans, particularly women. They compared the ostensible gender equality in Chinese society to the widespread sexism back home. Actress Shirley MacLaine, for instance, led a women’s delegation in 1973 and later created a documentary film based on the trip, in which she eulogized the high social status of women in China. Although critics accused MacLaine and others for applauding a communist regime, their eyewitness accounts, however flawed or quixotic, helped to dissipate the negative image of China among Americans as an oppressive, totalitarian state. The majority of Americans indeed saw China in favorable light when Washington and Beijing normalized bilateral relations in 1979.

My poster draws on hitherto underused American and Chinese sources, including the League of Women Voters Papers at the Library Congress and Chinese reports of American visitors at provincial and municipal archives throughout China. It also uses visual materials, such as photographs taken by American women who travelled to China. These images reveal the optimistic ways in which American women understood China and Chinese as opposed to the widespread Orientalism in Cold War America.

See more of: Poster Session #1
See more of: AHA Sessions