Monday, April 19, 2010

Sharon Sievers, Historian and Women's Studies Activist at Cal State- Long Beach, May 27 1938-April 5 2010

Every once in a while something crosses my desk which seems to deserve a broader audience. This is one of those items, received over H-Net from Janet Goodwin of H-Japan:

It is with great sadness that I report the death of Sharon Sievers on April 5, 2010 after a long illness in Long Beach, California. Sharon was the chair of the History Department (for over twelve years!) and sometime director of Women's Studies for forty years at California State University Long Beach. In the early 1980s, together with the ACLU she helped save the newly-nascent Women's Studies program by suing the university which was bowing to public pressure from neo-conservatives in the area. Eschewing more money and fame at more prestigious universities, she chose to remain at CSULB to serve as friend and mentor
to thousands of young women and men who otherwise might not have remained in college or gone on to academic careers.

She made thousands of phone calls on behalf of students, fellow faculty members, (especially the scores of adjuncts that she hired for one or two semesters over the years) abused women, homeless waifs, and even an occasional administrator. The story is told that a former dean complained about the phone bill for the department until he was told that he owed his own position to a phone call Sharon had made in his defense. Sharon never turned away anyone in need. She couldn?t solve every problem, but she was willing to make that phone call to someone who might.

Photo taken from this page of the CSU-LB Women's Studies web page, with the caption "Genie and Sharon take back the prom." Sharon Sievers is on the right.

Sharon was brilliant, but never dismissive or condescending of any of us who were not. Her ribald sense of humor is legendary. She loved to laugh, occasionally at herself, but seldom in mockery of others. I have often told the story of her defusing a very tense situation at Tokyo's Narita Airport. Standing amid a very angry group of travelers who were intent on strangling a particularly obtuse airline factotum, Sharon said in sotto voce "Leave him alone, the guy is a soup short of a teishoku!" We laughed until it hurt.

Never at a loss for words, when asked about a particularly dark, peaty, single malt scotch, she opined that it "Tastes like it was aged in an old sweat sock."

She always claimed that she was "far too busy living" to write much more than her award-winning seminal work Flowers in Salt: Beginnings of Feminist Consciousness in Modern Japan (Stanford University Press, 1983 --still in print!). A generation later she penned a popular women's history textbook with fellow historian Barbara Ramusack, Women in Asia: Restoring Women to History (Indiana University Press, 1999). When asked why she chose to write the half of the textbook devoted to the women of China, Japan and Korea (Ramusack wrote the half devoted to South and Southeast Asia) she sighed and said "I guess I got tired of waiting for someone else to do it." Hundreds of my students have read Sharon's half over the past decade.

Sharon was also a poet and photographer, a fan of classical music and raconteur. She always laughed that she was a "Plain Plains Girl." She was born May 27, 1938 the Daughter of the late Celia (Pahl) and Edwin Walter Sievers of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. She began her education with a bachelor's degree at Augustana College in South Dakota, then a Master's in History at the University of Nebraska, finishing with her doctorate at Stanford University in 1969, a year after she began her teaching career at CSULB.

She is survived by her life partner Eugenia Odell of Long Beach, sister Beverly Hall of Tacoma, WA, dear friend Maylene Wong of San Francisco, and many grieving friends, former students and colleagues all over the world. We'll not see the likes of her again.

A memorial service is scheduled for 4 p.m., Saturday, May 8, 2010, at St. Luke's Episcopal Church of Long Beach, 525 E. 7th Street, Long Beach. Interment will be in her native Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Donations in Sharon's memory may be made to the Sievers Scholars Program, c/o Department of History, CSULB, 1250 Bellflower Boulevard, Long Beach, CA 90840.


Anonymous said...

Hi TR --

I'm a semi-regular commenter here, posting anonymously this time so I don't out myself. I am a member of Sharon's department. She was chair when I was hired, and I can't imagine a better person to have. She came into the department when it was all old white guys, and not only helped to found Women's Studies at CSULB, but also was a fierce protector and promoter of young female faculty, as well as for the department in general. She was a wonderful chair, and an incredible human being. We all miss her terribly.

Anonymous said...

Same anon here -- I forgot something: one of Sharon's last requests was that her friends lift a glass of scotch -- preferably single-malt -- in her honor.

Tenured Radical said...

Many sympathies, Anonymous 9:54. Sharon just seems like a dynamite person, and a terrific colleague.

Y'all hear that out there about the glass of single malt? I want to hear the glasses hitting the counter!

Susan said...

Well, I won't do the glass of single malt before lunch, but later, I promise!

Historiann said...

Thanks for this, TR. I think it's especially important to commemorate careers like Sharon Sievers's. She probably didn't train Ph.D. students to follow in her footsteps, but nevertheless it sounds like she made a large and wonderful difference in the lives of her students, colleagues, friends, and the CSULB community. Women like that, especially warriors of her generation, deserve our commemoration and gratitude.

Anonymous said...

Sharon was many things to many people,as we all are I suspect. For me, what I always noticed was her ability, or perhaps her inclination, to take note of the small things in academic life, the little things that pass by most. She was generous wth praise, always available to help one deal with the absurdities of university life, and always with good humor.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Sounds like she was an amazing person. I will lift a glass of Laphroig this evening in her honor.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had known her. Do y'all think she'd be ok with a glass of bourbon?

Anonymous said...

Love the tux and feminist/activist historians!

Unknown said...

What a great historian, what a great colleague and teacher. I'll drink to her memory tonight.

Lisa Valencia said...

I was a student of Sharon's in the early-to-mid 80's and got to experience first-hand her caring and compasion, as well as her sharp wit. She was unflappable and was a tireless mentor and resource to her women's studies students. I am sad to hear of her passing but feel blessed to have known her.