I just learned that sociologist Ruth Sidel has died. These are a few scattered notes on the influence of some of her work. I always wanted to meet her but never did. I read her early work on China as a student, and I used her later work on poverty and welfare in the U.S. in my teaching.
She had a great influence on American leftists (and me) initially because of her writing on China, especially Women and Child Care in China, which came from a trip she took in 1971, during the Cultural Revolution, with her husband, Victor Sidel (and one of the founders of Physicians for Social Responsibility). At the time of that trip she was a social worker, having written only a masters thesis, invited in her role as wife, but found their hosts willing to open up their visit (which was supposed to be about medical care) to the issues of women’s liberation and education. She remembered in an oral history interview:
They integrated what I was interested in into every single thing we did. It was just remarkable. … Half way through the trip I said to Vic, “There is a book here.”… He said “How can you have a book after two weeks?” And I said “Trust me, there is a book here.” …and I did and wrote a book called “Women and Childcare in China” which was really like successful. People really wanted to read about it. They wanted to read about mutual aid. They wanted to read about how the communist government was trying to take care of children and women. We went to preschools and how the children were taught to help each other, love each other and take care of each other according to the words of Chairman Mao, literally, I’m quoting. The book went into paperback and sold even more copies and I spoke everywhere. I’d never given a speech before in my life, ever. Terrified but I had to do it because I knew stuff that other people didn’t know and I had to communicate it.
One book led to the next book about neighborhood organization [Families of Fengsheng: Urban Life in China] and I helped Vic finish his book on healthcare. The whole 70s I was writing about China and lecturing about China all over the country and in many parts of Europe. We were invited—I mean it was just unbelievable. It was a total life change and thrilling.
I am awed by that spirit of adventure, the confidence to seize that moment, and the commitment to doing social science for the public interest.
Later she got a PhD in sociology and went on to write on poverty and welfare, the work she was known for after the 1990s (see books listed below).
Although writing books promoting the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s is not a fast-track ticket to respectability nowadays, if you go back to those books you will also see how close her observations are, and how incisive. The macro-political context of course is important (and she wrote about that), but that was not her primary contribution. In addition to what she learned (or didn’t) from official documents and statements, she did see some things with her own eyes. One of the key insights she brought back from China was the value of deprofessionalization, the role of non-professionals to improving community health and education. This was essential to the dramatic improvements in public health achieved in that period in China (which I wrote about in a remembrance on another China-inspired American feminist, Janet Salaff.) This was a radical-democratic view of public health in particular. From Families of Fengsheng:
Health care, perhaps better than any other single facet of Chinese society, vividly illustrates some of the principles that guide life in China today: a strong belief in mass involvement; recruitment of health workers from among those who live in the community to be served; short periods of training to minimize alienation from the community; a minimum of social distance between the helper and the helped; attempts to demystify as much of medicine as possible; decentralization; and motivating people through altruism rather than through prestige or material incentives.
Wouldn’t that be something!
I hope there will be more comprehensive remembrances from people who knew Ruth Sidel and her work more fully. This note is just to register my own deep appreciation.
Some books by Ruth Sidel:
- Sidel, Ruth. 1972. Women and Child Care in China; a Firsthand Report. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Sidel, Ruth. 1974. Families of Fengsheng : Urban Life in China. Baltimore: Penguin Books.
- Sidel, Ruth. 1978. Urban Survival : The World of Working-Class Women. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Sidel, Ruth. 1986. Women and Children Last : The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America. New York: Viking.
- Sidel, Ruth. 1990. On Her Own : Growing up in the Shadow of the American Dream. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.
- Sidel, Ruth. 1996. Keeping Women and Children Last : America’s War on the Poor. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books.
- Sidel, Ruth. 2006. Unsung Heroines : Single Mothers and the American Dream. Berkeley: University of California Press.