Prof. Linda Hasunuma, political science expert, on her new book, women and politics, and student leadership at the University of Bridgeport
The U.S. midterms swept a record number of women into Congress, but for Linda Hasunuma, a visiting assistant professor at the School of Public and International Affairs, the question is, “What comes next?”
Hasunuma has spent her career studying women in politics, focusing on the social, political, and cultural effects of their leadership around the world. As U.S. voters went to the polls in November, Hasunuma was in Japan to lecture on “Women and War” at Ochanomizu University.
She is a contributing author to Beyond the Gender Gap in Japan, released this month by the University of Michigan Press.
Now back on campus, Hasunuma is preparing to teach Gender Politics, a new undergraduate course being offered this spring at the University of Bridgeport.
A native New Yorker, Hasunuma earned her bachelor’s and PhD in Political Science from UCLA.
Let’s start with your new class Gender Politics, which will be offered at the School of Public and International Affairs starting this month.
At UB, I see gender politics exciting young students who see [alumna] Jahana Hayes ’14 or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [who were just elected to Congress] and finally see themselves in a world that they thought they could not access or perhaps they did not belong to. Our students care deeply about global issues, education, income equality, health outcomes, and justice. I see it in the topics they’re writing about: rape as a weapon of war, race and gender and the criminal justice system, women’s leadership in politics, and women and international security.
Our class will cover the theoretical frameworks and findings about women’s participation in politics, especially as representatives, and the substantive impact they can have on policy outcomes. We’ll also talk about women’s labor and economic empowerment, intersectionality, migration, and women in different professions, from STEM to law and academia.
You’ve also talked about making connections between theory and life. How will the Gender Politics class promote student action?
Students will create a blog, website, and/or digital archive of women’s contributions at UB, Bridgeport, and Connecticut for Women’s History Month in March, and I’m planning a lecture on gender and global security for International Women’s Day [on March 8, 2019]. Ideas of what might be introduced on campus will be a result of the class. The goal is to institutionalize these events so that we can recognize and honor women’s contributions to our community and the world.
The class will also support women and families in the Bridgeport community through volunteer work. Representation matters. Race and gender impact outcomes at a local and global level, so my students want frameworks that include gender and race to be applied in their studies.
Students at UB are natural leaders. They see the gaps and problems from their own lives and experiences. They know what needs to be done for their communities and families, so it’s exciting to see how discussions of politics and gender inspire and motivate my students to take action through their studies, volunteer work, or career path.
You’re a first-generation college student from Queens with a PhD from UCLA. How does your own academic journey influence your work as a professor and as someone who's keenly interested in gender rights and concomitant issues pertaining to opportunity?
I grew up in a very poor immigrant family, learned English as a second language at school, and struggled to finish school because of my dad’s disability; he became bedridden with Lupus when I was a senior in high school. I understand, intimately, the challenges and pressures of many first-gens to not only launch themselves into more secure lives but also to support their families along the way. I worked all through college and grad school. I am here because of Pell grants, scholarships, and amazing mentoring—my professors at UCLA helped me navigate college and learn about ways I could pay for college and go to grad school. My parents sat me down and said they could not help with grad school and I would have to do it on my own, so I had to figure it out on my own. First gen issues can follow you into grad school and your professional life.
So much of higher ed. is about having a team of people who can direct you to resources and mentor you and so that is why I teach. I want to do the same for my students---students of all backgrounds, but I understand the specific challenges of being low income, having parents who never went to college or cannot speak English at a level that can help you navigate college, and the struggles of belonging and fit in academia as a woman and a minority. I am a non-traditional returning adult student, and was a transfer student. More of us in higher ed. are going to be from these non-traditional backgrounds, so I want to support these students and show them that they can do it, too, and that there are faculty like them who are there for them.
Beyond the Gender Gap in Japan is an expansive look at Japanese women’s experiences at work, home, family, and in politics. As a contributing author, what did you write about?
I looked at how women, especially mothers, organized after 3/11 [the name given for the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant].
After that horrible disaster, women in rural villages mobilized against nuclear power. They stepped up and filled in the gaps in terms of providing services and medical and mental health care that local governments were not able to provide. They monitored food safety and created their own food-labeling system. They shared information and bought produce from safer southern parts of Japan. If you look at the local community level, women are visible and active participants. They are just very few of them in elected offices at the national level.
You’ve looked at the #MeToo movement in the U.S. and throughout East Asia. What have you found?
The U.S. #MeToo movement definitely inspired women in Asia, and younger women in particular who use social media. In Japan, there is more fear and reluctance to go public with accusations of sexual harassment because there is a strong backlash and culture of victim-blaming. Sexual harassment is not considered a crime but a personal matter, and one in which the woman is held responsible. In South Korea, there are strong existing networks in civil society where women can and are mobilizing. The #MeToo movement has had more momentum there. There have been trials and efforts to change laws. Nevertheless, in both cases, there is still a backlash against women who speak out and strong cultural and social norms to remain silent.
There’s also a strong movement in South Korea concerning Comfort Women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. How does that issue fit into a larger historical context?
The issue of the Comfort Women is one of the many examples throughout history where we can look at violence against women during wartime. It’s a very contentious issue that has strained diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea and also in their trilateral relations with the U.S. It shows how conflicts over memory and history influence the current foreign relations of East Asian countries.
It also brings up the issue of how the women’s movement embraces all viewpoints, including conservative perspectives.
Beyond the Gender Gap in Japan actually includes a chapter on conservative and more right-leaning women and there was a special issue just published in Politics & Gender on Republican women and U.S. politics and women on the right from a comparative perspective.
The field of gender politics is new but growing, and the scholarship is addressing many important questions about democracy, representation, and equality. I think it’s important to show, as our book does, that the category of women is complex and must be disaggregated. Women are not one unified group but divided by ideology, religion, class, sexual orientation, education, etc. More and more work in the field addresses the multiple and intersectional identities of women and the implications for policy and politics. Gender politics is not just about women and the field is trying to be more inclusive and intersectional in its approaches.
Interviewed by Leslie Geary