Dorothy Y. Ko professor of history at Barnard since 2001, tends to look beyond the commonly accepted understanding of history. When she mounted an in-depth study of the maligned practice of female foot binding in China and published the books Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet and later Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding, she broke new ground in the understanding of Chinese culture. The works upended the idea of Chinese women as mere victims of the patriarchy, and on April 28, 2022, Ko was one of 261 members elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, an organization founded in 1780.
In the past Ko’s feminist friends have taken her to task. Ko didn’t mind defending her approach, as she welcomed her friends’ challenges and the “feisty conversations.” “[When I studied foot binding], I thought there must be other reasons that compelled the women in China to do this,” said Ko. “I wanted to figure out what it was from their perspective before we judge whether it’s good or bad, right or wrong, so, yes, that got me into a lot of trouble.” It also won her glowing reviews. Publisher’s Weekly called Cinderella’s Sisters a “peerless work [that] will be relished by scholars and enjoyed by lay readers interested in Chinese history.”
The election to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences is among many honors for Ko, who — from her election as an academician of Academia Sinica in July 2018 and her turn in the 2020 movie The Last City to her recent appointment as Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the North at the Library of Congress — has garnered much recognition for her pathbreaking inquiry and writings.
A natural-born contrarian, Ko shares her thoughts on this latest honor and discusses the questions that drive her research and teaching.
What is your research focus, and how has it evolved throughout your time at Barnard?
The lifelong focus of my research is women and gender in early modern China. Before coming to Barnard, I sought to map the emotional and intellectual lives of Chinese women by analyzing the poetry they wrote. My approaches have diversified since coming to Barnard and New York City. Gaining regular access to world-class museums and private collections has inspired me to use fashion, shoes, handwork/craft, and material cultures to dig deeper into the lives of women, especially illiterate ones.
What does this honor mean to you?
On the one hand, I’m thrilled that this recognition of my research signals heightened valuation of academic knowledge about China and its long history at a time of growing political and economic antagonisms. On the other hand, life goes on.
How will it impact your work and research?
Not sure if it will have any substantive impact on my work, as my current research direction is set: food and environmentalism in China. If I gain a larger platform, fine, but with or without the recognition, there is no turning back.
How has Barnard supported your work over the years?
I’m really proud to be a Barnard professor. We enjoy the best of both worlds: the library, travel, leave, and logistical support of a major research university, and the intimate setting of a small liberal arts college. It is the only college I’ve taught in where I can brainstorm my research questions with undergraduates in the classroom. Also, the privilege of working with so many talented and high-achieving colleagues energizes me.
Who or what inspires your work?
The intellectual acuity, creativity, and elegant prose of some of our students; their social conscience and commitment to social justice; their despair about “living on a dying planet”; their refusal to accept the state of the world as the only outcome. An honest, complex, and well-argued book that challenges the reader to change her views instead of insulting her intelligence. A well-wrought object, any object, made by the human or nonhuman mindful hand, be it a tumbled pebble, a lava rock, a ceramic vessel, or whatnot.
—MARIE DeNOIA ARONSOHN