Elevating Women Scholars Around the World

Japanese woman scholars
Alisa Freedman (second from right) gathers with Japanese women scholars whose stories she shared in her book, 'Women in Japanese Studies: Memoirs from a Trailblazing Generation.' 

January 8, 2024

Elevating Women Scholars Around the World

For Alisa Freedman, becoming a Fulbright Scholar is about more than winning a prestigious prize. It’s a way to follow the path blazed by women academics before her.

“I’m a Fulbright fangirl,” says Freedman, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Asian Studies Program and the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures. Her scholarship is focused on Japanese studies. “I feel like I’m walking in the path laid by the women I’m studying,” she explains.

To develop her latest book, Women in Japanese Studies: Memoirs from a Trailblazing Generation, published by Columbia University Press, Freedman edited memoirs, conducted interviews and collected documents that tell the stories of 32 women scholars who overcame systemic gender barriers to help develop the Japanese studies discipline that would be a model for universities throughout the country.

Freedman hopes to do something similar when she travels to Vietnam in January as part of the Fulbright US Scholar Program, where she plans to teach courses and hold workshops on academic publishing for women scholars there.

Advancing women’s scholarship in Vietnam

Freedman first traveled to Vietnam before COVID through trips led by the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies. During those trips, she mentored five academics in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

Alisa Freedman
Alisa Freedman

“It made me want to do more,” Freedman says. “It’s one of the biggest developing economies in the world. And the hunger for knowledge, ideas and collaboration is so inspiring.”

Freedman is one of three UO faculty members to win a spot in the prestigious US State Department international exchange program. Other Fulbright awards were awarded to Tuong Vu, a political science professor, and Yizhao Yang, a professor in the School of Planning, Public Policy Management.

Freedman’s 2024 Fulbright trip will consist of several elements, from research-focused activities to supporting academics there. During her five-month visit, she’ll be recording and sharing personal stories of women professors in Vietnam, teaching gender studies and cultural studies, advancing the humanities, mentoring colleagues through the academic publishing process—and more.

“Their education system is different than ours,” Freedman says. “They want to know about the latest theories, educational structures and how to make the most out of a lack of resources.” 

More than half of the population in Vietnam is younger than 25 years old, Freedman says. Many of the women scholars in Vietnam earned their PhD degrees in the early 2010s, at a time when only 28 percent of the nation’s doctorates were held by women, according to data from the United Nations.

Chronicling the rise of Japanese studies

Women in Japanese Studies book cover

The rise of women scholars in Vietnam, alongside continued international academic travels to and from the country, is similar to Freedman’s research in her recent book. Women in Japanese Studies explores the role that women in education exchange programs—such as the Fulbright program—had in the formation of Japanese studies more than 50 years ago.

“The memoirs are as much about America as they are about Japan,” Freedman says about her book. “A lot of these women were able to launch their careers in the late 1960s and early 1970s because fields like Japanese studies were of national defense interest, so there was a need for professors because universities were feeling the pressure of affirmative action.”

Women in Japanese Studies is a departure from the typical academic approach, featuring memoirs of its subjects rather than approaching the subjects as data. But the book is inspired by other ways to share stories of underrepresented people in the professional world, such as the bestselling Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race

Helping the women professors in Vietnam share their stories, as she did with her latest book, is a goal of Freedman’s. Sharing these stories is a way to bridge people together, she says, which is also a mission of a Fulbright scholar and why she has such an affinity for the international exchange program.

“I hope by recording their personal stories of how they entered the humanities fields and took these opportunities, I can provide a record and inspire not just people in Vietnam but in other places too,” Freedman says.

—Henry Houston, MA ’17 (international studies) is a communications coordinator for the College of Arts and Sciences.