A Local Pulitzer Winner on Violence Against Women
Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of Half the Sky and Westchester resident
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Sheryl WuDunn sounds busy. She reveals nothing about her schedule, but her voice clips along at an almost equestrian canter: rhythmic, vibrant, measured, but with a nearly imperceptible breathlessness. Her words have places to go, people to educate. You know just from hearing her that she speaks with her hands, not flamboyantly, but like an engineer or an architect, tracing her arguments in right angles, punctuating with the odd self-deprecating comment and a quick, bright laugh. And right away, you understand how this diminutive Chinese-American mother of three, a Westchester resident and a finance wiz with a propensity for big-picture thinking, found a formula to successfully draw attention to one of the world’s longstanding, silent atrocities. Through a combination of dogged reporting, a multimedia blitz, and direct appeal, WuDunn has helped shine the spotlight on the pervasive global tragedy of violence against women.
The highlight of Sheryl WuDunn’s career as a journalist for the New York Times was her coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989, for which she and her husband, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, won a joint Pulitzer, the first married couple—and WuDunn, the first Asian American—to do so in journalism. But as the New York City native spent those early days of June counting the bodies in the square, she could hardly have imagined that she’d soon stumble onto a tragedy whose casualties would dwarf the numbers at Tiananmen, culminating in a story that spanned the globe.
It wasn’t long after Tiananmen that WuDunn and Kristof, traveling in the Chinese countryside, stumbled across a quiet little demographic study that made the following shocking conclusion: Every year in China, roughly 39,000 baby girls died because they weren’t privileged enough to receive the same medical attention that baby boys did—39,000 baby girls every year who weren’t considered important enough to save.
And they were only a fraction of the 30 million female babies missing from the Chinese population for a host of reasons, some of them presumably aborted after sonograms revealed their gender to parents who preferred boys. It was lethal discrimination. WuDunn and Kristof would later dub it “gendercide.” And, because of how often it was happening, no one was writing about it.
“If something happens every day,” says WuDunn, “it’s not news.” The systematic annihilation of females in the Chinese population, simply because they were female, was too far removed from the Western consciousness, and far too common in China, to merit media attention anywhere.