Remembering a Scholar, Mentor, Colleague, and Friend

Picture of Esther Ngan-ling Chow

Professor Emerita Esther Ngan-ling Chow was a member of the faculty in the Department of Sociology of the College of Arts and Sciences at American University (AU) for more than 35 years. I am honored to have been her colleague in the department for nearly 25 of those years. Many years ago, when I interviewed for the job at AU, the Arts and Sciences dean at the time had the practice of asking prospective faculty members a very pointed question: among AU faculty, whose scholarly work do you know? But that was an easy one for me. The answer: Esther Chow, who at that time had already achieved the rank of Full Professor.

Esther produced early, pioneering scholarship on the intersectionality of race, class, and gender, particularly in the experiences of Asian and Asian American women. She also served a term as chair of the Asia and Asian America section of the American Sociological Association (ASA). Esther’s research was at the forefront in studying gender, family, work, and policy from global and transnational perspectives. She served terms on the editorial boards of the journals Gender & Society and International Sociology. Esther’s later scholarship focused on issues of citizenship, identity, belonging, and empowerment among migrant women workers in rural China. She founded the True Light Foundation – an organization aimed at reducing poverty and increasing educational opportunities for young women in rural China. That is to say, Esther Chow modeled the melding of scholarship and service in a truly exemplary manner.

For her body of scholarship, Esther received numerous awards: among them the Stuart A. Rice Merit Award for Career Achievement from the District of Columbia Sociological Society (DCSS), which recognizes accomplishments over a professional career of at least 25 years. One of my favorite photos of Esther is of her, our colleague Bette J. Dickerson, and me, with the Key Bridge and the Potomac River as a backdrop, on the occasion of her receiving the Rice award. She also received the Jessie Bernard Award from the ASA, recognizing her significant life-long scholarly contributions to the study of women and gender. Esther noted at the time that this award was a gratifying “affirmation of [her] identity as a feminist sociologist.”

But I am quite certain that Esther felt no greater honor than the renaming of the Women of Color Dissertation Scholarship, which is awarded by Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS), as the Esther Ngan-ling Chow and Mareyjoyce Green Scholarship. This renaming of a major graduate student award acknowledged the crucial organizational contributions to SWS of these two members, an Asian American scholar and an African American scholar. Their integral roles in making SWS more inclusive of women of color now extends to supporting future generations of feminist scholars of color.

Esther’s significant scholarship was matched by her passion for teaching and mentoring. Her presence in the AU sociology department had much to do with our longstanding recognition as a location for the study of intersectionality and social inequality; of gender and international development; and, certainly, of transnational feminism.

Over the course of her career, Esther mentored more than 100 graduate students, guiding some 30 of them to the completion of their doctorates. These doctoral students included multiple international students from China, as well as from Latin America and the Caribbean, and many American women and men of color.

“[I] had that ABD moment and … considered quitting the program,” a former student said. “I remember vividly that upon learning my thought, Dr. Chow was alarmed and called me to meet. [After] several heart-to heart talks … I did not quit the program. … The experience I had and perspective I gained from conducting the research to complete my dissertation enabled me to view and understand global social-political issues from a more critical and holistic perspective.”

Her commitment to mentoring students also extended to mentoring junior colleagues. Bette Dickerson and I, who joined the AU faculty within a year of one another, were profoundly influenced not only by Esther’s scholarship but also by her support, as the two of us embarked on an ambitious project on the theoretical and experiential connections among gender, race, class, and nation. Many, many other colleagues share our experience of Esther’s generosity, including ASA President Joya Misra, who said: “Esther was always enormously supportive of me … showing a deep kindness and intellectual brilliance. We shared a commitment to a global and transnational orientation to feminist sociology, long before such work was recognized more widely. … I am grateful for her influence, both in terms of research, and in terms of how to treat the people around you.”

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Esther graduated from Chung Chi College at Chinese University of Hong Kong with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Economics. In 1966, she moved to the United States for graduate study and earned her doctorate in sociology from UCLA in 1973. During her time at UCLA, she met her husband, Dr. Norman Chang, and together they moved to the D.C. area to work and build a family. Esther is survived by her husband, her children Paul Chang and Dr. Jennifer Grizenko, and two grandsons.

As a sociologist, but also as a colleague and friend, ritual held importance for Esther. She was present for rituals marking major transitions in my life, as I was in hers – most recently, speaking at her memorial at the Chinese Community Church. When I reflect on that photograph from the DCSS awards banquet, Esther’s smile says to me: I am here; I am engaged and interested; I care. May our community hold her thoughtful and caring presence close as we go forward.

By Gay Young

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