Sharon L. Sievers dies at 71; pioneered women’s studies program at Cal State Long Beach


Sharon L. Sievers, a history professor who helped pioneer women’s studies at Cal State Long Beach in the early 1970s and with others later sued the university to preserve the program, has died. She was 71.

Sievers, who also was a noted scholar of Japanese history, died April 5 at her Long Beach home after a long illness, said Nancy Quam-Wickham, who followed her as chairwoman of the university’s history department.

After joining Cal State Long Beach in 1968, Sievers spent her entire 40-year academic career there.

“She was extraordinarily bright, stunningly brilliant,” Quam-Wickham said. “She was really devoted to the student body and to nurturing young scholars.”

On its website, the university’s College of Liberal Arts called Sievers’ influence on the campus “profound and enduring.”

Even rudimentary efforts to establish women’s studies at the school were often met with “open antagonism,” Sievers later wrote, by colleagues who failed to consider the subject a serious academic enterprise. They were eventually won over by solid “intellectual inquiry,” she said.

A broader challenge evolved when a student complained in 1982 that recommended reading for a women’s studies course advocated lesbianism. The charge led a group of conservatives that included a former Republican state senator and the California president of Phyllis Schlafly’s conservative Eagle Forum to challenge the program’s existence.

“Cal State Long Beach became a battleground for a war over women’s studies programs,” The Times reported in 1984, and in the ensuing furor several people lost their jobs, including the program’s director.

As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a sex-discrimination suit against the university on behalf of the fired director and a group of 19 students and instructors that included Sievers.

The suit ultimately helped safeguard elements of the program, Sievers later wrote. But during the ACLU case she told The Times: “We are not here to make people feel good. What women’s studies does is look at the unpleasant realities and contradictions of society.”

Sharon Lee Sievers was born May 27, 1938, in Scottsbluff, Neb., and studied history and biology at Augustana College in South Dakota. She followed her bachelor’s degree with a master’s in history from the University of Nebraska.

An affection for Japanese art led her to Stanford University, where she arrived fluent in Japanese and graduated with a doctorate in Japanese history in 1969.

Many scholars of Japanese history consider Sievers “the foremother” of women’s history in Japan, said Michiko Takeuchi, a Cal State Long Beach history professor who was inspired to make Japanese history her life’s work after taking a class from Sievers.

Sievers’ 1983 book, “Flowers in Salt,” is credited with introducing English-language readers to the development of feminist consciousness in Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

For a dozen years, she chaired the history department, stepping down in 2005. Twice she chaired the women’s studies program, in the 1980s and the late 1990s.

In 1999, Cal State Long Beach named Sievers its outstanding professor.

“She was very good at making students think,” Takeuchi said. “She was always encouraging, always giving.”

She considered herself “a daughter of the Plains,” friends said, who enjoyed fly fishing, birding, basketball — and a good laugh.

Late in life, she kept homes in her native Scottsbluff and Long Beach.

Sievers is survived by her partner, Eugenia Odell; and a sister, Beverly Hall.

A memorial will be held at 4 p.m. May 8 at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 525 E. 7th St., Long Beach.