Dr. Julia Chang Wan

“I Wanted to Be an Independent, Accomplished Person Rather than Being Known as Somebody’s Wife.”

Interviewed by Rosemary Trowbridge, August 2019

RT:  I’m interviewing Julia Wan, my dear friend. Julia, let’s start with your name and when and where you were born.

JW:  My name is Julia Chang. Wan is my married name. I was born in Hong Kong, October 1937. My family background is Chinese but I’m from Shantou, a small seaport on the eastern coast of Guangdong province in China. It’s about a hundred miles north of Hong Kong and people in Shantou spoke Teochew dialect.

I was born in Hong Kong, a British Colony and I lived there for a year before moving back to Shantou, China. A year later, World War II started and the Japanese invaded China shortly after occupying Hong Kong and Shantou. The allies bombing and Japanese occupation forced our family to seek shelter in the countryside where there were no schools or stores.

After the Allies dropped two atomic bombs in Japan – that was in 1945 – we decided to go back to Shantou. I was 8 years old by then, so I started school and that’s when I learned how to read and write Chinese. I didn’t go to school before then, except I had some home tutors that came in and helped us learn a few things.

The civil war in China began shortly after World War II. Communists were gaining ground and the nationalists retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Our family moved to Hong Kong in 1948, because we were landowners and we disagreed with the Communist Rule.

In the summer of 1948, my mother took me to Hong Kong to live with my aunt, her sister, who enrolled me in a Catholic girls’ school. Since I had very little schooling, my aunt found a private tutor to teach me English and help me with schoolwork. A year later I was accepted into one of the best girls’ schools in Hong Kong, DGS.

I was a boarder in the school for one year while my parent’s house was being built. Looking back, life was good in our new house: my sister and I had our own bedrooms and we shared a bathroom and we had a nanny. My two brothers also had their own rooms and a separate nanny who spoiled us. We did not learn to do anything useful except study and play the piano.

RT:  Tell me about your life before the women’s movement.

JW:  In 1952, my brother and I left Hong Kong for Sydney, Australia, because my parents were afraid the Chinese Communists would overtake Hong Kong. Attending the Methodist girls’ boarding school started my development of becoming an independent woman.

The school encouraged learning and sports. I was also known as a “brain”. Most of the boys I dated were not very smart and I decided when I grew up I wanted to be an independent, accomplished person, rather than being known as somebody’s wife. There was no role model to follow. I married Fred after college, because he believed women should be independent like his mother.

RT:  How did you get involved in the women’s movement? I know you went to Wellesley College. Was there any talk of women independence when you were at Wellesley?

JW:  Not really. At Wellesley I was just concentrating on my studies. But in 1969, the women’s liberation movement was very much in the news. I was not paying much attention until Fred said, “the women’s liberation movement makes sense. If women don’t fight for their rights, why should men fight on their behalf?” 

I asked him, “If I encounter sex discrimination, would you fight for me?” He said, “you have to fight your own battle”. We had been married nine years at that time. When he said that to me, it woke me up. I could not rely on him to fight for me and started to pay attention to the women’s movements.

I remember getting involved in the women’s movement August 26, 1970, the fiftieth anniversary of passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. It was an important and memorable day. I joined the Women’s Equality March in Boston from the State House to the City Hall. NOW member Pat Gold went to Canada to obtain Abortion Education pamphlets for distribution, which was illegal in Massachusetts at that time. We had an ACLU observer in case we got arrested.

We were all nervous. Along the march some construction workers called out “Chinks go home”. But there were thousands marching: women, men and children. We gathered in the Boston City Hall plaza and listened to speakers who were inspirational and energizing. There was profuse news coverage the following day. New York City and Chicago had hundreds of thousands of marchers.

RT:  Tell me more about your activities.

JW:  After the Equality Day March in 1970, I joined the National Organization for Women and a women’s consciousness-raising group, which was like a book group. We chose an article or a book each week and discussed how it relates to our lives and experiences. One day, Roberta [Benjamin] said we needed to talk about something different – an important experience she wanted to discuss.  

She had a fight with her husband. She was so upset about his behavior she had to leave the house. She took her car and started driving while thinking about where she should go. After several hours she realized that she had no personal close friends (confidants) whom she could talk to, because all her friends were her husband’s friends. She had no one to talk to and nowhere to go. Feeling dejected and humiliated, she went home.

This session made a strong impact on me. I realized after Fred and I married, I spent most of my time with my husband and his friends gradually distancing myself from my own friends. I went home that evening, looked through our address cards and separated my husband’s friends from my own friends and started two separate boxes of address cards. Since then, we have separate address lists, his and mine.

There were two books that influenced me most. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and Century of Struggle by Eleanor Flexner. Friedan’s book clearly identified how the concept of femininity was constructed for the benefit of society and economics. During World War II women were recruited to work in traditional male jobs. After the war, women were told to become homemakers without financial compensation. There was no equal pay for equal work.

RT:  I’d just like to interject here that one of the things that was so exciting about the ’70s is that you and I would read all these books and talk about them. It seems every week there was a new fantastic book relating to women. The bookstores were just full of them. Tell me more about your involvement in the Boston chapter of NOW.

JW:  I became an active member in the Boston chapter of NOW. Members were mostly college educated women, professional women and housewives. We worked on equal access issues such as job advertisement that had separate “men only” and “women only” columns, schools that required boys to take shop and girls to take home economics etc. Our goal was to change the laws. I was asked to work on an education bill.

Gail, an attorney, wrote the factsheet and I coordinated the testimony for the bill. Three of us testified in front of the education committee at the Massachusetts State House. There was a high school girl who said that she was denied the right to take a shop class, the mother of a girl from another school said her daughter was required to take cooking although she chose another class. I testified as a physics teacher.

The bill passed and became Chapter 622 of the Educational Code, which forbids sex discrimination in public school classes. Two years later another bill was filed to repeal Chapter 622. We attended the State House hearing again.

A couple of shop teachers and a principal testified. They said, “shop classes are not suitable for girls because of foul language and greasy tools in the classrooms”. In response I said, “foul language is never acceptable in school and girls could wash away grease as easily as boys.” I also said, “I teach physics and girls do just as well as boys.” The repeal did not pass, and Chapter 622 is still law today. That was my major accomplishment in NOW.

 RT:  Thank you for that and I will add that that included curriculum, which Title IX did not cover and Chapter 622 covered sex discrimination and race discrimination, color, religion and sexual orientation. It was a wide-ranging bill. 

Tell us more about your most memorable experiences.

JW:  I remember leafleting in 1971 at the Wellesley College Commencement.  Three Wellesley alumna, NOW members Carolyn Montgomery, Pat Kaplan and I distributed flyers to the attendees at the College Commencement. The Flyers said: “CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR DAUGHTERS’ GRADUATION, BUT CAN SHE TYPE?” followed by a long list of salaries for men compared to salaries for women. The next day, Boston Globe’s front page featured the Wellesley Commencement leaflet and the feminist commencement speaker, Kate Millett. 

Two months later we decided to visit the new Wellesley President, Barbara Newell. We urged her to start a program at Wellesley for older women who wanted a college education after some life experiences, not just admitting girls straight out of high school.

President Newell seemed receptive to the idea and that was the start of the Davis Scholar program. As we were leaving her office, she asked if we were the people who distributed the leaflets during Commencement. We just looked at her and smiled.

RT:  How did the movement affect your life?

JW:  I was a high school physics teacher at that time at Watertown High School and occasionally I complained about the Science Department head’s bad decisions. My husband would say, “if you think you can do better just prepare yourself to take over his position”. Since I had a BA in Physics and MA in Chemistry, the next step was to get a doctorate in Education. I was admitted to the Ed.D. Program at Boston College.

During the same time my husband was offered a good position in the University of British Columbia, across the country from Boston. I was not ready to leave my job and was eager to start on my doctorate. We decided to work it out by spending vacations together and living separately.

Living alone, I signed up for a woman’s Tai Kwan Do class 2-3 times a week to learn self-defense and to build confidence. We had a commuter marriage for a total of 9 years: 5 years between Vancouver and Boston and 4 years between Vancouver and Seattle. And that was not commonly done. Everybody kind of looked at it and frowned.  

RT:  How did the movement affect you professionally?

JW:  Professionally, working in the movement had helped me develop a lot of skills. Managing time, how to prioritize work and to gain personal confidence and how to work with volunteers. I applied for the Director of Science position in Watertown School District, which had a total of twelve schools, grades K-12. The application process dragged on for about a year.

One day in September I was called into the Principal’s office. The Superintendent was also there, and he offered me the position of Director of Science. Then he said, “The Science Department has tough men teachers, do you think you can handle them?” I responded by saying, “I teach physics and most of my students are teenage boys. Since I have no trouble managing teenage boys I should have no trouble managing adult men teachers.”  

The Superintendent then said with a smile, “Bobby Riggs lost to Billie Jean King in tennis last night. I guess women are winning in the world.”  It was September 20, 1973. I will never forget that day.

RT:  Tell us about your life after NOW.

JW:  After my NOW phase, 1970-78, and receiving my doctorate, I was looking for a job in Seattle, closer to where my husband lived. I was appointed Director of Curriculum in Federal Way School District with supervisory responsibility for 12 lead teachers, one in each subject area. The Superintendent was more focused on sports than academics. It was not a good fit. I worked there for 4 years, made some good friends and mentored several Lead Teachers who became Principals.

I applied for the Assistant Superintendent position in Bainbridge Island School District, which had a good reputation and was academically oriented. I accepted the position and worked there for eight years. Bainbridge Island was a small district with very few administrators. As Assistant Superintendent, I had many responsibilities, such as working with teachers on curriculum, personnel issues and interacting with the School Board.

One of the parents was very active in NOW and she asked if I would run for the national NOW Board, which I did and served for two years without accomplishing anything concrete. Unfortunately, I have to admit that.

In 1992, my husband was recruited to head the Math Division of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Washington DC. The Education Division of NSF at that time was starting a Statewide Systemic Reform Initiative in Science & Math Education.

Fortunately, my science and administrative background fit exactly to the requirements of NSF. I was offered the position of Program Director to oversee several states that received funding. It was a valuable and exciting experience to work at the national level, which gave me a broad perspective that I would not have otherwise.

RT:  When you moved to Washington he was still in Vancouver. You took turns on whose turn it was to move.

JW:  That’s right. Because when I moved to Washington State, the University of Washington was starting an applied math program and they knew I was living in Washington on Bainbridge Island. They decided to recruit Fred, my husband, to leave Vancouver to come to Seattle. And that’s what happened. He said it was my turn. So, he moved to Seattle to start the new math department.

RT:  So, you’re finally together. Then what’s next?

JW:  When he was at University of Washington and I was at Bainbridge Island, we were recruited by NSF. We spent two and half years in Washington D.C. and he decided that he wanted to get back to academia. The government was not a lifetime job for him or for me.

In 1995 he had accepted the position of Vice Chancellor at the University of California, Irvine. I moved with him, but I decided not to take an excellent offer from the same university. Instead, I became Director of the Center for Science and Math Education at Cal State Fullerton. It was a longer commute, but a better fit with my interests and experience.

The demographics of Southern California is quite different from the places we lived previously. We joined 80-20 PAC, which is a National Asian American civil rights organization that promoted equal opportunity in the workplace and equal justice for Asian-Americans.

80-20 PAC activities in its early days focused mainly on voter registration, publicity and election of candidates who were sympathetic to our cause. I was elected to the Board and later became Vice President. My contribution to the organization was setting up a tax-exempt component of 80-20 PAC.

Most of our work was on voter registration and education, which qualified for tax-exempt status. I applied to the IRS for 501(C)(3) status and named it 80-20 Educational Foundation. The 80-20 PAC President was not thinking in that direction initially, but I was able to convince him, and we worked on the forms and submitted them in the fall and within a year we were granted status.  

The 80-20 Educational Foundation has grown and become much more successful than PAC. We now have 800,000 on our email list and 350,000 supporters. That means they all contribute money and the Educational Foundation was able to work on broader issues such as lawsuits against Ivy League universities that discriminate against Asian-Americans applicants and workplace discrimination issues.

RT:  Is anything else you haven’t covered?

JW:  I want to tell you in the last few years, I would not say I was an activist, although I support other issues and I join online organizations like Ultraviolet. Recently I worked on the Lifelong Educational Committee and I became chair in my retirement community.

The most recent thing I did was to organize a 10-hour course on the history of the women’s movement with a University of Washington professor. He’s a professor of American History and was developing a new course to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in the United States. 

I was able to get hold of him and asked if he would teach that course in our retirement community. He said definitely. We have now scheduled him to teach in May of 2020. That is my last contribution to make the complete loop of the 1970’s when I started in the woman’s movement. I will enjoy the course.

RT:  That is so great. I would want to hear about that when you take it. And I just want to say one thing. I wouldn’t have been an activist myself if you hadn’t recruited me to the women’s movement. And I think so many of us made such wonderful friends in the women’s movement. And that’s a big part of it and one of the riches of the women’s movement.

JW:  Yes. All my best friends now have either worked in or believed in or are politically involved in the women’s movement.