Professor Elisabeth Croll

Anthropologist and advocate of women's rights in China
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Elisabeth Joan Sprackett, anthropologist, Chinese scholar and development consultant: born Reefton, New Zealand 21 September 1944; Lecturer in Anthropology, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University 1990-91, Senior Lecturer 1991-93, Reader 1993-95, Professor of Chinese Anthropology 1995-2007, Vice-Principal, with special responsibility for External Relations 2002-07; married 1966 Jim Croll (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died London 3 October 2007.

Not many western scholars of women's lives in China are known to the Chinese readership of Women in China, the journal of the All China Women's Federation. Yet leafing through an issue published in late 2000, I found myself face to face with a portrait of Elisabeth Croll, accompanied by an article welcoming her book Endangered Daughters: discrimination and development in Asia. That Lisa Croll's face could appear on the pages of Women in China is testimony to her extraordinary status, as a scholar of women's lives and social development in China, an advocate of women's and girls' rights, across China and Asia as a whole, and as a policy adviser on poverty alleviation and health, food and education.

She was born Elisabeth Sprackett in Reefton, a remote town in South Island, New Zealand, where her father was a Presbyterian minister. Her mother came from an academic family that had been involved in setting up New Zealand's first university. Lisa went to school in Christchurch, then took a first degree and a Masters in history at the University of Canterbury. Her family moved to Sydney in 1962, and her father became involved in work with Chinese refugees to Hong Kong. Lisa stayed on in New Zealand and married Jim Croll in 1966, before accompanying him to London. (They were later divorced.)

Then, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, she gained an MA in Far Eastern Studies and a doctorate in the anthropology of China in 1977. Her association with Soas was renewed in 1990 when she was appointed Lecturer in Anthropology. Promotions soon followed, to Senior Lecturer, Reader, and, in 1995, Professor of Chinese Anthropology of London University. She was founder Chair of the Centre of Chinese Studies and Head of the Department of Development Studies, and in 2002 was appointed Vice-Principal of Soas with special responsibility for External Relations.

Croll became widely respected as one of Soas's most prominent figures, but her early path had not been easy. She felt that as a woman, a mother of two small children, and an outsider, working on issues that were then marginal to the academic establishment, she had had to struggle for recognition. Long-term field work in China was not possible at the time, and in its place she had to make many short field trips, sometimes to remote rural areas.

Before finding a permanent position at Soas in 1990, she moved between a number of short-term research fellowships – at the Contemporary China Institute and the Department of Anthropology at Soas; the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University; Queen Elizabeth House (Oxford University's Department of International Development) and Wolfson College, Oxford; and at Princeton, and the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

She was a prolific writer, and many of her texts have long been required reading for students of contemporary Chinese studies, anthropology and development studies. Croll was one of that remarkable group of scholars across the UK and US who, inspired by their participation in the western women's movement, began to write about women in the People's Republic of China at a time when few university courses in the UK included the People's Republic or women in the Chinese studies curriculum.

Before long-term anthropological field-work possibilities had opened up in China, Croll was also one of the first to undertake field studies of village, family, household and gender. Her first book, Feminism and Socialism in China (1978), was a pioneering study of China's women's movement. Her second book, Politics of Marriage in Contemporary China (1981), was a detailed and extraordinarily prescient analysis of the cultural resilience of household and family structures in rural China in the face of government attempts to introduce free-choice marriage.

These books granted insights into social and political worlds to which few had access. Many other titles followed: The Family Rice Bowl: food in the domestic economy in China (1992); Women and Rural Development in China (1985); Chinese Women Since Mao (1983); From Heaven to Earth: images and experiences of development in China (1983); Changing Identities of Chinese Women: rhetoric, experience and self-perception in 20th-century China (1995); and Endangered Daughters (2000). Her most recent book was China's New Consumers: social development and domestic demand, published in autumn 2006.

Lisa Croll was an impressive strategic thinker, chair of committees and public speaker, and she had an abiding interest in the policy implications of her research. She used these skills and interests to great effect, in her work as a consultant and policy adviser. She regularly worked for UN agencies (the UN Development Programme, the International Labour Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, Unicef), the World Bank, the British government's Department for International Development, and international NGOs.

In China she advised the government on poverty alleviation, social development and gender issues, and worked with the Women's Federation to take up the causes of unwanted daughters and missing girls in China and Asia.

In 1998, she was appointed to the United Nations Council in Tokyo where she was elected Vice-Chair and then Chair (2002-04). She was executive member of the Royal Society of Asian Affairs and Vice-Chair of the Great Britain China Centre. In 2004, she became an elected member of the Academy of Learned Societies for the Social Sciences, and in 2005 was asked to join the China Task Force, set up by the then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, to foster co-operation between the British and Chinese governments. On 10 October she should have received her CMG from the Queen, "for services to Higher Education, especially in promoting understanding of China's social development".

Croll was an inspiration to cohorts of students spanning more than three decades, a mentor to younger colleagues, an international advocate of women's and girls' rights, and an astute policy adviser and consultant. To many, including women she had known since her earliest days in London, she was a warm, wise and dear friend. Her interests ranged from music and embroidery to travel. From Australia and New Zealand to Hayling Island, she loved the sea, and had looked forward to spending much more time there in her retirement.

Harriet Evans

Comments