(WOMENSENEWS)–Sheryl WuDunn didn’t spend her teenage years vying to be editor of the high school newspaper or dreaming of her first byline.
Instead, she described herself more as a banker who flirted with journalism and wound up getting more serious than she could have expected.
"I got into journalism accidentally," she said. And a big part of that accident, she jokes, was that "I got married to my husband."
WuDunn and her husband, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, are spending the bulk of the next three months on a cross-country publicity tour for "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," a book they wrote together to spur the international push for women’s rights.
The couple have co-authored two other books: "China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power" in 1994 and "Thunder from the East: Portrait of a Rising Asia," in September 2001.
In the past they’ve authored alternating chapters. This time they write as "we."
WuDunn says it was a natural approach. "We always edit each other anyway," she said.
WuDunn says Kristof gathered many of the book’s poignant personal stories and interviews while on foreign trips for his column, while she did much of the research on the work of nongovernmental organizations to combat the scourges that the book covers: mass rape, maternal mortality, honor killings and sex slavery.
‘Accessible to Americans’
"We wanted the book to be very accessible to Americans. His column is just about overseas and some Americans are not always going to identify with that because it’s so far out there. But Americans learning about how to do something that can help, that’s not so remote," she said.
In tandem with the September release of the book, the couple ran a contest for people to nominate extraordinary grassroots organizations in the field.
They have also used part of the advance for "Half the Sky" to found a middle school in Cambodia. Visiting the site was the only trip they have taken as a family to the kinds of troubled regions they write about in "Half the Sky."
"We wanted them to understand the situation," said WuDunn, referring to her three teenage children, two boys and a girl, who live with their parents in New York City.
The authors’ advocacy stance with their new book and related projects mark a departure for WuDunn.
She says her reporting has always focused on clarity and objectivity, but the human rights crisis she observed made her amend her philosophy.
‘We Can Tell Stories’
"Part of you has to be a journalist and draw from your training. But you still have to be a human being," she said. "My husband and I are not an NGO (nongovernmental organization). When you look to your strengths, the way we think we can make the biggest contribution is that we can tell the story. Stories can move people and hopefully bring about participation and engagement."
For their work on "Half the Sky," they won a Dayton Literary Peace Prize last month.
WuDunn grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, attended Cornell University and in 1981, straight out of college, worked as a lending officer at Bankers Trust Company in New York for three years.
Later, while she was earning degrees–a masters degree from Harvard Business School in 1986, and a graduate degree in public administration in 1988 from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton–she also interned for the business pages of the Wall Street Journal, The Miami Herald and Reuters.
WuDunn first met Kristof in Los Angeles through a mutual friend who introduced them.
They married in New Jersey in 1988 and then moved to East Asia. He became the Times’ bureau chief in Beijing, and she began reporting for the newspaper’s Beijing bureau as well.
First Pulitzer for a Couple
When the two reporters witnessed the Tiananmen Square protests and the subsequent crackdown and massacre in 1989, their coverage earned them a joint Pulitzer Prize, the first given to a married couple. WuDunn was also the first Asian American to win.
In the mid to late 1990s, the pair lived in Tokyo. WuDunn reported from the Times’ Tokyo bureau under her own byline and covered the financial crisis that rocked Japan. In addition to the business and financial beats, WuDunn also delved into child abuse and medicine. She also wrote travel stories and book reviews.
But WuDunn has often worked outside journalism.
When at the Times, she took a break from reporting to oversee business ventures, including advising the Times on how to attract a new generation of readers and working in their strategic planning department to help with promotion and circulation. She also anchored the Times’ newscast and served as an upper-level editor.
Outside the paper, in 2008 she was hired as an investment adviser at Goldman Sachs, where she stayed until work on "Half the Sky" began in earnest.
Even when WuDunn was not formally involved in journalism, she and Kristof continued to pursue an idea they’d formed while reporting in Asia: A book about the oppression of the developing world’s women.
"The topic had been simmering since we were in China. We started learning about these missing girls and while we worked on both other books it was always bubbling around," she said.
WuDunn plans to go back into the financial industry when the publicity tour for "Half the Sky" is finished. As to whether she’s observed gender inequality of a different kind in the highest echelons of U.S. business, she says "in general there’s progress that needs to be made at every level."
Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer in New York City. Her work is available at www.sarahmseltzer.com .
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