When Maud Russell (1893–1989) first sailed for China in 1917, she traveled as one of a number of "foreign secretaries" dispatched by the YWCA to do "Woman's Work for Woman." A product of the Progressive Era, she sought to bring the benefits of Christianity and Western civilization to a new generation of Chinese women struggling to find their own path to modernity in the wake of the 1911 Republican Revolution. Instead, over the next twenty-six years, Russell was herself transformed—from Christian liberal reformer to committed Marxist revolutionary.
According to Karen Garner, Russell's personal political trajectory paralleled that of the YWCA in China, which evolved during the 1920s and 1930s from a Western-led, middle-class-oriented institution into a Chinese-led organization that addressed the needs of revolutionary working women. Crossing class, race, and cultural boundaries to learn from their Chinese associates, Russell and a few other western YWCA secretaries developed a shared vision of feminist social change that included support for the Chinese Communist Party and its leadership.
Returning to the United States during World War II, Russell joined American liberals and leftists in promoting government cooperation with the Soviet Union and other Communist Party-led states and movements. After the war her views, including her advocacy of a "one world" Progressive Party, collided with the anticommunist imperatives of the emerging Cold War. In response, Russell adopted a defensive and dogmatic pro-communist stance from which she would never retreat. During a long and at times lonely career as a radical activist and publisher of the Far East Reporter (1952–1989), Russell was defamed and investigated by the anticommunist right and embraced by the antiwar New Left. Her notoriety as a proponent of friendship with the People's Republic of China soared during the restoration of U.S–China diplomatic relations in the 1970s, only to dissolve in the 1980s as she denounced the revival of capitalist economics in China on ideological grounds.
Although Russell's own political vision may have narrowed over the years, Garner's reconstruction of her life broadens our understanding of U.S.–China relations during the twentieth century. Not only did Russell come to see her own country through the eyes of an ideological antagonist, she also brought to that vantage point the experiences of a modern American woman. As Garner shows, even if one did not agree with Russell's views, one could not deny the fervor of her commitment to gender equality, social justice, and internationalism.