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Traditional Chinese society was male-centered. Sons were
preferred to daughters, and women were expected to be subordinate
to fathers, husbands, and sons. A young woman had little voice in
the decision on her marriage partner (neither did a young man).
When married, it was she who left her natal family and community
and went to live in a family and community of strangers where she
was subordinate to her mother-in-law. Far fewer women were educated
than men, and sketchy but consistent demographic evidence would
seem to show that female infants and children had higher death
rates and less chance of surviving to adulthood than males. In
extreme cases, female infants were the victims of infanticide, and
daughters were sold, as chattels, to brothels or to wealthy
families. Bound feet, which were customary even for peasant women,
symbolized the painful constraints of the female role.
Protests and concerted efforts to alter women's place in
society began in China's coastal cities in the early years of the
twentieth century. By the 1920s formal acceptance of female
equality was common among urban intellectuals. Increasing numbers
of girls attended schools, and young secondary school and college
students approved of marriages based on free choice. Footbinding
declined rapidly in the second decade of the century, the object of
a nationwide campaign led by intellectuals who associated it with
Nevertheless, while party leaders condemned the oppression and
subordination of women as one more aspect of the traditional
society they were intent on changing, they did not accord feminist
issues very high priority. In the villages, party members were
interested in winning the loyalty and cooperation of poor and
lower-middle-class male peasants, who could be expected to resist
public criticism of their treatment of their wives and daughters.
Many party members were poor and lower-middle-class peasants from
the interior, and their attitudes toward women reflected their
background. The party saw the liberation of women as depending, in
a standard Marxist way, on their participation in the labor force
outside the household.
The position of women in contemporary society has changed from
the past, and public verbal assent to propositions about the
equality of the sexes and of sons and daughters seems universal.
Women attend schools and universities, serve in the People's
Liberation Army, and join the party. Almost all urban women and the
majority of rural women work outside the home. But women remain
disadvantaged in many ways, economic and social, and there seems no
prospect for substantive change.
The greatest change in women's status has been their movement
into the paid labor force. The jobs they held in the 1980s, though,
were generally lower paying and less desirable than those of men.
Industries staffed largely by women, such as the textiles industry,
paid lower wages than those staffed by men, such as the steel or
mining industries. Women were disproportionately represented in
collective enterprises, which paid lower wages and offered fewer
benefits than state-owned industries. In the countryside, the work
of males was consistently better rewarded than that of women, and
most skilled and desirable jobs, such as driving trucks or
repairing machines, were held by men. In addition, Chinese women
suffered the familiar double burden of full-time wage work and most
of the household chores as well.
As there come to be both more opportunities and more explicit
competition for them in both city and countryside, there are some
hints of women's being excluded from the competition. In the
countryside, a disproportionate number of girls drop out of primary
school because parents do not see the point of educating a daughter
who will marry and leave the family and because they need her labor
in the home. There are fewer female students in key rural and urban
secondary schools and universities. As economic growth in rural
areas generates new and potentially lucrative jobs, there is a
tendency in at least some areas for women to be relegated to
agricultural labor, which is poorly rewarded. There have been
reports in the Chinese press of outright discrimination against
women in hiring for urban jobs and of enterprises requiring female
applicants to score higher than males on examinations for hiring.
On the whole, in the 1980s women were better off than their
counterparts 50 or a 100 years before, and they had full legal
equality with men. In practice, their opportunities and rewards
were not entirely equal, and they tended to get less desirable jobs
and to retain the burden of domestic chores in addition to fulltime jobs.
Data as of July 1987