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Women’s Liberation in China

by Soong Ching Ling

[This article is reprinted from Peking Review, #6, Feb. 11, 1972, pp. 6-7. This article is not quite as well translated as is typically the case.]

HISTORY has proved that Women’s Liberation in China—women obtain equal status with men—began with the democratic revolution, but will be completed only in the socialist revolution.

What is the democratic revolution? It is a revolution to overturn the feudal rule of a landlord class, a revolution participated by the people at large under the leadership of a political party. It first took place in China in 1911, when a monarchy was overthrown, the emperor—the biggest landlord in the entire land—was dethroned, and the aristocracy was dispersed. But this revolution was not completed until 1949 when about that time the land of all big landlords was confiscated. Peasants and landlords were hostile to each other. The former participated in the revolutionary movement in 1927, and only after a long period of class struggle did they succeed to overturn the latter.

What has the overturning of the landlord class to do with the Women’s Liberation Movement? In the spring of 1927, our great leader Chairman Mao Tsetung clearly gave us the correct explanation: “The political authority of the landlords is the backbone of all the other systems of authority. With that overturned, the clan authority, the religious authority and the authority of the husband all begin to totter…. As to the authority of the husband, this has always been weaker among the poor peasants because, out of economic necessity, their womenfolk have to do more manual labour than the women of the richer classes and therefore have more say and greater power of decision in family matters. With the increasing bankruptcy of the rural economy in recent years, the basis for men’s domination over women has already been weakened. With the rise of the peasant movement, the women in many places have now begun to organize rural women’s associations; the opportunity has come for them to lift up their heads, and the authority of the husband is getting shakier every day. In a word, the whole feudal-patriarchal system and ideology is tottering with the growth of the peasants’ power.” Needless to say that before the democratic revolution the women in China, with the social status, were in various ways oppressed and exploited. Women of the richer classes and even the majority of the poorer classes were occupied in their families and maintained no social occupation. Women employees, especially the domestic ones, received very low wages. Indeed very few women maintained their economic independence! Meantime, very few girls were enrolled in schools. The women graduates by and large returned to their homes, only a very few turned to be teachers in primary schools and girls’ middle schools.

The pace of the Women’s Liberation Movement closely followed the advance of the democratic revolution. Women’s status in China was apparently raised by 1930, on the eve of the war against Japanese aggression. There were already at that time colleges and even middle schools where co-education was established. Women graduates, not a few of them, were employed as teachers, medical doctors and hospital nurses. Most of the graduates from Christian missionary schools and colleges, however, did not take up any occupation and remained in their families to become ”social vases,” then a nickname for those who were busy in social entertainments but had no profession of their own. These women, married or single, free from feudal etiquettes, turned to be social toys and bourgeois parasites. At this time, there were many women engaged in textile industries, but they were under capitalist exploitation, receiving low wages and suffering from poverty.

At the end of the war against Japanese aggression and occupation, the Chinese people under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party accelerated the revolutionary movement. Thus numerous women threw themselves into all kinds of revolutionary work, some of them joined the military services. They gained their economic independence. Party members devoted themselves to propaganda work, in villages and factories. Many of them were women graduates from middle schools. By doing their work women won the equal status with men. They were very active in the land reform movement, they helped to do away with the land ownership of the big landlords. They were eagerly devoted to their various tasks, with self-sacrificing spirit to fulfil the orders given by the Party. It was upon the basis of this democratic revolution that the Chinese people could and did initiate the present socialist revolution.

When in October, 1949, with the defeat of the Japanese military forces, with the Chiang Kai-shek dictatorship overthrown, with the imperialistic foreign agents cleared off, the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed, our democratic revolution came to its conclusion. From then on our socialist revolution began. At the very beginning of the present regime, the Minister of Justice and the Minister for Public Health were both women. Many other women entered government services in Peking as well as in the provinces. In the administration of various public utilities there was no lack of women cadres.

Within the last twenty years, more and more women enlisted themselves in the army, navy and air forces. They voluntarily entered these services after having passed a physical examination. More and more women joined agricultural field work, pasturage, mining, foundry, irrigation, communication, transportation, all kinds of factories, commerce, shop work, and various other public services. Since 1966, the first year of our Cultural Revolution, which is a part of the socialist revolution, the number of women doctors and nurses has been greatly increased. In very recent years, in a few large cities, all healthy women under forty-five have been given work in manufacture, commerce, communication, transportation, and other services for the people. Middle school graduates, boys as well as girls have been allocated to work in factories, fields and shops. Whatever men can do in these services women can equally do. By and large every woman who can work can take her place on the labour front, under the principle of equal pay for equal work. A large majority of the Chinese women have now attained their economic independence.

If we ask, however, whether Women’s Liberation Movement in China has come to its end, the answer is definitely no. It is true that the landlord system has been abolished for nearly twenty years, but much of the feudal-patriarchal ideology still prevails among the peasants or rather farmers. This ideology still does yield mischievous things in the rural places and some of the small towns. Only when the feudal-patriarchal ideology is eradicated can we expect the sexual equality fully established.

In order to build a great socialist society, it is necessary to have the broad masses of women engaged in productive activity. With men, women must receive equal pay for equal work in production. Today in our country there are people’s communes in rural places where women receive less pay than men for equal work in production. In certain villages patriarchal ideas still have their effect. Proportionately, more boys than girls attend school. Parents need the girls to do household work. Some even feel that girls will eventually enter another family and therefore it would not pay to send them to school. Moreover, when girls are to be married, their parents often ask for a certain amount of money or various articles from the family of the would-be husband. Thus the freedom of marriage is affected. Finally, as farmers want to add the labour force in their families, the birth of a son is expected while that of a daughter is considered a disappointment. This repeated desire to have at least one son has an adverse effect on birth control and planned births. A woman with many children around her naturally finds it too difficult to participate in any productive labour. Another thing hampering a working woman is her involvement in household work. This prevents many women from full, wholehearted participation in public services.

From the present situation it is not difficult to understand that genuine equality between the sexes can be realized and the Women’s Liberation Movement will be ended when and only when, led by a Marxist-Leninist political party, the process of the social transformation of society as a whole is completed, when the exploiting class or classes are exterminated, and when the feudal-patriarchal and other exploiting-class ideologies are completely uprooted.

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