Personal Voices: Chinese Women in the 1980's

By Emily Honig; Gail Hershatter | Go to book overview

Introduction

IT WAS THE LAST DAY of the exhibit, and the hall of the Shanghai Workers' Cultural Palace was crowded. Groups of women and an occasional man hurried to view the pictures and captions depicting the "Achievements of Shanghai Women, 1976-1986," even as workmen moved in to dismantle the display. The exhibit was an impressive testimony to the dedication and competence of women in many fields: science, agriculture, industry, education, athletics, and the arts.

Without ever making explicit comparisons to China's prerevolutionary past, the display made it clear just how much women's lives had changed in the twentieth century. No longer were women's roles limited, as they had been during the period of imperial rule, to domestic work, childbearing, household handicrafts, or prostitution. The options had widened considerably even since the Republican period ( 1911-49), when many women moved out of the home into industrial production, professions such as teaching, social work, and medicine, student activism, and politics. With the coming to power of the Communist Party in 1949, women were brought into the workforce in unprecedented numbers. They were also expected to participate fully in the political and social transformation of society. The results, we thought as we moved through the hall, were all around us: in the women of achievement portrayed on the walls, in the confident manner and lively conversations of the women spectators, and in the fact of the exhibit itself--a government-sponsored effort to promote public awareness of how much women had contributed to China's development.

Yet two aspects of the exhibit troubled us. First, an occasional display of statistical information indicated that the status of women was far from equal to that of men. Less than a quarter of the city's Communist Party members were women, a significant handicap in a nation where the Party makes policy and controls political life. Even more disturbing, in a society that has begun to emphasize education as the key to development, women were barely represented in the ranks of those currently studying for advanced degrees in Shanghai (50 of 410 Ph.D. students; 156 of 7,753 master's degree students).

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