Personal Voices: Chinese Women in the 1980's

By Emily Honig; Gail Hershatter | Go to book overview

7
Women and Work

FROM THE TIME the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, its leaders firmly believed that paid employment outside the home was the key to liberating women and building a society based on genuine gender equality. In the cities of post-Liberation China, then, it was the rule, not the exception, for women to work. In fact, the percentage of urban women employed outside the home was substantially higher than that in most Western capitalist countries, as well as other developing Asian states.1 As a number of recent studies of Chinese women have demonstrated, however, women's participation in the workforce was not the harbinger of liberation that Marxist theory (or Mao's interpretation of Marxist theory) predicted.2 This was partly because in the decades after 1949, urban women frequently entered the workforce on a clearly unequal basis: they were most often assigned the least-skilled, lowest-paying jobs, frequently in neighborhood-run enterprises that offered fewer welfare benefits than the state-owned sector. Furthermore, the Chinese government was not unequivocal in its commitment to women's participation in the paid labor force. When the reality of urban unemployment conflicted with the goals of full female employment, as was the case in the mid-1950's and early 1960's, women were encouraged to leave their jobs and contribute to socialist construction by engaging in housework.3 A final reason that women's participation in the labor force failed to ensure gender equality is that, as Jean Robinson points out, "in Chinese policy there is an implicit assumption that women have two major roles to fulfill: that of mother and of worker." So long as women were perceived as bearing primary responsibility for childcare and housework, employers considered them incapable of devoting themselves to jobs as fully as men did.4

All these phenomena were visible as themes in the public discussion of the role of women in the workforce that developed in the late 1970's. The problems faced by urban women workers in the 1980's, however, were not simply extensions of previous trends; they were also the product of changes brought about by the economic reforms implemented since 1978. During the previous decades, all work assignments had been cen

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