Gender, Politics, and Democracy: Women's Suffrage in China

By Davin, Delia | The China Journal, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Gender, Politics, and Democracy: Women's Suffrage in China


Davin, Delia, The China Journal


Gender, Politics, and Democracy: Women 's Suffrage in China, by Louise Edwards. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. xiv + 334 pp. US$60.00 (hardcover).

Louise Edwards explicitly links her interest in the history of women's suffrage in China to the fact that she comes from New Zealand, the first country in the world where women won the right to vote. Her meticulous study of the Chinese suffrage movement's impressive five decades of activism goes a long way to redress the comparative neglect that this topic has suffered. Demands for sex equality in China arose at the end of the Qing dynasty in association with debates about reform, democracy and the rejuvenation of the nation. Imported European concepts of natural rights were taken up by China's reformist élite and gave force to demands for democracy. Women based their campaigns to be allowed to participate in public affairs on concepts of natural rights and human equality. Reformers argued that China could not become strong unless it improved the position of its women. Edwards shows that the close association between patriotism and women's rights arguments was very helpful to the women's cause. Women's rights gained support among radical groups and idealistic young people of both sexes.

The link in Chinese political culture between power-holding and formal attainments in exam-based education meant that schooling was vital to the struggle for women's rights. Feminists sought education for women to make them worthy of citizenship and to ensure that they could not be denied suffrage. Male political activists sometimes used women's lack of education as an excuse for delay, arguing that female suffrage could (or should) wait until women were more educated. Sun Yat-sen wrote to one women's group in 1912, "In the future women must certainly have the supreme right to vote . . . You are in no hurry to acquire suffrage rights but endeavour to unite women, popularize education, study law and politics, promote commerce and industry and in these ways assist in the nation's progress" (p. 78). Later in the same year, in private correspondence, Sun urged women to concentrate on promoting education so that, when they were stronger, they could struggle for rights with men. Revealingly, he added, "Don't rely on men to exert themselves on your behalf, since it is not at all to men's benefit" (p. 92).

In fact, women were allowed to vote and to be elected to the provincial assembly in Guangdong for a short time after the 1911 revolution. News of this development was perhaps somewhat disconcerting to suffrage campaigners abroad who had argued that women's suffrage was a marker of advancement and civilization. Leaders including Mrs Pankhurst reacted by using the "even in China" argument, implying that their own countries were falling disgracefully behind. Meanwhile, by the end of 1912 women in Guangdong had lost their voting rights, and were also formally excluded from voting at the national level. The political program of the new Nationalist Party, successor to the Revolutionary Alliance, denied women equality with men. As Edwards comments, "Sun perceived the struggle for women's rights to be threatening the overall stability of the republican cause. To him, and many other men in the party, women's rights and sex equality were optional extras to democratic constitutional government" (pp.

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