HOW ARE THE CHANGES of the 1980's affecting the status of Chinese women? No clear-cut answer presents itself; it is impossible simply to say that women's position is either clearly improving or unequivocally deteriorating. The changes are too complex, and too recently begun, to permit such a judgment. Yet the lives of women have been changing more quickly than at any time since the early 1950's, and a preliminary assessment of those changes is in order.
In the 1980's, young women were no longer told, as were women in prerevolutionary China, that they were worthless and a burden to their families. Yet the message that they were inferior was still communicated to them, and given a scientific gloss that made it difficult to dispute. Official advice to young women emphasized that the Constitution guaranteed them legal equality, and that they should take responsibility for overcoming their own weaknesses and achieving real equality. Women of extraordinary achievement in the working world were presented as models for them to emulate. These models looked and behaved somewhat differently from the Iron Girls of the Cultural Revolution, but like the Iron Girls they were praised for making it in a man's world and contributing to the larger economic goals of national construction. Role models did little to prepare young women for the realities of gender discrimination.
Adornment and sexuality, topics that had been off-limits to the generation of the Cultural Revolution, dominated publications for young women in the 1980's. Attention to beauty and fashion was part of a growing concern with the quality of personal life, and clearly captured the public fancy. But the bejeweled, high-heeled, tastefully made-up young woman was no more free to create her own image than the Iron Girls of yore, and the image of the Iron Girls may have presented women with more possibilities for participation in the public realm. It remained to be seen whether codes of female dress and beauty would become less compulsory, or whether the compulsory standard of female appearance was merely becoming more Westernized.