Traditional Chinese society was male-centered. Sons were preferred to daughters, and women were expected to be subordinate to fathers, husbands, and sons. A young woman had little voice in the decision on her marriage partner (neither did a young man). When married, it was she who left her natal family and community and went to live in a family and community of strangers where she was subordinate to her mother-in-law. Far fewer women were educated than men, and sketchy but consistent demographic evidence would seem to show that female infants and children had higher death rates and less chance of surviving to adulthood than males. In extreme cases, female infants were the victims of infanticide, and daughters were sold, as chattels, to brothels or to wealthy families. Bound feet, which were customary even for peasant women, symbolized the painful constraints of the female role.
Protests and concerted efforts to alter women's place in society began in China's coastal cities in the early years of the twentieth century. By the 1920s formal acceptance of female equality was common among urban intellectuals. Increasing numbers of girls attended schools, and young secondary school and college students approved of marriages based on free choice. Footbinding declined rapidly in the second decade of the century, the object of a nationwide campaign led by intellectuals who associated it with national backwardness.
Nevertheless, while party leaders condemned the oppression and subordination of women as one more aspect of the traditional society they were intent on changing, they did not accord feminist issues very high priority. In the villages, party members were interested in winning the loyalty and cooperation of poor and lower-middle-class male peasants, who could be expected to resist public criticism of their treatment of their wives and daughters. Many party members were poor and lower-middle-class peasants from the interior, and their attitudes toward women reflected their background. The party saw the liberation of women as depending, in a standard Marxist way, on their participation in the labor force outside the household.
The position of women in contemporary society has changed from the past, and public verbal assent to propositions about the equality of the sexes and of sons and daughters seems universal. Women attend schools and universities, serve in the People's Liberation Army, and join the party. Almost all urban women and the majority of rural women work outside the home. But women remain disadvantaged in many ways, economic and social, and there seems no prospect for substantive change.
The greatest change in women's status has been their movement into the paid labor force. The jobs they held in the 1980s, though, were generally lower paying and less desirable than those of men. Industries staffed largely by women, such as the textiles industry, paid lower wages than those staffed by men, such as the steel or mining industries. Women were disproportionately represented in collective enterprises, which paid lower wages and offered fewer benefits than state-owned industries. In the countryside, the work of males was consistently better rewarded than that of women, and most skilled and desirable jobs, such as driving trucks or repairing machines, were held by men. In addition, Chinese women suffered the familiar double burden of full-time wage work and most of the household chores as well.
As there come to be both more opportunities and more explicit competition for them in both city and countryside, there are some hints of women's being excluded from the competition. In the countryside, a disproportionate number of girls drop out of primary school because parents do not see the point of educating a daughter who will marry and leave the family and because they need her labor in the home. There are fewer female students in key rural and urban secondary schools and universities. As economic growth in rural areas generates new and potentially lucrative jobs, there is a tendency in at least some areas for women to be relegated to agricultural labor, which is poorly rewarded. There have been reports in the Chinese press of outright discrimination against women in hiring for urban jobs and of enterprises requiring female applicants to score higher than males on examinations for hiring.
On the whole, in the 1980s women were better off than their counterparts 50 or a 100 years before, and they had full legal equality with men. In practice, their opportunities and rewards were not entirely equal, and they tended to get less desirable jobs and to retain the burden of domestic chores in addition to fulltime jobs.
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