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Reprivatized Womanhood: Changing Gender Discourse in Contemporary Urban China

By Shengwei Sun | February 16, 2016

CREDIT: BadBrother (CC).

On March 8, 2015, several major websites in China displayed images on their homepages to celebrate International Women's Day. Baidu, China's leading search engine, featured a spinning doll on a music box. With each turn, she rotates into a bride and then a mother. In the same spirit, Youku, a popular video-sharing website, portrayed a middle-class lady enjoying a cup of tea in a comfortable chair. The woman in the picture seems quite content and the caption reads: "May you be treated gently by the world." A story later emerged that Youku had originally commissioned a young female artist to create an illustration for the occasion, but her design featuring a diverse group of professional women was rejected at the last moment.

In contemporary urban China, the concept of "ideal womanhood" emphasizes beauty, youth, deference, and domestic roles as wife and mother. Youku's decision to take down the original design celebrating women professionals illustrates a larger trend in the current public discourse on gender in China. Today, women are rarely represented in the public sphere and the rise of patriarchal values is increasingly relegating them to domestic roles.

But it was not always that way.

Gender Equality in the Socialist Era (1950s–1970s)

In the 1950s, the communist government devoted significant resources to mobilize women's participation in the labor force. The leaders of the socialist revolution saw gender inequality as detrimental to both economic development and the success of the revolution. As a result, gender equality and women participation in the labor force became top priorities for policymakers.

The state took on part of the reproductive responsibilities of bearing children by providing key social services such as child care. It also launched the "Iron Girls" campaign to glorify women's role as public workers. The "Iron Girl" campaign (1966-1976) was considered by many the embodiment of women's liberation at the time. It encouraged women to contribute to the productive economy, performing all kinds of heavy industry jobs, including those traditionally assigned to men.

However, and although women and men held equal work responsibilities, this increasing responsibility did not translate into true gender equality. According to the Chinese sociologist Jin Yihong, "Since the structure of the patriarchal system remained untouched, a one-sided emphasis on women's striving to be the same as men could only lead to more responsibilities for women without corresponding rights." Indeed, women workers were still marginalized within the different industries and gender equality remained elusive in many aspects.

Changing Gender Discourse during the Reform Era (1980s onwards)

In the late 1970s, China embarked on radical economic reforms, replacing the centrally planned, collectivized economy with market principles of competition and privatization. During the transition to the market economy, the public discourse on gender shifted from women's "liberation" to a highly sexualized market-oriented discourse geared towards gendered consumerism and market efficiency.

The concept of "gender essentialism," which justifies social inequalities between men and women on the grounds of biological differences between the sexes, became prominent in the post-socialist era. Women and men were considered to be inherently different: women were considered to be "naturally" good at caring for children or doing domestic chores. Indeed, women's disadvantages in the labor market were interpreted as a result of women's own "preferences" for lower-paid but more "flexible" occupations (for review, see Song 2011 and Wu 2010). The restoration of sexual differences thus worked to legitimize gender division of labor (for a review on this topic, see Wu 2010). Large numbers of women workers were laid off in the 1990s, the reasons given being that they were "low quality" workers and therefore less efficient (see Tong 2010).

In the mid-1980s, a Shanghai-based magazine, Shanghai Economy, put forward the proposition that "women should go back home." This call was a reaction to what was perceived by some media, mainstream scholars, and policymakers as pressure on women to be employed and as a denial of "femininity" during the socialist era (for review, see Song 2011 and Tong 2010). In the mid-1990s, a male sociologist, Zheng Yefu, published a controversial article in which he proposed that "women's liberation" during the socialist era was "too ahead of its time" (Zheng, 1994). Zheng claimed that the state intervention in promoting "women's liberation" had unnaturally elevated the "weaker sex" and disturbed normal family relationships. He went on to suggest that the market would provide a corrective to the distortion of gender relations, such that men and women would be rightfully evaluated based on their "true" capacities. Zheng's viewpoints were representative of many mainstream economists of the time. Yet feminist scholars weighed in on the debate and insisted on identifying the structural constraints that were contributing to woman's disadvantages.

The privatization of the care responsibilities and social services previously provided by the state also had significant impact on urban women's status in the labor market. The state gradually retreated from its former role as welfare provider, forcing women to be primary caretakers of the family and responsible for child and elderly care. Prior to the market reform, urban women workers had access through their work units (danwei) to paid maternity leave, affordable child care, retirement pensions, and free health care. With the restructuring of state-owned enterprises and the privatization of the economy since the 1980s, these social welfare benefits were transferred to various social insurance programs and fee-based services. Many public child care centers and work-unit-sponsored kindergartens were either closed or privatized. Publicly funded nurseries for children aged 0–2 years have largely disappeared (Du and Dong, 2013).

As a result, studies have consistently found that married women exhibited lower rates of participation in the labor force than unmarried women (Maurer-Fazio et al., 2007). The sharpest decline in labor force participation was found to be concentrating among women with children younger than three years old (Du and Dong, 2013). In addition to this, the rapid economic growth triggered by the reforms came hand in hand with widening income inequality. The gender wage gap became, indeed, more acute after the economic reform (Maurer-Fazio and Hughes, 2002; Jia and Dong, 2013; Zhang, Hannum and Wang, 2008).

Case Study: Mainstream Media and the Changing Gender Norms

How did these normative shifts take place? To examine the mainstream media's framing of urban women's issues, my collaborator and I conducted a systematic content analysis of 202 articles drawn from three nationally distributed, market-driven Chinese magazines between 1995 and 2012. Our study focused on the specific tactics used by mainstream media to reify the post-socialist gender discourse. Our findings reveal how a notion of "reprivatized womanhood" has been constructed by the mainstream media in recent years: through an increasing preoccupation with women's private lives, diminishing concerns about gender discrimination in the public, and prescribing private solutions to structural problems that reinforce traditional gender arrangements.

Our study reveals that over time, news items and stories on marriage and private relationships became increasingly predominant in mainstream media, while concerns over gender discrimination and women's representation in the public sphere diminished. A prime example of the media's preoccupation with women's private lives lies in the wide circulation of the derogatory term "leftover women," which refers to never-married women in their mid-20s and beyond.

We further found that the media increasingly interprets gender issues stemming from structural gender discrimination as a matter of individual-level bargaining and choices. Take the topic of women returning home, for example. Articles in the mid-1990s clearly adopted cultural and structural explanations for this issue, implying that women are being compelled to go home by external forces such as the rising national unemployment rate and gender discrimination. In the late 2000s, however, the media's interpretation of the same issue emphasizes individual women making rational choices about "different yet equal" life styles. The question of whether to "opt out" of the labor force is discussed within the frame of individual strategies based on rational calculations of time and money. The structural constraints brought about by the market reforms, such as the unequal expectations for women and pronounced gender discrimination in the workplace deriving from the privatized care responsibilities, are obscured in these media accounts.

Similarly, our research reveals that the media also increasingly prescribe individualistic solutions to structural problems. For example, based on our sample the topic of "work-family conflict" emerged as a major concern in the late-2000s. Many articles recount the dilemmas between devotion to work versus family demands among professional women, as well as the daily challenges faced by full-time housewives. Instead of pointing to policy changes, the authors' only advice to women was to better manage their time along with other ways of individual improvement.

The lack of discussion of structural gender inequalities in the mainstream media obscures the need for institutional changes. Women's struggles are framed as a private matter to be solved through private solutions, which also works to justify the return of women's roles to private spheres.

Towards a Challenging Future

Urban Chinese women face mounting challenges in the contemporary era of "reprivatized womanhood": pervasive gender discriminations in the workplace, rising college entry barriers in certain fields, and diminishing social support as part of China's neoliberal restructuring, not to mention myriads of struggles faced by rural and migrant women that are beyond the scope of this article. In October 2015, as part of its 13th Five-Year Plan, the Chinese government announced the new two-child family policy, which allows married couples to have a second child. While the expanding scope of reproductive autonomy is welcomed by the general public, some feminists caution that without supportive policy measures, women might face intensified workplace discrimination and disadvantages. Indeed, anecdotal stories about companies adopting more stringent scrutiny over women applicants have already begun to surface.

In sharp contrast to the media's individualistic "prescriptions" that urge women to "improve themselves," women's rights activists in China have made consistent efforts to challenge the structural and cultural discrimination against women in both public and private arenas through legal means and advocacy. These efforts are rooted in the understanding that the challenges and dilemmas faced by individual women must be addressed on a collective level.


Articles Referenced

Du, Fenglian, and Xiaoyuan Dong. 2013. "Women's Employment and Child Care Choices in Urban China During the Economic Transition." Economic Development and Cultural Change, 62(1): 131–155.

Jia, Nan, and Xiaoyuan Dong. 2013. "Economic Transition and the Motherhood Wage Penalty in Urban China: Investigation Using Panel Data." Cambridge Journal of Economics, 37(4): 819–843.

Jin, Yihong. 2006. "Rethinking the 'Iron Girls': Gender and Labour during the Chinese Cultural Revolution." Gender & History, 18(3): 613-634.

Maurer-Fazio, Margaret, and James Hughes. 2002. "The Effects of Market Liberalization on the Relative Earnings of Chinese Women." Journal of Comparative Economics, 30(4): 709–731.

Maurer-Fazio, Margaret, James Hughes, and Dandan Zhang. 2007. "An Ocean Formed from One Hundred Rivers: The Effects of Ethnicity, Gender, Marriage, and Location on Labor Force Participation in Urban China." Feminist Economics, 13(3/4): 125–53.

Song, Shaopeng. 2011. "Retreating Back Home Willingly or Being Unwillingly Sent Home? Debates on 'Women-Going-Home' and the Ideological Transformation in the Course of Marketization in China." Collection of Women's Studies, 4:5–26.

Sun, Shengwei, and Feinian Chen. 2015. "Reprivatized Womanhood: Changes in Mainstream Media's Framing of Urban Women's Issues in China, 1995–2012." Journal of Marriage and Family, 77: 1091–1107.

Tong, Xin. 2010 "Mainstream Discourse and the Construction of Public Understanding of Women's Employment." Social Sciences in China, 31(2): 135-149.

Wu, Xiaoying. 2010. "From State Dominance to Market Orientation: The Composition and Evolution of Gender Discourse." Social Sciences in China, 31(2): 150-164.

Zhang, Yuping, Emily Hannum, and Meiyan Wang. 2008. "Gender-Based Employment and Income Differences in Urban China: Considering the Contributions of Marriage and Parenthood." Social Forces, 86(4): 1529-1560.

Zheng, Yefu. 1994. "Nannu pingdeng de shehuixue sikao" (Sociological Thinking on Equality Between Men and Women). Shehuixue yanjiu (Sociological Studies), 2: 110.

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