Women and China’s socialist sonstruction, 1949–78


Women at Ten Mile Inn village political meeting, late 1940s
PHOTO/David Crook, courtesy of Isabel Crook.

Introduction The chapter that follows is excerpted from my book Women and China’s Revolutions (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), which asks: If we place women at the center of our account of China’s last two centuries, how does this change our understanding of what happened? Women and China’s Revolutions takes a close look at the places where the Big History of recognizable events intersects with the daily lives of ordinary people, using gender as its analytic lens. Building on the research of gender studies scholars since the 1970s, it establishes that China’s modern history is not comprehensible without close attention to women’s labor and Woman as a flexible symbol of social problems, national humiliation, and political transformation.

Two themes recur throughout Women and China’s Revolutions. The first theme is the importance of women’s labor, both visible and invisible. The labor of women in domestic and public spaces shaped China’s move from empire to republic to socialist nation to rising capitalist power. Some of that labor was recognized by state authorities or intellectuals, leaving a documentary record that allows us to reconstruct how and why women’s labor was valued. Some of it, however, was not so visible in the historical record. Women’s hidden reproductive labor included not only childbirth, but also feeding and clothing household members, raising and educating children, caring for the elderly, maintaining community ties, and producing handicrafts that generated income for their families. This labor was crucial both to the survival of households and to big state projects that depended upon women to work a double shift—for example, in the Mao era, the labor of women who put in one shift during the day in the collective fields and another at night bent over a spinning wheel or loom.

The second theme of the book is the symbolic work performed by gender itself, work that intersected with women’s lives and interests but was not identical to them. The question of what women should do and be was a constant topic of public debate during China’s transformation. Sometimes Woman was deployed as a symbol of a weakened culture; alternatively, Woman became a sign that China was entering the ranks of modern nations. Sometimes women were decried as ignorant and dependent drags on the national economy, and sometimes they were glorified as mothers who could save the nation or heroines who could hasten the achievement of socialism. Women and China’s Revolutions explores what sort of work the symbol of Woman was doing. What concerns did people express through the language of gender? How did that language work, and why was it so powerful? Under what circumstances did women themselves articulate and act upon expanded possibilities for being a woman?

“The Socialist Construction of Women, 1949-78,” which is Chapter 8 of the book, considers women as objects and agents of state campaigns to end prostitution, establish thoroughgoing marriage reform, and retrain midwives across rural China.

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