Leftover Women

The Resurgence of Gender Equality in China

After the 1949 revolution in China, Chairman Mao famously proclaimed that women hold up half the sky. But since then, the sky has been turning darker. In 2007, the Chinese government added to its official lexicon the term "leftover women" who are unmarried, professional, women older than 27 years old. This derogatory term is one sign that recent market reforms in a one-state party system with legacies of social engineering, a massive propaganda apparatus, and a tight grip on information.

Leta Hong Fincher's new book, Leftover Women: the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, argues that, contrary to many claims in the media, women in China have experienced a dramatic rollback of rights relative to men. In an event at New America NYC, Fincher, along with ChinaFile editor Susan Jakes and New York University professor Rebecca Karl, talked about these regressions, focusing largely on the crisis of home ownership and property rights for women in urban China.

Fincher led with a startling statistic: “70% of home purchases in the 4 largest real estate markets in China were financed by women, but only 30% include their names on the deed.” Because property is one of the very few ways to invest money in China, the result is that “women are being shut out of wealth accumulation opportunities, drastically growing the property wealth gap” along gendered lines.

According to Rebecca Karl, these gaps represent a significant shift from what was earlier in China’s history “one of the most progressive laws for protecting women in the world.” Karl contextualized that, during the Maoist period, a 1950s marriage law enacted upon the Communist assumption to power recognized, “at least on paper,” rights of women to divorce, custody, property ownership, and inheritance rights, to name a few. Legally secured rights for women, according to the time, worked to support the institution of marriage as “companion-based, bringing out the most productive in both spouses.” Emphasis on a marriage structure that empowered both spouses also empowered the society by providing a stable unit for which to build upon the country’s larger economic interests.

Since then, women in China have been resisting that structure. The country’s women have seen major educational gains, with a 13-percentage point increase in the number of university degrees awarded to women across the 2000 decade. More women are enrolling in higher learning programs, and they have surpassed men in Master’s degree enrollment. Access to education at all levels has meant that women have chosen to delay marriage and instead pursue careers and fulfill their own ambitions. The result is a backlash in which the Chinese government and those

The new empowerment women are insisting upon has resurfaced and, for the first time, introduced epidemically the problems of domestic violence in their homes, with approximately 25% of married women reporting abuse from their husbands. What’s worse is that Chinese women have no legal recourse because, despite a decade-long advocacy effort to pass legislation, no law protecting women from domestic violence has ever been enacted in China.

The future for women’s rights, all three panelists agreed, doesn’t look promising. There is noticeable women’s rights and feminist activity happening in China, but those efforts are either squashed by government powers or are unregistered and illegal, with little access to funding and other resources to support their work. Even with a cultural shift in China that moves to better acknowledge the rights of women, government and state policies and political party platforms must also do the same for sweeping changes to be accomplished.