From its inception, China’s socialist state defined gender equality primarily as women’s right to equal work and equal pay. Women’s liberation was understood as full participation in paid, public work. To achieve this end, women were to be emancipated from domestic drudgery, and pregnant women and young mothers were to enjoy state protection so that they could combine the raising of children with productive work. Issues of concern to Western second and third-wave feminists – sexual and reproductive autonomy, recognition of the diversity of gendered experiences, freedom from oppressive gender norms – were seen as secondary, if they were perceived at all. Women who grew up in the Mao years often embraced this work-centred view of women’s liberation, even though many recognised that it fell short of its declared aims. And state feminism under Mao did indeed improve the lot of Chinese working women. Women’s employment rates under Mao were high by international standards and the fall in women’s employment since the Mao years – from close to 90 percent in the 1970s to 64 percent in 2014 – is a clear indication of China’s retreat from gender equality. Not that things were perfect under Mao: “equal pay for equal work” remained an empty slogan as long as most women were employed in low-pay sectors such as service and light industry, while men worked in heavy industry. Leadership positions were almost universally reserved for men, while cooking, cleaning, and childcare remained female domains. In state enterprises, socialised childcare and canteens reduced the time women spent on household chores, but not all women had access to such services. Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that urban women in Maoist China saw marked improvements in their lives, not only compared to the situation before 1949 but also compared to other East Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.
Urban women’s gains, however, were not shared by the more than 80 percent of Chinese women who lived in the countryside. True, rural women, too, were encouraged to step out of the confines of the household and to participate in public work: after the collectivisation of agriculture in 1956-57, all able-bodied women were expected to work alongside men in agriculture and infrastructure. In order to do so, however, they first had to be liberated of domestic work – work that was far more backbreaking and time-consuming than most modern readers appreciate. Despite half a century of treaty-port industrialisation, despite massive state investment in modern industry after 1949, Mao-era China remained a poor and mostly agrarian country, and most of the country’s wealth was channeled to the cities. In central Shaanxi in the 1970s – an area of average wealth, with good rail and road connections to China’s developed coastal regions – people lived material lives that were in most aspects unchanged from the early twentieth (and, in fact, the nineteenth) century. New socialist commodities introduced in the 1950s included flashlights, rubber boots, thermos flasks, enamel wash basins, calendar posters, and bar soap. These brightened people’s daily lives but left women’s work routines mostly unchanged. All food with the exception of salt, vinegar, and soy sauce was produced locally. Processed food was virtually unknown; women prepared noodles, steamed rolls, pickles, and condiment from scratch at home. Under these conditions, preparing a simple meal took hours: grain had to be milled and winnowed manually, fuel was gathered in the fields, water was drawn from local wells, etc.
Clothing a family was even more time-consuming. In theory, the state rationing system ensured that every person in the country – men and women, rural and urban – had access to cheap factory-made cotton cloth. However, rural rations fell short of the most basic needs. In most years, per capita rations were around 5 meters (60 cm wide and of poor quality), which is enough for one summer suit but not for winter gear, underwear, cloth shoes, socks, and bedding. Moreover, many rural people had so little cash income that they could not afford the cloth they were entitled to under the rationing system. In consequence, women in China’s cotton-producing regions (which include China’s coastal plains and the Yangzi and Yellow River valleys, in other words, China’s most densely populated areas) continued to spin and weave well into the collective period – in many cases, until the very end of the Mao years. Since the cotton harvest belonged to the state, they could do so only with cotton obtained through illicit means: pilfered from the collective fields, obtained on the black market, or secretly handed out by collective units that hid the harvest from the state. Textile work alone could keep a woman busy for the best part of the year: reports from the early years of the PRC estimate that a woman who was the sole textile provider for a family of four spent six months every year carding cotton, spinning yarn, weaving cloth, and making bedding, shoes, and clothing.
An entire generation of rural Chinese women was thus caught between two labour regimes. Participation in agricultural production was non-negotiable: women with small children could take off a shift once in a while, but most women were expected to work three daily shifts in the fields. Women’s participation in farm work was crucial to the state’s development aims: industrial growth depended on the mass production of cheap agricultural inputs for the factories; in the absence of capital investment (which was reserved for urban industry), increases in farm output could be achieved only by mobilising more labour power, and rural women were China’s largest untapped labour source. Women thus had no choice but to work full-time in agriculture. At the same time, the old labour regime, in which women worked at home to feed and clothe their families, remained largely in place. The Soviet Union and its Eastern European allies had dealt with similar situations by offering its rural women an implicit social contract: in exchange for their participation in paid, public work, women would be liberated from household drudgery in its myriad forms. This was achieved partly by socialising childcare and providing meals in canteens, partly by eradicating feudal customs that burdened women with senseless and demeaning work. For the most part, however, women were freed for socialist work by the planned provision of ready-made consumer goods that reduced the amount of work that women performed at home. China, being much poorer than the Soviet Union, could not follow that path. Women were mobilised for socialised work in collective agriculture before their domestic workloads were reduced.
The consequences for individual women were severe. An entire generation of rural Chinese women worked full shifts in collective agriculture and full shifts at home. These women also had more children than any generation before or after them: they reached reproductive age at a time when child mortality was rapidly declining but before contraception was widely available. Women dealt with their double and triple burden by working longer hours, up to and beyond the limits of endurance. They rose before men and children and went on working long after the men had gone to bed. In contrast to men, who took naps in the afternoon, women filled their short breaks with textile work. Many women rested only when they fell sick—but even then they often went back to work before full recovery. Their domestic work was not recognised, since from the state’s point of view, household work was reproduction and did not count as productive “work.” Yet to a significant degree, it was rural women’s unrecognised, invisible work that laid the foundation for China’s current prosperity.
Jacob Eyferth is Associate Professor in Chinese History in East Asian Languages and Civilisations at the University of Chicago. His research interests include Social and cultural history of twentieth-century China, in particular rural China; history of work, technology, gender, and everyday life. He is author of Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots: The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920–2000 (Harvard University Press, 2009). Image credit: Jacob Eyferth.