Getting Leftover Women a Seat at the Table: An Interview with Leta Hong Fincher

This article comes courtesy of our content partners at Duke East Asian Nexus. The original article can be seen here.

Featured image of a cartoon on Sina, a popular Chinese blogging platform, shows a financially successful “leftover woman” rejecting a potential suitor by presenting her list of “marriage demands.” State propaganda claims that “leftover women” are too picky when choosing romantic partners.

Leta Hong Fincher’s book “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China” has swept through China hands and feminist circles alike. The book, an extension of Fincher’s doctoral research at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, examines the housing property decisions of young Chinese couples. Pressured by state propaganda and family members to produce children and avoid being “leftover,” young, well-educated, and often successful woman often marry, buy apartments, and cede valuable property rights over to the male, despite jointly financing the purchase. Consequently, as Fincher states, Chinese females “have been shut out of arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real-estate wealth in history, worth more than US $ 30 trillion in 2013.”

Via email with DEAN’s Emily Feng, Leta Hong Fincher described how the rights of Chinese women have been beaten back in the last few decades but the hope that she has for China’s brave young feminists.

DUKE EAST ASIA NEXUS: Your book has received a lot of favorable press. Why do you think the topic of ‘leftover women’ has such broad appeal among students, academics, journalists, and regular readers?

LETA HONG FINCHER: Women around the world face all kinds of gender discrimination, so Chinese women are certainly not alone. I have heard from women in India, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Singapore, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, and other countries telling me that they also face intense pressure to marry and stigma if they are single beyond a certain age. Women in the highly industrialized countries of the United States and Great Britain share some of the same problems of gender inequality in wealth now experienced by women in modern China. To some extent, the problems I describe in my book are universal. The difference in China is that gender-discriminatory norms are exacerbated by a one-party state intent on social engineering, with a massive propaganda apparatus that maintains a tight grip on information. So when the state media mobilize to push the message that women in their late twenties are “leftover,” like rotten food, and those messages are repeated ad nauseum ever since 2007. Even university-educated, young women may internalize that ideology, because they don’t have enough access to more empowering sources of information. The “leftover” women media campaign is also aimed at the parents and other older relatives of young women, so even if the young woman rejects the sexist media messages, she still comes under intense pressure from her parents and others to get married. In other countries, the marriage pressure is not so explicitly pushed by the government.

Leta Hong Fincher talks at Duke’s Asian and Pacific Studies Institute

DEAN: As your doctoral work demonstrates, Chinese women have missed out on one of the biggest instances of property accumulation in history. Did you come upon any other structural forms of sexism against women in your research? In what ways is sexism structural and/or cultural in China?

LHF: Many other scholars have demonstrated that new forms of gender discrimination have resurfaced in China following the onset of market reforms in the 1980s. The Communist Party has retreated from its historic celebration of gender equality after the revolution of 1949. As the government dismantles the planned economy, it has also dismantled many of women’s previous gains relative to men, such as job quotas for women, subsidized child care, and housing. Gender discrimination in hiring and promotion has re-emerged now that employers are no longer required to hire women. China’s female labor force participation was so high during the early Communist period that the aggregate number still stacks up well compared with Japan and South Korea, but in today’s market reform era, women’s gains relative to men are rapidly eroding. I believe that much of the sexism in China today is a backlash against the tremendous educational gains of urban women in the recent past. Chinese women today are better educated than ever before, so they are starting to want to delay marriage in order to further their educations and advance their careers. Some women are saying that they refuse to ever get married, because their rights are not protected. But the very people the Chinese government would like to see having babies are highly educated, urban women, who are increasingly rejecting marriage in neighboring Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong. I believe that if it weren’t for the strong state pressure on educated Chinese women to marry, even more mainland Chinese women would naturally follow trends in places like Taiwan, where statistics show women are significantly delaying marriage.

DEAN: What’s the landscape for feminist dialogue and activism like in China today? In American and European histories of feminism, we talk about First Wave, Second Wave, Third Wave, etc. Is there a comparable legacy in China?

LHF: Some people argue that there are similar waves of feminist movement in China, but I think they are overreaching. Rigid, authoritarian controls have prevented the rise of an independent, large-scale, Chinese feminist movement, and Chinese feminism has been overwhelmingly dominated by the Communist Party-backed, official state agency representing women, the All-China Women’s Federation. Feminist activists are severely constrained by the Chinese state’s elaborate “stability maintenance” system set up to absorb all expressions of political opposition. Very few Chinese women identify themselves as feminist in spite of the significant increase in gender inequality in recent years of breakneck economic growth. Women’s rights NGOs constantly risk closure by the authorities if they become too influential and are seen as posing a threat to Communist Party rule. A few months ago, China’s most influential NGO working on issues of gender-based violence, the Anti-Domestic Violence Network, was shut down by authorities. In spite of all the restrictions, very courageous, young feminists in recent years have staged innovative acts of “performance art” to raise awareness about women’s rights abuses. These young women are very inspiring and give me hope for the future of feminism in China.

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Emily Feng

is a freelance journalist based in Beijing, where she is currently a researcher with The New York Times. She graduated from Duke University in 2015.

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