Sexuality, Reproductive Rights, and Women’s Work: A Comparative Study of Women’s Movement in China and the United States
Traditionally, Chinese women were oppressed by being treated as husbands’ property and being put under pressure to produce sons (Harper-Hinton 2). In pre-revolutionary China, the level of oppression against women was very high, hence the need for emancipation. Traditional feudalism and Confucianism had relegated women to an inferior position in society for thousands of years. The Communist Party challenged those attitudes when it came to power in 1949. In this regard, a parallel may be drawn with the drastic change in the U.S. women’s rights during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The civil rights activism era-inspired far-reaching improvements in the strength of the women’s movement.
Similarly, under the Chinese post-revolutionary regime, women were allowed to participate in the public sphere and were also granted land and marriage rights. However, proper gender equality remains a mirage particularly in the realms of sexuality, reproductive rights, and women’s work. This is in sharp contrast with the situation in the United States where the women’s movement has achieved a very high level of success in these realms. It is unfortunate that the task of women’s liberation remains incomplete in China. In most cases, changes in women’s fortunes have been dictated in patriarchal terms.
Chinese women started making inroads at the workplace after the 1949 revolution. Consequently, their quality of life and social status improved considerably. However, the level of success was not significantly high for them because increased access to the workplace was not accompanied by the corresponding improvement in domestic-related assistance. In contrast, U.S. women who gained access to the workplace received considerable social support in terms of assistance with domestic duties primarily in the form of communal facilities and spousal contributions.
Regarding reproductive rights and family planning, women’s liberation was relegated to a secondary position, with the primary focus being the objective of increased state-directed focus on national production. Population need remains the main criteria for determining birth control rather than women’s reproductive rights. Mass birth-control campaigns continue to be implemented across China. This problem is exacerbated by the masculinization of women. Meanwhile, some progress has been made in terms of the formation of women’s federations to fight for women’s free choice and reproductive rights in marriage. The progress has triggered widespread male resentment. The women’s federations have only partially altered the traditional patriarchal family structure. In the United States, women have been successful in safeguarding their reproductive rights. This right is even protected by the country’s laws. Abortion and birth control are considered both a means of family planning and a manifestation of women’s reproductive rights.
The Chinese socialist state continues to influence the manifestation of sexuality in women (Leung 360). In the United States, the federal government exerts virtually no control over women’s sexuality. Women’s sexuality is not a widely discussed subject in China as it is in the United States. With a high number of Chinese silently struggling with issues of sexuality and love, the task of women’s liberation seems incomplete (Bulbeck 98). Within the public sphere, the Chinese Women’s movement seems preoccupied with notions of rights, welfare, freedom, and harmony. In contrast, the U.S. women’s movement tends to focus on both “private” issues such as sexuality and love as well as “public” issues such as women’s rights, welfare, and freedom.
In conclusion, the women’s movement in China has not been as successful as its U.S. counterpart. Control by the patriarchal socialist state remains a major problem in China. No such kind of influence is being exerted on the women’s movement in the United States. The Chinese state continues to exert tremendous influence on women’s reproductive rights and sexuality. In terms of women’s work, both U.S. and Chinese women’s movements are making considerable progress.
Bulbeck, Chilla. “Sexual dangers: Chinese women’s experiences in three cultures—Beijing, Taipei, and Hong Kong.” Women’s Studies International Forum, 17.1 (1994): 95–103.
Harper-Hinton, Lily. “Chinese Women: Move but Not Leap Forward.” China Papers, 16 (2009): 1-19.
Leung, Alicia. “Feminism in Transition: Chinese Culture, Ideology and the Development of the Women’s Movement in China.” Asia Pacific Journal of Management, 20.3 (2003): 359-374.