33 and unmarried, seems I’m a left-over woman

Leta Hong Fincher, an American doing her Ph.D. at China’s Tsinghua University, has written a fascinating piece in the New York Times about the All-China Women’s Federation.  If you, like me, have never heard of this organisation, you might be interested to know that according to Wikipedia:

“The All-China Women’s Federation is an organization of women established in China in March 1949.  It became known as such in 1957 and had previously been called the All-China Democratic Women’s Foundation.  It was constructed as a mass organization supported by the Communist Party of China, and based on Marxist theory.  The basic functions of the federation are to represent and safeguard the rights and interests of women and promote equality between men and women.

In late 1995 the Women’s Federation began to refer to itself as a non-governmental organization (NGO).  It is now commonly referred to as the largest women’s NGO in the People’s Republic of China and has become one of the major vehicles for the development of feminism in mainland China.

Awesome, right?  Well, until you read this:

In 2007, the Women’s Federation defined “leftover” women (sheng nu ) as unmarried women over the age of 27 and China’s Ministry of Education added the term to its official lexicon.  Since then, the Women’s Federation Web site has run articles stigmatizing educated women who are still single.

This is the kind of stigmatising they’re talking about:

Pretty girls don’t need a lot of education to marry into a rich and powerful family, but girls with an average or ugly appearance will find it difficult.  These kinds of girls hope to further their education in order to increase their competitiveness.  The tragedy is, they don’t realize that as women age, they are worth less and less, so by the time they get their M.A. or Ph.D., they are already old, like yellowed pearls.

What?!?  Did I not get the memo, or do these people have a completely different understanding of the concept of the “development of feminism” than the rest of us?  Read a little bit further and it all becomes clear.  Someone in China realised that the social policies of the last era has caused a “sex-ratio imbalance” which “causes a threat to social stability” and decided that the solution is to shall-we-say “encourage” women to marry at a younger age.  And this encouragement is to take the form of shaming single women who choose to pursue an education rather than a husband.

I’m imagining that the reasoning went something like this:  “So, the structural sexism endemic to our society, which manifests itself in the systematic genocide of baby girls, has led to millions of single young men roaming the country, unable to find a mate.  Mmm.  This situation sounds pretty dangerous.  What if these men, uneducated, frustrated, start fighting each other?  Worse, what if they start fighting the government?  We must do something about this!  Look at all these women filling up the universities, selfishly thinking only of themselves!  If only we can get them to marry the poor single men..  I know!  Let’s shame them into doing it!”

It is fascinating to see a deeply sexist society trying to get women to solve a problem caused by mysogyny, and do so using mysogyny.  I wonder if it even ever occurred to anyone to solve the problem by trying to increase the value placed on baby girls, which might just stop people from killing them in the first place.  Interestingly, research seems to show that the gender imbalance in Chinese society decreases at higher levels of income and education, so they should probably be doing exactly the opposite of what they’re trying to do here.


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