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How Did Women Fare in China’s Communist Revolution?

While the Communist revolution brought women more job opportunities, it also made their interests subordinate to collective goals. Stopping at the household doorstep, Mao’s words and policies did little to alleviate women’s domestic burdens like housework and child care. And by inundating society with rhetoric blithely celebrating its achievements, the revolution deprived women of the private language with which they might understand and articulate their personal experiences.

When historians researched the collectivization of the Chinese countryside in the 1950s, an event believed to have empowered rural women by offering them employment, they discovered a complicated picture. While women indeed contributed enormously to collective farming, they rarely rose to positions of responsibility; they remained outsiders in communes organized around their husbands’ family and village relationships. Studies also showed that women routinely performed physically demanding jobs but earned less than men, since the lighter, most valued tasks involving large animals or machinery were usually reserved for men.

The urban workplace was hardly more inspiring. Women were shunted to collective neighborhood workshops with meager pay and dismal working conditions, while men were more commonly employed in comfortable big-industry and state-enterprise jobs. Party cadres’ explanations for this reflected deeply entrenched gender prejudices: Women have a weaker constitution and gentler temper, rendering them unfit for the strenuous tasks of operating heavy equipment or manning factory floors.

The state rolled out propaganda campaigns aimed at not only enlisting women in the work force but also shaping their self-perception. Posters, textbooks and newspapers propagated images and narratives that, devoid of any particularities of personal experiences, depicted women as men’s equal in outlook, value and achievement.

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