In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf, known for her biting criticism of gender discrimination, describes how a woman like her was denied entry into a university library without the supervision of a man. This shows that women in the West had to fight for their rights and fend off "the second sex" label even in the 20th century.
The feminist movements in the West have gone through two major waves. The first started in the late 19th century through the early 20th century and demanded that women be given suffrage, access to education and right to work. The second wave began in the 1970s, with women demanding greater gender equality.
Compared with Western feminist movements, which were independent of and progressed along with social revolutions, feminist movements in China have been part of the country's social revolution. Women's emancipation during the 1911 Revolution provides a good example of this.
The 1911 Revolution was not only a political but also a social movement, which brought about earth-shattering social changes and fought against traditional Chinese customs such as feet binding. Kindled by 1911 Revolution, women's movement in China at that time focused on equal rights for both sexes and women's participation in political affairs.
Speaking of women's leaders of the time, Qiu Jin was perhaps the most impressive. Qiu was an eloquent orator who fought for women's rights and abolition of the feet-binding practice. Qiu, who used to dress like a man, started a radical women's journal that called for women's financial independence through education, and took charge of the Zhejiang-based Datong School, where she encouraged female students to ride horses and even undergo military training.
During the 1911 Revolution, woman revolutionaries such as Tang Qunying and Shen Peizhen advocated women's studies and played an active role in the revolution. As a result, women's military organizations began flourishing, and women even took the responsibility of assassinating some Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) officials.
The practice continued in later military campaigns, too, such as the Northern Expedition, although woman participants were still few. The resultant women's awakening later prompted more women to join the stream, especially in Yan'an in Shaanxi province, the revolutionary capital during the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression.
But only several years after the 1911 Revolution did the authorities allow boys and girls in the same classroom, changing the Chinese tradition that demanded propriety between men and women. For long, Chinese women were not considered good enough to speak in public, and to work and participate in political affairs. The 1911 Revolution changed all that, albeit gradually. But the many social changes, particularly the practice of allowing both sexes to attend classes under one roof, helped women to seek their rightful place in society right from kindergarten.
A century has passed since the 1911 Revolution, and today China can boast of its Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests, for it is one of the few countries in the world to have such legislation.
But despite all the progress, much remains to be done.
Gender empowerment measure (GEM), a major monitor of gender inequality in getting opportunities in political and economic forums, considers several factors - the percentage of seats in parliament held by women, the percentage of female legislators, senior officials and managers, and the percentage of female professional and technical workers.
The 2009 Human Development Report of the United Nations, which uses GEM, shows that for the first two factors, China has recorded only 21 percent and 17 percent. Despite the great strides China has taken in promoting gender equality in the past century, it has to renew its efforts to increase women's participation in politics and public decision-making processes.
China has a long history of patriarchy and Chinese people practiced customs and norms rooted in patriarchy for centuries. Women's emancipation is important not only for China alone, but also for the rest of the world, because it can show that the efforts made by a country long plagued by gender inequality have been rewarding.
Li Yinhe is a researcher at the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The article is based on excerpts from her interview with China Daily's Gao Zhuyuan.
(China Daily 10/10/2011 page9)