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Theses Bachelor's

"What Do Women Live For?": "Women of China" and the All-China Women's Federation

Johns, Jamie

In its theory and practice before 1949, the Chinese Communist Party promised women liberation and equality. As part of this promise, the Party established the All-China Women's Federation, a national organization for women, when the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949. Despite this rhetorical dedication to women's liberation and equality, many of the same cultural prejudices and institutional obstacles to women's advancement that the CCP had rallied against pre-1949 remained after the Party came to power. Because of this, the history of women in the early People's Republic of China (1949-1976) has primarily been seen as one of oppression. Scholars have emphasized the ways in which the CCP co-opted women's labor for its own goal. In these accounts, the ACWF was merely a puppet of the larger Communist state. This thesis does not intend to argue that oppression and sexism did not exist in the early PRC, it did. Instead, this thesis argues that the experiences and realities of Chinese women and the women's movement in the early PRC can not be easily and cleanly categorized. The ACWF was led by a group of women activists who had a serious history of involvement not only in the CCP but in women's rights movements dating back to the 1920s. The leaders of the ACWF believed that it was their duty to represent the interests of women and they did so through the official magazine of the ACWF, Women of China. This thesis examines a nine month discussion entitled "What do women live for" that took place in that magazine in 1963. The discussion about the meaning of a woman's life provides us with a closer look at how Chinese women saw their own lives and positions in society. This discussion took place in between two periods of high Maoism, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In 1963, political power had shifted and the ACWF was able to question the problems of society they lived in. However, the women who wrote to Women of China did not focus their letters on politics or the policies of the CCP. Most of these women recounted their own experiences and feelings. Many of them complained about the double burden of family and work, unfair standards for women, and unfulfilled dreams of material comfort. At the same time, these letters show women who did not see themselves as constrained by an oppressive party/state. Amongst the politics of the CCP and the ACWF, Chinese women still lived lives with complex relationships to the state, the ACWF, and, as clearly represented in their letters to Women of China, each other. While the CCP and the ACWF both presented women as a unified mass based on gender, the discussion around "What do women live for" revealed that women were a fractured and fragmented populace that resisted easy categorization. Through examining "What do women live for," this thesis argues for a conception of the history of the early People's Republic of China that is not entirely defined by politics.



More About This Work

Academic Units
B.A., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2010


Senior thesis.