Women Now

June 19, 2018  By Brooks Robertson  Editor: Chen Caixia
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Throughout recorded history, and certainly prior, most societies and cultures have been patriarchal in nature, male dominated. Whether it began as a biological phenomenon in evolutionary times, men being the physically (if not necessarily mentally or emotionally) stronger gender or for another reason, it has been the reality of human existence.

But times are changing. Seemingly, men's greatest fear on this issue is having their unquestioned dominion usurped. Now confident, progressive and intellectual members of the male species realize it is not only the right move to allow, even encourage, women equal opportunity in most fields, it is the necessary move … for everybody.

Chairman Mao Zedong had it more than factually correct when he famously was quoted: "Women hold up half the sky." His statement appears to have been an incentivizing prod to a new post revolution China that needed all of its citizens to be involved in the country's renewal.

He realized that women must be allowed outside of the home to be a resource in the workplace for the betterment of a changing China.

Certainly the near seven decade period following the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 has meant greater freedoms for women according to most historians as well as present day Chinese gender scholars.

As one told me, "The bottom line for improving women's lives is increased economic opportunity and, ultimately, equality. It is coming slowly but … it's coming," she said wistfully.  

Education is the key. Historical and cultural preferences for boys is a fact. Among the reasons are the desire for the family name to be continued and in rural areas especially, a need for manual labor to help on the farms.

Thus a preference for boys to go to college, for example, even if a daughter is clearly the superior student in secondary school, reminds us all of the eternal perception, indeed reality, that men must earn a living to support their families and thus need every advantage society can provide to do so, including better access to education, outside training and other preferential treatment. 

For most of China's history, longstanding culture did not see the necessity or even benefit of a girl going to college. Getting married, raising a family and being a good wife, important and honorable as these roles are and always will be, superseded any need for her further educational advancement and enhanced career prospects. 

In the university classes I taught at China Women'sUniversity in Beijing earlier in this decade, many of my students from rural backgrounds had great grandmothers, even grandmothers whose feet had been bound. Some of their mothers were illiterate. Yet, here they were, college students with bright futures. Such is the timeline, the upward arc of women's changing status in the PRC.

But that is only a partial glimpse into the rapidly changing story. In 1949 when the PRC was founded, 75 percent of Chinese women were illiterate. Today China has among the lowest rates of female illiteracy in the world. Couple that with the fact that it has the highest rate of self-made female billionaires and you begin to see the change that is occurring.

Increasingly across the globe, allowing qualified young women in the country as well as the big cities to attend college and, where feasible, graduate school has proven not only to help those women and their families but also the developing countries where they reside, most notably China, the world's largest and most rapidly developing nation.

More and more though, societies realize that when women fare better in the economic arena the whole family benefits. Culture-wise, it's trickier. Millennia of ingrained conditioning make it difficult for many men to share the role of provider. It threatens their self-perception, even their manhood. Some men do not want to marry a more educated woman due to the fear that they will be seen as somehow inferior to her. Some in China and elsewhere feel such rapidly changing gender roles are inherently unsettling. Tradition must always be taken into account, especially one as deeply rooted in historical significance as China's. But evolution moves forward.

Embracing the rising tide of qualified women in the workplace and helping them succeed can only benefit the whole of society. "Half the sky" must not be left behind, underutilized. Not just for women's sake but for all of ours. 

Empowering women empowers men too.

(Source: Women of China English Monthly March 2018 Issue)

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