labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
janvier / juin 2009 -janeiro/juin 2009






Rebecca E. Karl


To liberate women is not to manufacture washing machines. (Mao Zedong, 1968)[1]


This paper takes up the early twentieth century Chinese anarcho-feminist He Zhen’s theories of labor and feminism.  It argues that He Zhen contrasted the final disappearance of the possibility for a materialist ontology of female labor as free and autonomous to the imperialist and global trend towards the thorough commodification of female labor. He Zhen’s position was that the joining of global trends to already-extant domestic sources of female bodily subjugation were solidifying the enslavement of women to the rich, powerful, and the male, thereby almost erasing the possibility of an alternative solution to the feminist question of labor.

            Mao Zedong’s above-cited statement in 1968 about women’s liberation and washing machines served for many years in China and the world as one measure of the successes and the failures of the twentieth-century socialist project.  In Mao’s view, women’s liberation was an inextricable part of socialism’s goals, for the project of liberation – women’s and otherwise -- was to create the social conditions necessary for human emancipation from historical (that is, class and gender) constraints. While Mao’s thought has little to do formally with early twentieth-century anarcho-feminist He Zhen’s thought and agenda (and while the actual socialist project undertaken in China clearly fell far short of its ambitions), nevertheless, with regard to the indivisibility of the social emancipatory project, Mao Zedong and He Zhen shared a similar premise: the sources and historical instantiations of oppression are so multiple and entangled, that any project aimed at fundamental transformation necessarily requires the dismantling of entire systems of domination, locally and globally.  Manufacturing washing machines – or, in the most prosaic sense, lessening the burden of women’s domestic labor – hardly suffices to address this total revolutionary historical project. 

            In this brief essay, I highlight He Zhen’s systemic thinking about the historical instantiations of female oppression, with reference to her interpretation of the social totality of the early twentieth-century world and China. Unlike other Chinese feminists of her time – all pioneers of a critique of extant Chinese social organization -- He Zhen alone completely melded an analysis of gendered power relations with an analysis of the systems of state and social authority. In other words, rather than take a piecemeal reformist approach or an exceptionalist approach based on China’s cultural Confucian particularities (those approaches more common to her time and place, and in fact more common to our time as well), He Zhen’s critical targets were the continuously produced and reproduced intertwined systems of scholarly knowledge, female bodily subjugation, and state-legal practice that not only had resulted in the subjection of Chinese women in the past, but that would continue to provide the basis for women’s subjection in the “civilized” present and future. Indeed, rather than look to Euro-America or Japan as models of the future for China to follow, as many feminists and other critical intellectuals of the time did, for He Zhen, Euro-America and Japan merely represented more advanced ways in which newly- emerged and now-globalizing forms of oppression – industrial waged labor, democratic polities, enlightenment knowledge -- could attach themselves to native forms of subjection, to reconfigure and deepen these extant forms on a larger, more thorough, and more disguised scale. In her critiques, He Zhen proved to be both prophetic and prescient about women’s issues, but also, through her insights on labor, about the system of global capital that, then as now, preys upon local forms of oppression, configuring them into practices useful for accumulation and domination on a world scale.

            My comments on He Zhen arise from several interests.  First, in most scholarship on early twentieth-century Chinese intellectual history, little is written about He Zhen’s specific contributions to radical thought in the late-Qing period (loosely 1890s-1911).[2] However, her husband, Liu Shipei -- a famous anarchist-turned-monarchist, as well as a major progenitor of the early “national essence” [guocui] school of thought[3] -- features prominently in any such history. If He Zhen is mentioned at all, usually it is for being Liu’s wife. Indeed, a recent anthology of Liu’s writings published in China includes essays by He Zhen on the (largely unfounded) assumption that they were really written by Liu not He.[4] Even one of He Zhen’s major achievements, the co-editorship of the influential early anarchist-feminist journal Tianyi bao [Heavenly Justice Journal], is often enough attributed solely to her husband or other male collaborators, on the presumption that no woman could have been primary editor at that time (in China or in Japan, where Tianyi bao was based) of a journal not exclusively devoted to “women’s issues.”[5]As for histories of modern Chinese feminism, He Zhen’s anarchism puts her outside the main currents of the institutional and journalistic endeavors of educated women activists of the turn of the twentieth century. It seems she is too anarchist to be considered a feminist, or if she is included in such histories, her anarchism is barely mentioned. Only in histories of anarchism per se does He Zhen figure in what is construed as the pre-history to Chinese anarchism’s later flourishing in the 1910s and 1920s. But here, any complexity in her anarchist thought is reduced to her forceful advocacy for a “revolution in the women’s world” [nujie geming].  As important as that revolution was for He Zhen, and as central as it was to her reading of anarchism, it should not be assumed that just because she was female, therefore she advocated for women. Nor should it be assumed that “the woman’s world” was somehow separable for her from the world in general. In any case, appearing briefly in Chinese history as wife to a famous male intellectual, as faux-editor of an important journal, or as a feminist because biologically female, He Zhen disappears altogether in 1919, after her husband’s death. What is known, or at least what is whispered, of her is that her mind disintegrated in the wake of Liu’s demise and that she entered a Buddhist nunnery. Where and when she died remains a mystery. In light of He Zhen’s treatment by historians, my interest, in part, is to rescue He Zhen from obscurity by reintegrating her feminism with the intellectual history of the early twentieth century, by exploring how she understood anarchism through feminism, and vice versa.

            Second, and more vitally, this work emerges from an ongoing collaborative project with US-based feminist China scholars Lydia Liu and Dorothy Ko, a project intended to explore what He Zhen’s radical feminism might be able to tell us about her time, and, through her critique, about our time as well. To this end, as a pedagogical move, we three embarked on the translation into English of He Zhen’s major essays, as well as some other feminist texts of her time with which she was in dialogue. We wish to make these writings available to students and others concerned with historical texts, ideas, and trends in feminist thought and intellectual analysis of the early twentieth century world. In turn, the translation project is part of our commitment to bring He Zhen into conversation with the broader Chinese and non-Chinese, feminist and non-feminist intellectual currents with which she was engaged, to which she was responding, and in which she was consciously intervening with her writing. These include, at the very least, turn-of-the-century anarchism, feminism, liberalism, and socialism as well as sociology, history, journalism, and classical textual studies in China, Japan, Europe and America.

            He Zhen’s essays are written in semi-classical prose, a language just then being created out of the encounter of a formulaic classicism with an increasingly complex world to provide a more flexible expressive structure while incorporating new loan-words and concepts from foreign languages and socio-political philosophies. She deploys erudite and wide- ranging references to the Chinese classics, Chinese poetry, as well as to recent academic and journalistic works from Euro-America and Japan (which she read in Japanese). The essays thus present many linguistic and interpretive problems specific to her transforming Chinese-language milieu and to her turn- of-the-twentieth-century interpretation of the relation between China’s past and its present, specifically of Chinese women to the texts and realities of the past and present. Unraveling these intertwined problems is crucial to an understanding of He Zhen’s thought and method. However, my purpose here is not to offer a discussion comprehensible only to China specialists, but rather to introduce this important thinker to a broader audience, so as to raise, through her, questions many feminists involved in China Studies and elsewhere have been engaging for over a century.[6] These include questions revolving around the commodification of women’s labor in the context of the social, national, and global accumulations of capital and wealth. Indeed, He Zhen’s discussion of labor a century ago can remind us how thoroughly in current academic discourse (at least in the United States and China) and real-world practice the question of labor all but completely has been subsumed into and occluded by a neoliberal ideology dictating the primacy of capital, corporations, and the universalized economistic project of development and self- improvement (Gulli 2005: 5, 10; Yan 2008). After a brief historical contextualization, I focus on an interpretive reading of He Zhen’s 1907 two-part essay on women’s labor (He Zhen 1907).[7]

Late-Qing Historical Context

            The early twentieth century saw the final demise of the last dynasty, the Qing, and the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912. It was an extended moment of flux during which the intertwined foundational premises of Chinese society, politics, economics, and culture were crumbling and being rethought by many educated elites (male and female), albeit in the context of a global situation in which any autonomy of rethinking was impossible (Karl 2002a). However the rethinking was ordered -- and all the issues separately and in their relationship to one another were in great contention at the time -- the problem of how to understand China in the modern world was almost universally acknowledged as one of the great problems of the times. For many at the turn of the twentieth century, China’s geographically incomplete but politically and economically violent subjugation to foreign powers (Euro-America, and after 1895, Japan) urgently raised the question of how to compete with the increasingly rapacious and demanding imperialist colonizers on the pre-given terrain of militarization, enlightenment thought, and socio-economic industrialization. The pre-given nature of the terms of engagement and competition -- forced upon China through wars, unequal treaties, and imperialist-capitalist aggression from the mid-nineteenth century onwards -- led to a simultaneous acceptance and questioning by Chinese elites of the possible modalities for the various types of accumulations needed to challenge the invading powers. These modalities generally included the technological, capital, institutional requisites, and labor mobilizations for what was called at the time “self- strengthening” [ziqiang], later known as “modernization” [jindai/xiandai hua].

            While an adequate discussion of the socio-economic thinking of that time falls outside the scope of this brief essay, suffice it to say that one of the primary schools of thought to emerge to deal with this question was called Fuqiang Xue [The Study of Wealth and Power]. This school in large part derived from the translation and popularization of Herbert Spencer’s sociological reworking of Charles Darwin’s biological survival of the fittest as then adduced to explain the manifest military and commercial strengths of the Euro-American powers (Pusey 1983; Schwartz 1964). It stressed, beyond all else, the urgent necessity for technological militarization and institutional-bureaucratic rationalization, as well as socio- economic industrialization of coastal China, or those areas closest and most susceptible to Euro-American and Japanese invasions, colonial concessions, and manufacturing strength. The source of labor to fuel this semi-public/semi-private endeavor would be the vast population of China’s agricultural interior, whose land, while not expropriated outright, nevertheless was becoming more and more difficult to cultivate so as to produce for the increasing burdens of landlord surplus extraction and imperial taxation.[8] Particularly affected by the combination of land squeeze, rural labor intensification, and the steady collapse of home-based handicrafts in face of hegemonically controlled foreign industrial imports and foreign-owned coastal manufactures were women, whose economic activities had always been – in times and places of plenty as in times and places of scarcity – crucial to household economic viability. No mere “supplement” or “sideline” (as many economists and economic historians continue to call it) to a pre-existing supposedly proper male-dominated economy, female-dominated spinning and weaving activity was a central and necessary element of the functioning of any rural household economy (Gates 1996).

            In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the rural economy as a whole steadily deteriorated as a consequence of ever more rapacious landlords in collusion with newly-rising and newly-rich merchant elites in the coastal urban areas; the consequent accelerated subordination of rural to urban space; the competition in textile production and quality created by highly-capitalized foreign-owned industries and foreign-imported manufactures protected through tariff inequalities; the control of China’s tariffs and duties by British colonial power; the impotence of the dynastic state to ameliorate the livelihoods of the vast majority of China’s inhabitants; and a host of other factors. Women, whose family livelihoods were being ruined by these combined practices and trends, labored more intensely for lower returns within the family; were increasingly subjected to being sold as brides and/ or concubines and/or servants and/or prostitutes to anyone willing to pay; or, were induced to leave their families, either voluntarily (that is, forced by poverty) or in coerced fashion (sold by their parents or in-laws to garner cash; bought by factory operatives looking for cheap, indebted, and tractable labor; etc.). These women worked long and hard hours in the families of the urban or rural elites, in the factories of the many foreign and few domestic industrialists, and in the streets and byways of the cities, towns, and villages; they were mortgaged to “owners” – whether in the factory and brothel or in the families to men who had bought them as servants, brides or concubines – often for a lifetime.

            Yet, for most feminists of the time, these laboring women were largely invisible. Indeed, for the critically-minded educated women of the late-Qing, the problems of their own elite lives took center-stage in their analyses of China’s ills and the consequent challenges facing “women”. Their concerns, represented then and now as concerns for the newly-emergent analytical totality of women as such [nuzi], tended to concentrate on educational opportunities, marriage freedom, liberation from foot-binding, social equality with men, the obtaining of some measure of independence from crushing family norms that suppressed “female personhood” [renge], and participation in newly-emerging forms of governance (Karl 2002b, 2006). Only He Zhen, among the Chinese feminists of her time, prominently discussed the problem of women’s labor by linking labor as bodily subjugation and commodification to the problem of being woman.  In this focus, she was quite ahead of her time, for it was not until at least the1920s, with the birth and growth of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), that such a tight focus on labor – women’s and men’s labor located in the urban factories – became a central premise of social analysis and a rallying cry for transformative revolutionary action through proletarian class struggle; and by then, the CCP was well on its way towards thoroughly suppressing the anarchists in its midst (Dirlik 1991).

The Ontology of Labor and the Commodification of Female Bodies

            In her early 1907 two-part essay, “On the Question of Women’s Labor” [“Lun Nüzi Laodong Wenti”], He Zhen is most concerned with the proliferating forms through which women’s bodies were being commodified at the beginning of the twentieth century.  This concern stems for her from the fact that “labor” is not what historically was called “nügong” (womanly work/woman’s work), or, the traditional practice of household production in weaving and spinning (Bray 1997); this, He Zhen construes as labor for and within the family, as an affective not an economic unit. He Zhen’s concept of labor [laodong][9] is premised upon the suppression of the tradition of nügong, a non-commodified, “free and autonomous” [ziyou duli de] form of labor, as contrasted to modern labor [laodong], which is “free” only in the sense that it is tied to waged work. By the same token, the modern form of labor – waged labor -- in He Zhen’s analysis continues to be tied to the variety of ways in which women’s bodies have been subjugated and subjected through historical time. She names these older forms of subjection as enslaved domestic service in the form of bond-servitude [nupi], concubinage, and prostitution.  

            From the very beginning of her essay, He Zhen makes a crucial connection based upon a critical distinction.  The connection is between older forms of female bodily subjugation and the newer forms of waged labor, all now classified under the rubric of commodified (enslaved) labor. The distinction she makes is between labor as free, autonomous human activity and practice – or, practical labor as a vital aspect of any vision of individual and communal freedom and sociality -- in contrast to labor in most of its historically and contemporary forms, which is not ontologically free, but rather is commodified and enslaved. The crux of the connection and the difference, in philosophical and historical terms, is the acknowledgement that labor must be understood as a basic human activity, or, what philosopher Bruno Gulli calls an ontology of “organic, creative labor” (Gulli 2005:25). This is not labor as an economic concept and thus does not harbor within it a fundamental antagonism, an instrumentalization, or historical abjection. This concept of labor as a materialist ontology thus proposes labor not as an always-already appropriable power for private gain, but rather as organic to life itself. By contrast, for classical and neo- classical political economy – just as for the late-nineteenth century Chinese Fuqiang Xue [Study of Wealth and Power] based upon those principles -- labor is a purely economic category in analytical separation from the remainder of human life (which eventually comes to be ideologically segmented into work-time, leisure-time, etc. etc.). He Zhen articulates precisely this distinction between labor as an autonomous ontological practice and labor as an enslaved or commodified form, even though she does not designate the latter form as marking an entirely new era.

            Overall, the conceptual thrust of her essay is to explore how the commodification of women’s bodies over the long course of Chinese (and human) history has effectively crushed the possibility for any re-imagining of the futurity of labor as genuinely free and autonomous. She notes repeatedly, that alongside the ever-proliferating commodified versions of labor has co-existed – at least until quite recently – the autonomous version of labor. Indeed, it is at the cusp of the final suppression of nügong (autonomous labor) with the global advent of textile factories and collectivized wage labor, that He Zhen sees the possibility for an alternative to commodified labor slipping away. Hinging her understanding of labor in history on the figure of the subjected and abjected female body – the very body that makes starkly visible the enslaved form of all commodified labor -- He Zhen proceeds to analyze the ways in which, through time, women’s bodies have been subordinated to and appropriated by wealthy men for private gain for almost the entirety of the past. Here, He Zhen’s is an historical argument about the continuity of forms of enslavement; it is not an argument based upon a historicist principle. That is, in He Zhen’s narrativization there is no inevitable supercession and thus no necessary sublation of nügong [autonomous labor] by laodong [commodified labor] in some predestined march of historical stages of development. In fact, in He Zhen’s telling, for centuries, the ontology of women’s labor (nügong) had existed co-temporally with the various forms of commodified labor [laodong]. It is, thus, only with what she sees as the imminent disappearance of the enduring possibility of nügong labor that the supremacy of laodong labor appears now to be secured.[10] And this supremacy is being secured through the spread of the new form of enslaved labor called industrial waged work.

            As a feminist, then, He Zhen views the history of commodified labor through the lens of the coerced distortion and constant appropriation of the female body for wealth-accumulation. She is clear that understanding the conditions for female commodification cannot be confined to waged labor in the newer workplaces of the textile factories and other emerging sites of public female toil of turn-of-the-twentieth-century Qing China or Meiji Japan. Instead, for her the concept of bodily subjection through commodification has to be expanded outside of what she calls the recent advent of the “class system” [jieji zhidu] to encompass the myriad practices through which women’s bodies have been turned into sites of exchange value over the long course of history. This variety of subjected practices originates in and is perpetuated by what He Zhen calls the problem of livelihood (shengji wenti), or, quite simply poverty. That is, in her account, the difficulty in securing livelihood by the families of most women is inextricably linked to the unequal distribution of property between the wealthy and the poor, which she ties to the problem of who labors for whom, or who “legally” appropriates the value of labor from whom.

            For He Zhen the anarchist, then, property is the key category of the reproduction of unequal social relations from the past to the present, while the right and ability to appropriate labor – to commodify bodies – is the central modality for the ongoing production and reproduction of the private wealth that forms the basis for unequal social relations. It is the fundamental inequality in property that informs the historical conditions for all forms of commodified labor, even while it is the fundamental mechanism of commodified labor that informs the historical fact that, as she says in the first two sentences of her essay: “From ancient times to the present, China has had an unequal system with regard to women. It is called the slave-girl breeding [system] (ze xu bi shi ye).”  He Zhen’s argument in a nutshell, then, would go: if private wealth accumulation and the reproduction of unequal property relations rests upon the enslaved bodies of laboring women, then the whole social system that secures such unequal relations is merely a mechanism to facilitate the breeding of female slaves. All women, regardless of social status and wealth, are potential slaves, because all women can become concubines and prostitutes.  This is why women’s bodies are the key to understanding the issue of labor and property and why women as a total social category only can be understood through a focus on labor as bodily subjugation and property. In this sense, it is evident how He Zhen’s essay is suffused with the merging of her feminist concerns with the commodified female body and her anarchist concerns with unequal property distribution and the appropriation of value through labor. She reads the two sides – the feminist and the anarchist – completely through one another, such that there is no separating the one from the other. That is, property and labor become visible through the feminist lens, just as women’s subjection becomes visible through the problem of property and labor.

            By the same token, while she uses the vocabulary of Marxist-inspired socialism then in wide circulation in Japan (where she was living at the time) – “capitalists” [ziben jia], “class” [jieji], “labor” and “labor power” [laodong; laoli] and so on – in fact she rejects that, historically, the advent of capitalists (as a social category) or of class society (as a social formation) has altered in any crucial manner the age-old realities of the commodification of female bodies in the production and reproduction of unequal social relations. Instead, for her, capitalists are just an extension of the existing social category “wealthy people” [fumin]; class society is just an extension of the historically-continuous and ever-worsening poor-rich differentiation [pin-fu zhi cha]; and waged labor is just an extension of commodified female bodily subjugation in service to others. Thus, unlike Marxists of her time, who took the emergence of waged labor as the key to the production of a new system of unequal social relations through the commodification of labor power and the extraction of surplus value; and unlike liberals of her time, who took the emergence of waged labor (female and male) as the key to individual emancipation, freedom, and self-realization as well as key to the concurrent national pursuit of wealth and power; He Zhen takes waged labor as just one more potent form through which the wealthy enslave the bodies of (poor or potentially all) women. This form intensifies the appropriation of the value of labor under the guise of the new ideological sanction, “The Study of Wealth and Power” [Fuqiang xue]. In her total critique of (Japanese) Marxists and (Chinese, Japanese, and Euro-American) nationalists and liberals, He Zhen was quite unique among feminists and other intellectuals of her time.

            As is evident, for He Zhen, commodification is a capacious category. It refers to the ways in which female bodies have been pressed into the service of the wealthy over the long course of history. So, even while she recognizes factory waged labor as a new form of bodily subjugation and ethical/moral subjection, nevertheless she maintains that its essential content or reality remains the same as the traditional forms of bond-servitude, concubinage, and prostitution. This is so precisely because waged labor is also about the enslavement of a female body for someone else’s gain, no matter whether that gain is material (riches) or the satisfaction of lust (physical). In a historical sense, then, He Zhen is not making an argument about the birth of a new female or class subjectivity emergent through waged labor; rather, she is marking the continuity between the bodily subjection of the past and the present. Thus, so far as He Zhen is concerned, female subjectivity had to be based on that continuity, rather than on the newly-emergent putative proletarian class basis of factory work.

            In a discursive sense, He Zhen is interested in articulating a new correlation between the name [ming] and the reality [shi] of female bodily commodification or enslavement.  As contemporary critic Rey Chow has amply demonstrated, a deep concern with the relation between naming and reality has infused feminist politics in China (as elsewhere) for a century at least (Chow 1993). In China, in addition to a linguistic/discursive confusion over the advent of new vocabularies and practices, this modern iteration of the name/reality issue emerges from a long- standing dynastic historical concern with maintaining and rectifying names [zhengming] as a means of enforcing a particular discursive domination and closure on the perception and defining of reality. For He Zhen, then, “naming” refers not only to a modern-conceptual language problem -- that is, how to call new phenomena when no language or concept exists for such a thing; it is also not only a hegemonic discursive problem -- or a problem of how to impose a closed interpretation on reality. It is more importantly a problem of discursive speech in Gayatri Spivak’s sense; that is, discursive speech as a way to create an agentive voice that intervenes in reality while also becoming intelligible to itself individually, collectively, and to others (Spivak 1999).  For He Zhen, seizing the power of discursive speech through naming is absolutely vital to defining the reality of her contemporary moment; to rendering visible the fact of enslavement to women themselves; and to capturing the possibility of imagining social life differently.  In this sense, waged labor makes clear the mutations in the form of female enslavement in the modern period, yet it is merely a new name for the same old reality of female bodily subjection.

            Genuinely new in He Zhen’s eyes about the modern wage system is not the wage form but rather the global spread and extension of this form of commodification of female bodies. Indeed,  absent the existence of systems of bond-servitude and concubinage in many other countries (Euro- America and Japan are the ones she cites), what He Zhen sees at the turn of the twentieth century is the global universalization and standardization of female bodily commodification through waged labor. In this universalization and standardization, older (particular and Chinese) forms of enslavement (bond-servitude, concubines) are rendered equivalent and thus comparable to the contemporary (global universal) form of wage labor, insofar as all these forms take the female body as the primary site of exchange for the private appropriation of value. Here, then, He Zhen not only outright condemns the modern system of waged labor, but she also condemns it through its equivalence to and continuation of the older forms of labor. As He Zhen says numerous times in the essay, modern wage labor is no better than and differs little from all other forms of slavery. In setting up this kind of equivalence and comparability, on the one hand, He Zhen places China in a completely co-eval temporality and spatiality with universal global trends; indeed, as an anarchist or a feminist, her critical sights are never on China exclusively, but rather on systems of exploitation that transcend national and cultural borders. However, on the other hand, He Zhen also recognizes that China’s particular historical forms of female enslavement can and will be monopolized and mobilized by the newer forms of waged labor to further subjugate Chinese women in an unequal global structure of profits, accumulation, and production of wealth. He Zhen makes this absolutely clear towards the end of her essay when she emphasizes:

...before the modern period, for those who were concubines and prostitutes it was their bodies but not their labor power that was swallowed up; for bond-servants, it was their labor power and not their bodies that was swallowed. But in today’s system, the bitterness of having both labor power and the body swallowed up is concentrated on the bodies of women of the poor. (Emphasis in original; He Zhen, 1907, Part II:133)

As she sums up this observation: “Isn’t it the case that the misery of selling her body is already inscribed in the buying and selling of [a woman’s] labor power?” (He Zhen 1907, Part II:133)

            For He Zhen, then, it is not the fact of women’s labor that is at issue.  As she says, “Labor is a natural calling for women” [He Zhen 1907, Part II: 133]. The core of the problem is the subservience of some (poor women) to others (the rich, men and women) and the socio-political and legal right that this subservience confers upon the wealthy to instrumentalize women of the poor for their own purposes, whether material or physical. That this appropriation now – in the early twentieth century – had reached a global scale of accumulation and universalization through the modality of waged labor means, on the one hand, that the solution to the problem of commodification cannot be merely Chinese.  That is, it cannot be effected through the abolishing of bond-servitude and concubinage, those quintessentially Chinese cultural expressions of female enslavement.  Yet this is what the mainstream feminism of He Zhen’s time advocated: that a transvaluation of Chinese cultural values would suffice to bring Chinese women and thus China as a nation out of the dark ages and into the civilized modern world (Jin Yi 1903 [2003]).

            Instead, as He Zhen forcefully argued, since native forms of enslavement had now been conjoined to, transformed and reinforced by the newer forms of wage labor, and since those newer forms now had spread the world over (even to the Turkish harems, she notes), the solution to commodified labor, which is tantamount to enslavement, had to be found in abolishing what she called the worldwide system of mutual dependence, or, that system through which the poor were rendered dependent on the rich for food and survival while the wealthy cultivated a dependence on the poor for service. Indeed, replacing mutual dependence and the attendant Darwinian notion of the survival of the fittest with the concept of mutual aid was one route some Chinese anarchists at the turn of the century proposed out of the condition of unequal social relations. But this was not He Zhen’s solution.[11] Rather, for He Zhen, the route out of mutual dependence lay in the global implementation of “a system of communalized property” [gongchan zhi zhidu], whereby  “some people’s independence would no longer be dependent on other people’s [dependence]…”(He Zhen 1907, Part II: 133).  This would ensure that, while everyone would labor, it would be “equal” thus ontologically free and autonomous, rather than commodified and enslaved labor.


            He Zhen presciently points to a problem with which many contemporary feminists and labor activists are familiar today: that is, the reliance for accumulation of domestic and global capital on the subjugated bodies of women. As many have noted, the textile and electronics factories of the Southern Chinese boomtown, Shenzhen, for the past two decades have been completely dependent upon the sacrifice of young female bodies in factory production processes (Pun Ngai 2005), even while the reproduction of female industrial labor has never been borne by those factories at all  (C.K. Lee 2007). As is also well known, these factories and the state- supported system of the reproduction of labor have been some of the most important contemporary engines for capital accumulation on a domestic Chinese and global scale for the past twenty years. Laboring and commodified female bodies are the raw materials used for this purely primitive capital accumulation. Perhaps, He Zhen’s solution to the problem of commodified female labor – communalized property -- is not necessarily of particular relevance today (although, why not?). Nevertheless, her articulation of the historical conjuncture when that problem became particularly and acutely visible in China and globally – the early twentieth century, with the worldwide spread of waged labor and its reconfiguration of native forms of female oppression – alerts us to the fact that, we continue to inhabit, albeit differentially, a world made at that time. Despite and because of all the global upheavals and revolutions that have animated the ensuing century, the intertwined problems of commodified labor and female bodily subjection have still never been adequately addressed, no less solved.  The exponential increase in the manufacture of washing machines notwithstanding, the problem of commodified labor and female bodily subjection remain as causes around which feminists of the world can unite.


Rebecca E. Karl teaches modern Chinese history at New York University. She is the author of Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (2002) and of the forthcoming Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth Century World (2010).  Her newest book, The Magic of Concepts: The Economic and Philosophy in 1930s China is just completed, and she is working with two collaborators on the project, Translated Feminisms: He Zhen and her Textual Worlds, from which this essay is extracted.


[1] Mao said this in the context of talks with the novelist and then Cultural Minister of France, Andre Malraux (1968: 374).

[2] This paper is entirely indebted to my collaboration with Lydia Liu (Columbia University) and Dorothy Ko (Barnard College) on the He Zhen translation project and her historical-textual world.  The collaboration has led to workshops and round-tables (some concluded, some yet to come) intended to bring He Zhen’s unique perspective on feminism and anarchism into dialogue with global intellectual currents of her time and ours. The exchanges of ideas and working through of translations have been crucial to my thinking on many of the matters in this essay.  Lydia was the motivator for the project and has done an enormous amount of research, upon which our project stands; Dorothy graciously took on the most abstruse of the essays for translation while also generously editing the first draft of my translation of He Zhen’s essay on women’s labor. Our collaboration has yielded the best sense of a feminist practice in an academic setting; I am grateful to Lydia and Dorothy for being so open to collective work, for inviting me to be part of it, and for being such good intellectual and culinary companions through it.

[3] There is abundant scholarship on Liu Shipei.  In English, see Charlotte Furth 1976; on national essence of the early twentieth century, see Viren Murthy 2006.

[4] Many essays at the time in publications of all varieties were written under pseudonyms, for political or vanity reasons.  This has given rise to a large amount of debate on whose pseudonym belongs to whom.  In He Zhen’s case, the essay on women’s labor is written under the name “Wei Gong,” a pseudonym not definitively attached either to Liu or to He. On textual evidence, I and my collaborators have determined to our satisfaction that the essay is indeed by He Zhen.

[5] For a brief exploration of this issue, see Xia Xiaohong 2005.  Xia believes that He Zhen’s particular emphasis on feminism in her anarchism is a “special Chinese characteristic” of anarchism in early twentieth-century China (p314). This is fundamentally mistaken.  The scholarship on He Zhen is minimal.  In English, there is Peter Zarrow’s chapter on her ( 1990: Chapter 6), where one can find an outline of her thinking as it pertains to Zarrow’s larger interest in Chinese anarchism as a modern reworking of certain classical Chinese principles. In addition, see Liu (2003).

[6] A very short version of this essay was presented in Chinese for a roundtable at the First International Gender Studies in China Conference, Fudan University, Shanghai (26-29 June, 2009). This roundtable consisted of myself, Lydia Liu, and Dorothy Ko and was moderated by Gail Hershatter. Thanks to Prof. Wang Zheng for inviting us to participate and bending the schedule to our needs; and to Ms. Zhu Qian for translating my English text into Chinese for that event.

[7] He Zhen’s other major essays, aside from the one on women’s labor, were: “On the Revenge of Women,” and “On Women’s Liberation.”  The first is a long consideration of the historical roots of female oppression in Chinese scholarship and Confucian textual studies; the second is a consideration of the relationship between women’s liberation, state form, and government power.

[8] There is an enormous debate in the economic history of China about whether there was absolute or even relative rural immiseration through these years.  It seems clear, in light of the disputes, that intensification of land use was proceeding very rapidly; that the dynastic accommodation with landlords was inimical to rural land adjustments in favor of agricultural labor; that handicraft manufacture, particularly in the realm of the traditional women’s work of spinning and weaving, was severely impacted by the industrial competition in silk and cotton from Japan, British-colonized India, and the revival of the American South after the civil war as well as by the recovery of the silk industry in France  and Italy after the mid-century silkworm plagues, among others.  The literature on these disputes is voluminous and specialized.  There is no one good source for the whole gamut of issues.

[9] The difference is signaled in He Zhen’s linguistic usage: laodong – labor -- is a Marxist-inspired loan word from the Japanese; gong is the traditional Chinese word for human activity, or work, in what I am calling the ontological sense.

[10] I should note here that He Zhen’s notion of nügong is quite idealized and compared to later anarchists and radicals in general, her critique of the family as a social institution is tame.

[11] For the split between Tokyo-based and Paris-based early-century Chinese anarchists, and for the philosophical and ideological sources behind that split, see Dirlik 1991.


1997.       Bray, Francesca.  Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial   China. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).

1993.       Chow, Rey. “Against the Lures of Diaspora.” In Chow, Writing Diaspora: Tactics    of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana                 University Press).

1991.       Dirlik, Arif. Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution. (Berkeley, CA: University of      California Press).

1976.       Furth, Charlotte. “Culture and Politics in Modern Chinese Conservatism.” In      Furth, ed., The Limits of Change: Essays on Conservative Alternatives in           Republican China. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

1996.       Gates, Hill. China’s Motor. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press).

2005.       Gulli, Bruno. Labor of Fire: The Ontology of Labor between Economy and   Culture. (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press).

1907.       He Zhen. Lun Nuzi Laodong Wenti [On the Question of Women’s Labor]. Tianyi bao, Vol. 5 & 6.

1903 [2003].  Jin, Tianyi. Nüjie Zhong [A Bell to Warn the Women’s World]. Ed. Chen   Yan. (Shanghai: Fudan Daxue Lishixue Xi).

2002a      Karl, Rebecca.  Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the     Twentieth Century. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).

2002b     Karl, Rebecca. “’Slavery,’ Citizenship and Gender in Late Qing China’s Global    Context.” In Karl & Zarrow, eds., Rethinking the 1898 Reform Period: Political        and Cultural Change in Late Qing China. (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University    Asia Center).

2006.       Karl, Rebecca. “The Violence of the Everyday in Early Twentieth-Century   China.” In Dong & Goldstein, eds., Everyday Modernity in China. (Seattle, WA:                University of Washington Press).

2007.       Lee, Ching kwan. Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and    Sunbelt. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).

2003.       Liu, Huiying. “Feminism: An Organic or Extremist Position? On Tien Yee [Tian   yi] as Represented by He Zhen.” positions 11:3: 779-800.

1968.       Malraux, André. Anti-memoires. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

2006.       Murthy, Viren. The Myriad Things Stem from Confusion: Nationalism, Ontology,     and Resistance in Zhang Taiyan’s Philosophy. PhD dissertation, University of                Chicago.

2005.       Pun, Ngai. Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace.    (Durham, NC:  Duke University Press).

1983.       Pusey, James Reeve. China and Charles Darwin. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard      University Press)

1964.       Schwartz, Benjamin. In Search of Wealth and Power: Yen Fu and the West.   (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

2005.       Xia, Xiaohong. “He Zhen de Wuzhengfu zhuyi ‘nüjie geming’ lun” [He Zhen’s anarchist critique of ‘revolution in the woman’s world.’].  Zhonghua wenshi              zhiliao [Issue 83]: 311-340.

2008.       Yan, Hairong. New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development, and Women   Workers in China. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

1990.       Zarrow, Peter. Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture. (NY, NY: Columbia     University Press).


labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
janvier / juin 2009 -janeiro/juin 2009



 “State Feminism?” Gender and Socialist State Formation in Maoist China[1]

Wang Zheng

The term “state feminism” does not have a fixed meaning. Conceptions of the state and definitions of feminism are not universal. Although the compound phrase “state feminism” has a relatively short history, it has acquired various meanings in its transnational usage. Evolving from an early usage of “state feminists,” a term that referred to feminists employed as bureaucrats in positions of power or women politicians who promote gender equality policies in Scandinavia, “state feminism” has been conceptualized to enable scholarly examinations of the institutionalization of feminism in state agencies in a variety of political and economic systems. [1] The term has also been adopted in scholarly discussions of the Chinese socialist state’s gender policies but with a significant twist. [2] “State feminism” denotes feminist interventions in the state in the context of democratic states. When applied to China it often portrays a paradoxical image of a state patriarch championing women’s liberation, although with vacillation and inconsistency. The conceptual chasm deserves a close examination. Does the chasm reflect fundamentally different sets of relationship of gender and the state between socialist state and capitalist state? Or could it be as much a function of intellectual parameters of feminist scholars as that of political realities under investigation? This empirical study on gender and Chinese socialist state formation attempts to shed some light on this curious phenomenon. [3]

Studies on gender and the Chinese socialist state have convincingly argued for the existence of a socialist patriarch. [4] Sharp feminist critical lenses that have enabled dissection of patriarchal state power, however, often get blurred when it comes to the examination of pro-women policies or laws passed by the state. Scholarly scrutiny stops at interpretation of those documents. It is never clear how pro-women laws and policies got to be initiated and passed by a patriarchal centralized power structure. Indeed, a methodological difference exists between studies on women and socialist states and studies on feminism in capitalist democratic states. In the latter case, documenting feminists’ engagement with the state power and identifying individual feminist actors in the process of shaping pro-women policies or institutions often constitute the main body of a study. Works on “femocrats” in Australia and the Netherlands are good examples of in-depth ethnographic studies of a transformative political process. [5]  However, a parallel study on socialist state feminism has yet to be seen. The lack of desire or imagination to excavate women’s role in the policy-making process in the socialist state may have much to do with a fast held assumption about the socialist state: it is too centralized and monolithic to have any space for women’s intervention. The story that follows questions the assumption of the total dominance of the socialist patriarchal state. To some extent, this study also questions conceptualizations of masculinist state power in any political system that rule out possibilities of women’s subversive action in state processes. The issue here is not only to recognize women’s agency but also to reconceptualize state power. Can a feminist theory of state critical of all dimensions of state power also account for sites and effects of feminist negotiation and intervention in dispersed state processes? Different from Wendy Brown’s preoccupation with “finding the man in the state,” finding women in the socialist state is the focus of this article. [6]

A women’s organization, the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), does often appear in discussions of Chinese state feminism or official feminism. However, it is usually defined as no more than an organ of the Party-state that takes on the project of making Chinese women into statist subjects. [7] Seen as a coherent part of the patriarchal state, the women’s organization curiously loses its gender. Gone with it is also women’s agency. A common explanation for women’s social advancement is that what women gained in the Mao era (1949-1976) was a result of the state’s top-down measures, or the Chinese variant of “state feminism”. As a recent study claims, “Under state-derived feminism, agency becomes the monopoly of the Party-state. Changes in gender relations are inspired from above and mobilized through the organizational channels of the ACWF. The Party-state, through the ACWF, defines the causes, methods, and vision of change and serves as the guardian and male protector of women’s rights and interests. While women can be mobilized for change, they cannot be their own agents of change.” [8]

A key problem in this interpretation, as well as in other studies of similar nature, [9] is the ambiguity of the nature of the ACWF. Is it an embodiment of the “male protector” or a representative of woman, or both? Founded with the endorsement of top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in April 1949, the All-China Women’s Democratic Federation (later renamed the All-China Women’s Federation) was designed as an umbrella of existing women’s organizations in the country. The ACWF continued a long history of funü gongzuo [women-work] in the CCP that had incorporated feminist agenda and recruited feminists at its inception when the feminist movement peaked in China. “Women-work” historically included mobilizing women to accomplish tasks for the CCP revolution and addressing issues concerning women’s interests, welfare, and equal rights. Both components were seen as complementary to each other and crucial for engaging women in a political process for women’s liberation.  Women-work, however, was subordinate to the Party’s “central work,” the Party’s priority at a particular moment. The tension between “women-work” and the Party’s “central work” has been a constant reality for communist women in charge of “women-work,” as we will see below.

Led by women Party members who had rich experience in women-work in the Communist revolution, the ACWF went though rapid institutional development in the early 1950s and set up local branches at each administrative level, reaching down to rural villages and urban neighborhoods. By 1953 there were already over 40,000 officials of the Women’s Federation system nationwide working above the township and street level.[10] This large number of women officials usually vanishes in much of the discussion of “state feminism” in China. Where do we place them and their women-work in our understanding of socialist state building? “Relocating” these women requires us to reject a view of the Party-state as a coherent, seamless, and monolithic body and to open up inquiries that allow us to see in detail the fissures, gaps, disputes, contestations, and conflicting goals and interests in the internal workings of the state apparatus. Investigating the historical process of the Women’s Federation’s institutional development is such an inquiry that attempts to provide a glimpse of this complicated and unstable terrain.

Based on archival research and interviews of retired Women’s Federation officials in Shanghai, this paper focuses on the Shanghai Women’s Federation’s (SWF) activities around its grassroots organization, the Women’s Congress, in the early 1950s and explores the following issues. First, how did the SWF participate in socialist state building? Second, how did its participation transform the social landscape? Third, what can its struggle of institutional building tell us about gender politics in the state process? Examining these questions, this paper attempts to explicate a gendered process of “socialist state building” and to reconfigure the concept of “state feminism.”

Shanghai, the largest city in China with a population of over five millions in 1949, was the key site for the CCP’s experiment of social reorganization in urban areas. A large part of this reorganization involved disbanding or reshuffling formerly existing organizations that had not been affiliated with the CCP, or were not pro-Communist, and organizing formerly unorganized social groups.  Organizing people at the grassroots level by Communist vanguards was seen as a democratic process in itself, a key approach underlying the success of Communist revolution. It was against this background that the ACWF was founded and subsequently set up local branches for the purpose of organizing women. The meaning and consequences of their initiatives and their efforts to figure out how to organize and in what activities the organized women should engage will be examined below.

Exploring the Role of the Women’s Federation in Socialist Urban China

On June 26, 1949, one month after the People’s Liberation Army had entered Shanghai, the preparatory committee for the Shanghai Democratic Women’s Federation (it renamed the Shanghai Women’s Federation later) established. It immediately started to investigate and register existing women’s organizations in order to “unify the Shanghai women’s movement.” Of the twenty-two existing women’s organizations in Shanghai that had been either CCP peripheral organizations or sympathetic to the CCP before 1949, the SWF identified six as jiating funü [housewives] organizations and combined them to form the Shanghai Housewives Association (SHA) on August 22, 1949. [11]  It took some debate within the SWF before it decided to include housewives in women-work. The class standing of housewives, in the CCP perception, was dubiously close to bourgeois. So it was necessary for officials in the SWF to stress that of one million Shanghai housewives (all women without stable employment at the time were lumped into this category), the majority were not bourgeois parasites but lower-class and poor women. “Her work is unpaid and has no significance for social production, but she is not a sheer consumer in society.” The final decision to include housewives was based on the following reasons that appealed to the Engels’s theory of women’s liberation.

The long-term goal of organizing housewives is to liberate them from subordinate positions and to engage them in social production. The current goal is to prepare housewives intellectually and technologically so that our society will have a large reserve labor force. Meanwhile we should raise women’s consciousness and make them understand that social liberation precedes women’s liberation. Therefore we should closely connect social production with our work to support the front line. We should organize housewives and send some of them to factories and other occupations. The process of organizing one million housewives will gradually enable them to participate in various production departments. [12]

 Although organizing housewives was a major effort of the new SWF, housewives were not perceived as its main constituency in 1949. “The Resolution on the Current Tasks of the Chinese Women’s Movement” passed by the first national congress of the ACWF on April 1, 1949, stated clearly that “women workers should be the basis of the urban women’s movement.” [13] In the work report on the first two months’ work of the SWF, housewives ranked the last to be reached, following women workers, students, teachers, artists, and professionals. Establishing six contact lines to connect these various groups of women in Shanghai, the SWF intended to be an umbrella organization unifying all women, although with a clear awareness that its efforts might “bump and press” others. [14]

The emphasis on working-class women as the primary target group of urban women-work, although ideologically correct, soon brought the SWF into conflict with the newly established Department of Women Workers (DWW) of the Trade Union, which regarded it as its job to organize women workers. To resolve this conflict, the ACWF, in 1949, specified that organizing women workers would be in the realm of the DWW of the Trade Union, but that the DWW would be a group member of the WF. Although this appeared to turn the DWW into a WF branch, by making the head of the DWW a member of the WF Executive Committee, cooperation between the two organizations was guaranteed.[15]  This model of cooperation between the two organizations, however, created a challenge for the SWF not faced by other urban Women’s Federations because in Shanghai, the nation’s largest industrial city, 170,000 women factory workers were removed from their agenda. The SWF had to actively look for an alternative constituency, a constituency that would define and legitimate its role in socialist state building. Housewives, therefore, with their sheer number as well as their detachment from any other branch of the CCP organizational apparatus, swiftly rose in their importance to the development of the SWF. Although there were misgivings based on the principle of regarding women workers as the basis of urban women-work in early 1950, organizing a million unorganized housewives became the SWF’s central task.[16]

The identification of housewives as its organizational base led the WF to explore new methods of organizing that had far-reaching implications. By late 1950 the Shanghai Housewives Association had set up twenty-one district branches with individual housewives as members and through them intended to reach women in all neighborhoods. However, in late 1950 the All-China Women’s Federation urged local Women’s Federations to speed up their grassroots organizing by forming a Women’s Congress like those that had been created in the CCP-liberated areas to organize rural women. In the villages, women representatives were elected to a Women’s Congress which in turn elected an executive committee to manage routine work relating to women. The Women’s Congress was a representative body responsible for expressing local women’s demands to the government and, in turn, explaining government policies to them. As such, it was hailed by CCP women leaders as the best organizational form for connecting women broadly and democratically. With the CCP’s power extending to urban areas, the ACWF expected to establish Women’s Congresses in cities as well. [17]

The SWF was quick to see the utility of its neighborhood-based Housewives Associations in this endeavor. The chair of the SWF, Zhang Yun, a Communist woman leader who had been involved in women-work since the 1920s, sent out work teams of SHA and WF officials to selected neighborhoods to explore new methods of organizing women in urban areas. At the same time, however, the municipal government began implementing a “mode of spatial organization” to organize the unemployed, self-employed, and non-employed and placed its Department of Civil Administration (DCA) in charge of organizing residents in Shanghai lanes [18] and streets into residents committees, constituted mostly by male residents, at least in its initial stage. A district government branch, called the “Street Office,” was set up in each precinct of a public security station to supervise about 10 residents committees.  And then, in December 1950, the SWF also decided to establish its grassroots organizations in the precincts of public security stations. In less than one year, women living in 10,009 lanes elected a total of 42,900 representatives and 6,000 chief representatives, and 120 housewives committees with 1,300 members were established.

In 1952, the SWF decided to reach down further and replace chief representatives and housewives committees with a Women’s Congress in the jurisdiction of each residents committee. Women representatives elected by women in several lanes on the same block or adjacent area (usually with about five to six thousand residents) formed the Women’s Congress. They in turn elected a women’s committee that paralleled the residents committee. By early 1953, women in Shanghai lanes and streets formed 1,684 Women’s Congresses with 16,964 members of women’s committees and about 50,000 women representatives. Since then the Women’s Congress has remained the grassroots organization of the WF.[19] Zhang Yun’s pioneering work in creating urban Women’s Congresses and in organizing housewives was acknowledged by her supervisors. In 1953 she was promoted to the position of Vice President of the All-China Women’s Federation. Significantly, in 1953 its “ Resolution on the Tasks of the Women’s Movement” emphasized that work on housewives was an important part of urban women-work. Also in 1953, the revised Constitution of the ACWF specified clearly that the Women’s Congress in the rural township and urban neighborhoods was the basic organizational unit of the national organization. [20]

This brief introduction to the development of the WF inevitably erases the intensity and excitement experienced by WF cadres and involved housewives in those days. I can only give a few sketches here to convey the extraordinary style of establishing a Women’s Congress. In order to attract housewives to the first congress meeting and to make elected representatives proud of their new identity, the work teams would advertise the agenda of the meeting, which usually included talks by the district head and leaders of the SWF and special shows by professional performers. On the day of the congress meeting, housewives in each lane were organized to send their representatives away with fanfare. “The representatives all wore silk red flowers on their chests, walking in an orderly line, entering the auditorium. Behind them, teams of gongs and drums and yangge followed into the auditorium with drum beating and dancing. Every representative had a smile of pride and pleasure on her face.” [21] Inside the auditorium, colorful silk flags were hanging all over and flowers were displayed on the platform. In some districts, representatives donated over one hundred silk flags and dozens of flower vases to celebrate the convening of the Women’s Congress. Women’s enthusiastic response seemed to overwhelm the WF officials in a negative way. A work report criticized, “Although it was the representatives’ wish to celebrate the founding of their own big family, it was still too extravagant and wasteful. …Shanghainese like to fuss in a grandiose style.” [22]

The CCP’s creative ritual of mobilizing women was a well-developed practice in the Party’s long history back to the early 1920s, of mobilizing the “masses.” What deserves our attention is the responses of women. The archival documents and memories of interviewees reveal that women were highly enthusiastic about participating in WF mass rallies. In 1951 the Shanghai municipal committee requested that the WF mobilize women for its “central work,” which at the time included a patriotic campaign against American imperialist intervention in Korea, suppressing counterrevolutionaries, promoting production, and improving state finances. A municipal directive specified that the WF should organize women for a mass rally and parade on March 8, International Women’s Day, with the theme of protesting the US rearming of Japan. The WF successfully organized over 300,000 women to participate in the rally and parade, of whom 250,000 were housewives. The internal report reveals that many women joined the parade spontaneously.

Laoza District underestimated the number of participants. They thought five thousand women would come out, but actually ten thousand did. Among them were elements with complicated backgrounds such as prostitutes and bar maids, who created a sensation among the spectators. Although we originally decided not to ask old women to participate, there were also sixty- to eighty-year old women traipsing along with the parade. There were also women parading with their kids. The spectators were so numerous that they crowded into the street and pressed the six parade lines into three lines. The police and guards were so busy keeping order that they were soaked with sweat. [23]

Although the theme of the parade was patriotism and anti-imperialism, interestingly, the report commented on its effect on women’s empowerment. “Participants in the parade all felt that women have power and status now. Even men said, now women are a big deal. The Communist Party truly has its way, and even women are organized by them.”  [24] Leaving the praising of the Party aside, it is still clear that the parade had a gender overtone that both women and men recognized. If the CCP intended to use women to demonstrate popular support for their politics, women were also quick to utilize the new government power to cross gender and class boundaries. Parading in a public space with official endorsement, women in households and women of various subaltern groups all symbolically staged their legitimate position in the new political order. A patriotic parade carefully designed by the CCP was thus appropriated by women of different social backgrounds to produce political meanings important to them.

The parade had its special meaning for the SWF, too. From the beginning the SWF regarded it as a golden opportunity to mobilize women. Its plan for the March 8th celebration consciously aimed at combining the parade preparations with further organization of a representative system of women in residential areas. SWF’s work did not rank high on the municipal agenda and ranked even lower at the district level. The municipal party committee’s attention and support was therefore a great opportunity not to be dismissed. Equipped with a mandate from the city authority, SWF officials were able to utilize district resources and assistance to extend its reach in neighborhoods and reportedly identified 5,792 new woman activists in the process. Proceeding rapidly in the favorable political atmosphere, the SWF completed establishing the neighborhood women representative system and housewives committees in late 1951, which laid the institutional ground for the formation of the Women’s Congress in the following year. Needless to say, women’s impressive performance on March 8th enhanced the stature of the SWF in the eyes of the municipal authority as well as the public. It demonstrated that the SWF had a large constituency and had an important function in socialist state building. [25]


Fudaihui [Women’s Congress]--A Precarious Existence

The Women’s Federation system, together with the Trade Union and the Youth Association, have usually been perceived as arms of the centralized state that enjoyed institutional security in socialist China. The assumption neglects a history of precarious existence for the WF, a history that sets the WF apart from the other two organizations. The WF did not have a free ride with the rising Party-state. The story of securing its grassroots organization—the Women’s Congress-- epitomizes the tensions this gender-based organization aroused in the early days of state building.

The SWF’s rapid development of grassroots organizations among housewives in 1951 generated ambivalent responses from different branches of the municipal and district governments. Anxiously exploring the ways of local governance in the big city, the municipal authority recognized the value of SWF’s housewives associations; for when officials in the Public Security Bureau, the Department of Civil Administration, and the district governments were puzzling over whom to organize and how to approach residents, the district WF had already hosted frequent meetings and workshops to train women representatives as grassroots activists in their neighborhoods. The gender-specific Women’s Congress with its emphasis on women’s special needs was much more attractive to women than the early neighborhood organization dominated by men. If a resident meeting was called by the male-dominated neighborhood organization, few women would attend; but if the meeting was announced jointly with the Women’s Congress, many would. [26] Because male residents were an unstable force for neighborhood work because of their higher employment rates, and because many had dubious political or social histories pre-1949 and were therefore considered untrustworthy, housewives became increasingly valued by the government both for being a stable workforce in their neighborhoods and for their political “purity.” Thus, the municipal government emphasized the importance of mobilizing housewives for neighborhood work and recognized the SWF’s large role in organizing housewives to fulfill the Party’s “central work.”[27] In fact, many women representatives of the Women’s Congress were elected to the newly established residents committee.

Neighborhood work, a new term associated with the CCP’s urban reorganization, encompassed all dimensions of urban management. Various orders and demands by different government branches were passed down through Street Offices to reach residents committees within their jurisdictions. A 1953 government report described the tasks of a Street Office in these words.

Its major work is the campaign. After the campaign concludes, there is still much work to finish. Besides that, the civil administration section requests it to work on relief and help families of military personnel and martyrs. The health section asks it to work on street sanitation, public hygiene, and immunization. The culture and education section asks it to run literacy classes and investigate the situation of school-age children. The district people’s court asks it to work on accumulated cases. The district political consultative committee asks it to send out meeting notices and to report on how well representatives to the People’s Congress connected with residents.[28]

The long list of tasks for residents committees also included collecting property and land taxes, rent, and scrap bronze; helping to sell insurance, local products, movie tickets, and patriotic bonds; fixing hazardous houses, dredging sewers, and repairing street lamps and wires.  In short, neighborhood work covered everything in urban life except the production of commodities. Within the boundary of the miniature city-- the neighborhoods -- tens of thousands of housewives stepped out of their domesticity and broke gendered boundaries by engaging in all sorts of work in civil administration and public security. Many parts of the city saw an increasing physical presence of women who were “running” neighborhoods as, literally, “domesticated” social space -- spaces that a few years earlier had been associated with gangland violence. Moreover, these highly efficient local managers worked without pay.  In other words, identifying housewives for neighborhood work, the CCP found the most economical and effective way to address myriad pressing issues early in its experience with urban governance.

Nonetheless, although the SWF’s role in mobilizing housewives for neighborhood work was valued by the government initially, its emphasis on women-work soon encountered problems. The SWF organized housewives not simply to fulfill the party’s “central work.” An important component of women-work was to address women’s special needs, such as women’s health and childcare, and to provide literacy classes and vocational training as a means toward women’s liberation. The Women’s Congress was the vehicle for such women-work. But to the dismay of many an enthusiastic WF official, they soon found that male officials in Street Offices and district governments were reluctant to deal with demands raised by the SWF officials on issues relating to women’s welfare. Wu Cuichan, who was the director of a district Women’s Federation in the 1950s, recalls,

“When I was in the District, I worked with pilot sites in neighborhoods. I helped neighborhood party secretaries and residents committees with their work. Thus people in the Street Office would welcome you. I could not singularly work on the Women’s Congress. If I only stressed the work of the Women’s Congress, people would see me as a nuisance. …In our contact with the Street Offices, to use an unpleasant term, we had to act obsequiously. They had power but we didn’t.” [29]

Wu’s memory of a WF official being seen as a nuisance by male officials is well substantiated by many documents in the SWF archives. On September 13, 1951, the Director of the SWF, Zhang Yun, wrote a letter to the municipal party committee, revealing that there was already strong sentiment against the WF’s work. The letter was to report on the consequences of a talk by the municipal leader Liu Xiao, with an apparently critical tone.

Liu Xiao in his talk suggested that the Housewives Association should concentrate on resident work in the neighborhood. We all think this is a glorious task. But because he did not make clear the relationship between work with housewives and other work, some party secretaries and directors of districts told district WF cadres, “From now on you should not agitate for autonomy [nao dulixing]. Comrade Liu Xiao said clearly that you should concentrate on neighborhood work.

” Such opinion reflects that some cadres have inadequate understanding of why we need women-work, why women should have their own independent organizational system, and why we should show concern for women’s special issues, and so on. [30]

More than male officials’ resentment toward women-work, what was at stake here was that male officials were denying the necessity of a women’s organization. Zhang Yun’s handwritten letter conveys her consciousness of confronting a serious challenge and her will to fight back. Her daring criticism not only was directed at district officials but also at the municipal leader. Significantly, in less than two weeks the municipal committee sent back a conciliatory reply. Although it largely missed the point of Zhang Yun’s protest against male officials’ hostility toward the WF, it did instruct district committee members that if they misunderstood Liu Xiao’s talk and disturbed the WF’s work, the municipal committee should be informed so as to check and correct such behavior. [31] This exchange is remarkably revealing of the relaxed political atmosphere within the Party in the early days of the People’s Republic of China. The daring criticism by women cadres would soon disappear when political campaigns intensified. In 1958 Wu Cuichan was demoted for her “rightist tendency” simply because she had complained that the district party committee had not paid enough attention to the WF’s work.

The WF’s large presence in neighborhoods, although initially endorsed and encouraged by the municipal government, nevertheless was soon threatened by the residents committees organized by the Department of Civil Administration (DCA) and the Public Security Bureau (PSB). Facing the emergence of residents committees, the WF’s strategy in 1951 was to place WF officials in leading bodies at district and street levels doing neighborhood work and to select women representatives to work in residents committees. This strategy was not controversial at a time when women were desperately needed to work in neighborhoods, however, it did not succeed in strengthening the WF’s hold in neighborhoods. Although the WF emphasized that its Women’s Congress was a parallel organization to the residents committee and should in no way be subordinated to or controlled by the latter, the residents committee swiftly became the more powerful one with its direct ties to district and municipal governments and public security bureaus. The WF officials found the territory they first entered now being claimed by someone else. [32]

Worse still, this someone else saw the Women’s Congress as a rival to be eliminated. DCA investigative reports described the Women’s Congress and the residents committee as competitors who “vie for cadres, for the masses, and for work. If this one holds a meeting, the other will hold a meeting, too…. Even when both have worked on a task, they fight over who would give a talk on the work. Each regards itself as the one who accomplished the most.” [33] How to address the messiness in neighborhood work became high on the DCA’s agenda. Apparently, women in the Women’s Congress did not see themselves or their organization as secondary to the residents committee. Moreover, this competition at the local level was paralleled at the municipal level where the SWF did not see its role as secondary to the DCA, although local WF officials were keenly aware of unequal relations at play in their daily work. Now, not because the Women’s Congress was emphasizing women’s special interests, but rather because it refused to play a subordinate role in carrying out “central work” in neighborhoods, it also became a nuisance to the DCA.

The opportunity for the DCA to restrain the Women’s Congress came in 1953 when the municipal government began a campaign to “rectify residents committees.”  The campaign was to purge impure elements from residents committees as well as fugitives from the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries who were taking refuge in residential areas. The DCA used the campaign to resolve the problematic relationship between residents committees and the Women’s Congress. It called for “a unifying leadership” in neighborhood work and created regulations that defined the Women’s Congress as an integral part but subordinate to the residents committee. The chair of the Women’s Congress should be the deputy director of the residents committee in order to coordinate work between the two organizations; but the Women’s Congress was no longer allowed to conduct any concrete work on its own initiative beyond conveying women’s demands to the residents committee and carrying out tasks assigned by the residents committee. The municipal government formalized the DCA’s regulation in an official document, “Tentative Regulations on the Organization of the Women’s Congress in Shanghai Neighborhoods.” [34]

It is not clear if the SWF top leadership tried to resist this redefinition of the Women’s Congress and its relationship to the residents committee. What is revealed in the WF’s work reports is that the major set back was taken hard by many of its officials. A dispirited sense of inferiority seemed to suddenly emerge, which led to the WF leaders’ repeated criticism of officials’ complaints that women-work was not valued and was inferior to other work or was meaningless. Addressing women officials’ “inferiority complex” [zibei sixiang] appeared high on the WF’s agenda. Special meetings were held to help women officials understand the “seriousness and peril in such thinking.” [35]

The rising sense of inferiority was not only an expression of women officials’ negative experience in seeing the Women’s Congress’s role curtailed; it was also generated by the confusion over the nature of women-work and the crisis over the WF’s identity following its defeat by the DCA. The WF was formed for the double purpose of mobilizing women to carry out the party’s “central work” and protecting women’s interests. In the first few years of the SWF, the part of women-work that served women’s interests included literacy education, vocational training, formation of small-scale cooperatives, finding employment opportunities for poor women and women with skills, providing information on women’s health and infant care, publicizing the new Marriage Law, mediating domestic disputes that jeopardized women’s interests, and so on. By the end of 1952, 40,000 women entered gainful employment through recommendations by the WF. By mid-1956, 69,000 women in neighborhoods had become literate and 360,000 were in literacy classes. Although the WF’s accomplishments in this aspect of women-work were impressive, its major efforts were in support of the party’s “central work.” Large-scale mobilization of women called for patriotic donations for the Korean war (evidently housewives’ donations financed eleven fighter jets), reporting on counterrevolutionaries hiding in neighborhoods, participation in the five-antis campaign (by admonishing their husbands to be law-abiding), [36] support for the state planned economy by not rushing on commodities controlled by the government, purchasing government bonds, participation in the general election for the People’s Congress, and so on.  In order to obtain housewives’ support for these “central” tasks, a major part of local WF officials’ routine work was to raise women’s political consciousness. Newspaper reading groups, study workshops, activist training sessions, and so on were regular activities organized down to the neighborhood level via the Women’s Congress.

This lopsided work pattern, a result of the WF’s following Party directives, was not unquestioned by women officials. In the biannual summary report on the SWF’s work in the second half of 1953, the section reviewing its weakness contains a revealing paragraph.

Because we have not done a good job on improving our cadres’ work, the WF cadres sometimes do not have adequate understanding of the important significance of raising women’s political consciousness and improving their organizational level through campaigns. They often express doubts, such as, “It is correct to mobilize women to participate in the central political campaigns called by the party. But what have women gained through these campaigns? What have they given to women? What can we say about our special work for women?”  After discussions on the second National Women’s Congress, and after repeatedly reviewing our work for the general election campaign, cadres generally have improved their understanding in this respect. Still we must educate them again and again. [37]

These forceful critical questions by women officials contrast sharply with the vague generalization of “improved understanding.”  Instead of presenting a routine self-criticism to its superior -- the municipal Party committee -- the paragraph could be read as the WF’s top leaders’ euphemistic way of conveying women officials’ critical voices to the Party authority. At the same time, the passage confirms that it was a common strategy for WF leadership to use the Party’s campaigns to consolidate its organizational building. 

If the WF top leaders had misgivings about mobilizing women for the Party’s central work because it overshadowed the work for women, they had more to worry about after the DCA placed the Women’s Congress under the residents committee. Inside and outside the WF, questions emerged about the necessity of the Women’s Congress because it performed the same tasks as the residents committee; some even suggested that the Women’s Congress should be incorporated into the residents committee. The WF’s emphasis on the party’s central work, therefore, turned out to prove the redundancy of the gender-based Women’s Congress. Seeing the legitimacy of its grassroots organization challenged, the WF leaders took pains to present a coherent and legitimate identity of the women’s organization while attempting to justify its concession to the residents committee.

In many talks given to local women officials, the WF leaders made great efforts to explain the necessity of having a women’s organization at the grassroots level. The primary reason was what later became a familiar story to people in the PRC: that women had been the most oppressed group in the old feudal society; that even though women’s lives changed rapidly in the new society, feudal remnants still remained; and that a women’s organization was needed to educate women to fight against feudalistic thinking and to protect women’s rights in their struggle against feudalism. The explanation of the relationship between women’s oppression and the need for women’s organization often sounded negative in its depiction of women. One talk went on at length to describe how women’s long-term deprivation of any rights resulted in “their narrow-mindedness, conservative stance, dependency, lack of courage to struggle independently, lack of desire for advancement, lack of common sense, slowness in comprehending new phenomena, and lack of concern for things around them.”  A women’s organization was needed to educate them and raise their consciousness so that they would be able to become a crucial social force in the construction of socialism.[38]

Emphasizing the equality between the Women’s Congress and the residents committee was necessary to boost morale among WF officials; defining a special function for the Women’s Congress justified its existence. At the same time, the WF had to follow the municipal regulation of the Women’s Congress’s role. The WF leaders’ attempts to balance these different considerations often resulted in talks containing inconsistencies and conflicting voices, although they generally tried to make any redefinition, even when actually curtailing the role of the Women’s Congress, sound like a positive move toward a clear identity. As the Deputy Secretary of the SWF Guan Jian presented,

“The residents committee is mainly to address residents’ welfare issues, whereas the Women’s Congress is a political organization that constantly fights against feudal ideology. It seeks women’s thorough liberation along with the implementation of the Party’s general line. This task is not what the residents committee can fulfill.” [39]

Ironically, it was the threat to eliminate the Women’s Congress that forced the WF to highlight the gender specificity of the Women’s Congress, although a gendered conceptualization was difficult to articulate in the CCP’s political discourse. As one WF official explained,

“In the past there were two systems of organizations in neighborhoods. Although they seemed to be two organizations, they had the same functions. Our women’s organization did not have our own routine work. Moreover, in the central campaigns women cadres just played the role of a residents committee’s cadre, without thinking from women’s perspective.” 

The idea of an autonomous women’s organization with its own distinctive role to play at the grassroots was appealing; however that was not the direction the WF could take since declaring such autonomy would be politically suicidal. So in the same talk, this WF official had to warn against that kind of enthusiasm. “We do not mean to separate from the residents committee now. In fact, although we have two sets of organizations, we still have one set of work. What distinguishes our work is only the perspective.”  She went on to explain what the different perspective meant. The examples given were all gender-specific services such as providing childcare for women who joined parades (the residents committee was responsible only for mobilizing women’s participation), or, when mediating domestic disputes together with the residents committee, the women officials should approach the disputes from the perspective of protecting women’s and children’s rights.[40] In such detailed demarcations of difference between the two organizations, the WF inadvertently advocated a women-centered approach as the principle for the Women’s Congress. Thus, retreating from the center stage of neighborhoods, the Women’s Congress nonetheless acquired a more conscious gender identity.

The controversy over the Women’s Congress in Shanghai certainly alarmed Zhang Yun, who was now the chief executive official of the ACWF. In 1955 she organized the first national conference on urban women-work. Speaking to the delegates, she did not hesitate to directly confront the situation in Shanghai and other cities undergoing similar experiences.

Since residents committees were established in a few cities, some male and female cadres began to think of eliminating the Women’s Congress at the grassroots level. This thought is not right. The residents committee is an autonomous mass organization of residents guided by the Street Office. The object of its work includes all male and female residents. The realm of its work relates to common issues and common demands of residents. Because the ideas and practices of valuing men over women still exist in our society, women still confront special problems in ideas, work, and personal life. Therefore, we must have a separate women’s organization specialized in women-work. The Women’s Congress is the grassroots organization of the municipal and district Women’s Federations. Since the women’s organization should not be eliminated, certainly its grassroots organization should not either. [41]

Apparently, to Zhang Yun in 1955, the Women’s Congress in an urban neighborhood was no longer simply an organization to reach housewives but a solidly established component of the institution of the Women’s Federation. The idea of eliminating the Women’s Congress was absurd in the eyes of the top WF official who had worked hard to build the WF’s institutional bases. Opponents of the Women’s Congress justified their position by reference to a 1954 formal regulation on residents committees, issued by the central government, that specified formation of women-work committees as part of the residents committees. To this challenge, Zhang Yun’s reply was firm and clear. If any neighborhood found setting up a women-work committee within the residents committee generated organizational repetition and waste of resources, then it meant the residents committee’s women-work committee was unnecessary. “They may advise the local government not to set it up.” The message was simple: whatever you do, don’t mess around with the grassroots organization of the Women’s Federation. Zhang Yun added authority to her point with a quote from Lenin without specifying its source.

“We need appropriate groups, special mobilizing methods, and an organizational format to conduct women-work. This is not feminism. This is an effective means for revolution.” [42]

Not everyone heeded the WF top leader’s adamant words. In 1956 the branch in the Shanghai People’s Congress that managed local administration formally proposed a bill to eliminate Women’s Congresses and to set up women-work committees under the residents committees as stipulated by the 1954 Regulations on Residents Committees. The Shanghai WF appealed to the authority of the ACWF and reported the issue to Cai Chang, president of the ACWF, Zhang Yun, vice president, and Luo Qiong, a member of the Executive Committee of the ACWF, when these top women leaders visited Shanghai that year (their timely visit might be a planned action to lend their prestige to the SWF as well as to settle the disputes over the Women’s Congress). Cai Chang, who was the wife of Vice Premier Li Fuchun, at a meeting with the top officials of the municipal Party committee, the People’s Congress, and the WF gave a long talk on the Women’s Congress, directly addressing three proposals, namely, merging the Women’s Congress and the residents committee, eliminating the Women’s Congress, and totally separating the Women’s Congress from the residents committee. She defended the Women’s Congress by appealing to the Party line,

“It is not only beneficial for the work of the Women’s Federation, more importantly, it helps to consolidate the connection between the Party and the masses and to consolidate the basis of the people’s government.” [43]

Following this line, the Women’s Congress should cooperate with the residents committee while clarifying its own functions. Cai gave detailed instructions on sorting out the institutional mess in neighborhoods that further confirmed the WF’s presence along with the other two major municipal branches, the People’s Congress, and the Public Security Bureau.

With Cai Chang’s support and advice, the SWF resisted the move to eliminate the Women’s Congress. Moreover, the SWF requested that the municipal government give the same financial support to the Women’s Congress as it did to the residents committee and that Women’s Committee members should receive the same subsidies as the residents committee members. The municipal Party committee might have had a better sense of the relationship between the Women’s Congress in Shanghai neighborhoods and the All-China Women’s Federation that was led by top CCP leaders’ wives. It accepted the Shanghai WF’s requests. But the battle was not over. In 1959 when mobilizing women in neighborhoods for the Great Leap Forward became the main job of the Street Party committees, suggestions to eliminate Women’s Congresses emerged again. The WF had to engage in justifying the necessity of its grassroots organization all over again. [44]

Implications of the Tug-of-War over the Women’s Congress

What can we make of this tug-of-war over the Women’s Congress in the early 1950s in Shanghai? In what ways can it complicate our understanding of gender and the socialist state and “state feminism?” Most visibly, the story demonstrates that the relationship between the WF and the Party was far from a one-dimensional story of subordination and dominance. The WF was no doubt an organ of the Party and WF officials were firmly identified with the Party’s goal of socialist revolution. However, their identification with the Party did not exclude the possibility of expressing their own gendered visions of a socialist state. Indeed, the early days of the PRC witnessed diverse visions of a new China inside and outside the Party. Women in the Party thought their long-awaited moment had finally come: women’s full liberation in the new socialist China. Despite the limitations in their understanding of women’s liberation, women communists, especially those working in the WF, took it as their task to fulfill the Party’s promise of women’s liberation in socialism. The vision and methods of organizing housewives, as demonstrated here, were not granted by some abstract state patriarch but grew out of the WF officials’ initiatives. The move to establish the Women’s Congress clearly expressed the top WF leaders’ urgent sense of creating an institutional foothold for women in the incipient stage of a new state. With the Party’s mandate of social reorganization, the WF grabbed the best moment to make its own institutional claims in the social transformation. The landscape of a socialist state was thus inscribed with women’s vision and accomplishments that are all too often overlooked or mistaken as the deeds of the state patriarch.

The WF’s enthusiastic work on housewives also led to redrawing gendered social spaces in socialist state formation. Historically, the local administrative system--baojia-- had been run by men, and many neighborhoods in Shanghai had been gangsters’ spheres. Mobilized by the SWF, women stepped into the male space and became managers of local governance and community service in socialist China. In 1954 women already constituted 54.6% of the members of residents committees and the percentage has kept increasing until well over 80% in Shanghai in the post-Mao era. Extending their domesticity to the management of the “socialist big family,” these women turned neighborhoods into a female space. Along with a gendered transformation of social spaces was the construction of new identities for many of the women involved. Many a lower-class woman who had been a subaltern by both gender and class became a speaking subject for the first time in her new role as a neighborhood cadre. I examine the transformation from housewife to neighborhood cadre in another study.[45] What should be emphasized here are, (1), that the SWF played a large role in making women into state subjects, a point stressed by many feminist critics; and (2), that such state subjects, like the socialist state formation, were not made entirely according to a prescribed masculinist script (if there were such a script), but embodied complicated contestations between gender and class at both institutional and individual levels.

The formation of the socialist state was imbued with gender conflicts and gendered power struggles. As the tug-of-war story illustrates, the WF did more than just educate “backward” housewives to fight against feudal remnants in society. Maneuvering to resist “feudal remnants” within the state apparatus was part of its routine work, too. In an interview with two veteran Shanghai WF officials, when Wu Chuichan described how male officials in local governments sniffed at women-work, Cao Shunqin cut in vehemently, “That is why we need a women’s organization!”  Cao listed various strategies the WF deployed to subvert male monopoly of power in different branches of government, for example, creating the March 8 Flag Bearer [sanba hongqishou] in 1960 as a measure to break the male monopoly of Labor Models. [46] “No one would fight with us over March 8,” she commented with a cunning smile.

The WF’s negotiation with masculinist power was not only expressed in what they did, but also in what they did not do. Zhao Xian, who succeeded Zhang Yun as chair of the SWF, mentioned her disagreement with the pro-natalist policy of the Party in the early 1950s. “At the time the Party emulated the Soviet Union, calling upon women to become glorious mothers. The Soviet Union lost half of its population in WWII. But China had a large population. Women had to go out to work. How could they be glorious mothers? So we did not advocate that women become glorious mothers.”  (It was this interview that explained why I never came across any reference to “glorious mothers” in the SWF’s files.) Unfortunately, the quiet refusal to follow the Party’s policy in this case did not go unnoticed. It was listed as one of Zhao Xian’s “mistakes” in 1957 when she was labeled a rightist and removed from her position.[47]  This meaningful case would be unnoticed by the historian focusing on what the SWF did, if Zhao Xian had not recounted this story that meant so much to her. How many more such quiet resistances by women have been buried in history?

Exactly because of the WF officials’ keen awareness of gender conflicts and gender hierarchy in the formation of the socialist state, they were constantly looking for opportunities to enhance the status of the women’s organization and to gain institutional power. Understandably, the time when the WF had the most power and resources was when the organization was most useful to a particular central task. As a result, the WF repeatedly demonstrated its faithfulness to the Party by enthusiastically throwing itself into the Party’s central work. This pattern, disappointing to feminist observers, was in part a result of a conscious working strategy that had long been theorized by senior CCP women leaders. Deng Yingchao [48] in a talk to the Central Women’s Committee in 1948 revealed such internal negotiations in a crystal clear light, since the purpose of the talk was to teach other women leaders to use the strategy step by step. Although the talk preceded the establishment of the WF, the subject is highly relevant to the later day’s women-work. Deng began her talk by clarifying the nature of the Women’s Committee. It was an advisory unit with full freedom to do research and make suggestions. But it was not a governmental policy-making or executive branch. Therefore, it would be very important to figure out how to do research and how to make suggestions. They had to assist the general policies and ongoing campaigns and issues. Only in this way “will our suggestions be timely, and be considered by others.” Deng instructed in detail on how to make effective suggestions.

In general, we should proceed with a consideration of the effect, not with our subjective enthusiasm. When we estimate that a suggestion won’t be accepted, we should rather postpone it. At the same time, we should grab the right moment. That is, we should be cooperative, have a focus, foster and prepare for the right moment. A suggestion will be effective only when the time is ripe and we calculate others may accept it.

Following these instructions, Deng gave a concrete example of an effective intervention by the Women’s Committee. The resolution of the land reform conference in 1947 included the importance of women-work after a long period of silence on the subject by the Central Committee. How did that happen? Deng reveals the successful strategy in the following moves.

(1) At the time of retreating from Yanan, assisting the land reform, we asked the Central Committee in its telegraph to local branches to request that they pay attention to women-work and collect material on women.

(2) Before the opening of the land reform conference, we first sent a notice to each representative, asking if they brought the material on women and telling them we hope they would include women-work in their land reform work report to the conference.

(3) We organized talks by representatives. Therefore, of 29 people reporting on their work, 19 would talk about their women-work and mentioned the importance of women-work.

(4) My own speech was after the 19 representatives’ talks. This is much more powerful than if I had shouted and yelled all by myself.

(5) After the land conference, we held a meeting of the Women’s Committee, sent out a telegraph drafted by five WC members, and published a newspaper editorial on the subject.

(6) To further improve and consolidate our work, we proposed to hold a conference on women-work in December. [49]

Significantly, in the Chinese text (not identical to my translation), the sentence describing each action is without a subject. Subconsciously or not, the speaker was covering up her manipulative role behind the scene by leaving out the subject of action. Agency is nevertheless expressed in the Chinese text in conveying a clear sense of careful plotting, a tone of secrecy, and a marginalized subject engaged in a subversive act. Similarly revealing in Deng’s language is that she often used “others” to refer to male power holders. Even though the whole talk was “politically correct,” in the sense that Deng emphasized that women-work had to be a part of the whole of the party’s central work, the use of “others” obviously indicates the presence of a gender awareness of “us” and “them.”

 Similar to Deng Yinchao’s manipulative moves during the debate over land reform, ending with a drastic increase in rural women’s participation in land reform and rural women’s organizations, the SWF’s active role in the CCP’s reorganization of Shanghai also resulted in a rapid development of WF’s urban grassroots organizations. These cases demonstrate the agency of Communist women doing women-work and explicate gender negotiations within the Party power structure. More significantly, these cases reveal a pattern of the WF’s strategy that has so far received little scholarly attention.[50]  The limited space here does not allow more documents on other similar cases. But briefly, from land reform, the 1950 marriage law (a pro-women law drafted by the Women’s Committee headed by Deng Yingchao), paid maternity leave, to the law to protect women and children’s rights in the post-Mao reform era, every pro-women policy or legislation resulted from women officials’ successful maneuvering behind the scenes, rather than from some favor granted by a benevolent patriarch. The CCP’s on-and-off-again emphasis on women’s interests, as observed by many feminist scholars, was not because the Party contracted malaria, but rather, it was the result of successful or failed feminist maneuvers within the Party. In the least congenial political circumstances, CCP feminists adopted an inactive stance on promoting women’s interests and withdrew to the bottom line of survival by following the dominant Party line. When the political atmosphere changed and new opportunities emerged, they would swiftly grab the moment to raise women’s issues and to expand and consolidate women’s organizations. “State feminism” in the Chinese socialist state, after all, is no less an expression of feminist contention within the state than it is in capitalist states.

The Chinese feminist engagement with the state, nevertheless, took place in a quite unique political context. In the early1950s, the heritage of a feminist discourse combined with Engels’s theory of women’s liberation provided leverage for communist women to maneuver for gender equality. In contrast, in the West the emergence of state feminism was in the context of feminist social movements. If a feminist discourse that had long been an integral part of the modernity project in China was not necessarily less powerful than political pressure from a feminist movement, women in the CCP were, nevertheless, constrained by a history of the CCP’s suppression of “bourgeois feminism.” They would always find themselves treading on a thin line between advocating women’s interests and being named as “ bourgeois feminists” for seeming to insist on the primacy of gender issues. Their intense efforts to theorize the relationship between women-work and the Party’s “central work” reflected the keen awareness of this central dilemma of feminists in the CCP. In short, communist women’s legitimate fight for women coexisted with the real danger of legitimate stabs from behind for that very fight.

This unique paradox largely explains the strategy of communist women’s intervention as well as the puzzle that such intervention has long been glossed over. To make a feminist move without being singled out, it would be best to gloss it over under the rubric of the Party’s “central work” or statist projects. To make such a maneuver effective, it would be best to keep it unnoticed by the masculinist power. Deng Yingchao in the above talk had this advice to women officials: “Since we cannot do women-work singularly or in isolation, the accomplishment of women-work cannot be expressed as a singular and isolated phenomenon, either. Therefore, we should work in the spirit of a nameless hero.” [51] The necessity to be a nameless hero (appropriating CCP terminology again) speaks volumes about a treacherous political environment where the inside feminist agitators functioned. It also complicates scholarly investigations and feminist theorization. The open speeches or formal publications of communist women were mostly in the CCP official language. Evidence of their commitment to statist projects is also abundant. How do we tease out possible hidden feminist intervention from apparent reiteration of statist production? Further, how do we conceptualize a feminist contestation that both subverts patriarchal dominance and reproduces masculinist language and subjectivity? Wendy Brown’s caution against state-centered feminists’ possible production of “regulated, subordinated, and disciplined state subjects” makes tremendous sense in the Chinese context. [52] Still, what is illustrated here is not an either/or case. The mixed effects of subversive actions coded in compliant language deserve future studies. 

The tug-of-war over the Women’s Congress can also be read as part of a process of demarcating institutional boundaries in the formation of the socialist state. Political scientist Timothy Mitichell suggests that we “examine the political processes through which the uncertain yet powerful distinction between state and society is produced.” He emphasizes that

We must take such distinctions not as the boundary between two discrete entities but as a line drawn internally, within the network of institutional mechanisms through which a social and political order is maintained. The ability to have an internal distinction appear as though it were the external boundary between separate objects is the distinctive technique of the modern political order. [53]

Although Mitchell’s object of analysis is the postwar capitalist state, his insights are useful for thinking about the formation of the Chinese Party-state. In the initial stage of building a state apparatus, various CCP branches had to negotiate and define their territories. By specifying the subordinate role of the Women’s Congress to the residents committee, the municipal government drew a distinct line that curtailed the institutional capacity of the Shanghai WF and defined the secondary status of this “mass organization” to government branches. The SWF’s summary of its work in 1954 reveals its recognition of such institutional containment in these words.

“ We have now further clarified the nature of women-work, and found the correct method of women-work (mainly assisting work [peihe gongzuo]). We must conscientiously work on what we should do. For that which should not be done by the WF we should suggest the concerned party do. We have reduced our blind enthusiasm in our work.”[54]

Regardless of its needed service to mobilize housewives and its proved capacity to work with women in neighborhoods, the WF was simply not allowed to play the leading role in local governance. This was the first hard lesson for the WF officials who were blindly enthusiastic about women’s full participation in socialist construction. At the institutional level, the unequal gender relation in the Party was naturalized, consolidated, and legitimized by the internal distinction between the “government” and the Party-led “mass organization,” a distinction full of ambiguity but nonetheless taking on “the appearance of structure” of a Communist state.

Recalling their work in the 1950s, veteran WF officials in interviews all insisted that the WF was a mass organization, not a branch of government. Wu Cuichan, who had worked both as a local government official and a WF official at different times, summarized the difference between the two most succinctly. “They had power, but we didn’t.” In other words, WF cadres have always seen themselves as working outside the government, assisting the government but without governmental power. The WF officials’ emphasis on their non-governmental status is not a new pretext invented for the Fourth UN Conference on Women in order to attend the NGO Forums. Rather it is substantiated by a long history of producing and maintaining boundaries between the government and the “mass organizations” in the CCP’s power structure.

This CCP-sponsored non-governmental women’s mass organization apparently does not fit existing conceptual categories of women’s organization. It is both within the state apparatus and the local communities. Supposedly, it is to work for the interests of both the Party and women “masses.” Exactly because of its ambiguous location and elusive identity, any theory based on a rigid conceptual line between state and society would fail to illuminate or explicate the complicated dynamics and multiple power relations operating in the daily practices of an organization that claims to serve as a “bridge” or “linkage” between the Party and women. It requires grounded historical research to examine its diverse, unstable, and often hidden activities in different historical periods in order to achieve a better understanding of the relationship between Chinese feminism and the socialist state as well as gender politics in the PRC. This study of the Shanghai WF’s efforts of institutional development in the early years of the PRC has just touched the tip of an iceberg. A deeper and more comprehensive knowledge of this gender-based national organization will have to wait for more research conducted in various geographic locations and at different administrative levels in China.


The Women’s Federation, a non-governmental, yet official, organization, is the only one of its kind that reaches down to every neighborhood and every village in China, a consequence of the history discussed here. But such remarkable institutional development has long been assumed to result from the CCP’s highhanded statist scheme; therefore, it does not weigh as much as the development of “true” NGOs in other locations. It can even be interpreted negatively if seen as the evidence of the Party’s hegemonic control of society. Fully recognizing that in the Mao era the WF was the only legitimate women’s organization defining women’s interests with the authority of the Party, that it did involve itself heavily in statist projects, and that even the first generation of WF officials could be more bureaucrat than feminist, I nevertheless insist that closer scrutiny shifts our understanding of this Chinese Janus whose other side has long been veiled. Unveiling the subversive and constructive feminist side helps to reveal the complexity of power relations in the formation of the Party-state and to reconsider the meanings of CCP feminists’ practices, especially, in local communities. This unveiling requires the removal of the concept of a free-standing and coherent “state’ entity. Even feminist scholars have long given too much credit to such an abstract “state’ entity for women’s social advancement in socialist China at the expense of women’s own agency. As Brown suggests, “the domain we call the state is not a thing, system, or subject, but a significantly unbounded terrain of powers and techniques, an ensemble of discourses, rules, and practices, cohabiting in limited, tension-ridden, often contradictory relation with one another.” [55] This study demonstrates that gendered power relations and feminist contestations are also an integral part of the domain of the socialist state. Further, while masculinist power is expressed everywhere in this domain, feminist maneuvers have also left indelible traces. The dominance of masculinist power can never be complete.

The obscured Chinese state feminists’ interventions should be highlighted in our study of the PRC not only for a better understanding of gender and socialist state formation, but also for a clearer view of the prospects of what this widespread and deeply penetrating women’s organization may be capable of doing in China’s ongoing socioeconomic and political transformations. My interviews with current SWF officials indicate that neighborhoods, now refashioned as “communities,” have risen into an important terrain again in the eyes of various government branches in the past decade of accelerated privatization. The WF once again faces serious challenges from competing official institutions that are eager to create a niche in this terrain. As a solidly established institution, the WF is no longer worrying about the existence of its grassroots organizations, but is consciously concerned with what kind of role it may play in the current social and political transformation. In other words, the Maoist socialist revolution has long been undone, but this huge national organization of women established in the early Mao era still lives on. And it lives in a new political context: the era of post-UN Women’s Conference when global feminist issues and perspectives have been made legitimate topics for circulation in the WF system by a new cohort of WF officials. This gender-based organization, with its institutional roots in the Mao era but its theoretical outlook now being shaped by contemporary global feminisms, is bound to introduce interesting dynamics to the process of decentralization and privatization in China.


WANG Zheng is associate professor of History and Women’s Studies and associate scientist of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan. A long-term academic activist promoting gender studies in China, she is the founder and co-director of the UM-Fudan Joint Institute for Gender Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai. Her English publications concern changing gender discourses and relations in China's socioeconomic, political and cultural transformations of the past century, and feminism in China, both in terms of its historical development and its contemporary activism in the context of globalization. She is the author of Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories (UC Press, 1999). Her current project is a gender history of the People’s Republic of China, exploring the relationship between gender and the socialist state formation, and gender and capitalist transformation. She has edited volumes (both in English and Chinese) on a variety of topics: the constructions of feminist subjectivity in socialist China, the politics and effects of translating feminisms in China throughout the twentieth century, and significance of introducing “gender” into the study of Chinese history as well as into the discursive contentions in contemporary China.



[1] first publication in Feminist Studies 31, no.3 (Fall, 2005) with the 
> authorization of the author


[1] See Dorothy McBride Stetson and Amy G. Mazur, eds., Comparative State Feminism (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1995) for a detailed discussion of the evolution of the term.

[2] See Mayfair Mei-hui Young, “From Gender Erasure to Gender Difference: State Feminism, Consumer Sexuality, and Women’s Public Sphere in China,” in Spaces of Their Own, ed. Mayfair Mei-hui Young (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 35-67.

[3] The conceptual difference also exists in some studies on state feminism in non-Western countries. These studies assume the role of the state in changing gender relations and promoting women’s social advancement without examining feminists’ agitation in the state. I do not claim that my findings in China can speak for other non-Western countries, although my question on methodology may have more general implications. For studies on state feminism in non-Western countries, see Mervat Hatem, “Economic and Political Liberation in Egypt and the Demise of State Feminism,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 24, (May 1992): 231-51; Jean Robinson, “Women, the State, and the Need for Civil Society: The Liga Kobiet in Poland,” in Comparative State Feminism, 203-20; and Jenny B. White, “State Feminism, Modernization, and the Turkish Republican Woman,” NWSA Journal 15, (Fall 2003): 145-60.

[4] Judith Stacey, Patriarchy and Socialist R evolution in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Kay Ann Johnson, Women, Family, and Peasant Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Phyllis Andors, The Unfinished Liberation of Chinese Women (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983); and Margery Wolf, Revolution Postponed: Women in Contemporary China (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1985).

[5] For works best illustrating a different methodology in investigating state feminism in the West, see Comparative State Feminism, and Hester Eisenstein, Inside Agitators: Australian Femocrats and the State (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996).

[6] See Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995). Brown’s concept of the late modern liberal state is not monolithic, but dispersed and diffused. However, women’s expanding engagement with the state, although briefly acknowledged, does not figure in her conceptualization of the state. 

[7] See Tani Barlow, “Theorizing Women: Funü, Guojia, Jiating (Chinese Woman, Chinese State, Chinese Family),” in Body, Subject, and Power in China, eds. Angela Zito and Tani Barlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), and “Politics and Protocols of Funü: (Un)Making National Woman,” in Engendering China: Women, Culture, and the Sate, eds. Christina K. Gilmartin, Gail Hershatter, Lisa Rofel, and Tyrene White (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.) Also, Louise Edwards, “Constraining Women’s Political Work with ‘Women’s Work’,” in Chinese Women--Living and Working, ed. Anne E. McLaren (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), 109-30. Different interpretations of the ACWF’s role in the post-Mao era appear in Chinese Women Organizing, eds. Ping-Chun Hsiung et al. (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2001).

[8] Jude Howell, “Women Politicians and Change” (paper presented at the Political Studies Association Fifty-first Conference, 10-12 April 2001, Manchester, UK).

[9] See Wang Qi, “State-Society Relations and Women’s Political Participation,” in Women of China: Economic and Social Transformation, eds. Jackie West et al. (London: Macmillan, 1999).

[10] The figure appears in Deng Yingchao’s report to the second WF national congress in 1953. See “Sinianlai zhongguo funü yundong de jiben zongjie he jinhou renwu” [A summary of the Chinese women’s movement in the past four years and future task], in Zhongguo funü yundong wenxian ziliao huibian [An anthology of source material on the Chinese women’s movement], ed. Chinese Women Cadres School (Beijing: Chinese Women’s Press, 1988) 2: 171. The two-volume anthology is classified as internal documents, which is not for public circulation.

[11] Jiating funü, literally, family woman, is a term that emerged as a contrast to the new term “career woman” in the 1930s.

[12] “Guanyu jiating funü gongzuo de jidian yijian” [Views on the work on housewives], 1949, in Box C31, File1, and Record 2, Shanghai Arichives (Hereafter I provide only the records numbers). Reclassification of “housewives” was achieved eventually by both the WF’s redefinition of the class standing of this group and the theory of women’s liberation that defined those participating in social production as “liberated women.” “Housewives” thus became backward elements as well as lower class in the public perception. The irony is that identifying housewives as its main constituency, the WF failed to gain esteem in the eyes of “liberated women,” urban professional women.

[13] “Zhongguo funü yundong dangqian renwu de jueyi” [The resolution on the current tasks of the Chinese women’s movement], in Zhongguo funü yundong wenxian ziliao huibian [An anthology of source material on the Chinese women’s movement], 2: 23.

[14] “Shanghai shi minzhu fulian choubeihui liangge yue gongzuo gaikuang “[Summary on the two months’ work of the preparatory committee for the Shanghai Democratic Women’s Federation], 1949, C31-1-2.

[15] See Zhang Yun, “Guanyu nügong gongzuo de jige wenti” [About work on women workers], An anthology,  2: 38. “Shanghai shiwei guanyu funü gongzuo de jueding” [Shanghai Party Committee’s decision on women-work], and the letter to Zhao Xian from Tian Xin and Wang Zhiya. March 31, 1950, C31-1-9.

[16] Since there were diverse groups of women in this one million, lumping them together into one category might also have been an SWF strategy to gain more institutional power with a large population.

[17] An Anthology,  32-33, 41-42,

[18] A “lane” in Shanghai usually has walls to separate it from another lane. This architectural design became the material basis for the CCP’s social reorganization. One lane usually had one or several residents groups, and in the jurisdiction of a residents committee there were about one dozen residents groups from several lanes. The mode of spatial organization was not entirely an innovation of the CCP. Historically China had a baojia system that managed local population by residency. The system was enforced in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in World War II and continued by the Nationalist government in the late 1940s. When the CCP took over the city, it set up local public security stations according to the spatial division of the baojia system. What was prominently new in this reorganization was that women replaced men as neighborhood managers. For a detailed discussion of this gendered social transformation, see Wang Zheng, “Gender and Maoist Urban Reorganization,” in Bryna Goodman and Wendy Larson eds., Gender in Motion: Divisions of Labor and Cultural Change in Late Imperial and Modern China (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 189-209.

[19] Shanghai funüzhi  (Shanghai women’s gazetteer), ed. Shanghai Women’s Gazetteer Compilation Committee (Shanghai: Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences Press, 2000), 265. In 1996 there were 2,809 Women’s Congresses in Shanghai. Besides the neighborhood-based Women’s Congress, currently the WF’s grassroots organization also includes a “Women-Work Committee” in each work unit organizing women in gainful employment. “Grassroots” may be a misnomer here since the organization did not grow spontaneously out of local community and was part of state building. The linguistic difficulty here suggests the existence of an under-theorized phenomenon in the PRC.

[20] An Anthology, 179, 181.

[21] “Jiangning qu diyi paichusuo jiating funü daibiao huiyi dianxing shiyan zongjie baogao” [A summary report on the work for the housewives congress in the first police station in Jiangning District], 1951, C31-2-57. Yangge is a form of folk dance.

[22] “Funü de zuzhi qingkuang” [The situation of organizing women], 1951, C31-2-57.

[23] “Shanghai shi fuwei gongzuo gaikuang baogao” [Shanghai women’s committee’s work report], 1951, C31-1-31.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Fuwei guanyu jinian sanba guojji funüjie gongzuo fangan” [The women’s committee’s plan for the celebration of March 8th], 1951; “Quanshi sanbajie youxing renshu tongjibiao” [Citywide statistics of people in parade on March 8th], 1951, C31-1-31.

[26] “Dui jinhou jiedao linong jumin weiyuanhui zuhi de yijian” [On future organization of residents committee], 1951, C31-2-57.

[27] “Gei shiwei bangong ting de baogao” [ A report to the office of the municipal party committee], 13 Sept., 1951, C31-1-37.

[28] “guanyu muqian banshichu zuzhi jigou qingkuang ji jinhou yijian jianbao” [Briefing on the Street Office’s organizational structure and suggestions for future work], 20 July, 1953, B168-1-772.

[29] Wu Cuichan, interview with author, Shanghai, China, 1 July, 2002.

[30] “Gei shiwei bangong ting de baogao” [ A report to the office of the municipal party committee], 13 September, 1951, C31-1-37.

[31] “Shiwei pifu”[The municipal party committee’s reply], 26 September, 1951, C31-1-31.

[32] In 2004 Zhao Xian, the second chair of the SWF, told me unequivocally, “The Women’s Congress came first, and the residents committee came later. The residents committee was staffed mostly by the cadres of the Women’s Congress and neighborhood work was mostly done by women cadres.” It is quite significant that having lost most of her memories, Zhao Xian was able to give the above quick response to my question on the relationship between the Women’s Congress and the residents committee. After a half century, one can still discern bitterness in her tone when recalling the struggles of the early 1950s.

[33] “Shanghaishi jumin weiyuanhui zhengdun gongzuo qingkuang baogao” [A report on the work on rectification of the Shanghai residents’ committees], 23 October, 1954, B168-1-14.

[34] Ibid.

[35] “Benhui guanyu llinong zhengdun zhong funü gongzuo de tongbao” [On woman-work in the rectification of neighborhood], 1954, C31-2-235; and “Shanghaishi fulian 1954 gongzuo zongjie” [Shanghaishi fulian’s review of work in 1954], 1955, C31-1-95.

[36] In 1952 the CCP started a five-anti–campaign targeting business owners. Five antis included anti bribing, anti tax evasion, anti stealing state property, anti fraudulence in production, and anti stealing financial information. The SWF took much effort to include wives of business owners in this campaign.

[37] “Shanghai minzhu fulian 1953 nian xiabannian gongzuo zongjie” [Shanghai Democratic Women’s Federation’s review of work in the second half of 1953], 1954, C31-1-75.

[38] “Linong funü daibiao huiiyi de xingzhi renwu buke baogao”[A talk on the nature and tasks of the neighborhood women’s congress], 1954, C31-2-235.

[39] “Huiyi jilu” [Notes on Guan Jian’s talk], 1954, C31-1-100.

[40] “Linong funü daibiao huiiyi de xingzhi renwu buke baogao.”

[41] Zhang Yun, “Guojia guodu shiqi chengshi funü gongzuo de renwu he dangqian jixiang juti gongzuo baogao” [A talk on the tasks of urban women-work in our country’s transitional period and current work], in An Anthology, 216.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Zhao Xian, “Yi Cai dajie zai Shanghai shica” [Remembering Sister Cai ‘s inspection in Shanghai], in Shanghai fulian sishi nian [Forty years of Shanghai Women’s Federation], printed by Shanghai Women’s Federation, 1990, 8.

[44] “Guanyu Shanghaishi fulian jiceng fudaihui de zuzhi wenti” [On the organizational issues of Shanghai Women’s Federation’s Women’s Congress], 1956, C31-1-161; “Benbu 1959 nian gongzuo jihua” [A Work plan for 1959], 1959, C31-1-248.

[45] Wang Zheng, “Gender and Maoist Urban Reorganization,” in Gender in Motion, 189-209.

[46] March 8th Flag bearer is an honored title granted to selected exemplary female workers and professionals. The title not only expresses official recognition of a woman’s remarkable accomplishment, but also comes with some privileges as Labor Models would have. March 8th, International Women’s Day, has been observed since the early days of the CCP, a sign of the Party’s commitment to women’s liberation.

[47] Zhao Xian , interview with author, Eastern China Hospital, Shanghai, 13 September, 2004. For a discussion of women’s resistance to the Party’s pronatalist policy, see Tyrene White, “The Origins of China’s Birth Planning Policy,” in Engendering China: Women, Culture, and the State, 250-78.

[48] Deng Yingchao was a renowned young feminist leader in the May Fourth period (1919-1924) in Tianjin. She then joined the Communist Party and married Zhou Enlai in 1925. She played the major role in incorporating May Fourth feminist ideas into the first Marriage Law of the PRC.

[49] “Deng Yinchao tongzhi zai zhongfuwei huiyui shangde fayan” [Deng Yinchao’s talk at the meeting of the Central Women’s Committee], in Zhongguo fuü yundong lishi ziliao 1945-1949 [Historical documents of the Chinese women’s movement 1945-1949] (Beijing: Chinese Women Press, 1991), 240.

[50] Ellen Judd in The Chinese Women’s Movement between State and Market (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2002) observes a similar strategic pattern in the WF activities in the 1980s to 1990s.

[51] Deng Yingchao, “Deng Yinchao tongzhi zai zhongfuwei huiyui shangde fayan,” 241.

[52] Brown, States of Injury, 173.

[53] Timothy Mitchell, “Society, Economy, and the State Effect,” in State/Culture, ed. George Steinmetz (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 77-78.

[54] “1954 nian Shanghai fulian gongzuo zongjie” [A summary of Shanghai Women’s Federation’s work in 1954], 12 April, 1955, C31-1-95.

[55] Brown, States of Injury, 174.



labrys, études féministes/ estudos feministas
janvier / juin 2009 -janeiro/juin 2009