Tuesday, May 15, 2012

In My Lifetime

I must have a ponderous mindset this week. I think it is due, in part, to a conversation I was having via email with a friend. Among other things, he maintains that feminists have really messed up things for intergender relationships. Nowadays women don’t even want protecting, he says. And then there are those who bristle at car doors being opened for them, meals being bought for them, other small courtesies paid to women exclusively based on their gender. His most inflammatory remark may well have been that women don’t want to be protected or taken care of anymore.

This blog does not, and has never aspired to be political in nature. However, in examining social mores on both continents, sometimes I do have to put aside my desire to project light-hearted humor, roll up my sleeves and get serious about some of this reporting. This is one of those times.

In my lifetime, I informed my friend, I have witnessed great strides toward leveling the playing field between the genders. At one time, not so long ago, women had to get permission from their husband in order to work, to have their own bank account and/or credit card, get a driver’s license and have surgery. I know this because when I set out to do those things I met with that implacable resistance. I had to ask my husband for a note allowing me to open my own bank account, and that after having to obtain written permission to work. I gave up on the credit card. I didn’t want to shame myself by having to write out a third note for my all-powerful, favor-dispensing husband to sign that would allow me to have the same privileges he, and all other men enjoyed by virtue of having been born anatomically correct for those rights.

Throughout history and throughout the world, women have been consistently granted less privilege, less power and fewer rights across the board. To this day, statistically, men outearn women in like job fields, are granted better promotions and enjoy greater social privilege and status. A great case in point is a man who enjoys the company of younger women. Such a man is called a stud and is hailed as a hero among his brethren. A woman in a similar position, enjoying the company of younger men is called a cougar: a predator, sleek, devious, preying on the unsuspecting. Cougars tend to be ridiculed. Studs are applauded and desired.

In this allegedly classless society I am now a part of, there is supposedly no distinction made between men and women. During the Great Leap Forward, both men and women were beaten and tortured with equal fervor. Both men and women were sent far away from home and family to work in fields for ‘correction’. Both men and women did whatever work the government assigned them. And the government assigned work gender indiscriminately.

Both men and women wore traditional cotton clothing, what was referred to in the west as ‘pajamas’ but were really styled after clothing of the Tang dynasty. The material was cotton, either dark blue or olive drab green, the cut and style boxy and unisex. Shoes were equally drab and unisex. Both men and women took part in kitchen activities: cooking, cleaning and serving food from communal tents. To my knowledge, women were not allowed a single feminine concession: long hair. I believe that that decision was later reversed, mainly from watching films of that era. I have no firsthand account of such a reversal.

Prior to The Great Leap Forward women were indeed second class citizens. Valuable only as slaves or chattel, most times if a family had enough girls to serve their needs they either abandoned female babies or killed them outright. Females did not have the right to an education but they were expected to marry well and serve their husband and his family with devotion and care. Rare was the woman who worked in a factory and even more uncommon was a female in any type of civil service position, let alone a government position. However, they were allowed to work in their husbands’ shops or concerns, and some could infiltrate higher social order positions in the role of concubine.  

Mao Ze Dong was in fact a champion of sorts for women’s rights. He decreed that females would be entitled to at least a high school education, alongside males. He put women in the workforce where, traditionally no woman had ever worked. Most importantly, he abolished the practice of concubines. That was really ironic, seeing as he had no less than 4 mistresses, and a wife.

What has happened to women’s rights in China since his demise?

Around the same time I was forced to obtain my husband’s permission in writing to open my own bank account, in the early 1980’s, baby girls were still being stoned, drowned or aborted in the desire for male heir, here in China. At the onset of the One Child Policy, Mao’s successor, Deng Xiao Ping initiated what is called the Spring Blossom Project. I’ve made reference to it before in the Tulip entry, posted December 2010. It entails financial and other incentives for parents of baby girls. Another protection for females, albeit indirect, later followed with the interdiction of gender based abortions. Doctors do perform ultrasounds and amniocentesis to test for any genetic or health concerns, thus they know the sex of the baby. To this day they are forbidden by law to divulge that information to the parents.

So that takes care of females, both in the womb and up to eighteen years out of it. Beyond that…          

I have personally witnessed women working in construction and factories, in agriculture (as farmers in the fields and at the markets), in white collar work such as banking, the tourism and hospitality industries and in government positions such as: police, military and civil workers. Of course, in academic fields too. Shopping malls are lousy with female sales clerks. Women are even politically active and hold high office, although currently all the national political positions are filled by men.

I daresay that, in China, there are very few professional fields that women are not a part of. Granted, in some fields the ratio of men to women might be larger – in the mining or construction industries, for example, while in others, such as the academic field or hospitality industry women outnumber men.

Whether China has an equivalent to America’s Affirmative Action program, and whether the women in any given field earn pay equal to men’s is unknown to me. I would have to do much more extensive research to report accurately on that. What I can tell you with a degree of certainty is that there is and never was a Women’s Movement here, and no one woman or small group of women had to go out on a limb to demand equal treatment, equal rights, suffrage or anything else for all women.

While presenting my perspective on feminists’ actions to my dear male friend in that email exchange, I had to admit I got a little hot under the collar recalling the humiliation of being asked how many days off I would need each month for my period by one prospective employer. Or having the note that I composed for my husband to sign being challenged at the bank because my handwriting did not match his signature. They thought I had forged the note. I kind of had to: my former husband was, and to my knowledge still is functionally illiterate.

For some reason, it makes me even more indignant that it was he who had to give dispensation for my actions when he wasn’t even capable of spelling ‘dispensation’.

I am not the only woman who endured such degradations. This type of discrimination has gone on for centuries and slowly, by the efforts of those random Margaret Sangers, Gloria Steinems, indeed even those Betsy Rosses and (who petitioned for suffrage?) throughout history it all turned around and slowly, oh so slowly, women have come to enjoy equal rights, and privileges nearly equal to men.

I am afraid that the girls of today, who, for the most part aren’t even aware of how their mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers had to live with ‘home-corrections’, swallow the humiliation of being handed an allowance and having to ask permission to do something as personal as a day surgery procedure simply accept equal rights as their due.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I can’t decide. Maybe I should have another conversation with Mandy and Yolanda, those two girls who averred they are not, and will never be mentioned by name in their family’s history (see No Girls Allowed entry, posted April of last year). They never batted an eye, felt no outrage and accepted their exclusion on the basis of tradition.   

I did tell my dear friend that, if women have worked so hard to level the playing field, even resorting to extreme tactics such as far-right feminism, how is it women’s fault that men have not adapted to gender equality? He, being generally fair-minded, conceded my point. What a great friend!             

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