The Postwar Woman Question

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The spirit of modern democracy is intended to enable everyone who shares in the organization and lifestyle of a democratic community, regardless of race, gender, class, and regional background, to have equal opportunities in politics, society, economics, and education; to develop their personalities; and to exercise their rights. The movement for women's participation in politics is also inspired by this spirit. Though men and women have different genders, women's position in society should be just like men's, and women should have their own status, life goals, and legal rights. Why should women allow themselves to be trampled under men's feet? Even before the Great War[1], the movement for women's suffrage had its own history of struggle. This movement was already in progress in many American states. But at the time there were many who opposed this kind of movement. They kept saying that women would not make good political leaders because they are weak in judgment and are easily moved by emotions. There were also some who were doubtful about women's abilities. We Orientals have an even stranger attitude toward this issue. We talk about "the propriety of ritual avoidance," and how "men and women should not get close to each other," meaning that women should be men's "helper inside the home," taking care of things relating to "the inner quarters." It was only when war came and men went one by one to the battlefield that women got the opportunity to set examples and show those men that women do have ability[2]. There were women who became police officers; there were women who did all kinds of labor; there were women who worked as nurses for the Red Cross; there were women who worked hard at military rear bases. These women accomplished all kinds of things, which did away with the old excuses that devalued women. Therefore, after the war ended, women's political rights were recognized in America, England, and Germany. In the Russian Bolshevik government there was a public welfare commissar named Kollontay[3], who was a woman. This was indeed a new era for women's political participation.

The women's suffrage movement up to today has finally gotten over one stage. The unsettled questions of the past half century at least have a hope of being resolved. At the time when America declared war on Germany, the state of Montana had a congresswoman named Jeannette Rankin[4], who was America's first congresswoman. She faced a lot of criticism. This was so because, when called upon to vote on the resolution to declare war, she did not respond the first time or the second time she was asked, and when she was asked for the third time she responded, weeping, in a shaking voice, "No." Later, when interviewed by a reporter, she said that she felt it was necessary to punish Germany, but did she not approve of war. Then people said: when women decide something, they usually rely on emotions alone, and not on reason; therefore it is inappropriate for women to become political leaders. Yet we are truly suspicious of this kind of talk. Is the rationality of those political leaders the kind that turns its back on human emotions? Is this rationality that turns its back on human emotions completely good? Is it completely correct? Are these irresistible emotions completely wrong? Are they completely bad? We should all look deeply into our consciences before we speak any further about these points. For instance, in America there are many women with even more independent judgment and thought than the men who have the right to vote. In the western states of America, there are many places where women's political participation has been effectively carried out. Several years ago, there was a husband and a wife in Colorado, each of whom had one vote. The people they voted for just happened to be in opposing parties. The person whom the wife voted for lost, but the family's affections were not affected by this. Doesn't this example prove that women also have independent judgment abilities, and that women's participation in politics will not have a bad effect on their families and society? Even if women's judgment and knowledge were truly weaker and poorer than men's when it comes to understanding the sociocultural and educational systems and legal customs they share in common, what about women's particular interests, which have nothing at all to do with their fathers, brothers, and husbands? Isn't it far more appropriate to give women themselves opportunities to express their opinions than to have men completely monopolizing politics, rendering women a class excluded from politics? Again, some say most women are not interested in politics. This does not tell the whole story. For instance, in the American states of Colorado and Utah, women of all classes are generally rushing to take the opportunity to cast their votes, thus proving that the enfranchisement of women is appropriate. Another instance is the recent election in England, in which women rushed to take the opportunity to vote, stunning everyone. Because there is a demand for women's suffrage, society should establish the kind of system that will meet this demand. This is the only appropriate course to take.

I predict that after the war, women in European and American societies will face many problems that are difficult to resolve.

First, there is the issue of the unbalanced gender ratio. According to official censuses, Europe and America already had a higher proportion of women than men before the war. On top of that, many able-bodied men have died on the battlefield during the war. Many married women have became widows, women who had not married worry every day about how hard it is to marry, and the proportion of women to men grows more and more unbalanced, to the point where the problems of this situation have become noticeable. The society of our time will be full of tragic scenarios, with each day worse than the previous one. It will be difficult to marry, but divorce will increase. Each day there will be more prostitutes, abortions, and children born out of wedlock. If women are affected by these tragic scenarios, all of society will be greatly affected as well.

Second, there is the issue of women workers versus men workers. Working men have all gone to the battlefield. All factories would have had to close down if they did not use women workers to fill the labor shortages left by the men. Ever since the war started, the British government has allowed women to work on the condition that after the war everything will be returned to the way it was before the war. Most other nations have done the same. When European women suddenly got the opportunity to work, it was like opening up a new territory. Since women are paid less than men, the capitalists have been very willing to hire them. After the war, men who were sent to the battlefields will come home and see that their old jobs are now filled by women working for lower wages. Naturally, they will struggle against these women workers. Because they are struggling to survive, these women will certainly be unwilling to give up the territory they have already won. Nor will the capitalists be willing to fire women willing to work for low wages. In the past, the biggest shortcoming of women workers was their lack of job skills. This kind of shortcoming will no longer exist, since women underwent training during the war and have benefited from the expansion of job training. Offering cheap labor without the shortcoming of inexperience, women workers will be used by capitalists to manipulate men workers. To avoid having men workers compete with women workers and prevent manipulation by the capitalists, workers must try to get equal pay for equal work. But this is hard to do, since women's labor unions are not resolute and their force is weak. They cannot oppose capitalists alone, and it may well be that they will not be able to get paid as much as men. Some hope that, to resolve this problem, the government will pass a law guaranteeing that everyone will be on the same wage system. Some advocate trying to encourage men's and women's labor unions to unite. In any case, when there is a conflict between men and women workers, it will be a good opportunity for capitalists to take advantage of the situation. The results will be disadvantageous to all workers. If men and women workers unite, they will bring their power to a higher level in the class struggle. It is difficult to determine which path they will use as a way out in the future. Judging by the trend of torrential evolution in Russia and Germany and even by the general situation in Europe, it seems that England and France will also crumble sooner or later. I think men and women workers will most likely not fight each other, but rather support each other and raise the strength of their class struggle to a higher level.

The third issue is that of working-class mothers. During the war, able-bodied men left home to fight, leaving no one to take care of the old and the weak. Those people were pitiable. Therefore, some countries mandated a solution, giving the families of active soldiers a stipend. The amount of the stipend was not based on the soldier's wages before he went to war; instead, the amount was set in accordance with how many family members he needed to support. This kind of stipend brought security to working-class mothers, who had lived every day in suffering because their incomes were insufficient and insecure. It can be said that they enjoyed a bit of the good life during the war. But this good life ended with the war, and they will have to return to their temporarily forgotten lives of suffering. How they are going to abandon this short-lived good life and go back to enduring their old unwanted lives—this will truly be a problem. Many able-bodied men died in the war. As part of the plan to make up for population losses, special attention should be paid to the protection of mothers. That kind of pension and various other ways of protecting mothers cannot be left unresearched. Also, the war left England with two hundred children's shelters, with enough room for sixty thousand children. This kind of institution should be further expanded after the war because of the working mothers. If they work, they will not be able to take care of their children. This kind of institution is truly necessary. The shifting of children's upbringing and education from the family to society will truly be a new vision of social improvement.

Although we cannot say that there will be no result at all if we depend solely on the women's movement to resolve these issues, we must see that the women's movement also has a class nature. Ever since English women attained the right to vote, their political organizations set out the agenda of what English women should try to attain item by item:

1. Women being elected to parliament;

2. Women attending the postwar economic conferences;

3. British women who marry foreigners being allowed to keep their British citizenship;

4. Women becoming judicial officials and jurors;

5. Women becoming lawyers;

6. Women becoming high-ranking government officials;

7. Women becoming police officers;

8. Women teachers and men teachers having equal status;

9. Government pensions for widows and their children;

10. Equal rights for mothers as well as fathers;

11. The same standard of morality applying to both men and women.

These items are all relevant to middle-class women. But they have nothing to do with working-class women. Those middle-class women want to have equal rights as men within gentry society. Proletarian women own nothing in this wide world except their own bodies, so they would hardly wish for anything more than the improvement of their lives. Middle-class women want to rule over others; proletarian women want to raise their own lives out of the misery of poverty. The interests and the demands of the two classes are fundamentally different. Therefore, the women's rights movement and the labor movement are two completely separate things. If a proletarian woman is arrested for prostitution and taken into the courtroom, and the one who arrests her is a female police officer, the one who judges her is a female judge, and the one who prosecutes her is a female lawyer, then are the problems of this woman resolved? What difference does it make whether this prostitute is arrested and investigated by female officers rather than male officers? Even if there is a bit of difference in how light or heavy the sentence is, it is still just a minor issue. The basic issue, whether directly or indirectly, is the existence of a society organized in such a way that it forces women to resort to prostitution. How can we count the placing of one or two women in the ruling apparatus of such a society as representative of the interests of all women? The interests of middle-class women cannot be called the interests of all women; the expansion of middle-class women's rights cannot be called the emancipation of all women. I think that the way to resolve women's problems completely is, on the one hand, to consolidate the power of all women to smash the patriarchal system; on the other hand, we must still consolidate the power of proletarian women of the world, to smash that arbitrary social system of the capitalist class (including both men and women).

I cannot arbitrarily judge whether our Chinese women have any interest in the issues facing women of the world. But I hope very much that our country will not have this "half-paralyzed" society for much longer. I hope very much that the world civilization of this new century will not be a "half-paralyzed" civilization due to the existence of China in the world.

  1. The Great War refers to World War I.
  2. Here Li Dazhao is apparently referring, not to Chinese women, but to European and American women whose labor was mobilized during World War I.
  3. Aleksandra Mikhaylovna Kollontay (1872-1952) was a Russian revolutionary who advocated radical changes in traditional social customs and institutions in Russia. She became commissar for public welfare in the Bolshevik government that assumed power after the October Revolution (1917) and used her position to remodel Russian society, advocating the practice of free love, the simplification of marriage and divorce procedures, the removal of the social and legal stigma attached to illegitimate children, and various improvements in the status of women. She later became a Soviet ambassador (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1996).
  4. Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973) was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1917 to 1919 and from 1941 to 1943. She was a feminist, pacifist, and crusader for social and electoral reform. She became an outspoken isolationist and was one of forty-nine members of Congress to vote against declaring war on Germany in 1917. This unpopular stand cost her the 1918 election, but she again won election in 1940. She effectively terminated her political career when she became the only legislator to vote against the declaration of war on Japan after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1996).