The Woman Question and Socialism

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Author(s) Chen Duxiu
Written 30 January 1921


A speech delivered before the Guangdong Federation of Women's Circles, originally published in the Guangdong Masses Newspaper on January 30, 1921. This speech was also published in Awakening, a special supplement to the Republican Daily.

Today I will speak on the woman question and socialism. Many people have researched the woman question in recent years, but their efforts have been piecemeal and unsystematic. Therefore I will talk a bit today to delineate this question and try to make some sense out of those piecemeal efforts.

The so-called ethics of the present day can probably be divided into two kinds: one kind seeks to help the weak resist the strong; the other kind sacrifices the weak's resistance to the strong. Today's militarism is totally of the latter kind; indeed, it sacrifices the weak in order to help the strong. The opposite of this is socialism, which helps the weak resist the strong. The most important issues in socialism are labor issues. But what do labor issues have to do with the woman question? We need to understand that women and laborers are the most powerless members of society. Laborers are subject to the oppression of the capitalists, and women are subject to the oppression of men. We must help women resist the oppression of men as well as help laborers resist the oppression of capitalists. But today we are focusing especially on the woman question, so we should leave labor issues aside for the moment. Yet, though I will only be speaking about the woman question, this question is also related to labor issues. This is because labor is not just men's affair; women also have a lot to do with labor.

Because there are many conflicts between women and society, the woman question really cannot be separated from socialism. Our discussion of women must first be related to socialism. The woman question will never be resolved if it becomes separated from socialism. Socialism has developed because the social system has created many inequalities, and because society has made people unequal and dependent. Naturally, the woman question has developed concomitantly. Though there are many woman questions, they are all at bottom due to a lack of economic independence. Lack of economic independence gives rise to a lack of personal independence, which in turn gives rise to countless instances of suffering.

Chinese women have to abide by the moral creed of the "Three Obediences": at home they must obey fathers, after marriage they must obey husbands, and when they are old they must obey sons. Because they have to obey their fathers at home, women must subject all their activities to their fathers' meddling. To be a woman is almost like being a vase on the table, set in one place and totally useless. Those who are fathers can sell their daughters, or give their daughters away. And if the father wants to flatter and curry favor with someone, he can give his daughter to him at will, as a wife or concubine. Even if the daughter does not want to marry this rich and powerful man, she cannot refuse. Of those Chinese women confronted with the issue of marriage, only one or two in a hundred want freedom in deciding whom to marry. The rest submit to their parents' will. And parents do not think solely of what is best for their daughters. Instead, they give their daughters away as wives in order to secure their alliances with powerful people. In the process of social climbing to achieve wealth and status, parents just use their daughters as steppingstones. It can be said that daughters who must obey their fathers have absolutely no dignity.[1] After marriage, women must obey their husbands. This means that when men tell women to do something, women cannot resist. If they resist, society will punish them. Not only can husbands order wives around, they can also sell their wives or give them away. We all know that there are many men who sell their wives or force their wives into prostitution to pay for opium. Someone has told me that in Guangdong there is a place—I'm not sure if this is true or not—where husbands can rent their wives out to others. This kind of thing happened a lot in the society of the past. Of course I don't believe that this kind of barbaric behavior still occurs in Guangdong. But even if it does not occur in the flesh, perhaps it does occur in spirit.

Today, when women marry, it is almost always because their parents covet wealth and status. Not only do parents destroy their own dignity by using their daughters this way, but many women also destroy their own dignity. I am not completely clear on the situation in Guangdong, but I know that the situation in Shanghai is very sad. There is a very famous girls' school in Shanghai where most of the students lack independent thought. Even though they know a lot, they only think about one thing: that they must wear expensive, fashionable clothes. If a student does not dress fashionably, everyone looks down on her, and she herself feels that she looks unseemly. All they think about is their desire to marry students who study abroad and will become high officials after they return to China. But where will their clothes and jewelry come from? They do not work, so they cannot get clothes by themselves. Therefore, they hope, and can only hope, that men will give them clothes. This kind of thinking naturally causes them to lose their dignity. Today there are many women who do not want independence, but only want to wear expensive clothes. They are, at the same time, losing their dignity.

Regardless of whether they are obeying fathers or husbands, Chinese women have no dignity. If they depend on their fathers for a living, then of course they have no dignity. If they depend on their husbands for a living, they also have no dignity. Therefore, women's loss of dignity is entirely an economic issue. If women can be economically independent, then they will no longer be subject to oppression by their fathers and husbands.

Under socialism, men and women will all work. Before they come of age, they will get a public education. After they come of age, they will work for their community and society. Thus, because socialism recognizes the dignity of all men and women, women will not suffer oppression from their families and husbands. Women will not be subsidiary to their fathers or husbands.

Now there is another issue. Many might say that women can be independent even without socialism; that even in the absence of socialism, women could avoid suffering from parental and male oppression. This statement seems very reasonable at first, but it is actually very wrong because society will not permit women to leave their lives of familial enslavement to seek independent lives. Let's think about it: If a woman leaves her home to live independently, where will she go to live? Where can she make a living? No matter where it is, it will be under the control of the capitalist system. In this system, some people hire others to work, while other people are hired workers. If a woman leaves home, will she be hiring or hired? If she wants to hire people, it will be taken as a joke; it certainly wouldn't happen. Because women cannot hire others, they must be the ones hired by others. They will certainly be subsidiary to capitalists. Thus, they will become slaves of the capitalists. Women were slaves of their families; once they leave their families, they will become slaves of the capitalists. No matter what, they are still slaves; the woman question is still unresolved.

It will not be like this under socialism. There will be no differences between workers and capitalists; everyone will have to work. Therefore, the woman question will be fundamentally resolved only when socialism arrives. Women will have independent dignity at home as well as in society.

Today I have spoken on the woman question and socialism because the woman question so far seems piecemeal and unresolvable. We cannot conclude this discussion without talking about socialism. At least nine out of ten instances of women's suffering are economic issues. Socialism will resolve all questions, not only the woman question. The principles we are talking about do not sacrifice the weak to help the strong, but rather help the weak resist the strong—this latter is socialism. Women and laborers are all weak. So, if we want to help the weak resist the strong, there is no other way besides socialism. I think that everyone, women and men alike, should research socialism. It would be good if women fight even harder than men. We cannot divide the woman question piecemeal, into issues of education, jobs, social interaction, etc., for our discussion. We must take socialism as our sole guide. This is not just something that concerns women; it is the same for men. Thus, I say today that men and women alike should work hard for socialism, and unite in the resistance of the weak against the strong.

  1. Ren'ge, which we translate here as "dignity," can also be translated as personality, character, personhood, individuality, human worth, or moral quality.