‘Leftover Women’

March 17, 2020

From the March-April 2020 issue of News & Letters

 by Adele

Leta Hong Fincher wrote Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China (Zed Books, 2016) to debunk the Chinese government’s propaganda that the status of women has been soaring since the introduction of corporate capitalism. She focused her research on the fact that women have mostly been left out of the wealth created by the real estate boom.

In the 1990s, China went from a “welfare-based housing allocation” to a “market-based system of home ownership.” For most, a home is the only way to invest money. It is also a source of stability during retirement and emergencies such as job loss. Chinese society views home ownership as necessary to enter the middle class.


Letta Hong Fincher

Interviewing many young, urban, professional women, Fincher found patriarchal attitudes often influence the thinking of all family members. Parents buy homes for sons or nephews, not daughters; and wives put their savings into homes owned legally by their husbands.

Women often lose jobs upon marriage or childbirth and find themselves in an increasingly unequal relationship. This has been a factor in the increase in domestic violence, but it is difficult for women to escape with no job, no home and little support from the police or justice systems.

The All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) was created by the Communist Party in 1949 to uphold the revolutionary goal of the emancipation of women. But this same government agency promoted forced abortions with its “one child” policy in the 1980s and 1990s and now struggles to clean up the social damage this caused. Patriarchal social pressure for that one child to be a boy influenced sex-selective abortions, which led to China having tens of millions more men than women. Many unmarried men are forming gangs and turning to substance abuse and crime.


The ACWF’s response is not to solve the problem but to force social stability. A media propaganda campaign of articles, cartoons, and self-help industries promotes the notion that “leftover,” i.e., unmarried women in their late twenties, are miserable because their education, income, and professional positions are supposedly intimidating to men. There is no attempt to make men more attractive to upwardly mobile women. The government hopes this control of women by family and state will keep them from fomenting dissent. The ACWF also attempts to blame women for the increase in birth defects, claiming the cause is delayed childbearing. In reality it is mostly caused by industrial pollution.

Fincher explains that the status of women throughout the history of China has risen and fallen as if part of a cycle. She explores previous eras in which Chinese women achieved some degree of liberation and how this freed them to fight for philosophical, social and governmental change. Each time, patriarchal attitudes were never fully uprooted, leading to a withdrawal of their freedoms in a counter-revolution.

For example, in 1907, feminist writer He-Yin Zhen introduced Marxism to China and criticized Confucianism, stating, “The husband becomes identified with yang and the wife yin. The relationship between men and women thus became one of absolute inequality through cosmic abstraction.” Fincher links this struggle for greater freedom for both women and men to the overthrow of the Qing Empire. However, Chinese women continue to be haunted by the Confucian doctrine that women have a “yin” nature, suiting them to serve men, who belong in the “yang” public sphere.

Fincher describes extreme state repression of feminist activists but finds more women becoming aware of and reacting against increasing patriarchal oppression. Activists find creative ways to organize and demonstrate. More Chinese women reject marriage, which social analysts say could foretell some sort of long-term change. This book is valuable for depicting the destructiveness of patriarchy and counter-revolution and the importance of the struggle for personal freedom in the struggle for revolution.

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