The Cultural Revolution & The Struggle to Liberate Women

Before the victory of the great anti-imperialist, anti-feudal revolution in China the women of that most ancient of lands were wickedly oppressed by tradition. Prostitution was common, practices like foot binding literally crippled women in order to please aesthetic appetites, marriages were arranged and forced and Confucian tradition bound women to familial men in their lives.The Communist Party under the leadership of Mao Zedong struggled mightily against these patriarchal practices, reaching the height of their efforts during the whirlwind events of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Much of these gains for Chinese women though have been lost in the years following the coming to power of Deng Xiaoping. Prostitution has returned in force, foot binding is now re-emerging and families commit infanticide against their young girls.

As part of the lead up to International Women’s Day (March 8th) The Speed of Dreams is posting this article, which is part 7 of the MLM Revolutionary Study Group’s Evaluating the Cultural Revolution in China and its Legacy for the Future. The entire document can be found here (for PDF) and here (for Word Doc). As usual the posting of it should not be taken as an endorsement of the MLMRSG or its particular analysis.

During the Cultural Revolution women made substantial gains. Many broke into higher-paying jobs in industry, developed as political leaders, challenged ideas of women’s inferiority, and began to dig up the Confucian-patriarchal roots of women’s oppression in China. But to understand how far the liberation of women had come, and how far it still had to go, it is necessary to refer back to the pre-Liberation period.

According to Confucian doctrine, men were respected, women were despised. Women had no economic or political rights; all but a few women from wealthy families were denied education; and they were subordinated to their fathers, husbands, brothers and in-laws. The brutal custom of foot binding ensured the physical and economic dependence of women on men. Forced marriages of young girls, wife beating and rape by landlords were accepted practices. According to an old folk saying, “A wife married is like a pony bought—I’ll ride her and whip her as I like.” Peasant women were slaves of slaves.

The victory of the revolution in 1949 ushered in a new era for China’s women.

In the land reform campaign of the early 1950s, Women’s Associations encouraged peasant women to lift their heads and “speak bitterness” about their treatment at the hands of big landlords. Tens of millions of women received their own share of land and left the household to work for the first time. The literacy rate for girls and women rose sharply as more schools were built. Prostitution was eliminated in a short period of time. New ideas of socialist equality challenged the traditional views of women’s inferior status. As one woman described it, “It was as though not only their feet but their minds had been bound.”

The Marriage Law passed by the People’s Republic in 1950 prohibited forced marriage and marriage of young girls, bride prices, domestic abuse, and gave women the right of divorce. When these reforms ran into resistance from male peasants, workers and party cadre, the CCP launched a mass campaign in 1953 to implement the Marriage Law. Still there were limited gains, especially in the countryside where patriarchal customs were deeply rooted. Divorce, for example, was not easy to obtain when the husband’s family had paid a steep bride price for their new daughter-in-law.

In 1958-59, the Great Leap Forward brought millions more women out of the home and into the labor force. On the people’s communes, networks of nurseries and kindergartens were built to enable women to work in the fields and on construction projects. As women joined the workforce with the support of local Women’s Associations, more women became leaders of their production teams and were recruited into the party.

Ten years after Liberation, great progress had been made by Chinese women as a direct result of the socialist transformation of Chinese society. At the same time, the prevailing belief in the CCP was that the full participation of women in the labor force was the key ingredient for attaining equality between women and men. This conception underestimated the continuing strength of patriarchal ideology embedded in the family and the social and economic inequalities between men and women that still existed in socialist society. Many still believed that men were more capable of difficult work and quicker to learn than women. In industry, the majority of women worked in lower paying jobs such as textiles and in “street industry,” small shops where women did not receive the same wages and benefits as the mostly male workforce in state-owned factories. In agriculture, the work-point system, which determined income received by peasants, favored the job categories such as tractor drivers and construction workers usually occupied by men. In many cases, peasant women did not receive the same work-points as men doing the same jobs.

Of great importance, the traditional Chinese family was still intact in most respects, particularly in the countryside. Household work was still mainly women’s work. Thus, women worked the “double shift” familiar to working women all over the world—doing the cooking, cleaning, shopping, sewing clothes a nd child-rearing that was extremely laborious and time-consuming in China at the time. Responsibility for household work was a major impediment to the full participation of women in political life and to their development as leaders in their workplaces, neighborhoods and in society as a whole.

With its egalitarian thrust and emphasis on the role of ideology, the Cultural Revolution provided favorable conditions for challenges to male supremacy in all areas of society. The early upsurges of the Cultural Revolution drew women, especially young women, into political life in unprecedented ways:

Freed from family control, young women Red Guards moved across the landscape more widely and in greater numbers than at any time in Chinese history. Like their male counterparts, they were encouraged to challenge parents, teachers and officials, and to act with a confidence and enthusiasm probably never before permitted adolescent women in China.

These young women’s activism was supported by official policy, especially two oft-cited statements by Mao: “Women hold up half the sky” and “Times have changed, and today men and women are equal. Whatever men comrades can accomplish, women comrades can too.”

The concept of being youth–“qingnian” as opposed to “funu,” or women— enabled young women to work and act without being defined and limited by their gender.

According to an educated qingnian who left Shanghai to work on a state farm on Chongming Island:

Young women like me sensed few gender constraints in our devotion to the revolution. Numerous young female leaders emerged on this island with eight farms. This cohort never believed in female inferiority and was free from social expectations of the roles of wife and mother….We never worried about being seen as unfeminine for surpassing men in our job performance. When young female and male leaders got together at meetings or training sessions, we talked about our work and discussed Marxist theories on equal terms.

As the Cultural Revolution spread to the working class in 1967, women workers in Shanghai, where they comprised one-third of the workforce, organized against oppressive policies in their factories and participated in power seizures from rightist managers and party officials. Thirty-two year old Wang Xiuzhen, a 32 year old technician in a textile mill, was the Vice-Chair of the Shanghai Revolutionary Committee.

“Iron Girls Brigades,” teams of young women who took on the most demanding and difficult tasks, were formed in many enterprises. National publicity was given to these women as they broke into all-male jobs such as oil drilling, repairing high-voltage lines, and building bridges. Increasing numbers of women worked in heavy industry, joined the militia and the PLA, and became technicians and assumed positions of leadership in the textile factories. Half of all doctors and “barefoot doctors” in the countryside were women.

Girls as well as boys in middle school received military training, and joined the People’s Militia in large numbers after they graduated. According to one observer, “These men and women were organized for [military] training, for brigade infrastructure projects, and for cultural and sports activities…. The training was practical and organizational, and cultivated a team spirit, a sense of purpose and discipline.”

New advances, particularly in the cities, were made in providing childcare.

In some factories there were nursing rooms for infants, and 24 hour nurseries for children from two months to four years old. In one nursery, an American visitor was told that children learned to “care for each other, love and help each other” through stories, pictures and play. Factories usually ran canteens and dining halls. It was understood that socializing childcare and other household tasks not only freed up women to work outside the home, but allowed them to develop as political activists and leaders.

A birth control campaign distributed free or low-cost contraceptive devices and advocated later marriages and smaller families—two children was the ideal. This was aimed not only at limiting the growth of China’s population, but freeing up women to participate in political life.

While some enterprises reached the official target of women making up 30% of the revolutionary committees, this was not achieved in most areas. In part this was due to resistance by men. Particularly in the rural areas, some male cadre claimed that it was not worthwhile to train and recruit women into the party because they would drop away after they married. A more common attitude, among both women and men cadre, was that leadership was to be judged on the basis of political consciousness and experience, not because a person was a man or woman—and that women were still catching up with men in these areas.

At higher levels of leadership, women’s representation was lower. At the Party Congresses held in 1956, 1969 and 1973, the women’s membership of the CCP’s Central Committee rose from 4% to 10% to 13%.

Women in the Countryside

In the rural areas, the influence of patriarchal ideas and customs was much stronger than in the cities. This was in part due to the prevalence of traditional extended families headed by men. While many urban married couples were able to establish new households, when young rural women married, they generally left their villages and joined their husbands’ families. Families still valued sons, since they would stay with and provide for the family. There was stronger male resistance to equality with women in the countryside, creating a suffocating political atmosphere in the home that undermined women’s self-confidence and leadership abilities.

In addition, a lower level of economic development obstructed rural women’s progress. Less childcare was available and many children were cared for by their grandmothers. Fewer peasants than urban workers had pensions, building in a stronger preference for sons who would be able to take care of them in old age. In addition, household work was more onerous than in the cities.

The Cultural Revolution addressed this situation both materially and politically. New tractor, fertilizer and food processing plants served agriculture and provided more income for social services on the communes. Increased mechanization eliminated some of the heavy hand labor for which men earned more work points. As discussed in the section below on “barefoot doctors,” health care services for women, men and children dramatically improved. Abortions were available on request, and were most common in families that already had the number of children they desired. Collective sewing groups with newly purchased sewing machines and the mechanization of grain grinding reduced the time women spent doing household work.

In many communes, Iron Girls Brigades were organized, and women workers became more assertive in demanding equal pay for the same work done by men. All-women study groups and leadership training programs furthered this process. In some rural counties, there were three times as many women in leadership positions as there were before the Cultural Revolution.

Traditional ideas of a woman’s place were challenged by the more than eight million young educated women who were sent to the countryside as part of the “xia-xiang” movement to work with and learn from the peasants. Without the burden of family responsibilities, they were able to take on jobs as teachers and medical workers as well as assume leadership positions in their production and village units.

These educated women also served as models for their sisters in the villages.

In a visit to Liu Ling village in 1969, two Swedish journalists wrote about the transformation that a 39 year old woman experienced as a result of the Cultural Revolution. Now a member of the revolutionary committee, she explained why she had not previously been active in the brigade management board to which she belonged:

I was selfish. I had my household and my children to look after. I thought of my own private interests and was not an active member of the board.,,, But from studying Chairman Mao I realized what a mistake I’d been making, to sit silent at the meetings of the management board, thinking of my own household instead of the affairs of state. Before the Cultural Revolution women were too tied to their own homes. Now we read newspapers and discuss things. Formerly it was only the men who discussed things when resting from their work in the fields….

For the older of us, who never went to school, it’s hard. The younger women study with us, though, and teach us from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung. The young women say we women must be capable of making up our minds and arriving at decisions.

As women emerged as political activists in the course of the Cultural Revolution, recruitment of women into the party and revolutionary committees, and into higher positions of leadership, was stepped up. In 1972 and early 1973, the Women’s Federation was reestablished up to the provincial level in most of the country.

This helped create a political base for further transformations.

In 1974, a more frontal attack on the patriarchal oppression of women took place in the course of the “Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius” campaign. The national media highlighted the links between Confucian ideas of male supremacy and the patriarchal ideas and customs still prevalent in Chinese society. An essential part of this campaign was the women’s associations at the local level where women were able to speak more freely about the discrimination and extra burdens they faced. Many county-level party committees established “women’s work offices” whose tasks focused on holding political study classes for women. In one Beijing neighborhood, it was reported that over 60,000 women were engaged in the study of Marxist theory.

The understanding that women gained through their study of Confucianism was used to attack gender-based inequalities in public and family life. The household roles of women were questioned, leading to the widespread promotion as role models of men who cared for children and did housework while their wives studied or attended political meetings.

The institution of marriage and the concept of equal pay for equal work were subjected to new scrutiny. In Hopeh a province-wide campaign was launched by the Women’s Federation to carry out work in three areas:

(1) the promotion of free-choice marriage, late marriage, the abolition of bride prices and traditional marriage rituals symbolizing the “sale” of women; (2) the promotion of equal pay for equal work for women, include a major effort to redefine “equal work” as “work of comparable value” rather than the “same work,” since much work in rural China is sex-typed; and (3) the establishment of year-round nurseries and kindergartens, along with agitation for the idea the men should share in household chores.

A closely related issue raised during the anti-Confucius campaign was the promotion of intra-village marriages, which challenged the feudal tradition that women had to “marry away” in another village. This allowed young women to choose their own marriage partners from school, work, the militia and youth groups in the village. It also allowed them to stay, and develop as leaders, in their native villages.

As was true of all the “socialist new things” that emerged in the course of the Cultural Revolution, these attempts to uproot traditional male chauvinist attitudes and practices in family and public life made more headway in some areas than others. According to an American social worker who talked to women in childcare centers and factories in urban areas, divorce was freely available. On the other hand, an American scholar whose fieldwork was in the countryside reports that contested divorces, usually initiated by women, were granted only after a long process of informal and formal mediation aimed at reconciling the parties.

The issue of Chinese women and sexuality often comes up during discussions of the Cultural Revolution. On the one hand, there was no commodification of women as there is in capitalist society. There were no women selling goods on billboards or their bodies on the streets. Women’s clothing was functional, not designed to differentiate or attract. The urban women that an American visitor met in 1971 wore dark pants, a white blouse and a simple button-up-the-front jacket—all loose fitting. An American newspaper editor who visited China in 1972 made a revealing comment: “In twenty three days in China, I didn’t see a single grown woman in a skirt. And a bosom line is almost as hard to find.”

For women in socialist China, freedom was thought to mean freedom to work outside the home, freedom to engage in political life and struggle, freedom to build a socialist society, and freedom from being treated as sex objects, but not sexual freedom. Other than in the course of birth control campaigns, there was almost no public discussion of issues of sexuality. Sex before marriage was off limits; young women who violated the requirement of chastity were severely ostracized. Traditional ideas about “proper behavior” tended to restrict social interactions between youth, including public displays of affection. However, these restrictions may have been more pronounced in the urban areas. According to Mobo Gao:

It is true that even in traditional China the rural poor of both sexes were never as sexually restrained as the educated elite. But the participation in political life by women and their liberation in terms of self-expression and self-fulfillment were never as extensive and obvious as in the period of the Cultural Revolution in Qinglin, and Gao Village. For example, it was through local militia training sessions that Gao Chaoxin and Jiang Tonger fell in love with each other and got married.

To the extent that tight social restrictions for youth still existed, they undermined the idea of a free choice of partners for marriage, and denied young women and men the power to control their own sexuality. Another example of this narrow view of “socialist morality” was that public discussion about homosexuality, even the existence of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people in Chinese society, was unheard of.

In sum, in one generation, the material conditions and quality of women’s lives in China had taken a great leap ahead. It was understood during the Cultural Revolution that this was the result of the sweat and struggle of men and women alike to build socialism, and that full equality for women could only be achieved through the development of collective socialist institutions.

At the same time, there was an underestimation of the need for extensive, ongoing political mobilizations and campaigns to root out male supremacist ideas, overcome social inequalities between men and women, and develop powerful women’s leadership in all areas of society. An important part of this is understanding the critical importance of women’s organizations in bringing these issues to the fore within the revolutionary movement, in socialist as well as capitalist society.

As we make these critical observations, they must be placed in historical perspective. Revolutionary women in China during the 1960s and 70s were trying to find the way forward to the full liberation of women in a socialist society that had just emerged from feudalism, permeated with a thousands year old system of ideas and customs that subjugated women in all ways.

During the same years, bourgeois and revolutionary women in the U.S. were contending over the road to, and the nature of, liberation in an imperialist society with a much higher level of economic development, a different culture, and a different mix of mechanisms for perpetuating women’s inequality. Thus, the struggle of Chinese women during the Cultural Revolution cannot be viewed through a U.S. or European lens. The areas of great progress, and slow progress, of Chinese women during the Cultural Revolution must be evaluated on the basis of the actual challenges they faced at that time.

Since the Cultural Revolution, revolutionaries worldwide have gained new insights into the operation of patriarchy. Important advances have been made in mobilizing women in struggle against all of the forms of oppression they face, and in assuming positions as leading political activists and leaders of revolutionary organizations. These advances in theory and practice will help chart the way forward for future socialist societies to break all the chains of women’s oppression.


[1] As early as 1922, the Chinese Communist Party had established a Women’s Department to help organize and lead women in revolutionary political activity. One of the first tasks undertaken by the Red Army when it entered an unorganized village was to form a Women’s Association. In the liberated areas that were established in the 1930s and 40s, Women’s Associations organized peasant women to spin cloth, sew clothes and shoes, serve as nurses, and to become village-based guerilla fighters. The work of the Women’s Associations included organizing political study groups, and opposition to wife-beating, child marriage and in favor of divorce rights. Women in China, ed. Marilyn Young, 1973, pp. 73-87, 190-191. In Fanshen, William Hinton described the work of the Women’s Association in Long Bow village, Shanxi Province, when it was still occupied by the GMD in the late 1940s. pp. 157-60.
[2] Goldwasser and Dowty, p. 140.
[3] In 1972, an influential article by Soong Ching Ling (Madam Sun Yat-sen) in Peking Review, titled “Women’s Liberation in China,” raised these issues. Part of this article is reprinted in
Ruth Sidel, Women and Child Care in China, 1972, p. 184.
[4] Still, it is interesting to note that the “16 Point Decision,” issued by the CCP Central Committee in 1966, did not mention fighting for the full equality of men and women as one of its points, and the call to criticize the “four olds”–feudal and bourgeois ideology, traditions, habits and customs—did not target patriarchy.
[5] Emily Honig and Gail Hershatter, Personal Voices: Chinese Women in the 1980s, 1988. p. 4.
[6] Wang Zhen in Some of Us, p. 50.
[7] n the 1980s, in a manner familiar to women everywhere, Iron Girls were derided in the Chinese press as unwomanly, unmarriageable, unattractive “false boys.” Marilyn Young, “Chicken Little in China,” in Promissory Notes: Women in the Transition to Socialism, ed. Kruks, Rapp and Young, 1989, p. 241.
[8] Phyllis Andors, The Unfinished Liberation of Chinese Women: 1949-1980, 1983, pp. 110, 135.
[9] Mobo Gao, Gao Village, p. 167.
[10] Sidel, pp. 92, 109-126. See also Goldwasser and Dowty, p. 163.
[11] In one model commune, women were 35% of all party cadre and members of revolutionary committees. “Anhui County Women Criticize Lin-Confucius Slanders of Women,” New China News Agency, March 6, 1974. Visitors reported that there were more women on the revolutionary committees in the cities than in the rural areas.
[12] Goldwasser and Dowty, p. 171. Their sample of factories (in which women made up from 12% to 67% of the workforce) found that women occupied from 4% to 18% of the positions on the plant revolutionary committees.
[13] Andors, p. 131, and Kay Ann Johnson, Women, the Family and Peasant Revolution in China, 1983, p. 190.
[14] Goldwasser and Dowty, p. 173.
[15] Ibid., p. 177.
[16] There are reports that some rural men were determined to overturn tradition. In one commune, “It was really the men who got the new ideas about women. They attended meetings where the Communist Party ‘s policy was explained. When the activists came home from these meetings, they urged their wives to ‘stand up.’.. First the women began to attend our own women’s meetings to hear the revolutionary policy explained. Then soon we began attending the general meetings along with the men.” Jack Ch’en, A Year in Upper Felicity, pp. 144-145.
[17] Andors, p. 143. Joan Hinton, “Politics and Marriage,” New China, June 1976.
[18] Ibid,, p. 133.
[19] Andors, pp. 147-48. Andors relates that young women who married local commune members were praised for defying the traditional prohibition against marrying “lower” than one’s class, and for insisting on freedom of choice in marriage.
[20] Jan Myrdal and Gun Kessle, China: The Revolution Continued, The Cultural Revolution at the Village Level, 1970, p. 137.
[21] Johnson, p. 195. The Women’s Federation was disbanded in 1967 due to its narrow focus on family and welfare issues and downplaying the role of women in political struggle Andors, p. 103; Young, Women in China, pp. 170-171.
[22] This campaign drew links between Lin’s political outlook and that of Confucius, who had fought to defend the institutions of slave society 2500 years ago. Confucian ideology, with its rigid social distinctions and insistence that scholars should rule, was an important target of the Cultural Revolution. One of Confucius’s sayings was to “call to office those who have retired to obscurity.” Thus, criticizing Confucius was an allegorical way of criticizing newly rehabilitated capitalist roaders such as Deng Xiaoping.
[23] Andors, pp. 132, 133.
[24] Ibid., pp. 128-129.
[25] Johnson, p. 201-202. See also the account by Joan Hinton of the anti-Confucius campaign in a village near Beijing in “Politics and Marriage,” New China, June 1976.
[26] Ibid., pp. 202-203. There were also concerted efforts to encourage matrilocal marriages, whereby men would join their wives’ families. Much of the impetus for this came from the population control campaign, which sought to lessen women’s fears that they would not be taken care of in old age if they did not have sons. Ibid., pp. 199-200.
[27] Sidel, p. 49; Johnson, pp. 213-214.
[28] Sidel, p. 39. In 1989, a young Chinese woman in Beijing told an American visitor that she had to wear high heels and be one of the “pretty girls” to get an office job. Her grandmother commented that her high heels were just a new form of foot-binding.
[29] Goldwasser and Dowty, p. 159.
[30] According to one account, several boys and girls in the countryside were arrested for talking with each other in the same room late at night. Johnson, p. 183.
[30] Gao Village, p. 166.

Posted on March 3, 2012, in Radical History, Revolutionary Theory, Women's Liberation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Cultural Revolution & The Struggle to Liberate Women.

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