Heels, or ideals?

State media misses the point on International Women’s Day

Heels, or ideals?

Attendants at a banquet to celebrate International Women’s Day

When Mao Zedong proclaimed that “Women hold up Half the Sky,” behind the rhetoric was an intention to get women out of the home and into jobs, in hope of increasing economic output. After all, Mao wanted to overtake Britain and the United States in very short time. He saw a doubling of the labour force as a good way to start.

Still, the exhortation was effective. The early Communist government did a lot for women, passing the 1950 Marriage Law outlawing bigamy, giving women the right to choose their marriage partners freely (thereby escaping arranged marriages), and also allowing them to initiate divorce.

Today, while a small group of women are becoming rich, the majority fear that they are experiencing a rollback. Their incomes have been falling relative to men’s for at least two decades, and their employment rates are dropping faster too. Attitudes that “men belong in the public sphere, women in the home” are rising among both men and women. Women now find it harder to get good jobs and don’t climb the ranks as quickly when they do.

At least, this is the take from the All-China Women’s Federation.

At a recent seminar in Beijing, Song Meiya, a senior editor at the China Women’s News, agreed with the view, describing the situation as “disastrous”.

In that context, the Federation probably won’t have been too surprised at the tone of media coverage of International Women’s Day in China, which was March 8.

The People’s Daily, Xinhua and the China Daily all put out a slew of images of women focusing more on their physical attributes than their professional talents, thereby betraying little sense of what the day is supposed to be all about (“celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future,” according to its organisers).

Instead, China Daily came up with a Women’s High Heels Race, featuring a photo of ladies sprinting in stilettos. Xinhua opted to salute the “Attractive females at the NPC, CPPCC sessions”.

And not to be outdone, the People’s Daily took a similar approach, putting out photos of “Beautiful female journalists at two sessions”.

At the NPC itself, female representation has been frozen for decades at just over 20%. As delegates are carefully hand-picked, in theory it shouldn’t be too difficult to select more women. In reality no one expects that to happen any time soon.

A campaign here might go back to the slogan of Chairman Mao himself, pointing out that he didn’t say: “Women hold up one-fifth of the Sky”?

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