'Leftover Women': Leta Hong Fincher in Conversation

March 10, 2014
By Sophia ZhuEditor: Sophia Zhu
'Leftover Women': Leta Hong Fincher in Conversation
Fincher is an American doctoral candidate in sociology at Tsinghua University and a former journalist.[baidu.com]
A century ago, Chinese feminists fighting for the emancipation of women helped spark the Republican Revolution, and after 1949, Chairman Mao famously proclaimed that 'women hold up half the sky.’ Yet those gains are now rapidly being eroded in modern China. Leta Hong Fincher, whose book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China will be published in May, examines this important and often overlooked development in contemporary Chinese society.
 
The Bookworm's International Women's Day events opened with a conversation with prominent feminist writers and commentators, including Fincher. The conversation was hosted by Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a reporter from New York Times.
 
Fincher is an American doctoral candidate in sociology at Tsinghua University and a former journalist. On International Women’s Day, she brought her new book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China to discuss the new phenomenon emerging in China.
 
In China, single women over 27 years old have become the target of attention for the wrong reason, not for their professional achievements but for their perceived undesirable marital status. 
 
These are white-collar professional women with fancy education background and are financially independent. But they are considered dangerously close to 'being beyond marriageable age.’ They are China’s so-called 'leftover women’. 
 
What is behind this "leftover women" phenomenon in China? What is the reason made Chinese society decide these highly educated women with good career undesirable in marriage? These are the key questions Fincher wanted to answer in her new book.
 
Fincher began to notice these questions by accident. "I was actually looking at China’s residential real estate market, I found out that most marital properties were registered under men’s names," she said.
 
Leta conducted a survey on Sina Weibo (China’s equivalent of Twitter) with 283 participants to find out their property status.  More than 80 percent of them have real estate property registered under men’s names only.
 
But these women paid for their homes, the decoration and the loans, so why aren’t their names on the deeds? That is where the concept of 'leftover women’ comes in.
 
According to Fincher, many women fought very hard to earn their lawful property rights before marriage, but they gave up these rights before the wedding, and they can’t walk away from the men because they are afraid of getting older and becoming 'leftover women.’
 
This huge social pressure in China leaves women over 25 years old no room and no time to be picky. The Chinese media has been spreading the concept and even suggesting to women: don't be picky, get married! They are told to find a relatively good man and settle so they do not become a 'pathetic’ single woman who can’t find a husband in her 30s. This scary image built by Chinese society is giving women serious anxiety, and many of them eventually give up.
 
What is the reason for this image? Why do women have to get married before a certain age? Why can’t they just walk away from awful men who would not give them their marriage property rights? Leta explained there were cultural, historical and political reasons for the situation.
 
According to Leta, culturally and historically speaking, China, as well as many other East Asian countries, is a historically Confucian society, where marriage is a social norm. Older generations in China are especially stubborn on these issues. They still see establishing a stable family and producing heirs as the most important thing in life.
 
A matchmaking website has been accused of peddling 'obsolete ethics’ in an ad which sees a young woman take a husband in order to please her grandmother. In the ad, every time she visits her grandmother the young woman is asked whether she's married. On the final occasion her grandmother is ill in bed. The ad was soon pulled but it did reflect a certain trend.

This is a cultural and historical explanation of the 'leftover women’phenomenon, but is there more? Fincher believes that a political state media campaign is another force.

" State media is pushing this term 'leftover women’ very heavily," Fincher said.
 
An article titled 'Don't be picky, get married’ was published by Xinhua News Agency, China’s state news service, in 2011, which described 'leftover women’ as picky and therefore should lower their standards and get married. It blamed women themselves for their being single.
 
"The state media campaign is propagating this idea of 'leftover women,’ and is keeping women down. It is picking up on much older cultural references," said Tatlow, the host of the conversation. 
 
In Fincher’s eyes, the government is not doing enough to protect women’s rights.  There is no law targeting domestic violence, and the new marriage law is not protecting women’s property rights.
 
The whole conversation lasted for two hours and the audience responded very strongly. A PhD student from Renmin University of China told Fincher that she thought the political reasons she gave were not sufficient, and that the cultural and historical explanation was enough to explain the phenomenon.
 

The Bookworm Literary Festival is a giant celebration of literature and ideas that brings together diverse voices from China and beyond held in the Bookworm bookstore in Sanlitun, Beijing. This year, it is holding more than 300 events across eight cities, connecting more than 110 Chinese and international writers and thinkers.

(Women of China)

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