Three decades after China embarked on dazzling economic reforms, much has changed for women. Unlike their mothers, whose working — and, often, private — lives were determined by the state, women today can largely choose their paths. Rural women are no longer tethered to communes; urban women no longer are assigned jobs for life or need permission from work units to marry, although all women must apply for permission to have a child.
Yet along with freedom has come risk, as socialist-era structures are dismantled and powerful cultural traditions that value men over women, long held in abeyance by official Communist support for women’s rights, return in force. Many employers are choosing not to hire women in an economy where there is an oversupply of labor and women are perceived as bringing additional expense in the form of maternity leave and childbirth costs. The law stipulates that employers must help cover those costs, and feminists are seeking a system of state-supported childbirth insurance to lessen discrimination.
The result is that even highly qualified candidates like Ms. Feng can struggle to find a footing. Practical concerns about coping in a highly competitive world are feeding into a powerful identity crisis among China’s women.
“The main issue we face is confusion, about who we are and what we should be,” said Qin Liwen, a magazine columnist. “Should I be a ‘strong woman’ and make money and have a career, maybe grow rich, but risk not finding a husband or having a child? Or should I marry and be a stay-at-home housewife, support my husband and educate my child? Or, should I be a ‘fox’ — the kind of woman who marries a rich man, drives around in a BMW but has to put up with his concubines?”