Chinese women's long march to equal rights and participation

Louise Edwards says that while Chinese women have come far since gaining equal legal rights,more should step up today to lead

Prior to her execution by a Kuomintang firing squad in 1928, the political activist Xiang Jingyu famously declared: "If the women's suffrage movement is successful, it will simply mean that a bunch of women will enter the pigsties of the nation's parliaments where, together with the male pigs, they can preside over the nation's calamities and the people's misfortunes."

As a committed communist, Xiang saw little value in a parliamentary system based on universal suffrage. Nonetheless, she fought tirelessly for women's rights alongside the suffragists on the basis that nobody should be impoverished and vulnerable simply because they are female.

The KMT was not particularly enthusiastic about universal suffrage, either. Once in control of China, they gave women the same political rights as men but in a system of limited democratic rights for both. Nonetheless, China's feminists, men and women alike, continued campaigning for greater equality. Through the 1930s, they achieved a raft of successes. Politicians, overwhelmingly male, passed laws enshrining gender equality in marriage and divorce, inheritance, and supported policies that expanded employment and educational opportunities for women. This spirit of equality continued in the laws of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China after 1949, and was extended eventually to Hong Kong.

Many have dismissed the early legal advances as "paper gains" that had no impact on real people. But myriad legal cases show that ordinary women did and do make use of the law to change their lives.

Having become aware of their legal rights, many more women negotiated stronger positions within their communities and families. A few became high-profile community leaders.

Like men, not all women have the capacity or inclination to take public leadership roles. But those who do create opportunities for women, girls and their families to achieve more secure and prosperous lives. Every woman who assumes a leadership role in her political party, workplace, social or sports club signals the strength of that organisation - it has decided to choose the best person for the job.

But, if a woman leader is perceived as having "got there" because of her father, husband or clan - common in Asian female political leaders - the gains for women's status are dramatically reduced.

Hong Kong lags behind societies of equivalent wealth and freedoms in the under-representation of women in our legislature.

A common explanation is that "Chinese culture" values modesty in women and discourages them from taking on public roles. Fortunately, "Chinese culture", like all cultures, is in a constant state of evolution. It used to be "Chinese culture" to worship and obey a line of hereditary emperors. And to sacrifice humans by burying them in the tombs of those emperors.

The remarkable women political representatives of Hong Kong remind us that change is possible. But we do have to demand it. Fortunately, in Hong Kong today, we don't face execution for doing so.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Long march