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Women’s Choice: Home or Work?

Should women be at home or in the workplace? Should they be housewives or career women? This ancient issue, against the backdrop of increasing unemployment in China, was raised again at the Fourth Session of the Ninth National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

Married working women should be encouraged to leave their jobs to be full-time housewives, proposed CPPCC National Committee member Wang Xiancai at the meeting. To guarantee the rights of housewives, he suggested the revised Marriage Law include this stipulation: In the case of single-income families, couples will share all family properly.

The proposal has angered many feminists, who believe that sending women home is totally prejudicial against women and represents a reversal in social development. They even decided to make a counter-proposal, which will recommend the Government help laid-off female workers find new jobs and delay the retirement age for women.

Because the Government has been encouraging women to work outside the home ever since 1949, most urban Chinese families earn a double income. There are lots of problems with this type of family, said Wang, a father of four children and the husband of a college professor. “It’s not good for the upbringing of the children, which I have learned through my own experience,” he said. Wang first raised the issue two years ago and met sharp criticism from women’s groups.

Today, the question of whether women should stay at home has moved out of the CPPCC debating room and been dropped in front of ordinary Chinese people. At a time when both urban unemployment and the costs of childcare are rising, women’s choice between home and job has become a real issue.

“Ladies, Please Go Home”

Wang Xiancai (male, CPPCC National Committee member and Deputy Secretary-General of the CPPCC Jiangxi Provincial Committee): Encouraging working women to return home is basically not aimed at resolving the unemployment problem, but is out of concern for the well-being of families and children. If grandparents don’t help out, double-income families with children will really have a difficult time. It is especially hard for the wives, who may be so constrained that they cannot make business trips, work overtime, or even go to work on time.

In such cases, the only option is to get household help, which costs at least 500-600 yuan a month. If the wives cannot make that much at their own work, it would be better for them to stay at home taking care of the kids and houses by themselves rather than paying someone else to do the work. There are quite a lot of laid-off women workers in society. Women’s associations, in a bid to get them re-employed, have been, without exception, persuading them to take such jobs as housekeepers and nannies. But actually women should recognize that taking care of their own houses and children is also a kind of job and responsibility as well as the manifestation of a mother’s commitment to her children. Given this, we should encourage laid-off female workers to return home to be homemakers, which I don’t think is prejudicial against women at all.

When I advocated this two years ago in Jiangxi Province, the women’s association expressed strong resentment and took it as prejudicial against women. They asked: Why shouldn't men go home? Of course men can go home, but men are inferior to women in terms of housekeeping. As for equality, I don’t think it means women should do whatever men do. I have noticed that the more economically developed a country is, the more clearly the couples divide family responsibilities, with many women leaving their jobs after childbirth to raise children. How to educate our next generation is an issue facing all of us, and many parents feel they have done far from enough in their children’s education. Given this, I think it is a good time to raise this issue to working mothers.

However, the choice has to be made completely voluntarily because women are not required to go home at all. They don’t have to return home if their parents can take care of the grandchildren very well, or their incomes are essential to their families, or they have no problem with the pay to household help. What I am trying to say is that we should establish a new concept, that is, staying at home and taking care of their husbands and children is also an honor for women and a part of social responsibility.

How shall we understand equality between women and men? I think some ideas, such as women doing whatever men do, are too extreme. I remember in the 1960s there was a drama produced on the theme that “the times have changed, and men and women are equals.” The drama, set in a meat-packing plant, tells how some “progressive” women workers overcome physical difficulties to become butchers, work that used to be exclusive to men. When I watched the drama, I wondered: Is that what gender equality means?

Women’s groups protest against the proposal that married working women, especially those in the low-income bracket, should leave their jobs to become housewives, saying that it is prejudicial against women. But if what they are doing-encouraging laid-off female workers to lower their job expectations and take on housekeeping jobs-is right, how come it becomes prejudicial against women to encourage women to stay home keeping their own houses? I think it is something good for the country, the society and families as a whole to encourage female workers to return home voluntarily and take good care of their houses and kids. In this way, more children will be able to grow up under the wings of their own mothers since no social service can replace a mother’s role.

Actually for some time in the 1950s Chinese women were called upon to do the same. Many women workers, including some who had started working before 1949, quit their jobs voluntarily. Today we have again raised the proposal, which, instead of being a measure of expediency, conforms to the needs of social development.

Basically speaking, equality between women and men is manifested in terms of personality as well as political, legal and economic status. This is not necessarily linked to whether the wives have jobs. Actually it is social progress to rationally divide family responsibilities between husbands and wives on the basis of upholding gender equality and recognizing the differences between men and women. Such division of responsibilities will make it more efficient to organize social life and production.

To free women from worries associated with staying at home, we need to provide them with more social and legal guarantees. For instance, if a wife leaves her job to become a full-time homemaker, her husband should get from his work unit a 50 percent increase in his original salary, which would be the total of the husband’s salary and half of the wife’s salary. Since this is impossible for the time being, I suggest the new Marriage Law specify in the article on family income that in the case of single-income families the couples share all family property. In this way, spouses without jobs will be ensured certain financial security. Since childcare and housekeeping in themselves are also contributions to society, housewives deserve the same social and economic status as their working husbands.

“No Way Should Women Be Sent Home”

Wang Yujue (female, CPPCC National Committee member and President of Guangdong Academy of Arts): I am strongly against the proposal that women should go home. Sending women back home will waste all our efforts since 1949 in realizing gender equality, which is a reversal of historical development. Without economic status, women won’t get any guarantee for other rights, leaving their own fates in other people’s hands. With regards to the problem that laid-off female workers have difficulty getting new jobs, several CPPCC members and I are drafting a proposition suggesting the Government help them get re-employed through various measures. For instance, we will point out that it is an unfair practice to refuse to extend the job contracts of female workers once the term has ended. It is also improper to apply double standards in terms of the retirement age. I think women, especially those engaged in mental work, should retire at the same age as men.

Our government has made tremendous efforts over the years to improve women’s social status. If we ask women to go home now, all the efforts we have already made will be written off. Without economic rights, women will have nothing. We should never give in on our position that women should be ensured economic rights and be allowed to participate in politics. Most Chinese men would prefer their wives stay at home. I think such a concept is wrong. Besides, it is not feasible given our current social condition-the husband’s income alone is not enough to raise a family.

Even when such social constraints no longer exist, we still should not encourage women to go home since they will lose their social status and suffer more prejudice. Currently, there are indeed some women who prefer to be married to a rich man so that they can just stay at home and care for their husbands and children. This, however, will cause lots of social problems. For instance, these women, without social and economic status, will not be able to have their rights guaranteed. As for childcare, I don’t think that is a problem. If you cannot handle it, why should you have so many children in the first place? And today there are so many kindergartens and day-care centers, which can help take care of the children.

Quite a number of women, after getting out of college, give up their pursuit of a career and choose to become appendages of men. This is really a social phenomenon that calls for attention. Except for being inferior to men physically, women are on a par with men in terms of their intelligence. Instead of encouraging them to go home, I think we should let women retire at the same age as men do. I am not a feminist, but I just don’t like dividing social responsibilities by the line of gender difference.

“Household Work Should Be Recognized as Work, Too”

Zhu Tianhui (female, CPPCC National Committee member and President of the Medical School at Nankai University): I agree with Mr Wang Xiancai. Some people say that once back home women will lose their economic status, which is the basis for gender equality. I hold a different view on this. Actually I think this is a question of whether society recognizes household work as a type of work or not. If household work is seen as a contribution to society, women’s status, including economic status, will be raised, too.

Another point is that children need their mothers’ care. There’s a big difference whether children grow up under the care of their own mothers or that of somebody else. It is a great pity that some Chinese children growing up without adequate love have turned out to be psychologically unhealthy. A family, instead of being simply a house, has many elements. I feel it will do the kids a lot of good if their mothers stay at home. However, I am not encouraging all women to stay at home. For those who are both capable and willing to work outside the home, they have every reason to stay where they are.

The practice in some developed European countries is like this: If the husband works and the wife stays at home, the wife gets 70 percent of her husband’s insurance when he dies. Such a system, in addition to providing a certain guarantee to housewives, shows that society recognizes a wife’s lifetime of doing housework. Actually, what the housewives have contributed to society can never be measured in the form of numbers. Given this, I think the women who are willing to go home should be encouraged to do so, instead of being forced to stay on at their jobs in the workplace.

A step-by-step approach should be taken to encourage women to stay at home. It should coincide with the improvement of our social security and welfare systems as well as the progress of society. As a result, the situation in which most urban Chinese families earn a double income will change in the future.

Today, people’s understanding of household work has changed a lot compared with two decades ago. Some women have started thinking: “Since what I do at work contributes less to society than what I do at home, why shouldn’t I just stay at home?” I hope society will let these women make their own choices.

(Beijing Review 04/25/2001)

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