Although the status of women in China's major cities has improved, their rural counterparts continue to find themselves handicapped by serious gender inequalities.
At a forum of journalists from Beijing last Saturday, which included some 30 rural women from farm families in Cangxian County, Hebei Province, the participants were asked to recall the happiest and most unhappy occasions in their lives.
Their unhappy recollections included: parental requests to drop out of primary or middle school to help with household chores and farming so that their brothers could continue in school; demands that they have children; and protests from superiors over the fact that they were women on the first day they started a new job.
In contrast, the women's happy occasions invariably involved being able to continue their education, success in their businesses, winning the competition for an office post and learning to drive as the men in their villages do.
Although the women's stories were straightforward and believable, the true breeding ground for their unhappiness is the traditional stereotypical division of social roles between women and men.
That is, a woman's place is at home - and her only social role is to give birth to a son in order to help carry on their family line.
By comparison, happiness has resulted from their efforts to change the old stereotype about women and work towards gender equality.
According to Lu Jingfang, chairwoman of the Cangxian Women's Federation, the participants were creative and courageous women whose accomplishments have made them role models for women throughout the county.
But their accomplishments were achieved against all odds.
According to Xu Jinfeng, a staff member with the Cangxian County Women's Federation, local women seeking respect and equal opportunities with men should begin by taking a seat at the family dinner table along with men folks.
According to local traditions, wives are required to remain in the kitchen to cook and eat when guests come, even when the guests are their friends who have come to see them.
"We women don't know how much news, information and other brainstorming ideas we've missed while staying in the kitchen," said Xu, who makes sure to sit at the table during family banquets.
Women also struggle with some new concepts that actually reinforce the old bias against women.
One is the popular cliche that women are inferior to men because the overall quality of their education and lifestyles is low, which is even expressed by some staff members working with women's federations at different levels.
The rural women who participated in the forum carefully examined the cliche and discovered that, from their own experiences, many women have been handicapped by unequal education and few job opportunities simply because of their gender.
As women, they have to shoulder responsibilities both at home and on the job, which often restricts their ability to improve themselves through further training or education.
"Only women leave in the middle of technical training classes because they said they had to cook lunch for their children, husbands and in-laws," said Xu Jinfeng.
Moreover, society has adopted double standards to appraise the qualities of women and men.
For example, when it comes to social drinking, male officials who get drunk at the banquet table are praised for their honesty and integrity. But women officials who drink too much are criticized for their lack of self discipline.
Society also comes up short in the area of gender equality.
"We often have difficulty finding competent women for county-level administrative jobs," said Liu Qiang, one of the top administrator's in Cangxian County.
"The problem is that there have not been enough efforts to assign women to trying jobs in order to tap their potential," he added.
According to Lu Jingfang, this bit of irony circulates among many in the province: A talents' bank is located in the women's federation; But the key is stored in the bureau of personnel organization; When the time to open the bank comes at last, the green sprouts of talents have already shriveled.
Given equal opportunities, women have proven just as competent as men, she said.
"I've discovered that a lot of women in my village are more open-minded and have better aptitudes to learn new things than men," said Zhang Luhai, the Wulaihe Village head.
In Cangxian County, it has been the 360,000 village women who have maintained and expanded the country's largest production base for jujubes, a type of date, and have contributed to the local production of poultry and meat products, since most of their men folk have gone to work away from home at construction sites and industrial firms in towns and cities.
Despite the unhappy occasions in the past, the rural women have decided to let bygones be bygones. They know that ultimately it is only their own confidence, ingenuity and industriousness that will contribute to their happiness and prosperity, as well as their equality with men.
As the local saying goes, "The men folks are heaven in a household but the women are the pillars that uphold the heaven."
(China Daily February 1, 2002)