Finding Women in the State

by Wang Zheng, author of Finding Women in the State: A Socialist Feminist Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1964

This is our final guest post published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Thank you for reading!

Hundreds and thousands of Chinese women from diverse backgrounds had joined the Communist Revolution between the early 1920s and late 1940s. Like many of their male comrades, many Communist women had died in battlefields or on execution grounds in their fight against the warlords, Japanese fascists, and Nationalist government. When the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war in 1949, there were five hundred and thirty thousands women members in the CCP who now became the state power holder. Except for a few books in English presenting portraits of Chinese Communist women who endured tremendous hardship in the vicissitudes of the revolutionary journey, these women who had been an important part of the epic of the Communist Revolution curiously vanished in scholarship examining the CCP’s leadership in building a socialist country.

Parallel to the absence of Communist women in scholarship in and outside China have been the dominant narratives of how the party-state did or did not liberate Chinese women. Accomplishments or failures in advancing women’s equal rights and social economic progress have been unfailingly attributed to a monolithic abstract entity – the party-state, a patriarch paradoxically adopting many pro-women policies in the socialist period. If feminist scholars in the English speaking world since the 1980s have shown logical coherence in criticizing the Chinese patriarchal state’s failure to fulfill its revolutionary promise of women’s liberation, scholars in post-socialist China have articulated many contradictory statements without historical research, from “Chinese women have been the most liberated in the world,” to “a crime of Maoist women’s liberation was to have masculinized Chinese women.”

Based on archival research and interviews of Communist women who were officials of the socialist state at various administrative levels, my book reveals the concealed and erased history of socialist state feminists’ endeavors to materialize their visions of socialist revolution. Continuing an anti-feudalist New Culture agenda, state feminists operated in diverse fields including the film industry to transform patriarchal cultural norms and promote gender equality laws, discourse, and practices. Their conscious combat against sexism in and outside the CCP constituted a contentious “gender line” of struggle within the power structure of the Party. Excavating a hidden feminist history in the Chinese socialist revolution, my book presents the first scholarly effort to investigate the high politics of the CCP and examines the demise of a socialist revolution from a gender perspective. I also raise critical questions of methodology in scholarship dealing with specific historical moments but without a historical approach.


Wang Zheng is Professor of Women’s Studies and History and Research Scientist at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories and the coeditor of From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society, Translating Feminisms in China,  and Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era.