Content warning: This article briefly mentions suicide.
Women struggle and strive to make their voices heard in all times and nations: In the U.S. in 1899, Edna Pontellier, a fictional character in “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin, comes to the realization that she, as a woman, is an individual human being instead of a wife or a mother under the patriarchal society. In China in 2022, while many women have followed suit, standing up and advocating for their own rights, their voices are still not proportionately represented.
Xi Jinping’s new Politburo — the 24 most powerful politicians in China — is composed of only men for the 2022–27 term. This composition represents a regression from the tradition of including at least one woman on the Politburo of the People’s Republic of China for the past 25 years, highlighting how the Xi administration has failed to prioritize women’s rights.
In addition to the lack of female representation in politics, censorship also promotes the suppression of digital feminism in China. In a country where protests and assemblies are virtually impossible, online forums are the main platforms that allow for the demonstration of public opinion. However, Weibo, the primary social media platform in China, has a zero-tolerance policy toward so-called hateful speech, which includes comments that “incited gender conflicts.” The term “MeToo” is thoroughly censored, and several university-based queer and sex-education groups have had their accounts deleted.
Such a bleak situation, caused by tightened control under Xi’s tenure, is unfortunately a backslide from the country’s history of feminism. When communist leader Mao Zedong ruled China from 1949 to 1976,, women were included in the all-powerful state’s “official narrative,” although patriarchy still persisted. At least one woman was always in the Politburo; the All-China Women’s Federation was created; and Mao uttered the powerful quote “women hold up half the sky.” During the reform era of the 1980s, as the country broke away from communist ideology — which upheld women’s status as equals to men — and moved towards economic and cultural socialism, women’s status backslid as well.
Both in 2022 China and 1899 America, women strive and struggle to make their voices heard. The 1899 novel “The Awakening”offers an in-depth depiction of the hardships faced by a woman in the late 19th century. For example, though she has a high social status, Edna, the protagonist, was not considered by various males to be capable of making decisions for herself. This is similar to situations faced by many women nowadays, although to a lesser extent and not limited to their poor representation in China. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 42% of women in the U.S. have reported gender-based discrimination at their respective workplaces. Gender inequality, unfortunately, surpasses national and cultural boundaries and remains a universal barrier.
How, then, should we react to this barrier? In “The Awakening,” Edna ultimately chooses to jump into the sea and kill herself. Readers disagree on the interpretation of the ending — whether it is an act of succumbing to the patriarchal reality or a self-emancipation to join the freedom of the sea.
These two interpretations of a woman’s reaction to her lack of freedom are exactly the two options in front of us: whether to succumb to reality or self-emancipate by actively resisting our patriarchal society. The latter is definitely the better choice for all of us. The backslide of women’s status in China brutally — but honestly — reveals a truth: Gender prejudice does not erode over time, and women’s status does not improve automatically as time passes, contrary to what many might believe. The only way to achieve any desired change is to act. And actions aren’t limited to the grand, impressive ones, like leading a protest or running a feminist website. Small actions can ultimately build up a giant wave of feminism that narrows the gap between our egalitarian aspirations and reality. Raise your voice by posting on social media or simply talking to people around you. Support other women. Be yourself and don’t conform to the gender stereotypes in your daily life.
More than a century has passed since Edna achieved her revelation, yet gender inequality still obstinately clings to us. Several decades in China witnessed the backslide of feminism, instead of the expected improvement. Time isn’t an automatic healer; action is.