Howell – Women's Political Participation in China: In Whose Interests
What explains decline and continued low levels of women's political
participation in village governance in the reform period, and following village
elections in 1988?
Dominant explanation focuses on women's lack of self-confidence, and
enduring drag of 'feudal' attitudes and traditional patriarchy.
These two factors combine to form a material effect, as preference privileges
men, particularly with access to education and thus, employment
Solution adopted by All-China Women's Federation (ACWF): targeting of
sexist attitudes, and raising women's skills.
Argument: “dominant text on women's under-representation in village
committees masks a more complex conjuncture of variables that shape
women's position in local politics.” It is necessary to consider social
practices, economic structures, institutional norms and procedures, and
Representation of Women in Rural Politics
With Dengist reforms and subsequent decline of ideology, incentives to
engage politically began to weaken; rising economic wealth brought new
avenues of power and success.
With this came growing diversity in governance structures, and a perceived
threat to rural stability. This led senior leaders such as Deng and Hu Yaobang
to advocate for competitive village elections from the mid-1980s. This was
achieved in June 1988.
By turn of millennium, almost every village had held at least one election.
Some villages experimented with elections for leadership of the Party
Though they are fraught with problems and variation, the practice of
elections itself has been established and regularized.
Furthermore, though the local Party branch holds power over the
democratically-elected village committee, the latter still nevertheless serve
However, women remain underrepresented; 1 per cent of village committee chairs are women, and 16 per cent of village committee members are
women. Furthermore, available data suggest women's participation has
declined compared to Maoist era.
Another recurring pattern is that women are usually assigned portfolios
associated with their reproductive and domestic responsibilities. “Village
committees are thus sites through which gender relations are played out and
“Women thus gain their positions on the village committees not by virtue of
their recognised general competence, but because of the necessity of having
a woman to carry out family planning.” This 'gendered division of labour' is
mirrored throughout every strata of the political system.
“Why is it that the introduction of choice has worked against women rather
than being an opportunity for women to gain greater ground in the local
Explaining Women's Low Representation in Village Committees
Introduction of village elections has shown challenges of enduring negative
attitudes towards women, weakness of state intervention through ideological
means, institutional barriers, and male political culture.
Remain deeply entrenched in rural China, despite four decades of socialist
equality. “The introduction of choice by village residents in the selection of
leaders has opened up a sore wound, laying bare the enduring social beliefs
about the appropriate roles in the economy and household of men and
women, and the relative superiority of men over women.”
Women's own internalization of sexist attitudes hinder themselves in a self-
Focus on women's supposed 'low quality' is problematic in two ways:
− focuses on individual women as source of problem and solution
− masks way in which structural, institutional, and political factors shape
“The constant focus on girls and women as the site of correction detracts
attention from addressing the underlying problem of son-preference, and
deeply entrenched sexist beliefs, norms and practices. Ironically the constant
thrust to improve women reproduces the notion that women always 'lack'
certain qualities and skills compared to men.” Weakness of State Intervention
State gender ideology has unitary focus on 'women' rather than gender
analysis that sees gender as socially constructed. State-derived feminism
“builds upon the work of Engels, Lenin, Marx and Mao on the 'woman's
question,' which links women's subjugation to historical and material forces.”
As these were eliminated through socialism, the problem must be