Family vs Career: dilemmas of leftover women

Leta Hong Fincher Photo: Billie Feng

Chinese people living in big cities are well familiar with the term “Leftover woman” (剩女,Shengnü). Leta Hong Fincher, a PhD candidate at the Sociology Department of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Tsinghua University, said it is ridiculous to set any “official” age for women to get married. She said she even couldn't understand why the Women’s Federation of China defined a leftover woman as an urban woman 27 years old or above and the Ministry of Education put the definition into official vocabulary.

The Women’s Federation of China has been publishing humiliating articles about these well-educated single women. The articles argue that the leftover women are not worth sympathizing with because they are irresponsible for the country’s future development. 

A 1970s CPC propaganda poster saying, "Late marriage is necessary to revolution." Photo: Billie Feng

During the 1970s, the Chinese government advocated late marriage. Women were encouraged to join the workforce and contribute to the economic growth of the country. In 1983, the family planning policy started to be implemented because the population was increasing too fast. But now the Chinese government is concerned with the problem of leftover women. The State Council, to some extent, attributes the slow improvement of the overall national strength of the country to leftover women. The Chinese government believes if these well-educated leftover women are married, their kids are most likely to receive good education, which serves the interests of the country. Fincher said that Chinese women are being greatly influenced or even scared by government propaganda and public opinion.

It’s not that the leftover women are not willing to fall in love and get married. Some women are aware that they are not good looking. They hope to increase their competitiveness by making academic improvements and achieving success in their careers. Therefore, they study and work harder. But after they reach their goals, they find themselves “magnificently” left over. As they put on age, they need to fight even harder for men against the good-looking young girls.

Many leftover women cannot find husbands. Photo:

Better-looking leftover women are in a different situation. They’d rather spend more time looking for a “higher-quality” man than condescend to marry an ordinary person. They expect the boyfriend or husband to be successful. However, there is only a small portion of men who are considered successful in society. Their choices are so limited that it may take a very long time to find a man who is perfect in their mind.

There are other reasons why many well-educated women stay single.

Theoretically, women have the freedom to decide whether or when to get married. “It is very common in Western countries that a 30- or 40-year-old woman lives by herself,” said Fincher. In China, men have great pressure from society and women from their parents. Chinese parents traditionally think their daughters should get married as early as possible after they step out of school. Women are believed to have only a limited period of beauty and charm. The Chinese people think women age faster than men; the younger they give birth, the healthier and smarter their kids will be. However, Fincher said there is no scientific evidence to support these beliefs. 

Fincher gave the example of a woman she once interviewed. The woman and her husband shared the down payment for their house six years ago but she didn’t have her name written on the property ownership certificate. Now she is 32 years old and has been paying back the loan alone for the past six years. When asked whether she intends to have her name included in the ownership certificate, she replied, “No, I don’t want to displease my husband.” To Westerners, it is totally unreasonable that women have to sacrifice their rights with the sole intention of making her husband pleased.

To illustrate her point, Fincher gave another example of a woman who worked as a lawyer and earned

Domestic Violence is a serious problem in Chinese society Photo:

 much more than her husband, but her husband beat her regularly. As a lawyer, she said she knew everything about the Chinese legal system. Therefore, in order to end the miserable marital relationship, she’d rather give the house and another 100,000 yuan ($16,000) to her husband than bring him to court.

Fincher said being single is just perfect for some leftover women. The problem is that women usually don’t benefit much from marriage. Fincher said it's shocking that China doesn’t have a single law that deals with domestic violence to protect women.

Sex discrimination can be seen all over the world, and according to Fincher, things are even worse in China, where women are indeed a vulnerable group in urgent need of effective protection. Fincher suggests Chinese women should choose their husbands carefully from the bottom of their heart instead of being hurried into marriage at the so-called “official” age.

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