A long-standing element of the Chinese revolution since the 19th century is the liberation of women, especially from patriarchy, and the related physical bondages and family/social obligations. Naturally, the communists and their allies have always focused on moving women out of the tiresome and disciplining household labor. Chairman Mao applauded the women’s power against patriarchy when the rural revolution first started in the 1920s. His unwavering support for women’s struggles continued through the revolution and “women hold half the sky” became a signature Maoist slogan.

After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the very first passed legislature was the Marriage Law which prohibited polygyny and protected women’s rights to divorce among others. Between 1949 and 1978, employed women as a share of total employment in the urban sector increased from 7.5 to 32.9 percent. As of the early 1980s, Chinese women’s labor force participation rate (ages 15+) reached 70.6 percent, and the ratio of the female to male labor force participation rate reached 81.6 percent; both figures were substantially higher than those of many developed countries. Most working‐age women in China’s urban cities worked in state‐owned enterprises and enjoyed a wide range of benefits, including, but not limited to, paid maternity leave, access to free healthcare and childcare, subsidized housing, and pensions.

Since China embraced the market economy in the 1980s, Chinese women’s social status has clearly deteriorated. Privatization and marketization destroyed much of the material basis of gender equality. For example, between 1990 and 2019, the ratio of the female to male labor force participation rate decreased from 86.3 to 80.4 percent. The gender earnings gap has also rapidly increased: urban women in 1990 were paid 77.5 percent of men’s average wages, while in 2010 the share was down to 67.3 percent; during the same period, the figure for rural women experienced an even larger decline (down from 79.0 to 56.0 percent).

At the same time, radical politics fades away and patriarchal ideology became increasingly visible. For example, in the mid‐1990s, a high‐profile sociologist, Zheng Yefu, argued in China’s top sociology journal that women’s liberation under the Maoist period outpaced China’s economic and social development, and that pursuing gender equality in the labor market was not compatible with economic efficiency. Further, Zhang Xiaomei, a female delegate of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, proposed to the government in 2011 that urban middle‐class women should be encouraged to return to the home sphere; according to Zhang, it is too hard for women to achieve a work‐life balance, and women are physiologically more suitable for housework.

Therefore, women’s time in household labor becomes a valuable measure of women’s status in China. In a recent study, my coauthor and I find that. between 1990 and 2010, urban women’s share of housework time followed an inverted U‐shaped trajectory: in 1990, their housework time share was 67.8 percent; in 2000, it increased significantly to 71.2 percent; and, in 2010, it decreased only moderately to 70.5 percent. For rural women, their share of housework time steadily increased between 1990 and 2010 by about 1.5 percentage points per decade, although their total time spent on household labor decreased.

Taking advantage of time use data from the 1991, 2000, and 2011 waves of the China Health and Nutrition Survey, we quantitatively explore the patterns of female share of household labor time. We attempt to understand the extent to which social class and income are associated with gendered housework division, and how that association has evolved in transitional China. Our main empirical findings include the following. First, an individual’s social class matters in the division of housework: controlling for other factors, peasant women always performed a higher share of housework than women in other social classes, and the gap widened between 1991 and 2011. Second, the class position of the spouse also matters: women with a peasant husband always, and increasingly, performed a lower share of household labor than women whose husbands belonged to the owner/manager class. As such, the social status of those women with a peasant husband was relatively elevated to some extent. Third, earning less than the partner always meant performing more housework, and the association between relative income and the share of housework increased over time.

Our empirical results provide key insights into the gendered division of household labor during the period of China’s major market transformations. Descriptive statistics indicate that Chinese society was, and still is, patriarchal, as indicated by the fact that women always perform much more work at home than men. Moreover, the share of housework for women with an urban husband generally increased between 1991 and 2011, especially for women married to an owner/manager husband. In other words, in terms of the equality of housework division, these women’s social status deteriorated.

We ascribe this deterioration to the market process. Most upper‐class men were married to women whose social class was lower than their own. Because market forces tend to increase inequalities and, hence, the relative power of upper‐class men such as owners/managers and professionals, the relative power of their wives—who were likely to be from a lower social class—declined. Eventually, the decline led to an overall increase in the share of the household labor of these urban wives. It is reasonable, therefore, to conclude that the status deterioration of women married to an urban husband has been both a gender issue and a social class issue.

In summary, our empirical work shows that both social class and relative income have become increasingly more relevant in determining the gendered division of housework. In the context of the market transition, the deepening class stratification, on the one hand, and the widening gender income gap, on the other hand, have reinforced one another in the household domain. In addition to the feudal patriarchy that remains prevalent in the countryside, Chinese women now need to fight a new market‐based patriarchy that proceeds from a gendered income gap. For policymakers, empowering Chinese women will not occur unless the different faces of patriarchy are tackled together. Complicating matters, women from different social backgrounds often confront different challenges. While rural women are subject to traditional gender norms, urban women may increasingly need to contend with patriarchy grounded in gendered income differences. Future reforms that benefit women will need to acknowledge these social class‐based differences and consolidate political support from these various groups of women.

Zhun Xu is associate professor of economics at John Jay college and Graduate center, City University of New York.

To read more, please see Wei Zhang and Zhun Xu (2022) “Gender Norms and Household Labor: Time Use in the Context of Social Class Differentiation in Transitional China.” Review of Radical Political Economics, 54:1, 106-121.

Image by Gauthier Delecroix via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)