Leftover Women and International Higher Education

Over the past three years, I’ve been teaching and supervising Masters students who are (~80%) Chinese women in their early to mid-twenties. In Leeds, they’re independent young grad students, exploring Britain and Europe, working hard in the library, socialising with their peers, and video chatting with friends and family back home. In China, they’re considered ‘leftover women’–剩女shèngnǚ. 

‘Leftover women’ is a derogatory term for unmarried women over 25 (the Government’s Women’s Federation definition says 27), often highly educated, urban professionals. My students fit this description, and some have opened up to me about their anxiety over the pressure to get married. One mentioned it while asking my advice about doing a PhD. She wasn’t sure whether to apply, because her family didn’t want her to–they thought a Masters would hurt her chances of getting married, and a PhD would destroy those chances completely.

I find it so heartbreaking that a parent wouldn’t support a child who wanted to pursue a Masters/PhD/any degree, because they thought 1) marriage was more important than education/career, and 2) men would reject educated women. On the first point, the two realms of career and marriage don’t have to be mutually exclusive for women, because they certainly aren’t for men. Nobody ever talks about men “having it all” (apart from this awesome satire on Facebook) if they want a career and a family. On the second point, if a man rejects a woman for having a degree or a career, the flaw is with him, not her.

Sometimes my students will look at the pictures of my family on my desk and congratulate me–they’re impressed by the fact I have a PhD, but even more impressed that I’ve managed to avoid being a ‘leftover woman’. I want to tell them no, anybody can get married and have a kid–the PhD is a bigger deal. But the truth is that it’s something I thought about at that age, too. When my sister was 29, she told me she was so relieved that she was married and had a baby by 30, as if it were some kind of deadline. At the time, I was 22 and very single, so the words “married and baby by 30” stuck in my head and the deadline began to loom. I was 23 when I met my husband, and until then I’d suspected that I was destined to be single. I’d been single all through my undergrad years, which I thought were the prime dating years. I watched friends couple up and felt like I’d failed, like I wasn’t attractive enough and that I might as well just carry on with grad school, so I could provide a nice life for all of my future cats.

It’s sheer luck that I happened to meet the right person at the right time, when we were both in the right mindset and place in life, we both wanted kids, etc. I like to think, however, that I would have been happy on different trajectories, too–ones that didn’t include “married and baby by 30”, but would be equally valid, socially accepted, fulfilling choices. I suppose that’s the difference between the “married and baby by 30” and the “leftover woman” concept–my deadline was self-imposed and nobody would have been disappointed by my single status after a certain age, whereas the “leftover woman” label comes from the Government, from parents, from society, etc. It’s a matter of internal vs. external pressure, perhaps.

Bridget-Jones-1024x670

(Maybe some external pressure, too, in the form of rom-coms…)

Resistance to the ‘leftover woman’ idea has increased in recent years. My students are enthusiastic about feminist theory–it’s a very popular optional module and they often want to use feminist approaches in their dissertation research. There seems to be an effort to change minds in China, too. In the video below, parents and daughters express their anxieties over singlehood and marriage–it’s sad, sweet and moving (even if it is produced by SK-II, a skincare brand, much like those Dove  adverts):

 

For further reading:

Leftover Women: the Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China(2014)

China’s Leftover Women: Late Marriage among Professional Women and its Consequences (2015)
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