The past two centuries of women in China were briefly outlined last Monday at a presentation at the American Historical Association and Woodrow Wilson Center’s Washington History Seminar.
Dr. Hershatter is the former president of the Association for Asian Studies and has written several other books.
While she described the past plights of rural Chinese women, Dr. Hershatter showed pictures of them at work, busy sewing, farming, and making shoes for their families.
Some women had to work double-shifts cleaning and cooking, embroidering, working in the fields (with children on their backs), and weaving at home, often without electricity which did not arrive in some Chinese villages until the 1970s.
That any woman would walk out on her husband was unconscionable. Mothers-in-law depended upon their sons' wives for help with housework and other family responsibilities like caring for elderly relatives, raising children, and helping earn money.
In the past, women could be sold by landlords and were forced into marriage managed by third-parties.
China's two marriage laws have ostensibly ended these practices.
The 1950 marriage law stemmed from the May 4, 1919 movement which gave women equal rights and ended feudal traditions.
China's 1980 “marriage law" has gradually morphed into the “divorce law" since it guaranteed the right to divorce and outlawed unequal gender treatment.
The 1980 law changed the age of marriage to 20 for women and 22 for men which the 1950 law stipulated as 18 for women and 20 for men.
The use of money or gifts as a condition of marriage was outlawed.
Women were and are important for China's economy.
Dr. Hershatter briefly touched on the 1000-year-old practice of footbinding which continued well into the 20th century. The reasons for the torture tradition are still debated.
She interviewed elderly women whose feet were bound, pictures which may be found in Dr. Hershatter's book.
Next up for the Washington History Seminar is on April 1 when Sarah Igo presents The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America.