When I Met Feminism

Ling LIN
Graduate Student, Beijing Normal University

The first encounter: curiosity
Before I received education under the guidance of my advisor, Prof. Zhengxinrong, I had never known that she was a feminist. Even after that, I still couldn’t imagine what deep influence her involvement with feminism would have on me. Four years have passed since my first encounter with feminism. I am now greatly interested in this field: Like my adviser, I have also become a feminist.
The past four years have of course been a slow process. First, introduced to a number of studies concerning women, I learned to discuss the issues surrounding the status of women. In addition, my co-workers and I had a formal interview with Prof. Zhengxinrong to learn about her experiences in women’s studies. However, it wasn’t until 2002, when I attended a Chinese women’s studies seminar supported by the Ford Foundation in Guangzhou, that I began to see where my future was headed.

The seminar was a complete eye-opener for me: It was my first time participating in a seminar as a professional, and I met many inspiring feminist researchers, and saw people deeply engaged in discussions of women’s issues. All these experiences showed me the challenges that women and gender studies are directly facing, and eventually led me to the field of feminism.
There was a meeting, presided by Prof. Aixiaoming and her students at Sun Yat-sen University, on the “Vagina Monologues.” This lecture impressed me deeply, for I was exposed to the private part of the female body which was shown, thought of, and spoken about in that work. It was expressed as if it were a flower, a piece of poetry, a story, or even a period of history. Repeatedly pondering the images introduced in that meeting, I felt some of my opinions changing slowly. But would I dare to speak out about this in public? I asked myself this constantly. While I attended the meeting, I gradually communicated my thoughts to my partner. Then, after I returned to my university from the seminar, I found myself talking about my new ideas seriously, though not very fluently. Looking back, I assume it might still have been difficult for me to openly talk about my new thoughts and ideas.
This seminar had a significant impact upon me. Although the details of the seminar have since faded in my memory, I’ll always remember how surprised I was and cherish my experience. In a word, this seminar was what opened the door for me to feminism.

From doubt to belief
I think the process followed by one’s initial encounter with feminism to eventual acceptance develops gradually. Yet, I did not hesitate in my studies in spite of a number of obstacles.
Firstly, feminists are generally imputed in China. I sensed that some of my friends were apprehensive about my determination to study feminism, as they would jokingly say to me, “Look, a feminist is coming.” And whatever the topics I discussed with them, they used to say, “Feminists always seem to come up with surprising ideas,” doubtful of my standpoint. They weren’t, however, willing to consider whether my opinions were reasonable. Though my opinion of feminism remained unaffected by them, their attitudes still bothered me.
Secondly, never having questioned the differences between men and women, I now wondered why women were subjected to more unfairness. I had never translated the ideas of feminist theory into reality, and never reached the stage of facing up to sexism consciously. Therefore, I sometimes couldn’t accept some opinions that feminists expressed at the beginning of my studies. For example, I couldn’t understand why radical feminists brought out fundamentally drastic opinions. This was when I didn’t know in what context their doctrine was placed. Also, since my position as a feminist was not established firmly enough to criticize the current social system, I even doubted if the male hegemony still existed in modern society and if it was necessary to ascribe the gender gap to the essential relationship between male and female.

Nevertheless, I was so fascinated by feminism that I couldn’t resist it. After further study however, I quickly came to believe in it and appreciate it. I think what has helped my belief in feminism most of all is argument. I always quarrel with my friends, partner and also myself. Through argument, I believe, feminism becomes more persuasive, so my friends and I are becoming gradually convinced. Therefore, I find it interesting that my friends and I have been quarrelling drastically about the relation between male and female, or the situation of women: thus, we have been convincing ourselves of feminism even in the streets or cafes.
I must point out that feminism is a useful perspective for analyzing many things. I apply the feminist framework to analyze my major, which is to observe gender gaps in education. I especially appreciate the studies by Prof. Zhengxinrong and Prof. Shijinghuan, which have greatly illuminated my own research. Thanks to their feminist studies, I have realized that the social system and social relations are an important background in educational affairs, and this has led me to reflect critically over educational practice. At the same time, feminism also gives me a multi-perspective for understanding all kinds of cultural forms.

Reflecting on my life history
In a sense, feminism is a tool to perceive people and society. However, once I learned to analyze the experiences of others, I found that reflecting over my own life history was a more urgent task for me. For one thing, we all must be socialized to adapt to the society in which we live. In this process of socialization, social norms are internalized and come to control an individual’s ideas and actions. I, as a social member, have been ruled by social norms through this process; hence I cannot rethink our society critically, unless I face and analyze my opinion thoroughly. Furthermore, I have experienced how sexism can suppress people--both male and female. So I thought that reflecting over my own experiences could be a good way to understand the existing social structure.
I come from a small town in southern China. Regrettably, my birth was not good news for my family. According to the government’s policy, a family was allowed to have only two babies. After the birth of my sister, my father decided to have another baby hoping the baby would be a boy because of the general notion that without a baby boy the family’s ancestry would surely die out. Therefore, he was disappointed that I turned out to be a girl. Thus, I have felt the effects of the gender gap from early childhood. Luckily, however, my school grades comforted my father’s disappointment regarding my sex, and I won the respect and trust of my family.
However, questions concerning gender like this always emerge in such situations. What is more, they can appear everywhere, such as in the marital system, property system and working divisional system. For example, the main function expected of marriage is still to maintain the ancestry for the future. The stories of some families which don’t have boys due to governmental policy illustrate this well. According to the tradition, children must follow their fathers’ family name. In other words, no boy means that the family’s ancestry would surely die out. A more eclectic method has been introduced in recent years: some babies can take their mothers’ family name depending on the product of negotiation. Despite this, few families permit their boys to do so. Thus, families without a boy are still in difficulties. This system places a great deal of pressure on young men to marry so as to maintain their ancestry. In a sense, marriage does not always mean love.
It may be hard to believe that this could be the reality in our modern free society, but it is and this bothers me deeply. Some of my friends and relatives have given up their love and hope for a happy family due to this system. What is more important, these stories are not merely personal tragedies. They are surely a representation of male dominance in our society.
Of course, there are still many stories about gender discrimination in my experience. For example, because I am a female doctoral candidate, who is still studying at her marriageable age, my marriage has been a major issue of concern for many people. My aim in reflecting over my life history is, however, not to recall each story one by one, but to understand the social restrictions, such as male dominance, to which I and others –whether male or female-- are subjected.

Action: as a feminist
A feminist means not only one whose ideas focus on gender, but also one who struggles daily for the equal status of men and women (the latter being more crucial). Feminism is a school which fights for the rights of the disadvantaged, gives voice to those who cannot survive in the current social system and struggles for freedom of thought and action. Therefore, feminists must put themselves in the position of the disadvantaged, such as women, children with special needs, and the working class, and must bravely face up to and reject all unfair social systems.
I have recently joined the Multicultural Education Research Center at Beijing Normal University in China, which is an ideal home ground for feminists. The mission of the center is to:
1 Focus on issues concerning minority, gender, rural and poverty;
2 Pay attention to the educational rights of children of different genders, regions and minority status;
3 Promote equal education for children of different genders, regions and minority status
As a volunteer staff member at the center, I have joined many actions and programs concerning gender issues, such as: Cultivating the gender consciousness of elementary school female teachers; a series of short films concerning educational equity, and Research on Improving Educational Status of Minorities and Girl Children through Teacher’s Action. The last was researched in partnership with Shanshan, in Xinjiang province in China and this research greatly deepened and widened my understanding of the social system. I found that many elements—gender, minority, class-- were interlaced into a complex social system which arrest women’s and girls’ development. At the same time, however, I also found a lot of women struggling against this difficult situation. We tried to empower female teachers, so that they can improve educational situations and other unfair circumstances in which girls find themselves.
A cooperative team has far more power than we have expected. My team at the center encourages female students and teachers, and also tries to encourage all people who are facing challenges. I also have been supported by my team always. Moreover, my team is in quite a good position to discuss feminist knowledge and other problems.
In conclusion, I wish to express my gratitude to feminism which has provided me with a new way to perceive and appreciate this world. From the feminist’s point of view, I think individuals have an endless drive for changing the unfairness in the current system, and I also know that I have a female’s advantage which allows me to deal with my life with wisdom. I believe that feminism has changed my life, and that it will continue to influence my future.
The journey of study is endless, and I know that there is much lacking in my understanding of feminism, especially in how to apply the feminist framework to analyze this real world. I hope that this seminar will help me greatly, and create a larger network with which we can challenge male dominance together.