Tag Archives: china

International adoption, rise and fall

Back when my readers numbered a small fraction of the small number of people who now read this blog, I wrote a handful of posts about international adoption. This link should bring them up. It had recently become apparent that international adoption was declining worldwide, and there was a debate over whether this was good or bad.

Someday I’ll update the posts with new information and read up on the state of the issue, but in the meantime here’s my updated figure on the trend, which shows international adoptions to the United States have dropped more than a third just since 2010, and more than two-thirds since the peak in 2004:


Source: The data back to 1999 are here. I can’t find the link to the 1990-1999 numbers.

I should go pull some countries out of “other” now that the composition has shifted (For example, Ukraine is in the top 5 now, and more kids come from Haiti than from S. Korea).

One obvious pattern is that the decline in adoptions from China has slowed or stopped. After about 2008 virtually all of the children adopted from China have medical needs (see, e.g., this agency page).

In 2004 I figured a child adopted from China would be on the leading edge of a large, if not growing, wave. I wonder how the experience would be different if that had been the case.


Filed under In the news

It’s not the one-child policy, repeated correction edition

The Washington Post has a poignant story about elderly parents in China whose lives are disrupted by the deaths of their only children. In a society with low fertility, an inadequate pension system, and a high cultural value on generational legacies, this loss is often devastating. And for those who wanted to have more children, but were prevented from doing so by China’s repressive one-child policy, the suffering is more acute, resulting in anger directed toward the state.

I wish, however, that American media would stop unquestioningly attributing China’s low fertility rate to the one-child policy. The Post‘s William Wan writes:

For more than three decades, debate has raged over China’s one-child policy, imposed in 1979 to rein in runaway population growth. It has reshaped Chinese society — with birthrates plunging from 4.77 children per woman in the early 1970s to 1.64 in 2011, according to estimates by the United Nations — and contributed to the world’s most unbalanced sex ratio at birth, with baby boys far outnumbering girls.

That’s an odd paragraph, because it notes the policy was implemented in 1979 (it was actually 1980), and then compares fertility rates in the “early 1970s” to the present. Isn’t the more reasonable comparison to 1980? The data are available:

Source: World Bank or United Nations.

The drop from 2.6 in 1980 to 1.6 or so today is important (although of course it can’t all be attributed to the policy). But the “plunge” from 4.77 was mostly before the policy took hold.

A recent paper by Wang Feng, Yong Cai, and Baochang Gu considers the common claim that the one-child policy averted 400 million births. They write:

In stating that the one-child policy averted 400 million births, the promoters of the policy first misinterpreted the original results from the study mentioned above. The number of births averted was for the period since 1970, not from 1980, when the one-child policy was formally implemented nationwide. This mistake is crucial because most of China’s fertility transition was completed during the decade of the 1970s—that is, before China’s one-child policy was enacted. Within that decade, China’s total fertility rate dropped by more than half, from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.8 in 1979. Most of the births averted, if any, were due to the rapid fertility decline of that decade, not to the one-child policy that came afterward.

Dear American news media: Please make a note of a it.


Filed under In the news, Research reports

Is low fertility America’s problem?

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.


Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

An essay by Jonathan Last in the Wall Street Journal is getting some people talking about fertility. He writes about the United States, “The root cause of most of our problems is our declining fertility rate.”

The essay doesn’t actually provide any specific problems caused by low fertility. Supporting retired people is the most obvious challenge. But the closest Last comes to describing the actual consequences of low fertility for the U.S. is this, which is based on the experiences of other countries:

Low-fertility societies don’t innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don’t invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don’t have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.

I wouldn’t put these vague issues at the top of the list of America’s problems, but they are worth considering. Rather than try to increase birth rates, I would rather focus on making things work with fewer children, which might have the positive side effect of improving the lives of children. It’s a good conversation to have.

But there are three problems with the piece I’ll mention:

1. Fertility in the U.S. isn’t falling much.

The total fertility rate (births per average woman in her lifetime) is about what it was three decades ago. The scary drop over the last several years is apparently due to the recession and looks like it’s bottoming out. (In fact, as recently as 2009 I could write, quite reasonably, of the “unmistakable trend” toward higher fertility — look at the increase from 1976 to 2008.)


2. U.S. fertility is still pretty high

The U.S. has the highest fertility among major rich countries. Many of the countries above the U.S. on the following list have tried hard to get their populations to have more children, for some of the reasons Land suggests. It mostly doesn’t work. Here are the 2012 total fertility rates for a range of countries, from CIA estimates. I don’t think I missed any rich countries with higher fertility than the U.S.


3. The one-child policy didn’t cause China’s low fertility rate

This is Last’s dramatic introduction:

For more than three decades, Chinese women have been subjected to their country’s brutal one-child policy. Those who try to have more children have been subjected to fines and forced abortions. Their houses have been razed and their husbands fired from their jobs. As a result, Chinese women have a fertility rate of 1.54. Here in America, white, college-educated women—a good proxy for the middle class—have a fertility rate of 1.6. America has its very own one-child policy. And we have chosen it for ourselves.

But this contributes to the unfortunate impression that birth rates primarily respond to government policies. Except in draconian cases (which does include many aspects of the one-child policy), that’s not the issue: Fertility is mostly about economics and culture.

Here’s China’s total fertility rate, as estimated by the World Bank:


China’s fertility dropped in the 1960s and 1970s mostly because child mortality plummeted, women’s educational and employment opportunities improved, children’s labor became less important for survival, and because of urbanization. It is true that fertility has continued to fall under the one-child policy — and the drop from 2.5 to 1.5 is in some ways more dramatic than falling from 4.5 to 2.5. But as UNC demographer Yong Cai has shown, today, even when fertility restrictions are lifted fertility rates don’t rise. People have few children in China today because children have become too expensive — good schools especially cost too much, and the health care burdens of children outweigh the hoped-for future return of a child to care for parents when they’re retired.

With all that said, I like a few of Last’s policy suggestions, which include reducing tax burden for people who have children; and improving transportation infrastructure (he says highways specifically, but this is the Wall St. Journal) and telecommuting options so that people can live in lower-cost areas while working in expensive cities. I don’t think this would have much impact on fertility, though.


Filed under In the news

Not your feminist grandmother’s patriarchy

Originally published at The Atlantic under the title, “America is still a patriarchy.”


Male dominance may be weakening, but it’s not gone.
In this election, women were the majority of voters, and the majority of them voted for Obama. The weaker sex clearly was men, contributing less than half the vote, the majority of whom preferred the loser. This is not new. As with Obama, men and whites also failed to unseat Bill Clinton in his reelection after voting for him the first time.

This story tests my ability to think systematically about power and inequality. How is it possible to understand an unprecedented transformation in women’s relative status while also acknowledging men’s continued dominance? Must we just list data points, always just including an “on the other hand” caveat to our real narrative?

I have been described as part of a “feminist academic establishment” that insists on taking the glass-half-empty view—as someone who likes to engage in “data wars” over the details of gender inequality. But what I actually try to do is keep the change in perspective.

In our academic research on gender inequality, my colleagues and I study variation and change. That means figuring out why women’s employment increased so rapidly, why some labor markets have smaller gender gaps, why some workplaces are less segregated, why couples in some countries share housework more, why women in some ethnic groups have higher employment rates, and so on.

The patterns of variation and change help us understand how gender inequality works. Systemic inequality doesn’t just happen. People (in the aggregate) get up in the morning and do it every day. To understand how it works, we need to see how it varies (for example, some people resist equality and some people dedicate their lives to it). Someone who studies inequality but doesn’t care about change and variation is not a social scientist.


“It’s easy to find references to patriarchs, patriarchy or patriarchal attitudes in reporting on other countries,” writes Nancy Folbre:

Yet these terms seem largely absent from discussions of current economic and political debates in the United States. Perhaps they are no longer applicable. Or perhaps we mistakenly assume their irrelevance.

In fact—my interpretation of the facts—the United States, like every society in the world, remains a patriarchy: they are ruled by men. That is not just because every country (except Rwanda) has a majority-male national parliament, and it is despite the handful of countries with women heads of state. It is a systemic characteristic that combines dynamics at the level of the family, the economy, the culture and the political arena.

Top political and economic leaders are the low-hanging fruit of patriarchy statistics. But they probably are in the end the most important—the telling pattern is that the higher you look, the maler it gets. If a society really had a stable, female-dominated power structure for an extended period of time even I would eventually question whether it was really still a patriarchy.

In my own area of research things are messier, because families and workplaces differ so much and power is usually jointly held. But I’m confident in describing American families as mostly patriarchal.


Maybe the most basic indicator is the apparently quaint custom of wives assuming their husbands’ names. This hasn’t generated much feminist controversy lately. But to an anthropologist from another planet, this patrilineality would be a major signal that American families are male-dominated.

Among U.S.-born married women, only 6 percent had a surname that differed from their husband’s in 2004 (it was not until the 1970s that married women could even function legally using their “maiden” names). Among the youngest women the rate is higher, so there is a clear pattern of change—but no end to the tradition in sight.

Of course, the proportion of people getting married has fallen, and the number of children born to non-married parents has risen. Single parenthood—and the fact that this usually means single motherhood—reflects both women’s growing independence and the burdens of care that fall on them (another piece of the patriarchal puzzle). This is one of many very important changes. But they don’t add up to a non-patriarchal society.

Differences that matter

The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich—in a 1976 essay she might or might not like to be reminded of—urged feminists to acknowledge distinctions that matter rather than tar everything with the simplistic brush of “patriarchy.” Using China as an example, she wrote:

There is a difference between a society in which sexism is expressed in the form of female infanticide and a society in which sexism takes the form of unequal representation on the Central Committee. And the difference is worth dying for.

China presents an extreme case, with an extremely harsh patriarchy that was fundamentally transformed—into a different sort of patriarchy. By the late 1970s female infanticide (as well asfootbinding) had indeed been all but eradicated, which represented a tremendous improvement for women, saving millions of lives. Since the advent of the one-child policy in the 1980s, however, female infanticide has given way to sex-selective abortion (and female representation on the ruling committees has dropped), representing an important transformation. Calling China a “patriarchy” is true, but by itself doesn’t much help explain the pattern of and prospects for change.

Like Ehrenreich, I think we need to look at the variations to understand the systemic features of our society. Men losing out to women in national elections is an important one. Given the choice between two male-dominated parties with platforms that don’t differ fundamentally on the biggest economic issues despite wide differences in social policy, women voters (along with blacks, Latinos and the poor) bested men and got their way. I wouldn’t minimize that (more than I just did), or ignore the scale and direction of change. The American patriarchy has weakened.

I expect some readers will go right to their favorite statistics or personal experiences in order to challenge my description of our society as patriarchal. In that tit-for-tat, men leading the vast majority of the most powerful institutions, and that American families usually follow the male line, become just another couple of data points. But they shouldn’t be, because some facts are more important than others.


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A little geographic and demographic awareness might squelch the 1% meme

How the 1% meme works, and how it could be stopped.

Here is a typical recent application of the 1% meme -the 30-year rumor that women own only 1% of the world’s property.

In a blog post on Ms., Jessica Mack describes the problem of women’s landownership in China. Land ownership is a big problem there, following the breakup of the collective ownership system, with massive land-grabbing and the migration of tens of millions of people to the cities. She writes:

In China, women have equal rights to inherit and own land, yet rarely do. A recent survey in 17 Chinese provinces, undertaken by the global land rights group Landesa, found that only 17.1 percent of existing land contracts and 38.2 percent of existing land certificates include women’s names. [with her original links]

It’s a serious problem, no doubt. But what does it mean that “17.1 percent of existing land contracts and 38.2 percent of existing land certificates include women’s names”? Does it mean women “own” that land? Are they part-owners? That’s a question she should have considered before writing, later in the post: “Yet women globally own only one to two percent of all titled land.” If “land contracts” or “land certificates” represent ownership, and the “less than two percent” statistic is true, than Chinese women are doing great.

That “less than two percent” fact is sourced to a blog post from World Food Program USA, which says that women “own less than 2 percent of the world’s titled land.” That fact is sourced to an op-ed piece in the Seattle Times, by Tim Hanstad, which simply repeats the classic meme without attribution. Sigh.

Anyway, the good news is that the seeds of the meme’s undoing are in Jessica Mack’s own post. It just takes a sense of the size of the world, and China within it, to get started. If women “own” either 17% or 38% of land in China, could they really own just 1% of land in the world?

Here’s a Peters Projection map of the world, which is “area accurate,” showing the size of China.

On an eyeball basis, would about a quarter of China be more than 1% of the world?

In fact, we know from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that China is 7% of the world’s land area. In terms of agricultural land, however, which is what many people are talking about when they repeat the meme, China accounts for 10.7% of land (523 million out of 4.9 billion hectares).

If women in China have their names on 17.1% of land contracts, and 38.2% of land certificates, that represents 1.8% and 4.1% of all the world’s agricultural land respectively. If either of those figures represents “ownership,” or even half-ownership (as with spouses), then the meme is once again disproved on the basis of one country alone.

This little exercise also shows that the 1% “statistic” is a fool’s errand in the first place, because with so much of the world’s land its ownership cannot be attributed to one person, and therefore its owner doesn’t have a gender.

To review:


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Recent reads: Brazil, China, blogging and the Black middle class

In the last few days I tweeted a handful of really interesting articles that might be of interest to Family Inequality readers:

In the Washington PostPlummeting birthrates in Brazil

The Washington Post reports on Brazil’s fall from more than 6 to less then 2 children per woman in the past 50 years:

It’s a good case study for fertility transitions, featuring a combination of common economic and cultural suspects in accelerated sequence.

In the NY TimesPeggy Orenstein on the ideal of gender-free toys

Rather then seek a gender-free ideal, she argues, consider how children’s environments exacerbate or mitigate the differences between them:

At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine. And promoting, without forcing, cross-sex friendships as well as a breadth of play styles may be more beneficial. There is even evidence that children who have opposite-sex friendships during their early years have healthier romantic relationships as teenagers.

In SlateMara Hvistendahl on C-sections in China

The tradition of natural childbirth was continued by the training of nurses and midwives during the early years of Chinese socialism. Now, the one-child policy combines with the medicalization of childbirth – and the attendant profit motive – to tip the scales toward C-sections. She writes:

For modern expectant women, by contrast, the combination of the one-child policy and feverish economic development has yielded an environment in which they—and the in-laws and husbands who have so much riding on a single birth—fear any potential misstep.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education: Andrea Doucet on scholar-bloggers

As an established scholar who has taken to blogging, she confronts the difference between slow-and-deep versus fast-and-thin, how it affects her reading as well as her writing, and her self image as a scholar. She is “convinced that blogging can and should be part of scholarly life,” but it comes with risks:

At its best, a blog post can move and inspire in what seems like the blink of an eye. The combination of brevity, focused vision, and engaging language creates a storytelling style that could make a scholar green with envy. But blogs also generally call for a form of reading that verges on consumption.

On CNN.com: Kris Marsh on the Black middle class

Kris – a friend and colleague – argues that the Black middle class is being transformed by the growing presence of single adults without children, the “Love Jones Cohort.” Taking this group seriously undermines the narrative of the “failure” of marriage in Black America.

I propose we embrace the reality of a changing black middle class and start taking a serious look at how the Love Jones Cohort is changing the face of black America, changing how we think about middle class, and changing our understanding of being black in America.

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Filed under Me @ work

Chinese divorce, modern style

China is experiencing a rapid increase in divorce rates.

China Daily — a government-friendly newspaper — calls the increase “alarming,” and showed the number of divorces since 1978. Using U.N. population numbers, I converted those divorces to a crude divorce rate, or divorces per 1,000 total population.

Because population growth has slowed, the steady increase in divorces has produced an accelerating crude divorce rate. For comparison, this brings China up to where the U.S. was in 1940.

A quick search in the English-language social sciences reveals no systematic analysis of this trend that would help explain its causes, but the China Daily article summarizes the view of Peking University law professor Ma Yinan:

Ma suggests that China’s transformation to a market economy and modernization also began to reshape lifestyles and values, including those on marriage. With material comforts vastly improved, people are no longer satisfied with marriages that merely fulfilled the need to carry on the family line. Especially for women, economic independence has meant power to be emotionally more independent, making them brave enough to walk out of an unsatisfactory union.

This explanation is plausible (though the “material comforts” thing is not universal). But I have two reasons to be unsure. First, the women’s independence story and the post-materialist values story don’ t necessarily go together. In the U.S., for example, divorce has become less common among women with college degrees than it is for those with less education, at least for Whites, who have the highest level of potential financial independence. And second, fitting the Western modern-family narrative over Chinese culture is generally dicey, as argued by historian Philip Huang.

Still, given how fast Chinese demographic trends have moved in the past century — most notably mortality and fertility — rapid change in this area is not a surprise.

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Chinese: Maternal grandmothers, outside women

Ancient family traditions embedded in Chinese characters. (Or, beginning Chinese meets intermediate demography.)

When a married couple moves into the husband’s family home, it’s an extended family. When that’s the expected arrangement, social scientists call it a patrilocal system (OED defines patrilocal as the “custom of marriage by which the married couple settles in the husband’s home or community.”)

Image used with permission of National Academy of Sciences, PNAS.

Patrilocal customs are very old. This 2008 DNA analysis of 4,600-year-old bones from Germany showed patrilocal living arrangements — as well as exogamy (“the custom by which a man is bound to take a wife outside his own clan or group”). Exogamy is good for genetic diversity, but patrilocality is bad for women’s status: as outsiders in their new homes, they are alone and disconnected from their own families.

Patrilocal China

The patrilocal system in China is one of the foundations of its unique form of patriarchy, embedded in the religious tradition of family ancestor worship — and in the language.

This came up because I was learning the Chinese word for grandmother, which, like other family relationship words, differs according to the lineage in question (maternal grandmother, paternal grandmother, etc.). A common traditional term for maternal grandmother is wài pó, 外婆:

Those two characters separately mean outsider and woman. You can see this yourself: Put them next to each other in Google translate and the English translation is “maternal grandmother.” If you put a space between them the translation is “foreign woman.” The first one alone is “outsider.” (The bottom half of the right-hand term, 女 [nǚ], means woman, and the top half means something else, but in this case just tells you the pronunciation.) For comparison, the common term for paternal grandmother is nǎinai (奶奶), which is the word for “milk” twice.

In an earlier post I learned that the word for good is woman+son (好), and the word for man is field+strength (田+力=男). Someone who knows more about languages can tell me whether Chinese reveals more about the cultural contexts of its word origins than do other languages. Seems like it to me.

Anyway, the patrilocal family tradition in China survived the country’s zig-zag historical progression from feudal to socialist to capitalist. Now, in the one-child-policy era, however, the tradition has become especially harmful to women. That’s because the lack of an adequate state pension system has increased the need for poor families to produce a son — a son whose (patrilocal) marriage will bring a caretaking daughter-in-law into the family — and decreased the return on investment for raising a daughter, who probably will leave to care for her husband’s parents.

One consequence, amply documented in Mara Hvistendahl’s book Unnatural Selection, has been tens of millions of sex-selective abortions, resulting in a sex ratio so skewed that, ironically/tragically, many men will be unable to find wives in the coming years — making it that much harder to have a secure old age for their poor parents.


Filed under Me @ work

State v. family care for elders in China

As China’s population ages, its social safety net appears increasingly inadequate.

The New York Times reports: “Under a proposal submitted last Monday by the Civil Affairs Ministry to China’s State Council, adult children would be required by law to regularly visit their elderly parents. If they do not, parents can sue them.”

Enforcing a return to filial piety is unlikely to fill the gap in care for China’s growing older population. With no national social security system, the pressure on families to care for their own elders is brutal, resulting in families splitting apart, and suicides among care givers and receivers alike.

My photo from Beijing, 2002


Although China’s suicide rate has fallen in recent decades, researcher Jun Jing believes, it is higher among old people than young people, an unusual pattern which he attributes to “social factors such as aging, lack of medical security and conflicts caused by large-scale demolitions,” especially the destruction of historic neighborhoods in China’s big cities — which causes family conflicts and crises of elder care.

In rural areas, higher suicide rates for women than for men also set China apart from most countries — although researchers believe the displacement of rural populations for factory jobs in the cities has actually eased the stress on many rural families (and reduced the access of many poor women to pesticides, the most common method of suicide).

A few years ago Jun Jing (a sociologist at Tsinghua University) published a fascinating, in-depth account of one family’s tragic history, including the suicide of its grandmother. They were a poor, multigenerational, multihousehold family – given the pseudonym Hao – that was displaced by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in 1996. The grandparents were reluctant to move up to the mountains with the younger households. Jun Jing tells the story better than I can:

The elderly couple had no money to repair their house, and even less to build a new one on another location, so the younger generations of the Hao family decided to draw lots for which household should look after them and set aside a place for them to live. The lot fell to the third daughter-in-law, who although unwilling to be drawn, had to join in as representative of the third household (the third son had died some time before). So the two elderly people moved into the third house and were looked after by their third daughter-in-law with support from the other households. … Soon, Lü Quanxiu started saying that her daughterin-law’s place was not as comfortable as her old home and that she was not used to living high up on the mountain slopes, so endlessly urged her sons to repair her own house by the river because she said she wanted to return. The younger generations of the Hao family discussed the matter and decided that the expenses for the repair of their house should be shouldered by the third household, since the government’s compensation money given to the elderly couple had already been used up by the third daughter-in-law’s boy. …

Once again, the Hao family got together and decided that each house would look after the old couple in turn, and the household where they die would take responsibility for the burial. The places in the mountains where houses could be built were extremely scattered and far apart, so when the six households of the Hao family moved uphill they found that they could not live in the same place. They were allocated places by the authorities, and the two closest houses were several tens of metres apart. Every five days, the elderly couple would have to travel along a stone path in the new village to move between the households supporting them. Each stone step was about 40 centimetres high, so climbing up them was a physical torment for the elderly couple. Lü Quanxiu became extremely unhappy, and felt that to live in this way she might as well be a beggar, so she decided to go to her daughter’s house to live. After she had been living there for some time, people in the village started gossiping that, in fact, the households of the younger generations of the Hao family had been unable to make proper arrangements to look after the elderly couple. As soon as they heard this, the Hao family sent people to bring the old lady back on a bamboo pole, but they kept to the rotating method of supporting her and her husband. The elderly couple still had no real place of their own to live.

The old woman eventually committed suicide by jumping off a precipice, and her husband died of a brain hemorrhage four days after her funeral. A little while later, a grandson died after a truck accident left him seriously injured — and the family could not afford the $500 deposit required by the hospital to perform surgery. A granddaughter, born “outside the government’s family planning limit,” was sent to a remote mountain village to live out of sight of local inspectors; she died of hepatitis before she could be brought to the nearest doctor.

How did the villagers interpret her suicide?

Some people said that she was unwilling to continue being a burden to her children. Some said that when she realized that the issue of her care was creating conflict between the different generations, and particularly between the brothers’ wives, she completely lost heart and all interest in living. Others said that once the issue of the Hao family’s care of the two elderly people became a topic of public opinion in the village, the old lady felt that she had lost face and was unwilling to go on being the target of ridicule in the villagers’ criticisms of the Hao family.

China may be an economic powerhouse that has the whole world worried, but with its family house this out of order, the only certainty in its future is continued suffering and the risk of growing social instability. Efforts by the state to pressure families into caring for their elders merely illustrate the shallowness of its economic miracle.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Janet W. Salaff (and the feminists China helped make)

The sociologist Janet W. Salaff has passed away at age 69, according to her department in Toronto and her mother’s hometown paper.

I did not know her, but I am very familiar with a single article she published in 1973, shortly after completing her PhD at Berkeley. In that paper, published in Population Studies, she reported in highly technical terms on the dramatic declines in mortality experienced in post-revolutionary China. She challenged the common perception that health and mortality statistics from local medical teams and journals were not trustworthy, and she showed that China had achieved in less than a quarter century what the U.S. had done in about 100 years — drastically reducing mortality through public health innovation. Their approach was massive application of low-technology, labor-intensive public health campaigns to educate the public as well as prevent and treat common sources of illness and death. It was cheap and quick, and highly effective.

Here is what she found about child mortality in the capital city of Beijing in less than 10 years, for example:

There is a historical context to that work, and her career, that is unique and worth contemplating. At the time, a cohort of (mostly) female feminist demographers and social scientists were breaking into Western academia. (I previously wrote about one of them, Valerie Oppenheimer, who passed away in 2009.) As they were entering the academic scene, China was making such dramatic progress — especially in the fields of public health, education, and women’s rights — that a number of them were motivated to research and publish on the changes underway.

As they matured and their research developed, their analysis became critical of Chinese family and gender politics, but the tone of their work was worlds apart from most of what one reads today — which usually casually attributes Chinese progress to post-1980 reforms, or dismisses its health and education progress in light of human rights abuses that accompanied (or followed) that era. (Most people seem not to know, for example, that birth rates already fell dramatically — with beneficial effects on women’s health and gender inequality — before the “one-child” policy, which introduced new levels of coercion to the family system.)

Some of the flavor of that time is evident in a review essay that Salaff published in Contemporary Sociology, on three books from 1983: The Unfinished Liberation of Chinese Women, 1949-1980, by Phyllis Andors (who died at age 50 in 1992); Women, the Family, and Peasant Revolution in China, by Kay Ann Johnson, a professor at Hampshire College; and Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China, by Judith Stacey, now at NYU. Salaff described the set of books as “sober reflections of how a complex development  process  both  limits  and  enhances women’s status,” and provided a balanced, theoretical description of the issues and controversies raised.

I would include in this rough cohort several other women I don’t know. Ruth Sidel, now at Hunter College, wrote a series of books: Families of Fengsheng (1975), Women and Child Care In China: A Firsthand Report (1976), and The Health of China (1983). In Britain, Delia Davin, now an emeritus professor at Leeds, started her career teaching and translating in China in the 1960s; she wrote, Woman-work: Women and the Party in Revolutionary China (1976). Elisabeth Croll, who got her anthropology PhD studying China in 1977 and wrote Feminism and Socialism in China (1978), and died in 2007.

A number of these women moved away from studying China. Their recent contributions include Sidel’s Unsung Heroines: Single Mothers and the American Dream (2006), and Stacey’s Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late-Twentieth-Century America (1998). Davin and Croll, along with Salaff herself continued to study Asia. Salaff’s most recent book was Hong Kong Movers and Stayers: Narratives of Family Migration in 2010 (with Siu-lun Wong and Arent Greve). From an academic life-course perspective — or the sociology of sociology — it is interesting to see where this early work led them. I imagine them as being imprinted by the experience — though I’ve never discussed it with them.

It is hard to remember (or imagine) now how different it was to be a student in the social sciences when there was such an active debate and analysis of socialism as a legitimate alternative mode of social organization — and especially in the context of gender inequality. Today’s first-year college student was born after the Berlin Wall and Tienanmen Square. But maybe one of today’s graduate students will write the history of the Western feminist academics who cut their teeth, and tested their ideals, on the Chinese revolution.

Source: Palisadian Post

Janet W. Salaff
Source: Palisadian Post

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