Tag Archives: china

Ruth Sidel, appreciated


Some of Victor Sidel’s photos from Women and Child Care in China

I just learned that sociologist Ruth Sidel has died. These are a few scattered notes on the influence of some of her work. I always wanted to meet her but never did. I read her early work on China as a student, and I used her later work on poverty and welfare in the U.S. in my teaching.

She had a great influence on American leftists (and me) initially because of her writing on China, especially Women and Child Care in China, which came from a trip she took in 1971, during the Cultural Revolution, with her husband, Victor Sidel (and one of the founders of Physicians for Social Responsibility). At the time of that trip she was a social worker, having written only a masters thesis, invited in her role as wife, but found their hosts willing to open up their visit (which was supposed to be about medical care) to the issues of women’s liberation and education. She remembered in an oral history interview:

They integrated what I was interested in into every single thing we did. It was just remarkable. … Half way through the trip I said to Vic, “There is a book here.”… He said “How can you have a book after two weeks?” And I said “Trust me, there is a book here.” …and I did and wrote a book called “Women and Childcare in China” which was really like successful. People really wanted to read about it. They wanted to read about mutual aid. They wanted to read about how the communist government was trying to take care of children and women. We went to preschools and how the children were taught to help each other, love each other and take care of each other according to the words of Chairman Mao, literally, I’m quoting. The book went into paperback and sold even more copies and I spoke everywhere. I’d never given a speech before in my life, ever. Terrified but I had to do it because I knew stuff that other people didn’t know and I had to communicate it.

One book led to the next book about neighborhood organization [Families of Fengsheng: Urban Life in China] and I helped Vic finish his book on healthcare. The whole 70s I was writing about China and lecturing about China all over the country and in many parts of Europe. We were invited—I mean it was just unbelievable. It was a total life change and thrilling.

I am awed by that spirit of adventure, the confidence to seize that moment, and the commitment to doing social science for the public interest.

Later she got a PhD in sociology and went on to write on poverty and welfare, the work she was known for after the 1990s (see books listed below).

Although writing books promoting the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s is not a fast-track ticket to respectability nowadays, if you go back to those books you will also see how close her observations are, and how incisive. The macro-political context of course is important (and she wrote about that), but that was not her primary contribution. In addition to what she learned (or didn’t) from official documents and statements, she did see some things with her own eyes. One of the key insights she brought back from China was the value of deprofessionalization, the role of non-professionals to improving community health and education. This was essential to the dramatic improvements in public health achieved in that period in China (which I wrote about in a remembrance on another China-inspired American feminist, Janet Salaff.) This was a radical-democratic view of public health in particular. From Families of Fengsheng:

Health care, perhaps better than any other single facet of Chinese society, vividly illustrates some of the principles that guide life in China today: a strong belief in mass involvement; recruitment of health workers from among those who live in the community to be served; short periods of training to minimize alienation from the community; a minimum of social distance between the helper and the helped; attempts to demystify as much of medicine as possible; decentralization; and motivating people through altruism rather than through prestige or material incentives.

Wouldn’t that be something!

I hope there will be more comprehensive remembrances from people who knew Ruth Sidel and her work more fully. This note is just to register my own deep appreciation.

Some books by Ruth Sidel:

  • Sidel, Ruth. 1972. Women and Child Care in China; a Firsthand Report. New York: Hill and Wang.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1974. Families of Fengsheng : Urban Life in China. Baltimore: Penguin Books.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1978. Urban Survival : The World of Working-Class Women. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1986. Women and Children Last : The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America. New York: Viking.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1990. On Her Own : Growing up in the Shadow of the American Dream. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 1996. Keeping Women and Children Last : America’s War on the Poor. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books.
  • Sidel, Ruth. 2006. Unsung Heroines : Single Mothers and the American Dream. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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International adoption to the US has fallen 75%

Just updated my data series on international adoption. You can see previous posts, with commentary, at the adoption tag.

The data are the US State Department, which grants the adoption visas. It’s kind of a mess, back to 1999, here. (I have an old spreadsheet that goes back to 1990 for the big countries but I can’t find the link anymore.) The most recent report is here, and the briefer narrative is here. For the first time in those documents I saw an official description of what’s changed in China, which partly explains the broader trends. The State Department says 20,000-30,000 children are placed domestically in China now, as a result of increased government focus on domestic adoption, although without providing comparison numbers. They also say more than 90% of children adopted to the US from China now have special health needs, up from 5% in 2005. They conclude, reasonably it seems, that this results from “overall positive changes made to the child welfare system in China over the last decade.”

Anyway, here’s the chart. I show detail on those that ever had more than 2000 adoptions in one year, plus Haiti (because of the important history there), and Uganda and Ukraine (which are among the top five sending countries in the most recent year).

adoptions stats.xlsx


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Off gender-script art

Fortunately, the hotel we’re stranded at is only a few blocks from the Art Institute of Chicago. Tooling around the museum I was still thinking about sex dimorphism, especially this piece in Time where I referenced ancient art and this one where I compared depictions of Hercules. I have no expertise in art history, so file (or skip) these as random observations of someone interested in cultural depictions of gender.


I’m intrigued by the idea — recurrent in the comments I get — that because animation for kids exaggerates things, then it is obvious that it will include extreme dimorphism. It seems to me that extreme dimorphism is a more common ideal now than it was in lots of other times and places, which perplexes me. So, in the category of dimorphism they didn’t do in the old days, here’s a Greek jar from 500 BC that shows men and a woman fighting. The caption describes her as “a fair-skinned Amazon, or foreign female warrior.”

vaseThe woman warrior’s body is just about the same as the man’s. “Of course,” they’ll say, “it’s because she’s a warrior.” And this is just super realistic art that happens to be about a female warrior — with no implication for gender ideal types.

Beauty standard

On a different subject, thinness in general, which of course is a historically-recent obsession. Here’s a nice example, an 8th century, Tang Dynasty, earthenware sculpture featuring a “matronly rider” with “ample proportions — conveyed by the folds of her flowing, wide-sleeved robe as well as by her plump cheeks and double chin,” which was “fashionable at the mid-eighth-century Tang court.”

chinahorseThey don’t mention her tiny hands, also in fashion among Chinese elites, and possibly bound feet (footbinding is supposed to date from around this period).

Gender (non-)differentiated children

The Art Institute is all about Impressionism, and there is a recurring theme among the French painters of little boys with long hair and dresses. Here is Jean Renoir, from 1899. The caption says the boy wanted his hair shorter but his father made him keep it long till school rules required him to cut it at age seven.

jeanrenoirThe caption doesn’t say whether he liked sewing.

Who knew Claude Monet also had a son named Jean? Here he is at age five or six, in 1873, playing hoop while his mother watches. The scene depicts the well-being of a period of “financial security” for the family, so it’s not like they couldn’t afford boy’s clothes.


Finally, Camille Pissarro’s Woman with Child at the Well, part of a series “depicting peasant girls taking a break from their chores.” The model for the little boy was the painter’s fourth son, Ludovic-Rodolphe, who was four at the time.

ludovicNone of this is surprising to people who’ve seen this portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at age two, in 1884:


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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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