Leftover Women:
The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China

Leta Hong Fincher

Book Review

In Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, Leta Hong Fincher argues that the ‘state-sponsored media campaign’ denigrating ‘leftover women’ – that is, urban professional women aged over 27 who are unmarried – is indicative of a broad resurgence of gender inequality in contemporary China. The campaign is intended to serve several functions; in the near term, it will help reduce unrest among a male population facing a shortage of brides because of the imbalanced sex ratio and, by encouraging women to become full-time homemakers, reduce competition in the labour market.

In the longer term, by ensuring that better-educated wombs are made available for fertilisation, it is expected to help improve the ‘quality’ of the next generation of children. To this end, Leta Hong Fincher asserts, China’s media and the All-China Women’s Federation – both of which follow state dictates – are urging educated urban women to marry in their mid-twenties to avoid missing their ‘best’ child-bearing age or, worse, getting left on the shelf altogether. The stigma constructed around the term ‘leftover women’ is pushing women into hasty, ill-considered marriages. Moreover, in the rush to marry, women are foregoing independent economic security and failing to insist on joint ownership when marital property is purchased and registered. Consequently, many newly wed women, according to the author, ‘have been shut out of arguably the biggest accumulation of residential real estate wealth in history’ (p. 45).

The argument is elaborated in six chapters. These chapters provide a definition and description of ‘leftover women’, explanations of how a gender wealth gap is created within marriages and by parental discrimination, a review of how Chinese women’s legislated and customary property rights have changed since the Song dynasty (misleadingly titled ‘Back to the Ming’), illustrations of the long-standing argument linking women’s weak property rights and domestic violence, and a brief conclusion that focuses on women who are resisting the ‘leftover’ labelling. Throughout, the author draws liberally on anecdotes, news reports, interviews with women and their families, and survey data to illustrate the points she is making. The result is a lively, engaging, sympathetic text that will be of interest to a non-specialist audience.

There are, however, three aspects of the book that are likely to trouble specialists in gender and development and Chinese sociology and gender studies. First, although Leta Hong Fincher’s analysis of the public criticisms of ‘leftover women’ establishes a good foundation on which to explain how and why some urban professional women feel pressured to marry, this foundation is neither necessary, nor sufficient to account for either the emergence of a gender wealth gap, or indeed whether gender inequalities overall are ‘resurgent’. These are complex questions. With regard to property, land and housing never were equally distributed between the sexes in China. In the absence of credible gender-disaggregated data about urban home ownership in the recent past as well as the present, we have no way of knowing whether the contemporary trend is towards or away from equality. The implicit assertion that gender inequalities are resurgent is neither adequately explained, nor empirically supported. Indeed, evidence about gender-inequality trends in China is mixed. To be sure, there is a great deal of data – some of which is cited by the author – that the wage gap between men and women has grown over the past two decades. But the infant mortality, education, and health-care gaps have narrowed.

A second problem arises with the author’s argument about causality. A great deal of emphasis is placed on the rhetorical power of the ‘leftover women’ discourse. The reader of this book is left in little doubt that most of the author’s urban female interviewees were frightened by the media’s stigmatisation of ‘leftover women’ to rush into marriages that left them without titles to the homes they helped purchase. But as I and other scholars have shown, the gender wealth gap among the contemporary rural population also is extreme, despite the fact that this population is not the subject of, or targeted audience for, the media campaign on ‘leftover women’. Besides, one cannot help but wonder why the widespread pressure on men to marry, and the media’s stigmatisation of unmarried men as ‘bare sticks’, has not led them to compromise with prospective brides by sharing housing assets. The answer, according to the author, is that while old patriarchal norms still set parameters on what urban women can be and do, a new materialist ethos has redefined masculinity in terms of property accumulation. This answer begs further explanation. If the author’s reasoning is the un-falsifiable argument that all gender inequalities – everything from sex-selective reproduction to wage discrimination – have their roots in patriarchal norms, why place so much explanatory weight on the ‘leftover women’ rhetoric? What has produced such demographically selective forms of gender inequality? Why are the forces sustaining, refining, and making patriarchal norms specific to urban but not rural women not given greater attention in the text? And why is it that a large population of even urban professional women remain impervious to both the ‘leftover women’ rhetoric, and its patriarchal underpinnings?

Third, the referencing in Leftover Women does not meet good scholarly standards. As a consequence, readers may have difficulty tracing the original source of arguments and information in the text. To be fair, the referencing style was most likely chosen by Zed Books. It was an unwise choice, given that the publishers describe the books in this series as being ‘aimed at the growing number of students and general readers who want to know more about the region … scholarly but engaged’. This, though, is not a text I would recommend to students and scholars. For a general readership, however, the book makes for an appealing read on an important topic.

© 2014, Sally Sargeson, College of Asia and The Pacific, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia

Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China is published by Zed Books
Review originally published in Gender & Development 22.3 (2014)