Britain has a new female prime minister, Theresa May. She is the second woman to hold that post, after Margaret Thatcher, who was prime minister from 1979 to 1990. But there is a difference. Under Margaret Thatcher, there were hardly any female government ministers. Now, there are many women in other top government posts. It was remarkable when Margaret Thatcher was the boss. Now women bosses are becoming the norm.
And not only in Britain. One of the presidential candidates in the US will be a woman. Throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, we see many women in many top jobs in many countries.
And not only in politics. There are movements in many countries to get more women into top posts and boards in business organisations.
Underlying these advances for women is a new culture of equality. It is becoming accepted that women have an equal stake in society to that of men and that they should be equal in position, privilege and responsibility. There is still a long way to go, many women will insist, but there has nevertheless been a massive shift in attitudes. It is still being remarked upon that Theresa May is a women in the top job, but it is not remarkable in the way it was in Margaret Thatcher’s time. The new culture of equality is central to our understanding of modernity.
This shift in attitudes and practices is visible on China’s borders. In both South Korea and Taiwan, the presidents are now women. Although that has been remarked upon, it has generally been accepted as relatively obvious and normal.
What then in China itself? Here, this understanding of modernity is conspicuously absent. China has in this respect not entered the modern world. Not only are there no women in the political leadership, it is wholly exceptional to find women in leading posts anywhere else, be it in public administration or in business (except for the All China Women’s Federation). There is no new culture of equality. Where it is trying to get a foothold, it is seen as dangerous and repressed. When young women about a year ago organised manifestations to draw awareness to sexual harassment on public transport, they were rounded up and detained. By all accounts, the elementary matter of gender equity in family and household responsibilities, elsewhere a battlefield of modernity, is a non-issue. China is a rigidly gendered society that is holding on to an elsewhere outdated culture of gender inequality. It is a matter the national leadership takes no interest in.
The rest of the world is in movement on women and equality. In China, the wall of dictatorship is shutting the modern world out.