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Out to Work

Out to Work: Migration, Gender, and the Changing Lives of Rural Women in Contemporary China

Arianne M. Gaetano
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Out to Work
    Book Description:

    Out to Workis an engaging account of the lives of a group of rural Chinese women who, while still in their teens, moved from villages to Beijing to take up work as maids, office cleaners, hotel chambermaids, and schoolteachers. Among the vanguard of China's great rural-urban migration in the 1990s, these women confronted challenges that were unique to their generation. They were deprived of an education because their families could not afford school fees for both sons and daughters, yet their plans to leave home and better their lives met with strong objections from parents who feared for their daughters' safety and reputations in the big city. Lacking the local, urban household registration (hukou), they were channeled into inferior jobs and denied social welfare.

    This longitudinal and biographical exploration of migrant women's lives demonstrates how the intersection of gendered norms and rural-urban inequalities shapes women's identities and desires, and has deleterious material consequences. Yet, by pursuing new opportunities afforded by migration, and strategically applying accumulated knowledge and resources, these women forged better lives for themselves and their families. The book thus convincingly shows that migration for work increases rural women's choices and possibilities for exercising agency, and advances gender equality. But it also makes clear that broader social inequalities persist to make these women's futures precarious.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-5476-8
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: A New Beginning
    (pp. 1-13)

    In this recollection, recorded in her diary, a young woman I will call Qiaolian describes her initial migration in 1997 from her village to Beijing to take up a job as abaomu¹ caring for a toddler and doing house work for a three-generation family in exchange for a small salary, room, and board. Qiaolian is a member of China’s large “floating population” (liudong renkou).² Rural women like her are collectively known as the “working sisters” (dagongmei), young and unmarried daughters from predominantly agrarian house holds who make up as much as 33 to 50 percent of China’s rural migrant...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Rural Women and Migration under Market Socialism
    (pp. 14-27)

    In December 1983, the Beijing Municipal Women’s Federation established China’s first company to recruit, train, and place domestic workers in urban house holds: the March 8th House work Service Company, named for the date of International Women’s Day. At its inaugural, the company was heralded by the authorities for “doing something really good for women and children” (“Chaoyang” 1983). The fact that a local branch of the official organization for women, the All-China Women’s Federation,¹ was closely involved in the founding of such a company reinforced the notion of domestic service as exclusively women’s work. And, although the company did...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Dutiful Daughters and Migration Desires
    (pp. 28-45)

    Xingjuan left her Anhui village for Beijing in the early 1980s, when she was just a teenager. The youngest of five children, she was the first to leave the village to migrate for work. In her recollection, she described her decision to migrate as being an exercise of her own volition, requiring firm resolve against initial parental opposition.

    I was fifteen, going on sixteen, when I announced: “I’m also going to Beijing.” My father disagreed; I decided for myself. My sister-in-law didn’t agree either, saying I was too young. But I had little to do at home. . . ....

  7. CHAPTER THREE Gendered Social Networks and Migration Pathways
    (pp. 46-58)

    In 2002, after living and working in Beijing for five years, Shuqin bragged of her prowess as a skillful migration broker:

    I’ve helped six or seven [girls from my village] already, and more want to come [to Beijing]. But I have to check out their background first. If their reputations are good, I’ll help them, but not otherwise. [I find out] whether the family is stingy, whether the kids are naughty or steal stuff, whether other villagers say bad stuff about them or look down on them. It doesn’t matter if the house hold is rich or not; it’s about...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Menial Women and Model Workers
    (pp. 59-79)

    When I first met Qiaolian in 1998 in Beijing, she and hertongxiangChangying had just started jobs as teachers in an informal (and illicit) primary school for the children of migrant workers.¹ It was quite some time before she acknowledged her past as a domestic worker and invited me to understand her experiences as chronicled in her diary, including the passage excerpted above. Still she would not, or could not, speak to me or to others about that period of her life, as her feelings of humiliation and shame were overpowering.

    During the 1990s, the Women’s Federation (introduced in...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE From Country Bumpkins to Urban Sophisticates
    (pp. 80-98)

    In this quotation, two experienced domestic workers express a widely shared opinion that time and experience transform migrant women from dupes to savvy opportunists. They concurred that long sojourns in Beijing and exposure to new people, situations, and ideas had made them more worldly and self-reflexive. They grew cognizant of wage in equality specifically, and of wealth disparity generally, as well as of their own shortcomings. Such awareness made them smugly critical of villagers who had never migrated or who were newcomers to the city, and nostalgic and contemptuous toward their formerly “naïve” selves. Nearly all my informants felt changed...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Migrant Working Wives and Mothers
    (pp. 99-129)

    This chapter considers how migration transforms traditional patterns of courtship, marriage, and family formation as well as intergenerational relations, and the implications for gender roles and identity, women’s agency, and patriarchal power. The first two sections of this chapter explore the ways that migration raised young rural women’s expectations of marriage and future spouses and liberalized practices of dating and courtship. In the second half of this chapter, I describe and analyze the postmarital experiences of the five key informants with whom I have sustained prolonged contact: Changying, Ruolan, Shuqin, Shuchun, and Yarui.

    Generally, migration in China correlates to later...

  11. Conclusion: The Changing Lives of Rural Women
    (pp. 130-136)

    During a Chinese New Year visit to Qiaolian’s natal village back in 1999, Qiaolian’s mother gave me a precious gift of handwoven and dyed batik cloth, which she had kept stored in a trunk. Qiaolian and I admired the intricate handiwork of the faded material as we listened to her mother’s moving account of how, as a young woman, she labored into the night weaving and dying this material. On her wedding day, she used the material to bundle together her meager dowry, just a spare outfit and a few jewels, which she carried over her shoulder as she walked...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 137-146)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 147-162)
  14. Index
    (pp. 163-170)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 171-175)