The Naturalisation of Motherhood Within Marriage and its Implications for Chinese Academic Women

Kailing Xie

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Abstract:  As a result of the one-child policy implemented in 1979, daughters born into urban households have benefited from unprecedented educational investment due to the lack of competition from brothers (Fong, 2006). In recent years, a Confucian discourse of filial piety was adopted by the party-state to tackle population risks and counter individualism, which drew on “traditional” notions of gender and generational hierarchy to reinforce the heterosexual family as the main welfare provider (Zheng, 2018; Qi, 2014). The 1980s only-child generation raised under this ideology has now reached the age of marrying, child-raising and establishing a career. This paper investigates how gender affects the career and reproductive choices of China’s well-educated daughters, particularly those working in academia. Drawing on a sub-set of a larger sample, I focus on data from interviews with eight women who currently work in Chinese universities and are at different life stages. I illustrate how, in spite of being at the top of the ivory tower, the gender stereotype that a woman’s primary responsibility is towards her family poses a major obstacle to those who seek career progression. I analyse how the existing socio-political discourse constructs a naturalised female subject that is bound by reproductive norms, and the implication of this for women’s careers.

Keywords:  China; academic women; motherhood; domestic labour; heterosexual marriage.