Market-style economic reforms have brought new prosperity to China but have cost some women their jobs, others their education and have revived traditional views that women should stay at home.
In the new atmosphere of competition and making money, the 40-year-old official line that women should share equally in building socialism has been muted.Instead, employers, some local officials and even the influential People's Daily have said openly over the past year what many Chinese believe privately: women are more suited for housework and should be "liberated" from outside jobs.
Among related developments:
-Many companies forced for the first time to make a profit are refusing to hire women - both uneducated and college graduates - saying they can't afford maternity benefits. Now that factories can fire workers, they are cutting nearly two women for every man, officials say.
-Single teenage girls in rural areas can still find jobs, however, and many peasant families are pulling them from school to go to work, believing that only sons should be educated. More than four-fifths of children not in school are girls, officials say.
These trends, which have emerged mainly over the past year, are a startling about-face in a society where nearly 70 percent of women work outside the home. They have generated heated debate in Chinese newspapers and protests from women's groups.
"We advocate that women hold outside jobs," said Cai Sheng, a spokeswoman for the All-China Woman's Federation, an official organization concerned with women's issues. "This is the first step in liberation. Only then can women achieve political status and economic independence."
For thousands of years, Chinese women's roles were strictly defined by a Confucian code that required obedience first to one's father, then to one's husband.
Many young urban women joined the political ferment that culminated in the Communist victory in 1949.