By Taylor Evensen
How and when did women start to gain independence in the West? Why did it occur so much later in the East?
In 1930, Ivy Pinchbeck published her groundbreaking study of England’s Industrial Revolution and concluded that its most significant legacy was the liberation of women. Through industrialization, women gained a newfound economic independence that gave them, above all, the freedom of choice. Industrialization occurred earlier in the West, which explains why 19th century New England women gained freedoms that women in East Asian countries did not begin to achieve until the 20th century.
200 years ago, industrial factories required a surplus labor force, and for the first time women became a viable source for that labor. When key textile technologies were brought back to New England in the early 1800s, early mill owners recruited young, single women from rural farms in New England and Canada. Although the mill girls lived in strict boarding houses and worked more than 70 hours per week, they also gained access to self-improvement opportunities. The women were given access to lectures, plays, and lending libraries. They were free from a life of drudgery and male dependency on the farm.
Today, female laborers in China endure similar suffocating labor practices in exchange for a kind of autonomy. In the early 1990s, sociologist Ching Kwan Lee interviewed Chi-Ying, a young women working in southern China. Chi-Ying delayed marriage and left her village in Hubei for the factory. She repaid the gifts her fiancée had given her family with her own wages. Chi-Ying’s independence recalls the efforts of the 1930s pulochia, groups of young cotton mill workers in Shanghai who refused to get married and repaid their bride price to their families. In the city, Chi-Ying can choose to go shopping or see a movie. A disposable cash income allows rural born women like her to “assert their dignity in the face of society’s imposition of an image of migrant peasant daughters as poverty-stricken and miserable.” Young, independent women powered economic transformations in other Asian countries as well, such as South Korea and Taiwan.
It is ironic that the stifling and harsh working conditions of industrial factories have become a key feature of women’s economic and social liberation. In 19th century New England, access to a small income gave women independence, and the same is happening now in China. Industrialization gives women choices after generations of enduring a lack of alternatives. It is not complete freedom, but it is a great stride toward it.