Comparison of the lives of American, Chinese and Thai women
Recent decades have witnessed enormous and far-reaching demographic changes in the lives of American, Chinese and Thai women. These changes touch almost every aspect of life -education, marriage, divorce, employment, sexual behavior, childbearing, and living arrangements. In fact, it is difficult to avoid the media’s persistent messages regarding the new woman.
We know that women are entering higher levels of education in unprecedented numbers, going into professions traditionally reserved for men, delaying marriage and remaining employed after they are married as well as after their first child is born, divorcing at higher rates, and heading a greater number of households. It is not surprising to find these changes the subject of intensive study by social scientists, policymakers, market researchers, as well as the media. From the perspective of the individual woman, the creation of a family through marriage is a major event.
It changes her relationship to the family from which she came and provides her with a new set of roles, responsibilities, commitments, and expectations. It is a significant transition in the life course, one that has historically marked the entry into adulthood. The marital behavior of American women has significantly changed in recent decades, and this change has signaled a shift in the relationship of individual women to the family as a social institution and in the way women organize their lives.
To begin with, changes in marital behavior since the 1950s point to a significant decline in the importance of marriage in the lives of American women. This decline is being met with a rise in the importance of the primary individual. More women are expected to remain single throughout their lives, those who do marry are marrying later, and marriages are more likely to end in divorce. Consequently, women are spending a smaller proportion of their lives married. Delayed marriage is related to the increasing numbers of young women living alone.
However, the majority of Chinese women, rural and urban, it is still within the context of the family and in their performance of familial roles that they are judged. A fine worker who neglects her husband and beats her children is a bad woman. A fine worker who neglects his wife and beats his children is a fine worker. There have been major changes in the family in urban China. It is most certainly not the buffer (or barrier) it once was between women and the state, but it remains the unit of consumption, the primary caring unit for the weak, ill, or elderly, and its proper functioning is still seen as women’s responsibility.
Here again, the rural family reflects the vast differences in China between city and countryside. Although it is no longer the only unit of production, that function in 1981 being shared with the production team, it still provides much of the family’s resources, and much of that production is women’s responsibility (Ebrey 1990). More importantly, even though the rural family is now a setting from which women of certain ages go out for varying periods of time to interact with the work world of men, it is still the natural habitat of women. Thai Family Law within the Civil Code contains many outright discriminatory items.
For example, if a woman engaged to be married has sexual relations with a man other than her fiance, her fiance is entitled to terminate the engagement and seek compensation from the third party. An engaged woman does not have reciprocal rights. Similarly, if a spouse seeks a judicial divorce (as opposed to a divorce based on mutual consent), the husband is able to divorce his wife on the grounds of adultery but the wife cannot use this reason against her husband without proof that the husband has maintained and honored the ‘other woman’ as his wife ( NCWA 1995).
Currently the marriage registration system affords women no protection from bigamous husbands, and neither do they provide women with protection against sexual abuse, sexual harassment, rape or domestic violence (NCWA 1995). Domestic violence (especially wife beating) is major family problem in Thai society but it remains underreported because of the social stigma attached to the victims and the perpetrators. One study on Status of Women and Fertility in Thailand conducted in 1993 interviewed 2800 women and found that one-fifth (approximately 600 women) reported having been beaten by their husbands.
The highest concentration of women who had experienced domestic violence was in Bangkok. About 13 per cent of Bangkok women reported being beaten regularly and 47 per cent of these remained in the relationship within a submissive role, neither retaliating nor leaving (Chayovan et al. 1995). Traditionally Thai customs have discouraged marriage at a young age and the impact of urbanization and socio-economic development have reinforced this tendency leading to an increase in marriage age among Thais (Limanonda 1992).
The last four census figures indicate that the age at first marriage for women has risen from 21. 6 in 1960 to 23. 5 in 1990. Nonetheless marriage is still the overwhelming choice with only a small number of Thais remaining single by the age of 50 (Limanonda 1992). The divorce rate is increasing especially in Bangkok where remarriage among younger divorcees is quite high. This increase in the marriage dissolution rate has resulted in a growing number of female heads-of-households. From the 1994 Household Survey, out of the total 15. 8 million households counted, 3.
2 million households (about 20. 1 per cent) were headed by women and these households had an average of 3. 2 family members. The average age of these women heads was 51 years old. The low levels of education and income prevalent among these single female heads of-households signifies a considerable burden for the women involved since they would most likely be the major provider of the economic and emotional needs of their household members. Chinese and American attitudes toward men and women differ even in situations in which sexual attraction theoretically should have no importance.
Many American women today share in the public life of the nation. A majority of them have gone to school with men, worked in the same offices with them, shared identical or similar interests with them, and have even fought them on broad social, political, and economic issues. American women can count among their ranks doctors, lawyers, high government officials, professors, industrial and commercial executives as well as laborers, police, clerks, and members of the armed services. One hundred years after the Opium War only a small minority of Chinese women enjoyed comparable distinctions.
They also could name among themselves workers in various professions and occupations, no less than crusaders against social evils deeply embedded in Chinese tradition, but these few women towered above the illiterate majority who either did not hear about the privileged ones or looked upon them with idle curiosity. The reason for this lack of confidence is, however, not so obscure. To begin with, it is connected with the fact that many American women who work outside the home feel defensive. This is one arc of a vicious circle, for the more defensive women feel, the less confidence men will have in them.
Why do educated American women who have had lengthy experience in a man’s world feel more defensive than their educated Chinese sisters who have but recently obtained equality and are only a small minority? The answer again lies in the underlying psychological patterns of the two groups. In the American individual-centered pattern of thought, sex, being diffused, appears whenever men and women meet. The boundaries defining when sex does or does not apply are simply not clear. Sexual attraction occurs without reference to time, role, and place.
In the Chinese pattern, sex, being relegated to particular areas of life, does not pervade every aspect of life. Therefore, the Chinese male will react very differently to a show girl and to a woman professor. In the same way, the Chinese female will view different males from the standpoint of their diverse stations in life. To put it more plainly, for Americans, sex differences tend to overshadow situation. For Chinese, situation tends to overshadow sex. An American woman is always prepared to use her womanly charms whether her business is with a store clerk, her landlord, or her husband.
She is likely to be pleased by any sign that her beauty is appreciated, whether the complimentary word or glance comes from a bus conductor, her pupils, or a business associate. Even a modern Chinese woman is sure to bring humiliation upon herself if she copies her American sisters in this respect. For in her culture, female charms and beauty are sexual matters, and should therefore be reserved for a woman’s lover or husband, or at least for a man whom she might marry. On the other hand, the American woman is, in male eyes, never separated from the qualities of her sex, even if her work has no connection with them.
She feels defensive because the male resents her intrusion into what he considers his world, and he is resentful because she brings with her the advantage of her sex in addition to her professional abilities. The Chinese woman’s sexual attractions belong to her husband or fiance alone. She can safely invoke them only in the privacy of her marital situation. But for this very reason, once she has achieved a new occupational or professional status, the Chinese woman tends to be judged in male eyes by her ability and not by her sex.
With sex confined to the specific areas of marriage or prostitution, working females have no need to be defensive when entering into traditionally male activities, and males have no cause to view them as transgressors. A socially desexed female is just as good as a socially desexed male. The system of resolving sexual transgression may come to a standstill in the case of transgression that crosses ethnic boundaries. We have seen that sexual morality is embedded in the communal social order primarily of the woman’s community.
Matters are settled within the community, or between Karen communities with shared understanding of the processes for amending the breach. What happens, then, when a breach takes place with those for whom such sanctions are meaningless? The cooling ritual and subsequent marriage cannot be enforced. From a comparative perspective women in Thailand have suffered less discrimination than women in China. Indeed, gender relations in three Thai Kingdoms of Sukhothai, Ayudhaya, and Ratanakosin provided a positive template for the inscribing of a better status for women in the twentieth century.
Even in this context the improvement in the status of women since the 1970s has been dramatic. Women’s activities have expanded in all spheres as a result of the economic growth of the nation and the accompanying social policy initiatives of successive governments, academic institutions and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Religious practice has supported the participation of women in worship. In Thai Buddhism a child should aim to gain spiritual merit for his/her parents in order to demonstrate gratitude to the parents for giving life to the child.
Sons can perform this act of filial gratitude by joining monasteries and becoming monks. This avenue is not open to women but the exclusion of women does not imply that men have superior status to women. Daughters have other mechanisms for repaying debts of gratitude to parents that are equally as valid—they are simply different from those of sons. There is a clear shift in the nature of women’s participation in the national economy since the 1970s. Women have joined the wage-labor force in greater numbers than ever before with the expansion in jobs outside of the dominant agricultural sector.
Traditionally agriculture was the main focus of economic activity for Thais and women were an integral part of the agricultural labor force. Women produced a considerable proportion of family and national income from their agricultural activities and played significant roles in marketing and selling the family produce and controlling the family finances (Chayovan et al. 1995). The rapid industrialization of the Thai economy over the past two decades coupled with the globalization of the international labor market have combined to generate large numbers of Thai women migrating from their homes to other centers for employment (Mills 1999).
Women comprised the majority of those entering the Bangkok metropolitan area as the opportunities in the service and industrial sectors expanded. Women were preferred employees for the new jobs such as clothing and shoe manufacturing, the sorting of transistors, the assembly of pocket calculators and the handling of microchips for computer components. Thai government planners note that in four out of seven geographical regions the net migration of the female population has been consistently higher than that of men since 1980. They predict that this trend will continue until 2010 (NESDB 1992).
The majority of these female migrants move into the large urban centers, have no skills or training, many have little or no knowledge of city-life and even fewer have a network for social and moral support at their destinations. The economic downturn since 1997 has also demonstrated that unskilled women workers remain the most disposable workers. They are often the first laid-off and few have access to severance or redundancy payments. Many of these women are single-parents or heads-of-households with a group of parents or children depending on their wage.
The social security system in Thailand is currently too weak to provide support for these women and their families. Labor laws that guarantee severance pay or worker’s compensation need to be introduced across all sectors of the economy to ensure that these, the most vulnerable of Thailand’s industrial workers, are protected. In sum, employment for women in Thailand remains concentrated in the unskilled, or semi-skilled sectors and also in the informal agricultural sectors. Thai women have made considerable progress in the last thirty years.
This results from Thailand’s comparatively equitable cultural traditions as well as the rapid economic development of the nation since the 1970s. However, certain groups of women remain at a severe disadvantage compared to men and consequently their potential to contribute to national development is often ignored or overlooked. The continued existence of these weak points, given Thailand’s favorable economic and cultural context, suggests that many opportunities for improving the status of Thai women have been missed.
As greater numbers of women enter the administrative and political realms and with the continued support of international bodies like the UN, fewer opportunities should be missed in the future. At home, prostitution remains a long-term, growing and unsolved problem. Economic hardship remains the predominant reason for women to enter the sex industry. Lack of education combines with diminishing economic opportunities to create considerable incentives for women to become prostitutes (Cook 1998). Others are forced or lured into the profession by unscrupulous middle-men.
Leaving their homes on the assumption that they will be working in factories, many girls find themselves tricked into prostitution instead. Some of the women traveling overseas do so illegally but the income they earn is generally sent home to support parents and siblings in desperate need. Needless to say the majority of these sex-workers work in adverse life-threatening circumstances. The illegal nature of the industry makes it very difficult to monitor numbers of women involved and the conditions under which they work.
The work describes in detail a number of important changes in the fife course of American, Chinese and Thai women. The descriptions of behavioral change are arranged in a series of specific demographic topics – educational attainment, marriage rates, fertility, etc. – and then supplemented with an analysis of women’s attitudes over the last twenty years. All of these changes point to a rise in the primacy of the individual woman that is paralleled by a decline in marriage and the family.
In general, these demographic changes have been driven by economic, technological, and cultural developments that have permitted women greater control over their lives. This new control is reflected in complex life-course changes that can be roughly summarized as a movement away from the orderly progression of the 1950s (student, then jobholder, then wife, then mother) to participation in several roles simultaneously. Works Cited Chayovan, Napaporn, Malinee Wongsith, Vipan Prachuabmoh Ruffolo. “A study on status of women and fertility in Thailand,” IPS Publication No.
229/95 (May), Institute of Population Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, 1995. Cook, Nerida. “Dutiful daughters”, estranged sisters: women in Thailand,” Gender and Power in Affluent Asia, eds K. Sen and M. Stivens, Routledge, London, 1998. Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. “Women, Marriage, and the Family in Chinese History,” in The Heritage of China, ed. Paul Ropp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. Limanonda, Bhassorn. “Nuptiality patterns in Thailand: their implications for further fertility decline,” Fertility Transitions, Family Structure, and Population Policy, ed.
Calvin Goldscheider, Westview, Boulder, 1992. Mills, Mary Beth. Thai Women in the Global Labor Force: Consuming desires, contested selves, Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, 1999. National Commission on Women’s Affairs (NCWA). Women’s Development in Thailand. A report prepared by the National Committee for International Cooperation for the World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women, Nairobi, Kenya (15-26 July), n. p. , Bangkok, 1995. National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB). Population Projections for Thailand 1980-2015, NESDB, Bangkok, 1992.