Slurs on 'Public' Women Aren't New

Chinese Communists may be fueling rumors that once degraded their own women members

A widely circulated rumor . . . holds that the foreign delegates [to the Non-Governmental Organizations women's forum outside Beijing] plan to march in the nude

- Associated Press, Aug. 25, 1995


- A Bolshevised China: The World's Greatest Peril (1927 pamphlet of English-language news items).

WHAT should we make of the rumors that made the rounds in Beijing during the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women and that so uncannily paralleled those of nearly 70 years ago? Rumors that not only depicted delegates of all ages and nations as clothes-shedders but also as lesbians or prostitutes?

Many observers at the scene suspect the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was responsible for spreading these tales, in the hope that they would undermine the impact of any human rights protests staged by delegates.

So should we just chalk this up as additional proof that the Beijing authorities mishandled their hosting of the conference? The CCP certainly deserves to be taken to task for inconveniencing foreign delegates to the gathering in a wide variety of ways. But this is not the only point worth making about the rumors alluded to above, since this is not the first time that women's organizations have had to deal with rumors about the transgression of traditional sexual norms. Chinese history provides parallel attempts to discredit: claims, for instance, that all radical activists were either prostitutes (in the 1930s and 1940s, the Nationalist Party took to calling gatherings of ''red'' women ''meetings of whores'') or lesbians (the short hairstyles favored by female Communists were sometimes cited as ''proof.''

Some anti-red taunts were given distinctively Chinese twists. For example, some Chinese conservatives liked to claim that the CCP talked of gongchan zhuyi (communism: literally ''sharing productionism'') but really believed in gongchan gongqi (free love: literally ''sharing production and sharing wives'').

There is something deeply ironic about all this, since it now seems that the Chinese Communists are behind the circulation of stories that promote exactly the same assumptions about foreign feminists that the Party's enemies once made about Chinese Communist women. One can add this to such other ironies of the conference as: 1) The CCP initially saw hosting the gathering as a way to improve its badly tarnished international image, but actually doing so has had the opposite effect; 2) The CCP's mishandling of the events has inadvertently made the conference a bigger news story than it otherwise would have been.

All this suggests two general points: 1) there are longstanding traditions of power-holders viewing with suspicion women who enter the public sphere in assertive ways, and, 2) this kind of suspicion often leads to claims that activists have become sexually predacious toward men or women, renounced their femininity, or managed to do all these things at once. Recent studies by scholars such as Lynn Hunt show that, in the West, this tradition goes back to (indeed predates) late 18th-century denigrations of Marie Antoinette (by the left) and of Jacobin women (by the right).

Finally, two ironies associated with American politics deserve to be mentioned. First, the Beijing rumors appeared at the same time that Ellen Goodman and other columnists, marking the 75th anniversary of the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, were pointing out that suffragists were once derided for their supposedly ''mannish'' behavior. Second, Hillary Rodham Clinton, honorary chairwoman of the American delegation to the UN conference, has been denigrated by the right in recent years for transgressing the bounds of ''respectable'' femininity.

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