Gender Roles in Economics

One of the central features of the patriarchal Chinese society is the division of labor between men and women. In rural China, men primarily worked outside the home; they provided agricultural labor and brought food to the family. Women primarily worked inside the home. In addition to child-bearing and child-rearing, they cooked, washed, and tended livestock. Peasant women sometimes helped in the fields during the rice transplanting and harvest seasons, but their work was done under the supervision of male family members. The division of labor between men and women did not change until 1949.

Immigration changed the structure of the patriarchal family. Many women stayed in China for many years after their husbands left for America. In the absence of their husbands and other male members of the family, these women became heads of their families. In addition to domestic responsibilities, they delegated and supervised the work of the hired farmhands and made day-to-day decisions. Women in families that could not afford to hire farm laborers had to till the land themselves. When the Japanese military forces invaded China in the 1930s and 1940s, many peasant families went into hiding. Some women took their children to live with their own parents. They also looked for work outside the home. Some immigrants' wives engaged in trade and other business activities in China.

In rural China it was unusual for men to perform domestic tasks. Once in the United States, however, they had to avoid competition with European Americans and make a living in whatever trade was available. Some male Chinese immigrants took traditional women's jobs and operated laundry businesses, even though they had never washed their own clothes in China. In towns and cities in the American West, where women were few in the 1860s and 1870s, some Chinese men worked as domestic servants.

Wives who joined their husbands in America usually worked outside the home. Before World War II, most of them worked as seamstresses, shopkeepers, or domestics. Women's participation in the labor force helped improve their social status. When they became income providers, their importance within the household was elevated. Married women still had to work at home for most child-rearing, cooking, and washing, but it became common for Chinese American men to share household responsibilities with their wives.

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