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Leftover Lalas and Ladies: Shanghai Women Battling for Inclusion

Wed, June 24, 9:00 to 10:55am, North Building, Floor: 5th Floor, N501


In 2007, China’s State Council issued an edict on ‘Strengthening the Population and Family Planning programme’ in response to China’s sex-ratio imbalance. According to the State Council, the social pressures caused by this imbalance form a threat to the social stability of the nation. One of the main concerns is the country’s estimated 40 million bachelors, whereas the number of unmarried women and divorcees also increases. Accordingly, the Chinese government initiated various policies and campaigns to encourage women to get married. The main target of the campaigns are urban single women professionals, derogatively referred to as shengnu (literally ‘leftover ladies’). In Shanghai alone, the number of unmarried women doubled between 2000 and 2010, a rise closely connected with the emergence of lala (lesbian, bisexual, and transgender-identified women) communities.

Drawing upon preliminary ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Shanghai, this paper analyzes the diverse and mutually illuminating experiences of lala and shengnu professional women. It focuses on women in leading positions, self-employed women, and freelancers. Preserving their independence, domestically and in the workplace, these women encounter the cultural contradictions of capitalist, post-reform China on both a personal and professional level, raising all kinds of questions: What escape routes, if any, from the constraints of China’s heteronormative, patriarchal society have these women discovered? What are their tactics of resistance against gender stereotyping and parental and state expectations? In what ways does their nonconformist status inform their work practice? Most importantly, how are single and LGBT women affected by governmental policies of inclusion and exclusion?