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Women Changing China and the World: Modern-Day Lessons from a Foot-Binding Foe

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Several months ago, the admissions staff at Barnard College received an application essay that stood out from the rest. It was from a young Chinese-American woman who wrote, "The words of my mother became instilled in my head: 'You can be the next Kang Tongbi.'" She then went on to describe how Kang, who entered Barnard in 1907 as its first Asian student, worked to promote women's rights in a tumultuous and ever-changing China. Her driving cause and greatest triumph was the elimination of foot-binding, a traditional but gruesome practice finally outlawed in 1911.

Kang, by all accounts, was a remarkable woman. Born the second daughter of an intellectual and well-connected Chinese family, she followed early on in the reformist path of her father, eventually following him into exile in Hong Kong, Canada, and Japan. In 1903, she arrived in the United States, determined both to further her education and to generate international support for her father's Reform Party. At 15 or 16 years of age, she was already making speeches before large crowds in both English and Chinese. "Cats stand by cats," she was quoted as saying, "and dogs help dogs. Why should not we women stand together and help each other?" After college, she wrote poetry, supported women's suffrage, and eventually returned to China, where she continued to agitate for women's causes and took a public and passionate stand against the practice of foot-binding.

Today, of course, Kang's story sounds positively quaint: the devoted daughter, the journeying exile, the fight to end a practice now universally regarded as barbaric. But earlier this month, sparked by her centennial and the intriguing application essay, Barnard College decided to hold a symposium in her honor, celebrating the women who, like Kang, are currently working to change China. And so, in a packed ballroom of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Beijing, we gathered a most remarkable group: Yang Lan, a television anchor and media entrepreneur; Yan Geling, an acclaimed novelist and screenwriter; Ruby Yang, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker; and Wu Qing, a long-serving member of the Beijing Haidian District People's Congress and renowned women's rights advocate.

Each of the women offered a powerful view of women's activism from the perspective of modern China. Ms. Yan, for instance, became a novelist after serving as a "dancing soldier" and lieutenant colonel in the Chinese army. Ms. Yang rose to prominence when she was chosen from among 1,000 recent college graduates to host a television program on "seeing the world." Wu Qing spent her childhood in a Chinese compound in post-war Japan, and has been detained, rebuffed, and ultimately removed from political office for speaking out against the status quo and in favor of equal rights for rural women. But none of these women offered their stories as cautionary tales or bitter vendettas -- on the contrary, they urged their listeners to challenge injustice despite the consequences, and to remember that change always involves both choice and sacrifice. They were passionate but not strident; revolutionaries aware of evolutionary shifts. All of them spoke of the guiding influence of their mothers and of the support they received from loving, understanding husbands.

Implicitly, the Chinese women also pointed to what might be conceived as an East-West divide of feminism. In China, Mao's dictum that "women hold up half the sky" has meant that Chinese women have labored for decades alongside men -- in fields and cramped factories, to be sure, but also in laboratories, banks, and universities. Wu Yi, China's renowned chief trade negotiator, is female; so is Chen Lei, who was 33 years old when appointed chief engineer of China's iconic National Aquatics Center, or "Water Cube." What China lacks is not women leaders but an examination of women's leadership. In the United States, thought about women's rights preceded by a wide margin the actual granting of these rights. Women fought for suffrage, and for reproductive freedoms, and for equal opportunity and pay long before they got any of it. Arguably, they still haven't. In China, by comparison, intellectual scrutiny of feminism was stalled by the cascade of events that has befallen China since the time of Kang Tongbi - war and revolution, famine and rapid-fire growth, an education system still rooted in classical teachings and a political system that does not prioritize any kind of rights. Ironically, therefore, Chinese women may have achieved certain levels of power and equality without an accompanying discussion -- so common in the West -- of what their power means and how it may differ from men's.

Which brings us back to the legacy of Kang Tongbi. Like the women who spoke at our symposium, Kang was a reformer who bridged East and West. She worked for radical change, but was herself a rather traditional woman -- following in her father's footsteps, marrying his protégé, painting landscapes and raising two children. She presents an intriguing model for women's leadership, one that may not be entirely palatable to Western tastes, but is nevertheless important to contemplate.

Without question, both China and the United States -- along with nearly every country in the world -- still have a great way to go before achieving true equality for women. Yet there is also undeniable change underway; a palpable electricity that hums around Chinese women like Wu Qing and Yang Lan, around Chile's Michelle Bachelet, Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and our own Hillary Clinton. From my perch at Barnard College, a liberal arts college devoted to the education of women, I see an extraordinary generation of young women grappling with new ideas about feminism and new views of women's power and leadership. Unlike their mothers and grandmothers, this generation is accustomed to a world defined by choice: the choice of reproduction, the choice of gender identity, the choice of educational options and careers. In shaping their own lives and roles, these young women will look to all kinds of role models, reaching as they should across time and place and culture. And Kang Tongbi, along with her formidable heirs in modern China, may not be a bad place to start.