(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 27 April 2016.)
A funny thing happened recently. The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) secured a provisional District Court judgment on behalf of a male customer at the District Court against a club that offered gender-based discounts at its ladies’ night events, after the club operator failed to give any notice of opposition.
I would have thought that the purpose of the publicly-funded EOC should be to advance liberal republican values to define and defend human dignity and autonomy against constraining or destructive conditions in society.
The equal opportunity idea when applied to gender is intended to advance human freedom and personal choice for women against general cultural, economic, social and political constraints that they face in their public lives and even private lives, for example, domestic violence.
It seems outrageous that discounts on ladies’ night could constitute a constraint on either men’s or women’s human freedom or personal choice. Men who do not wish to see women getting discounted drinks at a club have many other choices, as do women who do not wish to have discounted drinks. Unlike smoking, discounted drinks do not have third party effects. But ruling against bars and clubs that offer discounted drinks on ladies’ night events certainly limits their freedom and is a violation of liberal republican values.
The acceptance of liberal republican values in the 18th and 19th centuries contributed to a new wave of feminist thought that sought to describe and change traditional restrictions on the rights of women.
The first wave was the successful campaign for voting rights. Feminist activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst led the movement. Even earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft argued in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only because they lack education. She suggested that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and she imagined a social order founded on reason.
English women got the right to vote at the end of World War I. Women also gained voting rights in Germany and the U.S. at that time, but they could not vote in France and Italy until the end of World War II. But the acquisition of voting rights did not end the debate about women’s role in public life; it was a long time before they began to hold government offices.
In the aftermath of the successful campaign for equal political rights, a second wave of feminist writing emerged that stressed the social, economic, and cultural constraints on women.
This new phase of feminism developed in various national contexts, but it gained particular influence in England and France through the work of such writers as Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir. Both Woolf and de Beauvoir urged women to pursue a new cultural liberation that would extend beyond the realm of political rights.
In her short book A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf questioned why women’s cultural productions in art, literature, and scholarship had never matched the productions of men. She said that women never had enough money to support artistic work or enough time away from family obligations to write books.
The independent, creative woman needed “a room of one’s own” and some financial autonomy; she also needed to resist the deep cultural message that said “women cannot create as well as men.” Women were blocked from the personal freedom (e.g., travel, love affairs, risk taking) and education that made creative work possible.
Woolf’s imaginative, concise description of the quest for a woman’s voice and an independent “selfhood” offered a starting point for the work of Simone de Beauvoir. Her book The Second Sex (1949) remains one of the foundational works of modern feminist thought.
Her argument built on the ideas of existential philosophy and stressed that there is no “essence” or “woman’s nature” that sets limits to what women might do; they can define themselves by their actions.
As de Beauvoir described it, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” From earliest childhood, girls are given cultural roles which de Beauvoir argued denied women had any chance for freedom or equality in the reigning structures of marriage, motherhood, and male-female relationships.
But de Beauvoir remained an optimist; she assumed that women could find the means to liberate themselves. They could challenge the cultural myths, they could find ways to gain more economic autonomy (a point Woolf also developed) and they could overcome their sense of inferiority in the arts and literature.
“On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in her strength,” she wrote, “…love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger.”
de Beauvoir’s vision of women’s identity and modern social position was built on liberal republican values of the self. The free woman (like the free man) could recognize her social position, define her opposition to oppressive forces outside herself, and claim her freedom as she rejected the ways in which others described her.
Let me reel out some statistics to show how Hong Kong women’s lot has improved in dimensions that can be easily measured.
In 1976, 3.9% of the men and 2.6% of women aged 20 to 29 had university degree education; by 2011, the corresponding figures were 32.5% for men and 38.1% for women. In 1976, 97% of the men and 65% of women aged 20 to 29 were working in the labor force; by 2011, the corresponding figures were 92% for men and 87% for women.
Earnings growth of women has also been spectacular across the entire income distribution curve. Women’s earnings rose faster than men’s from 1976 to 2015 in every percentile of the earnings distribution, ranging from 0.4% per annum at the lowest 10th-percentile to 0.6% per annum at the highest 90th-percentile (see Figure 1).
If we look at differences in the hourly wage rate between single men and women, holding constant years of schooling and age, the progress made by women is equally spectacular. During the period 1985-2000, women’s wage rates were on average 4% lower than men’s, but in the period 2001 to 2015, women’s wage rates were on average 1.2% higher than men’s.
These spectacular achievements were made against a background when there was a large inflow of less-educated women through cross-border marriages. So if we were to compare local women against local men, the improvement in the economic status of women would be even more pronounced.
Women in Hong Kong today are indeed the proud heirs of Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir. I would have thought this is a cause for celebration, so in addition to discounted drinks on ladies’ night perhaps free drinks for women on the house every 8th of March. Boys have to work harder now!