Thứ Bảy, 23 tháng 1, 2010

The question of women's rights in Vietnam in the early twentieth century

Dang Thi Van Chi
The concept of women's rights ia a product of the ideology of capitalist democracy. Under what circumstances did this concept develop in Vietnam and how was it perceived? Making use of Vietnamese language newspapers and publications circumlates in the early twentieth century, this paper investigates the historical circumstances that gave birth to the idea of women's rights in Vietnam, and the ways in which the concept was perceived by different social groups, especially the Vietnamese women themselves.

1. The women's question and early concepts of women's right prior to world war I.
Owing to special social circumstances, Vietnamese women had played an important role throughout history, not only in the defense ang building of the nation but also in running family affairs, child rearing, and child education. However, under Feudalism, Confucial influnences led to the development of a "dual status" of women both within the family and social women, an ambiguity manifested in the superiority of the husband over the wife in theory and the relative equality between the two in reality. The former developed following the Vietnamese state's endorsenment of the Confucian model of the family, while the latter was sustained by the important role of women in family economy and society. This "dual status" had turned the women's question into a social issue and had animpact on the perception of the concept of women's rights in the earlly part of the twentieth century.
Before becoming a French colony, Vietnamwas a feudal argicultural country of small self- sufficient landholders, the majority of whom were illiterate. In the absence of printed marterial, the question of the status of the women was manifested through various culteral and artistic forms and popular beliefs. These tended to contrast the important contribution of women in the family and society with their inferior social status, and highlighted their aspirations for gender equality and their spirit of resistance
At the beginning of the twentieth century there came the impact of the French colonial exploitation, bringing new cultural and educational policies, along with new ideological currents developing around the world. Vietnam underwent major transformations in political, economic, social, cutural, and educational spheres. This process had a major impact on women. As part of the working class, female workers came to work in coal mines, factories, and plantations. Large numbers of women were employed in the service sector in urban areas or worked as retailers, housemaids, cooks, and even prostitutes. Meanwhile, French cultural and educational policy had also created a Stratum of female intellectuals who served as secretaries, teachers, poets, and Journalists. Women had become a social force that received attention from different political groupings.
From the every beginning, the press paid attention to the question of women's status. In 1907, Dang co tung bao, one of the first well-known newspapers in the Vietnamese language, published a column entitled " Women's Voices" as a forum for women. Developing hand with the modernization (Duy tan) and the Dong kinh Free School ( Dong kinh nghia thuc) movements, the column was designed to attack outdated customs and practices found in funeral and wedding ceremonies, the system of polygamy, and certain traditional aspects of female education.
In 1913, Dong Duong tap chi also published a column entiled "Women's Voices". Developing in the context of a wider debated on " East- West Cultural recociliations," it addressed a greater range of women's issues, not only attacking old traditional practices but also advocating the propagation of science and Western civilization among women.
The two "women's Voices" columns published in separate newspapers were in fact written by Nguyen Van Vinh under the female pen name Dao Thi Loan. Vinh was a western- educated intellectual who had been heavily influenced by Western culture. The questions that the raised reflected changes brought about by socio- economic conditions as well as signs of a new way of life, especially that of urban capitalists manifesting through the activities of urban women.
The evaluation of the role of women and their position in the family resulted in some positive change, but did not go far enough. The equality between the sexes was limited to the area of education, enabling women to fulfill their family obligations better. The notion of the social position of women was still influenced by feudal ethics that bound women to the family, their husbands, and their sons. This was exemplifiel in the saying that a woman should " consider herself as a small being in the life of a man and happily consider her sacrifice for her husband and children as her living ethics" (1), using " talent and virtue to fulfill family responsibilities and help her husband and children to reach their ambitions" (2)
The issue of women's rights was first mention in Dong Duong Tap chi in an article published in 1914 entitled " on our habit of respecting men and downgrading women" and another article by Pham Quynh published in 1916 and entitled " Female education" Both articles highlighted the significant role of women in the family but concluded that women were not regarded very highly because "they did not have education" They understood that the equality of the sexes referred to the attention given to female education" (3). The struggle for women's rights was to expand women's rights and to make everybody afraid and refrain from looking down upon those with red cheeks in satin pants" (4)

2. The question of women's rights and the emergence of the first women's magazine Nu gioi chung in 1918

In 1914, Vietnamese journalists began to discuss the possibility of having a newspaper reserved for women. Although this idea was widely supported, it was not untill 1918 that the first newspaper for women appeared. Known as Nu gioi chung, it came out on February 1.1918 in Sai Gon, under the editorship of Suong Nguyet Anh, the fifth daughter of Nguyen Dinh Chieu, a famous patriotic poet in the South.
Although the purpose of the newspaper sa spelt out is its introductory section was to " begin a women's studies moverment, " the newspaper dared not get involved in politics and did not advocate any compettition with men (5). However, through a number of articles such as Suong Nguyet Anh's " what is meant by equality between the sexes?" (6), Bich Dao's "Further discussion on women's rights" (7) and Lieu's " On Women's rights and freedom" (8), the question of women's rights and the equality of the sexes were adduced directly and : what were woment's rights, and what were meant by the Equality of the sexes?
The majority of the authors for Nu gioi chung argued that the notion of women's rights or the equality of the sexes came to Vietnam from the West and from reformist publications in China. However, many argued that women's rights had roots in Vietnamese history itself, pointing to the role of women in history as well as their relatively well-respected position in the family. However, it is apparent that these view of equality were different from the political and legal equality advocated in the West. As a result, the authors of Nu gioi chung disagreed among themselves and showed inconsistency when they adopted Western idea of educational rights for women but avoided the political aspect of women's rights, continuing to cling to the Confucian notion of social order and hierachy.
According to Suong Nguyet Anh, the equality of the sexes meant that "women had common interests with men, women were as intelligent as men, but intellectual equality was not the same as similarity in their roles, and for women to take care of the family and help their husbands educate children was natural" (9)
For the majority of the Vietnamese living during this period, the concept of the women's rights was both foreign and novel. The authors for Nu gioi chung tried to clarify the concept but it seemed that they did not succeed fully owing to the difficulty of absorbing and making deduction from a foreign concept, and to the different interpretations of the concept advocated by writers from different social backgrounds.
Despite such diffculties, this was the first time that the question of women's rifhts was addressed directly and publicy in the Vietnamese press. Suong Nguyet Anh as editor in chief of Nu gioi chung had allowed women themsevles to voice their perceptions of their rights.

3. The development of the perception of women's rights after World war I
After World WarI women's movements in the West developed strongly, and through newspapers had a major impact on Vietnamese society. In addition, the educational system promulgated by the Department of Public Instruction of the colonial administration in 1917 further precipitated the discussion of women's studies and women's rights. The colonial administration's educators such as Ton That Dan, Trinh Thu Tam, Nguyen Dinh Ty, Tran Thuc cap and Vu Ngoc Lien and famous scholars such as Pham Quynh, Nguyen ba Hoc, Pham Ngoc Thieu, and Dam phuong wrote newspaper articles or delivered speeches on this subject.
Although these writers praised the contribution of Vietnamese women, they had to acknowledge that their position in society was low; they were considered " second- class citizens" not yet manuture enough to receive citizenship entitlements. The inequality of the sexes came from educational inequality rooted in the fact that " we had inflexibly followed Chinese cliches referring to women as those without inlelligence...a race secondary to men" (10) or " because we believed" in the yin-yang principle, we wanted women to adhere to principle of three obediences and thus dod not bother to provide them with education" (11) As a result, education for women seen as the solution to gender inequality. Because these authors believed that women were linked with the family, they wanted education content to help women excel in domestics affairs: " women had to study in order to perfect their personality" (12) and to " understand the meaning of three obediences and four virtues". Political equality was seen as an illusion and " freedom and equality [ in the political area] were the rights of men and were useless for women'(13)
In the 1930s, the social and idelogical conditions in Vietnam underwent significant changes. The second wave of colonial exploytation beginning after the end of World War I pushed the country deeper into the orbit of the world capitalist economy.
During this time, the classes of Vietnames capitalists and urban petty- bourgeoisie were formed. The colonial policy was especially aimed at fostering an elite which would serve as its base for lauching reformist policies. In addition, social movements of various ideological currents and degrees of impact also developed, one of which was the rise of the Indochinese Commist Party with its emphasis on national socialist revolution.
On the culltural and ideological front, French cultural and educational policy following the promulgation of the 1917 educational law had brought about some interesting changes. Over 35,000 western- educated intellectuals had received their education in French. Hoai Thanh- Hoai Chan observed that during this period ' the West [ern culture] had entered our souls. We are no longer able to fell happy, sad, to love, hate, and be angry the way we use to" (14). This change was one factor leading to the development of the women's rights moverment, women's liberation, the Europeanization moverment, the "New poetry movement", and the self- strengthening literary moverment in the 1930s.
In particular, the questions of women's rights, women's liberation, and women's participation in the struggle for national liberation became concerns of Vietnamese society at the large. Women's newspapers were published in three regions: Phu nu thoi dam ( 1932-1934) in Hanoi, Phu nu tan tien (1932-1934) in hue, and Phu nu tan van ( 1929-1935) in Saigon. In addition, there were monographs publishes, such as Phan boi Chau's The women's question ( 1929), So cuong Le Du's Women of the Souther Kingdom(1929). At the market centers of Saigon and Hue and in different forums from North to South, female intellectuals such as Nguyen Thi Kiem and Phan Thi Nga delivered public speeches on a range of topics: ' Should free marrige be allowed", "the system of polygamy, " One day in the life of a modern woman, "women and physical education", "women's liberation". Women's organizations such as Women's Liberation, the Association for Women's Rights, and different level but with the common objective slogans, to such an extent that they were misused in commercial advertisement calling for " women not worry that they will not be liberated since there was already medicine that would help keep them healthy to work on liberation(15).
During this period, the notions of women's rights and women's liberation were no longer limited to equality of education but extended to include political equality, election rights, the right to work, and the right to free marriage.
In general, the perception of women's rights in the 1930s was influenced by the " dual status" of women throughout history and reflected the crystallization of the views and interess of different social classes into different trends.
First and foremost was the trend supporting women's rights. This group included Nguyen Van Ba, Huynh Thuc Khang, Cao Van Chanh, Trinh Dinh Ru * who argued that " the equality of the sexes is a progressive ideology"(16) which " corresponded with the principles of humanism and justice" (17). However, they avoided discussing women's rights in connection with political and voting rights. They merely stressed that women not only had a role in the family but also in society as well. This group of commentators belonged to the elite and thus emphasizied the fate of elite women, whose freedom of moverment was restricted and who could not live independently because of the influence of the Confucianism. They were accordingly limited to advocating the promotion of female education and female professionalism as measures to advance on occupations for women's liberation. Thus Phu nu tan van published article on occpation for women, with such titles " Your responsibilities are to make sure you are employed" (19). This trend was supported by many female intellectuals and those from the capitalist and petty bourgeois class such as Van Dai, Dam Phuong, Nguyen Duc Nhuan, and Nguyen Thi Kiem...**
A second trend that emereged opposed the concept of women's rights. This group includes adherents of Confucianism such as Pham Quynh and Ton That Dan as well as western- educated scholars such as Bui Quang Chieu, Nguyen Phan Long ...*** The latter, while they realized that the equality between the sexes was a progressive ideology, opposed women's rights in order to preserve their own political interests. Nguyen Phan Long stated that" there was no need for women's libration because they were not enslaved" (20). Nguyen Van Vinh, pointing to relative equality between men and women in rural areas and women's freedom of movement, concluded that to demand rights for as in western countries was to ask for a reserse. (21) Bui Quang Chieu directly stated that " to help women accquire equal rights with men is to increase the number of opponents" and " they will certainly play this opposition role, from the family to society" and as a result " we should not help them became our opponents" (22)
They did not only oppose women's rights in general but also the rights to work and participate in social activities. Phan Van Gia stated that " allowing working women brought about negative conequences since it not only would increase unemployment among men but would also lead to the disinteggration of the family is the root of society by Ngo Thuc Dich and Ton That Dan.
In addition to the trends mentioned above, there emerged a third movement that concentrated on the fate of the Vietnamese under French colonialism and advocated the mobilization of women to liberate themselves from feudalism. Diep Van Ky wrote that" the Vietnamese are not law makers but followers", " even men only have rights to join the army and pay taxes" and " women only have to focus on liberation, liberation from old customs , family, and in society, a complete liberation" (23) Phan Khoi also stated in Phu nu tan van, Than chung and Trung Lap that because " we did not have political and educational rights, our opinions were useless" and he concentrated on " criticizing Confucianism and calling for the abolition of the extended family" so that women " could fight to abolish the law of respecting men and despising women, redefine the concept of chastity, and argue for the right to remarry" (24)
During that time, writers and journalists such as Nhat Linh, Khai Hung, Tu Mo and Thach Lam formed a group called the self- strengthening literary group, with their novels eulogizing individuals and opposing feudalism. In particular, their female characters were those with courage to oppose fedaism, love, and decide on the direction of their lives, as seen in the charcters of Nhung in Lanh lung, Loan in Doi ban, and Tram in Nang Thu (25)
However, under the banners of women's rights or women's liberation, a number of women in urban areas became addicted to gambling, fortune telling, ect. Women who received Western education became major challengers to tranditional ethical concepts and threatened the very idea of the traditional family with their new ways of life and changed concepts. as a result, scholars such as Huynh Thuc Khang and Phan Boi Chau, who supported women's rights, also voiced their criticism of those who " threw away money and blood relationship for cosmetic beauty and pretended to be a lady while looking down upon their motherland. In this way, they still lament now and then asked for women's rights, but how could one discuss with the kind of women?"
In the early 1930, while capitalist intellectuals and those who supported women's rights separated women questions from social questions and avoided the political aspect of the concept, communist activist were the first and only people to link women's liberation with national liberation. In the political thesis of the Indochinese Communist Party promulgated in 1930, equality between the sexes was one of the Party's policies. At the first Party Congress in October, 1930, the Party issue a resolution to mobilize women. It also outlined the relationship between women's liberation and national liberation: " Women's force is one of the most important forces. If the Majority of the women did noy participate in revolutionary struggle, the revolution would not succeed." (27) The Party's mobilization campaigns penetrated the class of peasants and workrs. Futhermore, some female intellectuals andjournalists who wrote about women's issues in Phu nu tan van became communists. They began to focus on issues such as wages, working conditions and social insuarance for working class in the factories, coal mines and platations of the French. During this time, Phu nu tan van also published articles emphasizing women's fighting spirit. These article not only criticized the simplified and unrealistic perception of the women's problems advocated by capitalists intellectuals but also criticized those opposed to the women's rights movement. They cited cases in which wives were beaten by their husbands, housemaids committed suicide follwing their masters cruelty, and young women committed suicide in response to forced marriage. These articles staed that "women suffered because of the law, ethics, the employment system, lack of education and organization, lack of medical protection, and "lack of the rights to participate in the organization of politics the economy, and society of this country" (28) As a result, women had to struggle, but against whom? Against the system, agaisn all the conditions that generated suffering and those who benefited from this suffering"(29). In this process of struggle, women could unite with men to achieve common purposes. This struggle went beyond the sphere of the family and became a struggle with social revolutionary character.


1. In Vietnam, the question of the status and rights of women received attention from as early as beginning of the twentieth centuryIn 1907, Dang co tung bao had a column entitled " women's Voices", and by the 1920s, as David Marr observes, "women and society became centers of attention around which other problems evolved. Hundreds of books and newspapers articles were published on different aspects of women's problems. Women became conscious of themselves as a group in society with separate dissatisfaction and demands."(30) This reflected the important role of women and their contribution to society.
2. The question of women's rights in Vietnam underwent a process of transformation of perception, from centering around cultural issue ( women's studies and female education) to the areas of politics and liberation). In the 1930s under the banner of the ICP, women's rights were linked with the national and class questions.
3. The question of women's rights was not only a general social problem but also perceived as important by women themselves. This was manifested in the publication of the women's newspaper Nu gioi chung in 1918, and others in the 1930s, under the editorship of Suong Nguyet Anh, Nguyen thi kiem, Phan Thi Nga, Danm Phuong, Van Dai and Huynh Lan...
4. Perceptions of the issue of women's rights developed both among women and in society as a whole. this brought conrete changes for women and their movements. It made possible their participation in social activities, their struggle for equality between the sexes, the linkage between women's liberation and national liberation, and the victory of the national democratic revolution in Vietnam

Van Chi

1. Đông Dương tạp chí, 5.2.1914, p4
2. Đông Dương tạp chí, 12.2.1914, tr6
3,4 Đông Dương tạp chí, số ra ngày 19.2. 1914, p6
5. Nữ giới chung, 1.2.1918
6. Nữ giới chung, 22.2.1918
7,8. Nữ giới chung, 15.3.1918
9. Nữ giới chung số ra ngày 22.2.1918
10. Nam Phong, 2.1918
11. Nam Phong , 4.1924, p264
12. Nam Phong , 5.1919, p397
13. Nam Phong , 6.1932, p571
14. Hoài Thanh- Hoài Chân, Thi nhân Việt Nam (1932-1941), Văn học 1997, p17
15. Phụ nữ tân văn, 30.8.1934, p22
16. Nguyễn văn Bá- chủ nhiệm báo Thần Chung
Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, chủ bút báo Tiếng Dân
Cao văn Chánh, nhà báo của báo VCông Luận, Nam kỳ kinh tế báo
Trịnh Đình rư, thường viết bài cho báo Phụ nữ Tân văn
17.Phụ nữ tân văn, số ra ngày 16.5.1929, p10
18. Phụ nữ tân văn, số ra ngày 27.6.1929 p10
19. Phụ nữ tân văn, số ra ngày 4.7.1929, p1
20. Phụ nữ tân văn, số ra ngày 20.3.1930, p1
21. Bà Nguyễ Đức Nhuận, chủ nhiệm báo Phụ nữ tân văn
Bà Đạm Phương, chủ nhiệm Nữ công học hội Huế
22. Phạm Quỳnh, Chủ bút báo Nam Phong, Thương thư Bộ học
Nguyễn Phan long, chủ nhiệm báo Đuốc Nhà Nam
Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, chủ bút Đông Dương tạp chí, Trung Bắc Tân văn
Bùi Quang Chiêu, lãnh tụ Đảng Lập hiến, giám đốc tờ Diễn đàn Đông Dương
23. Phụ nữ tân văn, số ra ngày 11.7.1929
24. Phụ nữ tân văn, số ra ngày 23.5.1929. tr9
25. Phụ nữ tân văn, số ra ngày 20.6.1929, tr9
26. Diệp Văn Kỳ, chủ bút báo Thần Chung
27. Phụ nữ tân văn, số ra ngày 1.8.1929, tr9
28. Đông Dương tạp chí số 31.1937
29. Nhất Linh, Lạnh lùng, Đời Nay, H, 1937
Nhất Linh, Đôi Bạn, Đởi nay, H, 1938
Nhất Linh, Nắng thu, Đời nay, H, 1948
30. Phụ nữ tân văn, số ra ngày 4.7.1929, tr10
31. Nguyễn Thị ThậpLịch sử phong trào phụ nữ Việt Nam, t1, Phụ nữ, H, 1981, tr174
32. Phụ nữ tân văn, số ra ngày 27.9.1934, tr5
33. Phụ nữ tân văn, số ra ngày 18.10.1934, tr6
34. Essays into Vietnamese pasts. Cornell University, Inthaca New York. 1995, tr75

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