1998 / 10月
Teng Sue-feng /photos courtesy of Vincent Chang /tr. by Phil Newell
"Men find careers, women find husbands." Since ancient times Chinese have believed that the happiest situation for a woman was to find security in marriage.
Many modern women, on the other hand, prefer to build lives for themselves outside the institution of marriage. When they try to do so, however, they find obstacles on all sides-family pressures, cultural values, economic patterns, the law. . . .
Is there discrimination against single women? Don't be so quick to say "of course not." Many things in life have traditionally been seen as "man's work"-like taking care of the car, calling in the plumber, or handling family finances. When faced with plumbers, contractors, bankers, or tax bureaus, single women who must take care of these details of life often pay a much higher price than men.
Miss Wang spends a few months in New Zealand every summer. When she wanted to repave the drive in front of her house, she asked a few contractors to come over and make estimates. The prices they quoted seemed unreasonably high to her. So she got a local male friend to front for her, and the estimates contractors gave him were only about one-third of the ones they had given her. Life can't wait
For her book Flying Solo, American professor Carol Anderson conducted in-depth interviews with 90 never-married, divorced, or widowed women. She concludes that the most difficult thing about single life is having to take care of everything oneself-there's nobody to take out the garbage but you!
She adds that the problems that drive single women closest to the edge are ones like finding a reasonably priced plumber or electrician, moving heavy furniture, or facing a car that won't start just when they have to rush off to work.
Though life creates problems for single women, the number of women who must get through life on their own is not small. According to statistics in the Ministry of the Interior's "Survey of Women's Living Conditions," released at the beginning of this year, of women in Taiwan aged 15-64, 30.7% have never been married, 2.3% are divorced, and 2.4% are widowed. The overwhelming majority of single women fit in the category "never married."
Hsiao Wan, 32 years old, works in an advertising company. Her attitude is that she won't "actively seek to expand her circle of friends" just for marriage. Thus she foregoes such possibilities as matchmaking TV shows or "singles" trips abroad. She goes to movies, shops, and lives on her own. She is not unhappy. Of course, if her parents set up a meeting with some eligible bachelor, she doesn't refuse.
Countless modern women share her "three noes policy-no actively seeking marriage, no taking the initiative in relationships, and no rejection of meeting possible partners. She takes life one day at a time, and though there are times when she has her daydreams, or can't help but have complaints, she keeps moving forward. Under pressure
The biggest problem for single women is that as they get older, they experience ever-increasing pressure from friends and family to get hitched. Ordinarily, they come under much more pressure than single men.
Thirty-four-year-old Hsiao Hui is a university professor. Thanks to the fact that her parents live in faraway Tainan, she doesn't get direct pressure from them to get married. But she does feel pressure from her colleagues and superiors. It's worst when they are all together at a wedding or social gathering. Her superior, who treats her like a child, always puts her on the spot: "Any good news? Next time let's be toasting to your wedding." And to strangers, he introduces her by saying, "Our Hsiao Hui is capable and ambitious, the youngest PhD in our department. We must get her married off soon!" All she can do is laugh such comments off, but inside she seethes: "What business is it of yours if I am married or not!? And you even talk about marrying me off!"
Chinese have always seen the single life as a transitional period, allowing only that some women take longer to prepare for marriage than others.
The Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting, and Statistics (DGBAS) says that in 1980, one third of women aged 25 to 29 were unmarried. At the same time, one out of ten women aged 30 to 34 was unmarried. Compared to ten years before that, these two figures had increased by 14% and 6% respectively.
In 1993, the ratio of women aged 25-29 who were unmarried reached 36.4%, while the figure for women aged 30 to 34 was 11%. Both these figures were double the level of ten years previously.
Why are women getting married later, or not at all?
It is generally believed that more education has affected women's attitudes toward marriage. The greater the amount of time invested in education, the greater the likelihood marriage will be put off. In addition, women are devoting themselves to their careers, and often cannot take time for marriage. Finally, the rising divorce rate and a plethora of stories of disastrous marriages have infected a growing number with fear of marriage. Therefore, the number of women who postpone or reject marriage has increased. Cultural bias
However, in the view of Wang Li-jung, an associate professor of sociology at National Taiwan University, such explanations are overly conservative. They ignore the fact that gender roles have changed. Her view is that many women are reluctant to marry because marriage imposes too many restrictions on women. Women have always been expected to be good homemakers. But now women are also expected to have careers, head-to-head with the guys. They burn the candle at both ends, but end up with neither satisfaction nor appreciation. This causes many women to maintain a cautious attitude toward marriage.
In fact, there is still a double standard in society toward marital roles. Wang avers that women are expected to adhere to the "three obediences and four virtues," but men are permitted greater flexibility and room for lapses. Many women today feel insecure about marriage given Taiwan's thriving "entertainment" industry in which married men routinely participate.
However, when the number of unmarried women rises, it seems that many in society feel something is wrong.
In medieval Europe, single middle-aged women suffered barbarous treatment. Many were labeled as witches, and put to death or imprisoned.
In Taiwan, it is common for people to denigrate women who have chosen not to wed as "old maids." They are stereotyped as unstable people who are difficult to get along with. The religious community is even more demeaning toward women who refuse marriage and take religious orders. Buddhist classics describe such women as "like dead dogs or dead snakes, filthy and rotting." During the Qing Dynasty, in order to pre-empt the alleged danger of licentiousness among young nuns, it was decreed that women could only join religious orders after age 40.
In local folk-worship traditions in Taiwan, there are so-called "unmarried miss temples," dedicated to women who died unwed. Deceased unmarried women are considered to be among the "lonely souls without homes" to whom offerings are made on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month each year. This is because memorial tablets for unmarried women cannot be placed in the family home after their deaths, so there is no one to make offerings to them in the afterlife. This is also why there is the tradition of "funereal marriage," in which it is necessary to find a man to "marry" the deceased woman and accept her memorial tablet, as only then can she be reincarnated.
These ideas are still deeply ingrained in many Taiwanese families. Hsiao Wan says that one time her unmarried brother said in jest that if his sister really couldn't find a husband, "In the future I'll have my kids look after your departed soul." But her mother interjected: "That's impossible!" Her mother felt that if she remained unmarried for any reason, after death she would not be a member of the family, and her memorial tablet naturally could not be placed in the family home.
The writer Ping Lu has made an interesting point in noting that the Chinese description of the ideal family as including "a benevolent father, filial sons, kindly elder brothers, and respectful younger brothers" illustrates a kind of cultural logic in which women are excluded. As another example, she points to how women who have no families or do not have a single object of their affections are described in many popular martial arts novels. She notes that the evil female characters Li Mochou and Ying Gu, created by the writer Jin Yong, "are not evil by nature. It is just that they suffered failure in romance, and became angry at the world, and their pain became tendentiousness and finally viciousness." Fatal attraction?
Perhaps in order to "rehabilitate" the status of single women, the woman writer Huang Ming-chien came up with the expression "single noble," referring to elite, independent young women as the new "nobility" of society. She wanted to encourage economically independent women to understand that they did not need men and could live very well on their own. Thereafter, it seems like overnight, there was much discussion of single people in Taiwan and abroad, with many books on the subject appearing.
Many people have not taken kindly to the "single noble" characterization. Indeed, successful single women are often depicted as "murderesses" of the institution of marriage.
A few years ago, male writer Ku Ling, speaking at a public forum, advised married Taiwanese men to beware of "public menaces." He was referring to well-educated, independent, and ambitious women who were unwilling to settle down. It seems he worried that married men would find the temptation of such women-who asked for nothing, not security, money, or status-most difficult to refuse.
Married women, meanwhile, who list extra-marital affairs by their husbands as their number one concern, often put the blame on single women. It has gotten to the point where everyone thinks of single women as a "public menace."
Probably the most well-known example of such thinking is the 1987 film Fatal Attraction. The film depicts a happy middle-class family. When the wife goes out of town for a few days, her husband has what he thinks is a one-night stand. Unexpectedly, the seductive "other woman" becomes as furious and vengeful as a wild animal. Her fate is to die under the gun of the wife protecting her family. Meanwhile, though the husband's whole life becomes a terrifying nightmare, he is still able to wake up from this nightmare, while the single woman dies as a result of the adulterous relationship.
So are single women "the new nobility" or "menaces"? Shen Yi, a staff writer at the United Daily News, opines: "In the past people oppressed single women too virulently. It was necessary to find an escape route by which single women could be psychologically liberated from all that. But no matter whether the term is 'single noble' or 'public menace,' labels are generalizations that people make up for their own ends and only reflect part of the truth. They cannot represent the entire phenomenon." Alone in times of joy and trouble
Shen has just completed a book entitled About Being Single. Having recently turned 40, in the book she analyzes her single life, and speaks frankly of its hardships: facing growing old alone, the feelings of loneliness that come on from time to time, and the absence of anyone to share happy moments with. But she also notes the freedom: For example, she can travel abroad whenever she wants, without having to get the agreement of a partner. She concludes: "Having carefully weighed the advantages and disadvantages, even though there is no way to calculate them mathematically, I have already decided that I can accept being single."
In her view, single women are neither idealized "single nobles" nor stereotyped "public menaces." Moreover, the greatest myths of all are those about sexuality.
"Either people assume that single women have very liberated sex lives, and frequently have one-night stands, or they think that single people have no interest in sex, and demand that single people remain celibate because one cannot engage in legal sexual behavior outside of marriage," she says. The barrel of the gun of society's value system is often aimed right at women.
The status of single women is often "exaggerated." Under the assumption that women without husbands cannot have sexual activity, the medical system also has joined in the ranks of those discriminating against single women, accusing single women of "readily having problems."
In one media report, a doctor was quoted as saying: "It has been discovered that if women who have been single for a long time have introverted personalities, and are self-absorbed, their emotional life often becomes very bizarre. As they repress their sexual desires, their hormone secretions fall out of balance, and they are susceptible to tumors in the reproductive system. In addition, stomach and intestinal pain, headaches and dizziness, and adult acne are also common problems."
Medical theories that assume that marriage is the natural state for men and women, and that single women have no sexual activity, conclude that there is in single women "an imbalance between yin and yang," with illness being the result. Poor nobility
"Society's attitudes toward unmarried women are very complex, being partly fear, and partly concern," says Chen Meihua, secretary-general of the Awakening Foundation. Sometimes society depicts single women as fierce or predatory, but sometimes it depicts them as enjoying their lives, indulging in fine food and fashions, and having no responsibilities.
However, the economic status of women-including highly educated ones-is still not up to that of men. According to the DGBAS, the unemployment rate for women is always higher than for men of similar educational background.
The economic situation for single women is even more serious if one includes those women who are not single by choice.
According to a survey of single parent families in Taiwan by Professor Hsueh Cheng-tai of the Department of Sociology at National Taiwan University, of Taiwan's five million households, about 200,000 are single parent households. That is to say, about one in 25 households has only one parent. Of these, single mothers account for 60%. The number one reason for single parent households is divorce (58%), followed by the death of a spouse (38%), and finally parenthood outside of marriage (4%).
According to statistics, the employment rate for single mothers is 61%, while that for single fathers is 80%. At a recent international forum on education for children of single-parent families, sponsored by the Taipei city government, scholars noted nearly 40% of families headed by a single mother had incomes below NT$20,000 per month. Hidden discrimination
With life expectancy for women being 77 years, while that of men is 71 years, it is already much more likely that women will end up single than men will. But those who seek to establish themselves independently may have perhaps discovered that some state social policies and laws are quite disadvantageous for them.
Recently the Awakening Foundation released a report on the social condition of single women, and sponsored a seminar on the subject. They expressed suspicion that some government policies constitute forms of "hidden discrimination."
One example is overtime regulations. According to the Labor Standards Law, each month men are not supposed to work more than 46 hours of overtime, while women are not supposed to exceed 24 hours. The Awakening Foundation notes that, though perhaps the intention of the law was to "protect" women, it actually discriminates against them. After all, it is easy to exceed one hour in overtime per day, especially for single people, who have no family responsibilities, and therefore are the best candidates for overtime. Meanwhile, tax regulations of the Ministry of Finance state that overtime pay for hours within the Labor Standards Law is tax-exempt, but is taxable for hours in excess of the limits. The result of these two laws is that women are entitled to only 24 hours of tax-free overtime, while men get 46. This is clearly unfair.
Chen Meihua concludes: "Society has always said that marriage is an option, but in fact it is an institution." The distribution of resources by the state seems to punish those who do not enter marriage, and does not respect single people who do not adhere to the same family ideology as others.
Another example is that single people are not eligible for public housing or for low-interest mortgage subsidies. The Ministry of the Interior responds: "Public housing is intended to look after families, not individuals." Moreover, says the ministry, the regulations are not specifically directed against single women; single men also are not allowed to apply.
This logic has caused the doctor and writer Wang Hao-wei to say in an essay, "If a husband and wife are entitled to loan subsidies of NT$1.6 million, why don't I have the opportunity to get even half as much?"
Legislator Yeh Chu-lan, herself a single mother, stresses: "If single people have chosen to remain single as a way of life, oppressing them with economic inequality means that, deliberately or not, only one system of values is being affirmed. This is retrogressive." She says that the indivi-dual's freedom to choose should be respected. Marriage may be for some a delight and a source of security, but for others it may be a nightmare and a source of stress.
She adds, with particular reference to the problem of overtime pay, "It is especially unfair given that employer and employee interact as economic entities, a status in which every individual should be equal." The final irony of all is that the overtime regulations are frequently not observed by employers, so the people who are punished most are those single women who obediently agree to work past the legal limits on their overtime hours. Single and "free"?
However, Yeh Chu-lan admits that "amending the law to make things equal for single people is considered a pretty uninteresting question." The great majority of legislators do not think it is very urgent. Nevertheless, says Yeh, it is necessary to at least admit the fact that "the law has not adapted to changes in modern social structure."
Chen Meihua says: "When we calculate the economic conditions of single people, most people would only think that it's very simple to keep oneself fed. But they don't think about the social obligations that single people must fulfill."
Hsiao Mei, 35 years old, who works in an advertising firm, recalls without animosity that her father, who retired from a career in the banking industry, divided his stock into four equal parts, giving her older brother two parts, and her and her sister one part each. She is without animosity because she reasons that the money earned by one's parents belongs to them, so they have the right to decide how to divvy it up. On the other hand, she is unhappy that, after her older brother married and moved out to form his own household, the heavy responsibility of looking after their mother, who suffers from cancer, fell entirely on the daughters, who have not married. Sometimes when she works late at the office, her father will criticize her for not doing everything she can for her mom.
It may look like single women are very "free." But very often they are seen in their extended family as a "free" source of labor, money, and spiritual support.
In her book Buhun Julebu (The Unmarried Club), Liao Ho-min describes a part of the modern mosaic: "When there are things in the extended family to be taken care of, large or small, it is more difficult to coordinate with people who are married. They must first take care of their own families, and only then will they give help to others. Single life is simpler, so it is easier to put single people to work."
As a result, single aunts often become backup parents in many families. When their sisters or brothers are too busy, the aunts are the ones who end up carting the kids around.
In her book, Liao also writes: "The extra income of single people does not need to be saved for their children's college tuition or for family emergencies. When the extended family is in need, singles, without future responsibilities to worry about, are expected to be generous in lending it." The challenge of being single
Singles cannot escape their social responsibilities, yet society is quite unfriendly to single women, and is even replete with dangers.
Single women share a secret: They frequently put a pair of men's shoes outside the door, and remind each other to remember to switch to a different style of shoes from time to time, in order to warn off rapists who might try to break in.
Though this may bring some peace of mind, how much can women really do to prevent violence? Chen Meihua says: "Living alone, there is a high probability of being marked out by criminals." When her foundation released its report on the conditions for single women in society, the subject that occupied the most discussion time at the seminar was the safety of single women at home. But it was impossible to come up with any surefire measures to guarantee personal security.
In a number of recent major sex crimes, single women living alone were specifically targeted. In one case, a criminal broke into the off-campus housing of some a Soochow University female student. In another, when Chen Chin-hsing was on the run from police in the Pai Hsiao-yen murder case, he committed a series of rapes, targeting single women's apartments. Also, Hsu Lu, who has had a successful career in the media, revealed in her recent book that six years ago, she was raped in her own home in the middle of the night.
There are warning signs everywhere about the safety of single women. But, says Chen Mei-hua, it is not enough to simply suggest that single women bar their windows and lock their doors, or live in neighborhoods with comprehensive security. If structural factors are not changed, "There's no escape."
Simply because men and women differ so greatly in physical strength, single women have much more to worry about in trying to enjoy their lives than single men.
The high cost of personal safety
Ah Chi, a male colleague of Shen Yi, often takes long walks in the vicinity of the campus of National Chengchih University (in a remote suburb of Taipei) when he can't sleep at night, as a way to "let off steam." Shen, meanwhile, lives only one street away from the campus of National Taiwan University (in a busy part of the city), but if she has no friend to go with her, she dares not go out at night.
The darkness of night holds little romance for single women. On the contrary, it is a test of their personal security, for which they must sacrifice much.
Hsiao Wan loves to walk along the beach. But if a woman comes by herself to the seashore, she might be suspected of wanting to kill herself. To avoid giving people the wrong impression, Hsiao Wan rarely goes there.
Without a companion, Shen Yi won't go to any late-night films. She has on many occasions wanted to move, but she never has. Besides being familiar with the area where she lives, she has always depended on the fact that her current place of residence is quite safe. Whenever she looks around at other potential places, "I'm always most particular about the safety of the surrounding area."
A report published by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation notes that single, divorced, or separated women between the ages of 22 and 24 living in cities are the most likely victims of violent crimes. Moreover, 45 percent of such crimes are committed in the home of the victims or in its vicinity.
In Taiwan, a survey by the student guidance center at National Tsing Hua University discovered that one half of all female students had suffered sexual harassment or sexual attack. Married women have a man to back them up if things get rough. Young unmarried women are often harassed because they are alone and vulnerable. No longer alone?
For security, must single women find a man to protect them?
A survey by the Modern Women Foundation has discovered that the group at highest risk for rape is unmarried women from 23 to 29 years old. It's especially worth noting that the criminal and the victim are by no means necessarily strangers. Indeed, women know their assailant in 66% of cases. They could be fathers, stepfathers, uncles, cousins, teachers, or superiors at work.
Shen Yi says: "The longer you live alone, the more overprotective you become about security. But when it comes to personal safety, it's better to overreact." Sometimes, returning late from work, as she puts the key in the lock she thinks, "If right now someone came up from behind me, what would I do?" Opening the door on her darkened room, after flipping on the light she immediately gives her apartment a careful once-over: "Was the room this messy when I left?"
"Even if it's making an appointment with someone to deliver a tank of natural gas or fix the telephone, I take precautions," she says. "When there's a strange man in the house to fix the bathroom plumbing or do work in the kitchen or whatever, my usual response is to call a friend, and protect myself by having contact with somebody outside." She adds, to illustrate how conscientious she is about her security, that the idea came to her on her own: "No one ever taught me to do this."
Chen Mei-hua avers, "We don't want the fear of being assaulted to control single women." She hopes that criminal law will be changed so that rape becomes a crime that the state will automatically prosecute, rather than one that the victim must raise directly against the assailant. This could reduce the number of rapists roaming the streets by at least half.
In addition, streets should have telephone lines hooked up to the police station, so that women walking through small alleys no longer need be afraid.
It is said, "To prefer to be single is a choice, to be compelled to be single is fate." Whether it is a choice or fate, in facing being single, one is more often facing one's own self.