Female Icons, Feminist Iconography? Socialist Rhetoric and Women's Agency in 1950s China



This article examines the construction of female subjectivity in emulation campaign materials of early Maoist China. Through critical examination of ‘nüjie diyi’ (the first female) model workers, I argue that Maoist proletarian subjectivity reflects a situated agency produced through empowerment and salvationist impulses. As the first women to engage in traditionally male professions like tractor driving, ‘nüjie diyi’ models can be read as objects of CCP policies and ideology. At the same time, however, their public presence challenged gendered conceptualisations of workplace, technological competence and proletarian identity. Moreover, their close ties to Soviet experts located these women within a geopolitical structure that occasioned alternative sites of female agency. As icons of socialist China and representatives of state-sponsored feminism, ‘diyi’ women embodied historical progress and social change. Through these women multiple contending subjectivities emerged which simultaneously promised and delimited national feminist rhetoric and agency.