In the early 20th century, the urbanisation progress of Wuxi was featured by the development of urban infrastructure, modern schools, modern silk stores, movie theatres, silk factories, and newspapers and magazines, which have resulted in fundamental changes to women’s lives - women were exposed to numerous opportunities of life exploration in the modern society of Wuxi. With an examination of women’s school, work, and consumer lives, this thesis aims to figure out how different groups of women in Wuxi had reacted to the changing social environments during the Nanjing decade (1927-1937). Women in Wuxi entered modern schools, went to work in a variety of modern institutions, and enjoyed new shopping experiences and leisure activities. In the process, women drew justification from the nationalist, feminist, and humanist phrases of nationalism, gender equality and independence to re-examine their own (sometimes other women’s) lives, and take actions accordingly. Meanwhile, they adopted new looks and developed new perspectives in the aspects of beauty, health, hygiene, and marriage. Women’s changing lives were firmly entangled with the city’s rise to modernity.
The development of modern women’s education in Wuxi attracted hundreds of upper-class girls to leave their families for school, where they had encountered a new style of everyday educational life. Their youth was constituted by experiences women hadn’t had before, such as classes on Western science and philosophy, competitions against their peers, group travels, public sports meetings, student organizations, social activities and the friendships among classmates. The new experiences exerted influence on schoolgirls’ visions of life, value, and society. Schoolgirls shared the perception that they were independent, educated, and patriotic “modern” women. Among all the new qualities, national identity was of particular importance to schoolgirls’ modern identity.
A number of schoolgirls went on to embrace new careers after graduation. In the past, women’s involvement in working was subjected to household production. However, school graduates started to occupy social positions as independent individuals in modern Wuxi. The most popular occupation of them was teaching. Apart from teachers, women also appeared as lawyers, policewomen, saleswomen, and office workers in Wuxi during the Nanjing decade. Some of these women became capable of relying on themselves economically, and many had turned into trail blazers in professions which formerly excluded women. Furthermore, some professionals went on to become social activists. Drawing justifications from the feminist, humanist, and nationalist languages of gender equality, independence, freedom, and patriotism, these women turned into eminent leaders of local feminist movements, nationalist movements, and educational reforms. With regard to lower-class women, it was migration from rural farms to urban factories that introduced a new lifestyle to them. Female factory workers began to earn personal incomes and therefore achieved a certain degree of economic independence. Profound changes in workers’ daily lives are also noteworthy. The modern concept of time was introduced to female workers - they were required to adhere to a strict schedule of time every day. Factory life also separated women’s work from leisure, which allowed young women to engage in modern social activities in their spare times. Moreover, living in factory dormitories, modern ideas of hygiene and health were introduced to female workers.
The flourishing urban consumer culture affected lives of women in both the upper and lower class. A new aesthetic beauty was identifiable by the use of specific commodities such as fashionable garments, cosmetics, and high heels. The emergence of numerous modern sites had made the commercialized women’s image a subject of feverish speculation, and women were presumably invited to identify themselves with such an image. Through consumption, women meaningfully presented and defined themselves in public - efforts to assert their “modernity” were made by women in both the upper and lower class.
Women’s changing lives were deeply connected to the structural changes of kinship, class, gender and economy, as the gender and class boundaries had both been challenged, and there were evidences of changes happened in the labour, marriage and consumer market in Wuxi. For this reason, the thesis studies not only the history of women’s life changing experiences in modern Wuxi, but also the modern transformation of the society as a whole.