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June 17, 2013

A Women's Bookstore in Shanghai

I had a remarkable conversation today with a woman who has just opened up the first feminist bookstore in Shanghai, and one of the first in all of China. A native Chinese, she got a PhD in Art History from the University of Georgia, then went on to do an MBA at Emory, hoping, as she put it, to find some way of putting her commitment to the humanities into play in a society she recognized as being pretty relentlessly business-oriented.

Her first business foray on her return was in tea retail, but she found that the kinds of personal compromises she was expected to make to get a leg up in this male-dominated (and deeply sexist) business world were more than she was willing to accommodate. So she teamed up with an old classmate recently returned from working on a doctoral program in gender studies in Finland to create a women's bookstore.

The project has been motivated by their very deep frustration with the backsliding they perceive in Chinese society with respect to gender politics. She recounted how when in the US she was asked by her peers whether she worried about that dimension of returning to China to do business, she was blithe in her optimism and, looking back, quite naive. It seems to be a general consensus that with the increasingly feverish repudiation of all remaining relics of "socialist" ideology from the Mao era, there's been a powerful resurrection of "traditional" gender norms, taking the form of rampant sexual harassment, increasing pressure on women to marry, abandon careers, and return to the home, and increasing stigmatization of women who are too smart, successful, or resistant to marriage.

It turns out bookstores can't survive by selling books, as everyone buys them now online. So her bookstore ends up serving as a combination lending library (for paid members), tea house, literary salon, and entrepot for goods produced by women's collectives. She's actively engaged in building up communities of like-minded people on-line and in the local area. The store is not yet profitable, but it's close enough to breaking even that she's been able to hire a helper to free up some of her own time for pursuing outreach, activist, and marketing activities.

She described with considerable frustration the emotional energy she expends on discussing her store and its goals with the many people she encounters, male and female, for whom the very idea of a feminist bookstore seems both alien and threatening. So far she hasn't encountered any explicit "official" resistance to her political activities, but she has seen feminist-oriented twitter posts that she's forwarded deleted within moments by unseen hands.

Much of her start-up funding was crowd-sourced. I told her I thought that were she to extend her crowd-sourcing investment invitations to the US, she would likely find a great deal of support. For anyone interested in learning more or sending along an electronic high-five, the store's website is womentreebook.com; their email address is nvshuchina@gmail.com.

Posted by dporter at June 17, 2013 10:30 AM

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