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Leftover and Surplus Women: Two Specular Phenomena

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Women at World War I © Zackerson21 / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

“You’re not beautiful in the traditional sense. You have a tough personality and need to soften yourself” says a dating counsellor to Qiu Ha Mei, one of the three protagonists of the documentary-film Leftover Women by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia (2020). She represents just one of the many examples that could be taken into account to describe the leftover women phenomenon spreading in China since 2007. Even less known is the western-produced occurrence of the so-called surplus women, which took place in Europe, with a higher concentration in the UK, at the end of the First World War. These women all share the same shameful treatment from the society they live in, even if the reasons which lead them to such a condition are to be found in two different, and yet specular, sources. The present article will guide the reader through an introduction of the difficulties in recent history faced by women in two great societies, the Chinese and the English one, and will try to provide an overview of their condition.

The “Surplus Women”

By the end of World War I, 700,000 British men had been killed (Holden, 2007). Most of them were young soldiers who had left their fiancés back home to fight for their country, or husbands who left their wives to become widows, in a society where marriage was assumed to be every woman’s life goal. The 1921 census revealed that there were 1.75 million more women than men in the United Kingdom, resulting in a particularly large gap between males and females aged 25 to 34 (Chevalier, 2019). The British press at the time sensationalised these results, publishing articles with titles such as: The superfluous women are a disaster to the human race (The Daily Mail, 1921). These “surplus women” were patronized and treated as if this predicament was of their own making; “old maid”, “man-hater,” “militant,” and “cigarette-smoking hoydens” were some of the labels used to refer to them (Chevalier, 2019). The problem linked to the existence of these women was not simply that they were unmarried, but mostly that at the end of the war they were supposed to step down from the “masculine” work that they had covered during the years of the world conflict. The British government did not know how to employ women or what to do with them. There were not enough men able to “take care of them” and women could not keep their jobs, since men were returning to the country. It was because of these reasons that the government started looking for new solutions. Women were left with two options: remain in the country accepting low-paid jobs and bearing the shame of being a “burden for the society”, or leave the country to start a new life in the British colonies. In 1923, the Australian Farmers and Grazers Association sponsored a leaflet calling for the emigration of “large numbers of girls from Great Britain to Australia” where, after spending the voyage out learning “the making of beds, cleaning of glassware and polishing of silver,” they would be placed in “well-chosen homes” in the rural districts of New South Wales (Noakes, 2012). Women who refused the above-mentioned state of things, were vilified in the press. Some were described as “ruthless self-seekers depriving men and their dependants of their livelihood”; others as “leeches” and “parasites,” determined to “have the time of their lives” at the expense of the returning men and of wider society (Ibidem). Tracy Chevalier, a British novelist, proposed the issue of “surplus women” in her latest book A single thread, in which she describes the romance story of Violet Speedweel, a 30 years old single woman fighting against a post-war society which labelled her as “a burden.”

The “Leftover Women”

In 2019 in China there were about 30 million more men in the country than women, as reported by the statistics on Statista. This results from the “One Child Policy” promulgated in 1979, according to which each family could have no more than one child. In a society based on agriculture and with a strong patriarchal substratum, male children were preferred to female ones. Consequently, today, men in China greatly outnumber women, causing a series of chain effects. Women have to confront themselves with a society that wants them to marry at a young age to preserve “social stability,” but at the same time to be highly-educated and ambitious – even if under the wing of their husbands. All the women who do not respect those standards are called “leftover women” – 剩女 (shèngnǚ). The Ministry of Education of China introduced this term in 2007 to widely indicate the eligible but unmarried women between the age 27 to 35. Even the state feminist agency, the All-China Women Federation, has widely used the term, pressuring urban, educated women in their mid- to late twenties to get married (Fincher, 2016). The word “leftover” refers to the idea that the best girls for brides have been taken, and those who remain, the unmarried girls, are the leftover ones. On average, the profile of a “leftover woman” is of a young lady, with high level education, focused on her career (Feldshuh, 2018), a paradox which arises from the fact that families tend to have high expectations on daughters and their futures, and for this reason they invest a lot of money and energy on their academic preparation. This is done in the hope that the daughter finds a good partner, or that she becomes perfectly able to balance the professional and matrimonial life. But what happens most of the time is that, when women who have successful careers find a husband, the employer entity will generally ask them to step down from their position or to leave (Gaetano, 2014). Therefore women, on average, end up facing a choice between a marital or a stigma life. Many decide to marry quickly just to avoid the stigma of being “leftover”, while others decide to persevere in their path, working hard to become successful women, even if still considered a burden for society. The latter case is well represented in a documentary-film, The other half of the sky, directed by Patrick Soergel (2016). In it are described the stories of four successful Chinese women, all entrepreneurs, who had to fight their whole life to assert their self-determination.

The occurrence of socially sensitive issues such as the surplus women in England and the leftover women in China are here portrayed to suggest how women’s condition of being considered a burden or a problem for society runs all over countries and continents, along history. Moreover, a well documented constant factor is that this often relates to the comparison with men. It appears that the abundance or shortage of women might be a threat for the stability of the society. The worldwide expression of this phenomenon should encourage us to reflect on women’s condition related to their personal expression or self-realization interpreted as a factor of destabilization. While it is true that every cultural context has its own unique characteristics, what emerges from the abovementioned stories is that the possibility for women to self-determine themselves away from the comparison with men or as just an appendix of them, is a long and globally spread story, still in progress.

Alessia Paolillo is the Head of European Guanxi's Strategic Communication Team. She graduated with honours both from her bachelor and master’s degrees in Oriental Languages at the university of Rome La Sapienza. She is currently enrolled in a second Master's degree in International Public Affairs at the University Luiss Guido Carli. You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn!

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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Chevalier T. (2019). A single thread, London: The Borough Press.

Chevalier T. (2019). Surplus women. Available at:, last accessed: 14/02/2020.

Feldshuh H. (2018). Gender, media, and myth-making: constructing China’s leftover women, Asian Journal of Communication, 28:1, pp. 38-54.

Fincher L. H. (2016). Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, London: Zed Books Ltd.

Gaetano A. (2014). Leftover women: postponing marriage and renegotiating womanhood in urban china, Journal of Research in Gender Studies, 4:2, pp. 124-149.

Gaetano, A. M. (2017). China’s ‘leftover women’: myths and realities, in “Handbook on the Family and Marriage in China”, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Holden K. (2007). The Shadow of Marriage: Singleness in England, 1914-60, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Jiang, Q., Feldman, M., and Li, S. (2014). Marriage Squeeze, Never-Married Proportion, and Mean Age at First Marriage in China, Population Research and Policy Review, 33:2, pp. 189-204.

Noakes L. (2012). “Our Excess Girls”: women after the First World War, in History Extra-BBC History Magazine, available at the link:, last accessed: 14/02/2020.

Sex ratio in China in 2019 by age group, on Statista, available at:, last accessed: 14/02/2020.

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