A print of the film is currently maintained by the China Film Archive.
The film deals with an educated and modern young woman, Wei Ming (Ruan Lingyu), living in 1920s Shanghai. As the film begins, Wei Ming is working as a music teacher for a school, even as she harbors dreams of becoming a writer. In the film's opening scene, Wei Ming meets a friend, Yu Haichou (Zheng Junli) and an old schoolmate, Zhang Xiuzhen (Wang Moqiu), now named Mrs. Wang, on a trolley-car.
Wei, Mrs. Wang, and Yu return to Wei's apartment, where Wei receives a phone call from the film's antagonist, the lecherous Dr. Wang (Wang Naidong), who is also Mrs. Wang's husband. He insists on picking Wei up, even as she ignores his call. As Mrs. Wang leaves, Wei is informed by Yu that one of her books has been accepted for publication. Wei's excitement, however, is soon contrasted as a flashback reveals that the publishing company has only selected her manuscript because she is a young woman. Unaware of this fact, Wei shows Yu a toy she has bought for her young daughter, a product of a failed marriage. She tries to flirt with Yu, but he ignores her advances.
Soon, Dr. Wang has picked Wei Ming up and they are on their way to a western-style dancehall. As Wei Ming sits in the car, a flashback is shown on the window of how she met Dr. Wang, a western educated Ph.D. and a member of the board at Wei Ming's school.
As Wei Ming and Dr. Wang enter the dance hall, the film contrasts scenes of their dancing with images of Wei Ming's neighbor, Li Aying, a factory worker who leads her fellow workers in learning patriotic songs. With the night winding down, Dr. Wang tries to harass Wei Ming who firmly rejects him. As she flees, she winds up meeting Li and they re-enter their building together. In the mail is a letter from Wei Ming's sister. Wei Ming's daughter, who had been living in the countryside with her aunt, must now come to the city due to financial troubles.
The film then cuts to the young daughter and her aunt on a train bound for Shanghai. The young girl asks about her mother, as she coughs ominously.
Back in Shanghai, the situation has become dire. Dr. Wang has convinced the principal of the school to fire Wei Ming and the bills have begun to pile up. Li Aying asks Wei Ming to compose the music for a song, entitled The New Women for her. Wei, however, has other issues to deal with, including the worsening sickness of her daughter. Soon, things have reached a breaking point. Wei Ming is offered help from both her publisher as well as a newspaper reporter, but both make advances on her, which she rejects. Unable to pay for medicine for her child, and with no employment, Wei Ming agrees to become a prostitute. Her first client, coincidentally is Dr. Wang, who flaunts his new-found power over her. Wei, disgusted with herself, runs back to her apartment, with Dr. Wang in hot pursuit. Back in the apartment, Wang and Li come to blows with the effeminate Wang becoming quickly incapacitated. In the middle of this brawl, Mrs. Wang bursts through the door and accuses Wei Ming of seducing her husband.
With no money, Wei Ming's daughter succumbs to pneumonia. Distraught, Wei Ming attempts to commit suicide, much to the chagrin of both Li Aying and Yu Haichou. In the hospital, both Li and Yu try to convince Wei that she needs to continue living. As the film ends, Wei Ming cries out that she wants to live. A newspaper obituary announcing her death is shown while a gang of Li Aying's workers march in step.Ruan Lingyu as Wei Ming, the heroine;
Wang Naidong as Dr. Wang, Wei Ming's suitor and primary antagonist;
Zheng Junli as Yu Haichou, Wei Ming's friend, a publisher;
Wang Moqiu as Mrs. Wang, Wei Ming's former schoolmate, now married to Dr. Wang;
Yin Xu as Li Aying, Wei Ming's neighbor, a factory worker;
Chen Sujuan as Wei Xiaohong, Wei Ming's daughter;
Gu Menghe as Qi Weide, the editor-in-chief of the local newspaper.
Liu Qiong as a doctor
The release of New Women was marred by a backlash from the press who objected to their profession's unflattering portrayal in the film. The press organization forced a public apology from Lianhua Company and director Cai Chusheng to make cuts to the film. The target of much of their ire became the film's star, Ruan Lingyu. The film soon became an instance of life imitating art when Ruan, who, suffering under the tireless gaze of the media, committed suicide by barbiturates not long after the premier of the film.
Today, the film's reputation has become firmly established as one of the classic examples of 1930s Chinese film. The organizers of the 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial on Contemporary Art referred to the film, in their retrospective of Ruan Lingyu's work, as a "Masterpiece in the spirit of the May 4th tradition." A print of the film is currently maintained by the China Film Archive in Beijing.
In Stanley Kwan's 1992 biopic of Ruan Lingyu, Centre Stage, there is a re-enactment of the film's climactic final scene.