Tsai’s Victory a Victory for Asian Women

Emma J. Teng, Professor at M.I.T., and Wen-hui Anna Tang, Professor at National Sun Yat-sen University Taiwan, explain why Taiwan’s election is so significant for women in Asian politics.

Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Reuters

The election of Tsai Ing-wen on January 16, 2016 as the 14th President of Taiwan is a victory not only for the Democratic Progressive Party, but also for the women of Taiwan — and of Asia more broadly. Analysts have long noted that women in Asia, more than any other region of the world, have enjoyed remarkable success in attaining their country’s highest political positions, despite the fact that patriarchal cultural traditions and other obstacles to the development of women’s political participation remain strong in most Asian societies. In explaining this paradox, both scholarly and popular commentators have pointed to the fact that all of Asia’s most famous female top leaders — Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Corazon Aquino, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Aung San Suu Kyi, Yingluck Shinawatra, Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, Khaleda Zia, and Park Geun-hye — have come into power through “dynastic descent.” In other words, each of these women is the daughter, wife, widow, or sister of a powerful male political figure. Taiwan is an important exception to this pattern. Already as early as 2000, Taiwanese voters elected Lü Hsiu-lien, a feminist pioneer with no dynastic connections, as the country’s first female vice president, serving under Chen Shui-bian. Lü held office for two terms (2000–2008), weathering various political storms, and remains active in the DPP.

Taiwan has, in fact, been notable among Asian countries for the successes of women in electoral politics at various levels. The number of female legislators in Taiwan is currently 33.6%. In comparison, women’s parliamentary representation stands at 8.1% in Japan and 15.7% in South Korea. Taiwan even beats the world average for women’s parliamentary representation: 22.2% in 2015. Several factors have contributed to this success, and two are particularly worth highlighting: Taiwan’s early adoption (1950s) of a reserved seats system that guaranteed women candidates a minimum number of seats at all levels of elected office; and Taiwan’s vibrant feminist movement, which emerged in the 1970s. Women’s political participation was also given a boost in the early years of Taiwan’s transition to democracy (1980–1990), when a significant number of women, mostly the wives or widows of famous political prisoners or martyrs, were elected to office. Following the familiar Asian pattern, these women relied heavily on both victimization sentiment and dynastic descent in their campaigns. By the 2000 election, however, when Lü Hsiu-lien was elected vice president, Taiwan had clearly moved beyond this stage. Since this time, feminists have ensured that gender equity as a political issue receives attention from all major parties, and they have fought for gender quotas and other governmental reforms.

Indeed, Taiwanese women have come so far that in the earlier phase of this election (July 19 to October 17, 2015) both major political parties, the DPP and the KMT, were fielding female candidates: DPP chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen versus the KMT’s Hung Hsiu-chu (popularly known as the “Little Chili Pepper”). The excitement surrounding this historic election has thus been building since the summer, when the Wall Street Journal and other international news media declared: “Taiwan Set to Elect First Female President in 2016.” (Hung was replaced by Eric Chu as the KMT candidate on October 17, 2015.)

Tsai did not campaign on an overtly feminist platform, nor did she make gender a central issue. Her victory then is solid indication that Taiwan’s voters were well prepared to elect a talented woman without dynastic connection in a gender-blind race. Can the US be far behind?

Emma J. Teng is T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations at M.I.T. and a Faculty Advisory Committee Member of the Harvard-Yenching InstituteWen-hui Anna Tang is Professor at National Sun Yat-sen University Taiwan and a Fairbank Center Visiting Scholar 2011–12.