Taiwan’s “Iron Ladies” make great strides

Since the 1980s, the Taiwan government, with the aid of a strong women’s movement, has taken ample measures to ensure that women are well represented in politics. In the area of gender equality and participation by women in politics, it is not only keeping pace with the international community, but has even been “setting the standard for achievement in Asia,” according to Taiwan Panorama. In 2003, the percentage of seats in parliament held by women stood at 21.5 percent, but by 2009, it had already reached 31 percent. This far surpassed any other Asian country, and even overtook long-established democracies like the United Kingdom (20%) and the United States (17%).

Among those profiled as Iron Ladies was Ma Wen-chun, a Kuomintang (KMT) legislator from Nantou County. Ma was not drawn to a political life at all, but things changed when her father – then the mayor of Puli Township – passed away the month before the elections. “His supporters were very insistent, so my only option was to grit my teeth and jump into the race,” Ma recalled. Since then, she has dedicated her life to public office, working to serve her constituents, first as mayor of Puli, then in the Legislative Yuan in 2009. This year, she was re-elected to the Legislature.

“The greatest lesson I learned from my father was to not fear those in authority, but to persist and do the right thing,” says Ma. “But I am at my best when I can bring into play the feminine traits of softness and accommodation, rather than always butting heads and refusing to compromise,” she told Taiwan Panorama.

Hsiao Bi-khim, an incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator, also entered politics relatively young. With her multi-ethnic background, she was mostly educated overseas, and holds an MA in political science from Columbia University. At the age of 26, she was named director of the DPP’s Department of International Affairs and focused her attention on international affairs and cross-strait relations. She lists her inspirations as Xie Xuehong (who resisted the occupation of Taiwan by the Japanese and opposed the KMT), Annette Lu (the former DPP vice-president), and Chen Chu (the current mayor of Kaohsiung).

The success of women in politics is partly attributed to Taiwan’s strong women’s movement, but is also due to the measures adopted by Taiwan’s government. According to Fan Yun, a professor at National Taiwan University, the women’s movement spent a lot of energy breaking down the infrastructures underlying gender inequality. Part of it included keeping a close eye on the political parties to ensure they kept their promises to bring more women into government.

In Taiwan, the constitution has set a 10 percent quota for women in all elected bodies, with women’s groups on the island pushing to up the quota. While the constitution has not been amended, the 1999 Local Government Act did set a quota that 25 percent of elective local seats must be held by women. Currently, 33 percent of elected local government officials are women, and 33.6 percent of legislators in the Legislative Yuan are women.

Although women have made great strides in Taiwan, gender bias still exists. Given the paternalistic traditions of politics, they continue to fight the ideal that an unmarried woman is somehow “less than” or that “anyone in a skirt will never make a good commander-in-chief.” As Yang Tsui, a professor at Dong Hwa University noted, there is a double standard in society towards gender and power. Ambition and aggression in men are seen as attractive traits, while in women, such characteristics are seen as “showing the ugly side of her character.”

The double standard is well understood by Lo Shu-lei, a KMT legislator who has been cited as the most outstanding legislator by Citizen Congress Watch five times for her efforts to expose corruption and other financial inconsistencies. Her outspokenness has also isolated her somewhat from her follow party members. “A lot of people think that legislators from the same party as the president should just be a rubber stamp for the executive branch, but this is unacceptable. I came into the Legislature determined to protect the general good. I have no interest in fame or fortune, and seek only to keep a clean conscience,” she said.

Although it has been universally acknowledged that men and women are different, it does not mean that these differences are a handicap. Whereas women might focus more attention on interpersonal relationships, responsibilities and concern for others, as opposed to men who might invest more in competition, they both have a part to play in drafting public policies with gender consciousness. Ellen Huang, a political and social commentator believes, “If women are able to alter traditional political culture, it will be because they promoted a more reasonable and transparent distribution of resources and power” she said.

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