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Taiwan’s first female president easily won reelection. Are Asian women taking note?

This election was about more than Taiwan’s uneasy relations with China

- February 10, 2020

Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, won a second presidential term last month with a 57 percent vote share and a record 8.2 million votes. During her campaign, Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) advocated for the need to protect Taiwan’s democracy and freedom from China’s threats — with reminders that Taiwan’s fate could one day be like Hong Kong’s.

Tsai’s landslide victory sent a signal to China and the world that the Taiwanese were determined to protect their democracy when it was threatened, especially after seeing Hong Kong’s year of unrest. But this commanding victory also has important implications for gender equality in Taiwan. Here are the three things you need to consider:

1. Sexism and misogyny marked this campaign.

Tsai has participated in three presidential elections since 2012. Her opponents and the media have scrutinized Tsai for being a woman — an unmarried and childless woman. Her major opponent, Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT), said during his campaign that women belonged in the home. The KMT vice-presidential candidate also questioned Tsai’s understanding of women’s hearts and experiences because she has never had children.

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The chairman of the KMT also called Tsai an “unlucky woman,” blaming her for any misfortune that had happened to Taiwan. And during her first term, a person within Tsai’s party challenged her leadership because “the one wearing a skirt is never suitable to be a commander in chief.”

These sexist comments were directed at Tsai — but other female legislative candidates see similar attacks. Women constitute 38 percent of Taiwan’s national legislature, a higher percentage than in South Korea (17 percent) and Japan (10 percent),

Stereotyping of female candidates is common in campaigns throughout the world. Because of the prevalence of sexism and misogyny, the reelection of Tsai is particularly meaningful to female voters. Tsai is one of the few female leaders in Asia that has been democratically elected in her own right and not because of her relationship with a man.

2. Will female politicians transform society?

Tsai’s political clout has symbolic meaning for the many women and girls who are accustomed to seeing men in positions of authority. Previous research shows that female political leaders across the globe, especially ministers, serve as role models, inspiring women to participate in politics. Tsai’s presidency helps normalize women’s presence in politics — an arena where men have traditionally dominated — but will it also motivate women to be more politically active?

At the same time, though, Tsai is a leader in Asia — a region where women’s political and social statuses generally are not aligned. My research suggests that the discrepancy between women’s political and social rights in the region makes it difficult for women to envision themselves as equal to their male counterparts. This means women in Asia are less likely to consider female politicians inspiring or be motivated to participate in politics.

My research looked at the symbolic impact of women’s political representation and found that the election of Asian female legislators has a backlash effect on women’s political participation. Using data from the Asian Barometer Survey, I found that as the percentage of women increases in Asian parliaments, the likelihood of women to engage in politics — including having discussions about politics with friends and family, participating in campaign activities and partaking in peaceful demonstrations — decreases.

3. Tsai’s vision calls for protection of gender equality.

Tsai’s reelection platform illustrated her awareness of the importance of raising women’s place in society. Her long-term care plan 2.0 advocates for the government to pick up the work of caring for the elderly. Freeing women from this responsibility would allow greater participation in the labor force and advance women’s financial independence.

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She also advocates for legal protection of gender equality at home and in the workplace. She also promised increased government oversight to ensure that Taiwanese women are protected from gender-based violence.

Although these plans are gender-sensitive, they are very much tied to Taiwan’s traditional understanding of gender roles. For example, the long-term care plan 2.0 still relies heavily on women to look after the elderly. This may help women shift to working outside the house but leave them essentially contributing their earnings to the hiring of care workers for family members. Tsai’s big challenge is how to ensure that the pursuit of career goals and economic freedom for middle-class women does not exploit working-class women.

And Tsai also faces criticism from the public, particularly feminist activists and organizations, for the low number of women in her cabinet. When she was first elected in 2016, Tsai had only four women in her cabinet (10 percent of the cabinet) — significantly fewer than those appointed by her male predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou.

Many in Taiwan are watching closely to see whether Tsai plans to increase the representation of women and indigenous people in her new cabinet in 2020. However, her recent announcement about keeping her original cabinet indicates that women would still hold only 16 percent of the seats.

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Although Tsai has indicated her support for gender equality, Tsai has yet to discuss what issues she sees as most pressing. For example, adultery is a crime in Taiwan, which means that women are usually the ones who face punishment. Although policymakers and civic groups have discussed decriminalizing adultery, it’s not clear where Tsai stands on this issue to ensure the protection of women in law. Another unknown is whether Tsai will take steps to help the thousands of migrant wives from China and other parts of Asia become accepted members of Taiwan society.

Tsai once said: “I hope one day everybody would call me president, not female president. Gender should not be the basis of judgment of one’s performance.”

Tsai’s 2020 presidential bid played out differently from her previous campaigns. In this election, she and her team emphasized less of her presence as Taiwan’s first female president of Taiwan. Women in Taiwan — and the rest of the world — will also be watching how Tsai also advances women’s status in Taiwan.

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Shan-Jan Sarah Liu is a lecturer in politics and international relations at the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. She tweets from @DrSarahLiu.