Taiwan is a somewhat unusual place. A de facto state without official recognition by most countries and denied a seat at the UN, it is claimed as a renegade province by the People’s Republic of China. Apart from the complexities of its status as an independent country, Taiwan is also unusual in regards to its extremely high political representation of women. A number of explanations for this high level of representation include matriarchal traditions of the Taiwanese aboriginal tribes as well as the promotion of women’s education during the Japanese colonial period. A growing feminist movement that partnered with grassroots resistance against the authoritarian regime which eventually led to democratization most certainly contributed to the growth of women’s representation as well.
Annette Lu, who served as the first ever female vice-president of Taiwan from 2000-2008 worked to integrate the issue of gender inequality with the fight for democratization against the authoritarian Nationalist regime during the 70s and 80s. These two initially separate movements came together and strengthened each other. One of the most vocal critics of the Nationalist regime, Lu was arrested and imprisoned with other resistance leaders for 12 years, during which the nation held its first real elections. She writes that the wives of many imprisoned opposition leaders ran for and won election to a number of offices in this election. Thus, women have been an important part of democracy in Taiwan since the beginning (Lu 2009, 49).
Although these factors may have played a role historically in overcoming the traditional Confucian ideology that a woman participating in politics is like a ‘hen crowing at dawn,’(Ramzy 2015) arguably the most important influence to encourage more political participation among Taiwanese women, culminating in the election of the island’s first ever female president, is likely the quota system that began in 1951 (Ramzy 2015).
The Quota System
Even before Taiwan democratized, the importance of women’s voices had already been established. In 1951, the authoritarian government set aside a small number of legislative seats for women and since then, women have continued making important gains in political representation. (Ramzy 2015)
Quotas in Taiwan became more important as activists called for gender-representation rules at the party level. In 1996, the most prominent opposition group, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), set its own quota for gender representation within the party. The quota stated that at least a quarter of the party’s nominees must be women. In 1998, the DPP amended the rule, requiring instead that at least a quarter of the party’s candidates for office must be women. After the Nationalist Party (KMT) lost the election in 2000, they also implemented similar quotas. In 2005, the Constitution of Taiwan was amended, setting aside 15 percent of the seats in the legislature for females. The year before the amendment, women made up 21.3 percent of the legislature. Less than ten years later in 2012, women’s representation had jumped to 33.6 percent and it continues to grow. Prominent female politicians in Taiwan have said that the reserved seats help to bring increasingly competitive female candidates into the legislature and as a result, Taiwanese citizens are quite familiar with female faces in politics (Ramzy 2015).
There are quotas for other groups besides women such as racial minorities and occupational groups, but these quotas are not as broad as the requirements for women’s representation (Chou 1990, 82). Women have consistently won more seats than required by the quota which suggests that these women are not simply filling seats as tokens, but instead are legitimate candidates with strong support from their constituents. The quota system is not perfect however, it has come under scrutiny by female political activists who feel the percentage required has become a ceiling rather than a floor as it was intended. They argue that parties are often hesitant to nominate any more women than required by the quota. These women also feel that the quotas characterize females as second class citizens who need help in order to make a contribution. Though both valid concerns, the quota system is not likely to change any time soon (Chou 1990, 95).
Taiwan’s consistent gains for female politicians were on display during the most recent election which resulted in the election of the island’s first ever female president, Tsai Ing-wen. Inaugurated on May 20, 2016, she led the DPP in a landslide victory against the KMT. A lawyer by profession, Tsai studied at Cornell University in the US, as well as at the London School of Economics. I feel the true embodiment of the progressive attitude in Taiwan is the fact that Tsai’s gender and gender equality in general were not major points of interest throughout the campaign. The debates between the two major parties focused on issues most important to the Taiwanese people, specifically the candidates’ stance on relations with the People’s Republic of China. The KMT has recently been making efforts to warm relations between Taiwan and the Mainland, and in this most recent election the Taiwanese people showed their disapproval by electing President Tsai and the DPP with 56% of the vote (Campbell 2016).
Tsai Ing-wen (via
Currently, Ms. Tsai is somewhat of an anomaly in the rest of Asia. Though other Asian nations have elected female presidents, these women most often have connections to prominent male politicians. The President of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is the daughter of a former president. The former Philippine President, Corazon C. Aquino, was the wife of a senator and was succeeded by the daughter of a former president. President Tsai however, has no relation to any prominent male politicians (Ramzy 2015). This is another illustration in the powerful political force that independent women in Taiwan possess.
The quota system has obviously played an important role in advancing women’s representation in Taiwan. As more women run for and are elected to office, we will likely see even more women climbing the political ranks. I think it is important to note however, that despite the quota system assisting Taiwanese women in making political gains, Taiwan still faces a political pipeline problem. The two most powerful women in the history of Taiwanese politics, Annette Lu, who served as Vice President, and Tsai Ing-wen, the current president, were both lawyers by profession. Not only were these two women lawyers before entering public service, they were both educated at top-tier western schools (Lu graduated from the University of Harvard as well as Harvard University, Tsai from Cornell University and the London School of Economics). If an expensive overseas education in legal studies remains an unspoken requirement for women politicians in Taiwan, then the road to parity with men will be rather difficult. As this continues to be an issue in the US as well, the fact that less women choose to be lawyers or enter other professions that often lead to political office, the pipeline effect is definitely a topic that deserves further study.
Campbell, Charlie. 2016. "Taiwan Elects Its First Female President." Time Magazine, January 16.
Chou, Bih-Er. 1990. Women in Taiwan Politics L. Rienner, Boulder, Colo.
Lu, Annette. 2009. "An End to Patriarchy: Democratic Transformation and Women's Liberation in Taiwan." Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 10, no. 1: 47-53.
Ramzy, Austin. 2015. "Presidential Race in Taiwan Reflects Women's Rise in Politics." The New York Times, September 10.