TAIPEI -- Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, took a break from her reelection campaign in late December to stump for a coalition of young progressive legislative candidates known as the Front Line. Donning a black bomber jacket at the center of a crowded stage, Tsai expressed her support for Lai Pin-yu, a 27-year-old DPP candidate standing at her side, smilingly describing her as "dressing differently than traditional candidates."
Tsai's quip drew laughter from the audience, and a grin from Lai, impossible to miss in a red-and-black vinyl bodysuit and a neon orange wig with pigtails, who was cosplaying the 1990s anime character Asuka Langley Soryu. As she stepped forward and waved, the crowd roared in approval. Two weeks later, to the surprise of many observers, she was elected as Taiwan's youngest-ever legislator.
That intergenerational moment, in which the comparatively reserved Tsai, 63, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the self-assured Lai, highlighted the growing success of Taiwanese women who have entered politics in recent years. Not only did Tsai win reelection in January, Lai joined a legislature that boasts the highest rate of female representation in Asia, accounting for 42% of members. But the rise of women in politics is in spite of, rather than because of, prevailing social attitudes in Taiwan, where patriarchy is alive and well.
"Even though people think gender equality in Taiwan is extremely progressive within Asia, that doesn't mean that Taiwan actually enjoys true equality," Lai told the Nikkei Asian Review. She cited accusations from across the political spectrum that Tsai, who is single and childless, was incapable of understanding the needs of married couples or parents. During her own campaign, Lai said, supporters of Lee Yong-ping, her female opponent from the China-friendly Kuomintang, frequently posted criticisms of her appearance online.
"I think this kind of sexism in politics is very malicious," she said. "It's intended to make voters feel that women like us who don't measure up to the values of the traditional patriarchy can't be trusted."
Nevertheless, the high proportion of legislative contests pitting multiple women contenders against each other in Taiwan's recent election shows how accepted -- and institutionalized -- female political participation has become. Of 113 legislators, 47 are women, representing four different parties, primarily Tsai's DPP and the main opposition party, the Kuomintang.
In part, this is because under election rules, half of each party's nominees for 34 parliamentary seats elected by proportional representation must be female. Even so, more must be done to make the government more representative, said Kolas Yotaka, the first woman from Taiwan's Austronesian indigenous minority to serve as government spokeswoman.
"Men outnumber women in Taiwanese politics, and the higher you go, the fewer women there are," Kolas said. Traditional Taiwanese expectations that women should focus on child rearing are partly behind this phenomenon, she said. "Taiwan has several women occupying high positions who happen to be single, but for most women, if you want to throw yourself into your work, that means you have no choice but to give less time to your family."
Among the most visible women at the top of Taiwanese politics are Tsai and her chief of staff Chen Chu, who is also single and in 2018 was likened to a "fat sow" by Wu Den-yih, the male chairman of the Kuomintang, which monopolized political power in a one-party state -- including 38 years of martial law -- before democratization began in the 1980s. Wu apologized for the remark after a public backlash.
Chen has received worse treatment at the hands of the Kuomintang. The democracy movement's watershed moment came in December 1979, in what is now known as the Kaohsiung Incident -- a police crackdown following a pro-democracy demonstration that led to the arrest of eight leading activists, including Chen and Annette Lu. Their presence at the widely publicized trial of the eight leaders underscored the importance of female participation in the fight against authoritarianism, while also giving them political standing that would lead to future positions in a democratic Taiwan.
"Women have been integral to Taiwan's democracy movement," said Maggie Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University in the U.S. "Look back at the leaders of the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident. Annette Lu, who went on to be vice president of Taiwan from 2000 to 2008, spent nearly six years in prison following the incident. Chen Chu, who went on to be mayor of Kaohsiung from 2006 to 2018, likewise was imprisoned for approximately six years for her pro-democracy work."
Sarah Liu, an assistant professor of gender and politics at the University of Edinburgh, in the U.K., said that while noteworthy examples of Taiwanese women calling for democratic reforms stretch back to Japan's colonial occupation of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, the rise of Chen and Lu was a turning point for both feminism and democracy.
"These women demonstrated that women do not need to just play a supporting role," Liu said. "Women can be on the front line of fighting against an autocratic government."
In the years between the arrests of Lu and Chen and their terms as elected officials, Taiwan's political space opened up, with the end of 38 years of martial law in 1987, and the first direct legislative and presidential elections held in 1992 and 1996, respectively. In 1986, some veterans of the Kaohsiung Incident and other activists formed the DPP, which first won the presidency in 2000, with Lu as its first vice president. Tsai's first presidential victory in early 2016, which was accompanied by a legislative majority, saw the DPP go from being Taiwan's main opposition party to its ruling party. The Kuomintang selected its first chairwoman, Hung Hsiu-chu, later that year.
While female politicians have focused on increasing gender equality, they have also pushed for other progressive legislation. Former DPP legislators Yu Mei-nu and Hsiao Bi-khim, for example, were vital in the push to legalize same-sex marriage, which after many years finally succeeded after a 2019 legislative vote. In that vote, four of the seven Kuomintang legislators who broke with their party to vote for legalization were women.
Lawyer Zoe Lee, who has made a name for herself as an advocate for marijuana decriminalization, ran -- unsuccessfully -- as a Green Party candidate in the latest legislative election, her first time running for office. The party selected her due to her advocacy, she said, rather than because of her connection to a prominent man, as was once common in Taiwan politics.
"In recent years, more and more female candidates are opting not to lead with 'I'm so-and-so's daughter' or 'I'm so-and-so's wife,'" said Lee, who has shone a spotlight on Taiwan's harsh and little-discussed marijuana laws -- an increasingly important issue among young voters. "When voters cast their ballots now, they're looking at the candidate, not the man she might be a proxy for."
Lee's observation rings true in the case of Tsai, one of the few women leaders in Asia to attain her position without familial or marital connections to her office. The president has vowed to advocate greater inclusion of women in politics and elsewhere in society.
"My platform as a female president means I have a duty to push for women's empowerment at home and abroad," Tsai said in a speech last year in Taipei. "And I will not stop until the term 'female president' is a thing of the past."