TAIPEI Tsai Ing-wen's election victory on Jan. 16 made her not only the first female president in Taiwan's history, but the first female politician to rise so high in the Chinese-speaking world. And unlike most of her precursors in Asia, she made it without the benefit of a dynasty.
"Given Asia's very patriarchal culture and the fact that she did not come from a political family background, this is definitely a landmark," said Huang Chang-ling, an associate professor of politics at National Taiwan University.
Powerful political women in Asia have tended to be wives, daughters or sisters of former leaders. The first in the modern era was Sri Lanka's Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who became prime minister of what was then Ceylon in 1960, the year after her husband and predecessor Solomon Bandaranaike was assassinated.
Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister after it gained independence from Britain. Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and President Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia both followed in their fathers' footsteps.
Although not a head of state or government, Aung San Suu Kyi is unquestionably Myanmar's most powerful political figure. She is the daughter of the country's pre-independence hero, Aung San, who was assassinated when she was an infant. Suu Kyi led her National League for Democracy to a landslide general election victory in November, and her party is set to form the core of the next government.
Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was designated for the position by her older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, a successful businessman-turned-politician, was prime minister from 2001 until 2006, when the military ousted him in a coup.
"ONLY A START" Does Tsai's election suggest that Taiwan is less nepotistic than other parts of Asia?
Huang suggests it has more to do with an electoral gender quota that dates from the 1947 constitution. According to her research, this can be traced even further back to the early women's rights movement of the mid-1920s, when the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, was strongly influenced by republican and socialist ideals.
This all contributed to an institutional framework that encouraged women's participation in politics and saw Annette Lu Hsiu-lien elected vice president in 2000.
Female members of parliament now account for 38.1% of the total in Taiwan, a 4.5-point increase from the previous election. According to data as of November last year by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva, Taiwan is above the global average of 22.6% and well ahead of Japan's 9.5%. Only East Timor was higher in Asia, with 38.5%.
Taiwan also contrasts with China, which has laid claim to the island since the two split in 1949. Beijing has never had a woman in any of its top positions. No woman has made it into the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China, the supreme governing organ. Only six women have had seats in the Politburo, the ruling organ below, and three of those -- Jiang Qing, Ye Qun and Deng Yingchao -- were prominent political wives.
Still, Taiwan's election of a female president does not mean women have equal status there.
"A racist country cannot be changed overnight just because you have an African-American president," said Yi-Chien Chen, an associate professor of gender studies at Shih Hsin University in Taipei, alluding to the U.S., where the election of President Barack Obama has not closed the book on racial issues. Chen believes Taiwan's deep-rooted patriarchal culture cannot be transformed instantly, either. "I think it is only a start," she said.
Chen also believes class played a part in the new president's triumph. Although Tsai started out with no political assets, she was the product of an affluent background that gave her an education and other tools for success in politics. "Women in the middle class have more chances than women from the working class," Chen said.
"Tsai has opened the door for women," Huang said. Whether that door opens wider or closes again may depend on how Tsai performs as president.