by Yun-Ling Li

Photo Credit: 余志偉/Storm Media Group

WHEN IT COMES TO POLITICIANS, what is the first image that comes to mind? I would presume it is a man with an assertive attitude, high self-esteem and confidence, and who might occasionally talk aggressively. However, recently more and more women are participating in politics. What if I were to ask you to imagine a female politician? I bet the characteristics associated with this image of a female politician will be similar to the first image of the male politician.

For people in sociology, particularly in the study of gender, it is common sense that sex and gender are two different concepts: the former usually refer to biological characteristic while the latter is socially constructed that is constantly educated through individuals’ lives. Biological characteristics associated with sex may not be so easy to alter: men and women have different genitals, and men and women can behave based on their sexes accordingly. What is changeable more easily is that men and women can choose not to adhere to the gender role expectations. In other words, women can act like men with behaviors as well as attitudes that are not so womanish, and vice versa.

Tsai Ing-Wen and Lu Hsiu-lien.  Photo credit: 余志偉 and Storm Media Group

But when it comes to politics, things are different. Let us start with parliament. People who have concerns with gender equality often argue that in Taiwan there are 38 women elected as legislators now, and it seems that they dare to express their opinions in the Legislative Yuan, sometimes are even louder than the male politicians, and hence they conclude women are doing better and better in Taiwan overall. Yet the ratio of women legislators is 33.63%, and demographically speaking, in Taiwan the ratio of women to men is 100: 99.99, meaning that in general men are outnumbered by women; hence, the 38 women in Legislative Yuan can hardly be said to be “doing good.”

If we look at the progress of women’s participation in politics in Taiwan, we need to begin with some historical context. During 1980s, because of the Kaohsiung Incident (美麗島事件) and subsequent events, many opposition protestors and elites were arrested; of these pro-democracy demonstrators’ relatives, some of them were women, and they joined the political struggles by participating official elections in order to rescue their loved ones or advocate their loved ones’ political claims. I am not saying that women politicians are all dependent on their male relatives’ resources, but I do want to point out that in Taiwanese politics, at the outset, women have limited accesses to political participation. Gradually, we have started to witness some women’s appearances in the parliament, eventually gaining their own power and the right to speak. Other than people’s increasing recognitions of women’s political participation, we can not ignore the importance of the Additional Articles of the constitution of the Republic of China (中華民國憲法增修條文) about reserved seats for women (as well as other minority groups) in legislature.

In recent decades, both in western and non-western countries, some women have been elected as the head of state; for example, German, Korea or Brazil. There also have been rumors saying that Hilary Clinton has been preparing to run for 2016 presidency. In the 2008 Taiwanese presidential campaign, the DPP nominated the first female candidate—Tsai Ing-wen, who had been considered as having the best chance to defeat the incumbent president, Ma Ying-jeou. Although Tsai eventually did not win this campaign, her appearance has provoked some thoughts in terms of women’s possibilities about leadership, especially as a leader of a country. Unlike other previous women politicians, Tsai herself did not have previous connections within Taiwanese politics; in other words, the political resources available for her to run 2008 presidential campaign came from her own work, such as serving as chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council in 2000, or vice president of the Executive Yuan in 2006. This is rare, especially in Asian countries: South Korea’s current president, Park Geun-hye, inherited political resources from her father, the president of South Korea from 1962-1979, and thus won the election in 2012. Former Filipino president – Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who held office from 2001 to 2010, is the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal, who held the office from 1961 to 1965, and in this way she is also dependent on her father’s political resources to run her office. In other words, women leaders in Asian countries usually need to have established political connections from their male relatives in order to have access the top authority.

20131226JW0064Dow-Jones-James-McGrego2013.12.26-03-14-2014.jpg_2038914058Tsai Ing-Wen. Photo credit: Storm Media Group

What is fascinating is how a woman politician like Tsai displays herself in public and the imagination the media and population take away. First of all, because she does not have inherited resources like other women leaders, she needs to prove that she is capable of competing with the “guys.” In this traditionally male-dominated space, she acts “like a man”: I don’t recall that I ever have seen her wearing a dress or skirt in public since holding public office, she sometimes dresses casually, in jeans or a T-shirt, but never in feminine attire. Moreover, she does not usually display too much emotion: usually, I see her in the media with a smile on her face and a determined voice discussing serious issues, her eyes staring directly and firmly toward the audience. Here, I see a woman being masculinized in a way that shows/displays the characteristics associated with masculinity. However, she cannot be totally masculinized; she sometimes needs to show/display her feminine side, such as “feeling seriously” instead of “feeling angry” about something, or being modest on occasions and not snatching the microphone. Otherwise, she will be criticized as too “bitchy” and “bossy”, like her predecessor, Lu Hsiu-lien. Hence we see women politicians in Taiwan are caught in an ambivalent position, and to be recognized in this male-dominated arena, Tsai needs to maneuver a delicate balance between masculinity and femininity.

Whether in regards to sex or gender, people tend to use binary differentiation and presume some characteristics are fixed to each gender: man as inherently masculine and woman as inherently feminine. As to the present, people are more likely to accept that women display some masculine traits occasionally, as long as she is not “going too far” or being “too manly”. In a competitive society, we often value masculine characteristics more than feminine ones, but this only works well when men have these features. For women, they are often asked to do things in a more womanly way so that men will feel less threatened (“A-ha! She is not as tough as me; after all, she is a woman!”). I will not say this is progress; to me, it is something more like a lack of imagination about people’s possibility of playing with gender expectations, roles, and behaviors. With this kind of incapability, a male politician with some feminine characteristics could only but be despised as weak and incompetent.