Monday, January 16, 2012

My Admiration for Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)

Even though I'm still bitterly disappointed in the election results, I do have a few positive things to say.

First, I can't say enough how much I appreciate the fact that Tsai Ying-wen was a viable female candidate, especially in Asia. Different countries in Asia have had female leaders before: Indira Gandhi, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Corazon Aquino, Benazir Bhutto...Golda Meir for those count Israel as Asia (and it technically is - east of the Bosphorus and all - but by that definition I'm part Asian. Haha. Hahaha. Ha. But really, both Armenia and Hatay are east of the Bosphorus, too. Does that really mean I have Asian ancestry? I don't feel it does). I could scour the complete Interwebz for the complete list but I think I've made my point.                    

Of that list, very few female Presidents/Prime Ministers made it to that position on their own accomplishments alone. Would Benazir Bhutto have become Prime Minister if her father hadn't been Zulfikar Bhutto? How about Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru? There's Cory Aquino - who rose higher than her assassinated husband but was lifted there in part by his martyrdom and Megawati, the daughter of Sukarno. Macapagal-Arroyo is the daughter of a former President of the Philippines. That leaves Meir, with debatable geography.
What this means is that Tsai Ying-wen is, more or less, the first female politician in Asia who had a viable shot at a nation's highest office and got their without any family connections, history or prior family name recognition.

And that is HUGE. I don't think many people realize how huge it really is. Even in the USA I can't come up with one woman who ever really had a shot at the presidency and had no husband or father-based name recognition that got her there (basically, Hillary Clinton is the only one who had the shot, and she had the Clinton Brand Name going. Palin and Bachmann never had a chance). In all of modern Asian history, she's the one who got there on her own merits, skill and accomplishments.      

I admire that very deeply, and it's one of the reasons why I not only supported the DPP in this election, but specifically supported her

I don't mean to imply that Gandhi, Bhutto, Macapagal-Arroyo, Sukarnoputri etc. were not also accomplished and strong women (although I  have never been a big fan of Indira Gandhi). Even coming from a family of great political pedigree, these were smart, accomplished women of mettle who contributed their own strength to their political careers. Tsai is special because she is a smart, accomplished woman of mettle who didn't have the benefit of that political pedigree. And we almost elected her anyway. On a continent (and in a world) rife with sexism. 

Step by step, I guess.  I do believe in my lifetime that we'll see an Asian female leader elected just because of what she's done and not because of who she's related or married to.

I also admire Taiwan for this: sure, she didn't win, but she had a real shot. She almost did win. The Taiwanese people, by and large, voted based on merits and personal preferences and the fact that Tsai is female didn't seem to factor into it much. The one time it became a national issue and she was accused of being a lesbian simply because she has never married (thanks, Shih Ming-de), the entire "issue" was shouted down by the vast majority of Taiwanese as "ridiculous", "who cares", "not our business", "that's not an issue". Compare that to the American Democratic primaries of 2008 when Hillary had sexist epithets slung at her left and right, with a media happy to join the morass. She got called a "bitch" for things she did that every male politician does - the difference being that the men get away with it. If she showed emotion she was just a "too soft" woman, if she had iron balls she "too masculine/threatening".

That didn't happen with Tsai. Although there is a lot of room to improve on women's equality in Taiwan, this really speaks volumes.

I admire that she could choose pink for a campaign color and not be mocked for it. I admire that her campaign posters often said "台灣第1女總統", rather than playing down her gender as I feared she might do - which many prominent female politicians engage in because they think they must. I admire that when her gender was brought up, it was in a positive light (see: Lee Teng-hui's endorsement).

I am sure there are still some misogynists out there who didn't vote for her simply because she is female, and some who have convinced themselves that they don't like her for other reasons, but their dislike of her is subconsciously rooted in sexism, but I am proud to say that my observation is that these people, in Taiwan, are in the great minority. I don't think I can say that about my own country, the "leader of the free world".  People may not have voted for Tsai because they didn't like / trust her or her party, but I do feel - as far as I've noticed - that very few didn't vote for her based solely on her gender (although I do wonder about that surprisingly low 55% pro-DPP cote count in Pingdong). It just didn't seem to be an issue. 

For that, I *heart* Taiwan. It makes me feel that this country truly is a good progressive model for Asia. There is still a long way to go - it has not quite yet achieved true gender egalitarianism - but it seems to be one step ahead of the rest of Asia when it comes to women's issues. You would not have seen this in Japan, Korea or China.  I'm not sure if a woman not from a famous political family could make this happen in India or SE Asia, either. Asia...listen up. Taiwan is where you need to be looking. You can learn a lot from this election just in terms of women's issues. 

And next time, we'll win. Not just the DPP, but we'll get a female president. Someday. It will happen. It has to. We're roughly half the population, after all.

1 comment:

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