Let me tell you a story. You can probably guess where it happened from my previous posts.
While discussing an issue important to domestic policy in Taiwan, a panel of highly distinguished speakers took turns making some opening remarks, starting with the two women on the panel - both elected representatives in the Legislative Yuan.
Then the men spoke. The first one pointed out Taiwan's low birthrate and made a comment along the lines of how we can't expect Karen [one of the legislators] to have "more babies" to raise the birthrate. Then, seemingly slightly embarrassed, he blundered into a repetition of the same comment that we can't rely on this same legislator to have more children. (I have to hope he was repeating his bad joke in a flustered attempt to sort of prove to himself that his slip wasn't that bad). Another speaker said he served with her on various committees, and so spent "more time with her than her husband".
A friend of mine pointed out that every man on the panel repeated some version of this joke about a comparatively young, attractive female legislator (which shouldn't matter but probably does) having more babies for the sake of Taiwan's dwindling birthrate. I missed these other comments as opening remarks tend to be repetitive and I'd kind of already gotten the point and was making notes about what topics I might bring up.
When the floor opened to the audience, I wondered whether I should say something about how inappropriate this was. Or rather, I knew I should but had no idea how to word it. I had no idea if these men and this legislator have this sort of jokey friendship, but didn't think it mattered if they did; that doesn't excuse the inappropriacy of such public remarks.
And, I will admit with some regret and self-chastisement, I weighed in my head the need to discuss issues of national import when it came to language education and teacher training, with how discussion of these blatantly sexist remarks would detract from that.
Towards the end, another woman affiliated with CG (Corporate Governance) Watch did say something: that Ms. Yu's competence at her job as a legislator "has nothing to do with her ability to have children".
Thank goodness she did say that; someone had to. The audience was supportive; there was a strong round of applause and a few standing ovations (I was one of them). Yu herself looked relieved that someone had said something, though I won't try to interpret beyond that what her private thoughts were. The good news is that the men on the panel also seemed appropriately chastened.
It reminded me that, going forward, I need to do more to be that person, especially if nobody else is standing up and saying something. I do try, but none of us are perfect.
(No, I am not interested in a discussion of whether or not such comments were in fact sexist. They treated Legislator Yu in a particular manner because she was female and able to have children. That means they were sexist, period.)
I've said it before, and I'll say it again - it's hard to support Taiwan as a woman who also values egalitarianism. It was easy to get swept away discussing other issues of importance, and basically find a reason not to discuss the very real instance of sexist language on display at the beginning of that meeting.
What do you do when the people who are your allies in one way show that they have very little regard for your sex/gender in another? Would my points about language education and teacher training have gone unheard if I had been the one to say something? Bringing that up and making an issue of it, however right, may make it more difficult to discuss other issues and may even cause one to lose allies (a lot of men who say sexist things turn hostile when it's pointed out, and may not be willing to work with someone who addresses their behavior for what it is). And it takes time away from discussion of other issues.
And it can hurt the cause. There is unlikely to be any great damage as a result of these comments, the reaction to which hopefully caused the men in question to reflect on their behavior and commit to doing better next time. That's all this relatively minor incident needs, and I must hope or even insist that that happens. But what happens when it's, say, one of the leaders of the progressive cause?
It hurts the whole cause when the incidents are more serious, both in terms of media representation and female involvement - and I personally know than one woman who has shied away from joining progressive causes in Taiwan because of the men they'd have to spend time with. What woman wants to get involved when she knows the men she'll be working with are going to say and do sexist things?
It creates an environment where women are tempted - encouraged or pushed even - to overlook minor or even major instances of sexism in their fight alongside people who are otherwise allies, for the bigger picture, the greater cause. But we can't. It could hurt the reputation of the cause itself, or result in fewer women getting involved. If fewer women get involved, issues pertaining to women within that cause are less likely to be considered. For example, who is going to consider sexism in language education, including pay gaps for English teachers, if not as many women join the initiative this meeting was about, because they felt unwelcome after the remarks of the male panelists?
This meeting should not have been clouded with the comments of the men on the panel. It simply should never have happened. I should not even have to be writing this post, but feel I must.
We all need to go forward remembering that the people who brought down that cloud, who distracted from the main point, were not the woman who spoke up and the others who applauded her, but the men who made the comments in the first place.
Now, let's take this lesson and apply it to Taiwan advocacy in general. If Taiwan supporters in the US government are also sexist sacks of crap, we need to acknowledge that and deal with it, however we can. If women in Taiwan advocacy point out that there is a problem, damn it, listen to them and take it seriously. If someone in the movement is saying or doing sexist things, stop that person. Speak out. Men, you too. All of us. Deal with the small incidents like this one in small ways (a simple call-out and request for reflection will do), and the big ones in big ways.
Don't keep forcing women like me and others who fight for Taiwan to always have to do those mental calculations. It's not right, and you know it.