Women in Taiwan: The Opportunities and Limits of Socioeconomic and Political Change for Women’s Empowerment

Cal Clark & Janet Clark. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb and Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

As the postwar era commenced in the late 1940s, the status of women in Taiwan could probably best be described as dismal. The country had a poor agricultural economy that had been devastated by World War II; it was ruled by an authoritarian regime that had just lost a civil war in China; and its culture was widely described as a highly patriarchal one that relegated women to subservient roles. Consequently, most women faced highly constrained circumstances, and the prospects for political or economic changes that could improve their situation and status appeared remote.

Half a century later, both Taiwan and most women on the island had come a long way. The country experienced an “economic miracle” and is now an industrialized, if not postindustrial, nation with a gross domestic product per capita almost equal to that of the poorer countries in southern Europe. Although real political liberalization was delayed until the 1980s, there is now a thriving democracy. The status of women has also improved markedly. For example, women have a high level of participation in the labor force, and the ratio of women’s salaries to men’s has now reached the level that exists in the United States. In the political realm, women now occupy about a fifth of the seats in the country’s legislatures and assemblies.

Taiwan obviously has gone through dramatic socioeconomic and political change that has produced a much more prosperous and democratic society. That women would benefit from such change is somewhat more problematic, however, because both industrialization and democratization have had countervailing implications for the status of women in developing societies. On the one hand, industrialization should set off a series of socioeconomic changes favorable to women: (1) women’s greater participation in the formal labor market, (2) growing prosperity and opportunities for education, and (3) a more urbanized society in which the repressive power of extended kinship systems is diminished. On the other hand, many women face marginalization, rather than empowerment, from such disparate facets of industrialization as the mechanization of agriculture, the breakdown of strong kinship ties and the extended family, and the evolving division of labor in industrial urban centers. For example, new agricultural techniques (e.g., the Green Revolution in South Asia) were dominated by men, thereby marginalizing women in agricultural production; and women’s contribution to the industrial workforce was largely limited to the least skilled and most tenuous positions (Boserup 1970; Scott 1995 ). Consequently, although women in some social groups and classes have clearly benefited from industrialization, the accompanying economic and social transformations have reproduced and reinforced patriarchy in many societies. Similarly, because democracy provides broader avenues for influencing public policy, previously excluded and marginalized groups, such as women, might gain some influence on governmental activities in more democratic societies. However, the strength of the existing patriarchal culture will almost inevitably influence both the extent of women’s autonomous participation in the public sector and the efficacy of government policy. Indeed, women seemingly made few gains from the democratic transformations in Latin America and the former Soviet bloc during the 1980s and 1990s (Jaquette 1994; Waylen 1994).

The countervailing effects that economic and political development had upon the status of women during the 20th century suggest two divergent perspectives on women’s progress in Taiwan. First, Taiwanese women must have been able to take advantage of important opportunities that political and economic change opened up. Second, one needs to be careful not to overlook groups or types of women who have not benefited from rapid change on the island over the past half century.

This essay begins by presenting a brief overview of Taiwan’s development during the postwar era. Two sections then discuss women’s changing status in the socioeconomic and political spheres. Finally, the conclusion argues that many women in Taiwan were able to use resources made available during the country’s development but that significant groups of women were excluded from this process as well.

Taiwan’s Postwar Transformations

Taiwan’s economy and politics went through a series of transformations during the postwar era that created a prosperous democracy and created opportunities for many (but far from all) women to better their lives. In particular, four periods of major structural transformation can be discerned: (1) the 1950s, when both an authoritarian regime and the transformation away from an agricultural economy were consolidated; (2) the early 1960s to the early 1970s when the “export boom” revolutionized the economy and set off significant social changes; (3) the mid-1970s to the late 1980s, when substantial industrial upgrading was accompanied by the emergence of a middle-class society and a significant political liberalization, and (4) the late 1980s and the 1990s, when full democracy was finally achieved but the country was also challenged by an ongoing transformation from an industrial to an Information Age economy.

The first stage of Taiwan’s postwar development was strongly shaped by the imposition of authoritarian rule over the island by Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) party, which had evacuated to the island after it lost the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s. Under the KMT, the government was dominated by mainlanders (i.e., the 15 percent of the population who came to Taiwan with Chiang). The mainlanders were seen by many islanders, those who resided in Taiwan at the end of World War II, as treating the Taiwanese (who are also almost entirely Han Chinese) as second-class citizens in their own land. In addition, there was a legacy of political oppression called the “white terror,” most especially the tragedy of the February 28, 1947, or 2-2-8 Incident, in which a limited popular uprising brought a massive retaliation that resulted in an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 deaths, mostly by execution (Gold 1986). Although the KMT rule was strongly authoritarian, it included several aspects that helped to promote democratization several decades later. It incorporated existing social and political groups and factions into the lower levels of the regime. It also allowed local elections that the central party-state adroitly manipulated to play off local Taiwanese factions against each other (Rigger 1999).

In contrast, in the economic realm, this period saw a series of much more positive reforms or transformations. First, and probably most dramatically, a radical land reform created a productive small agriculture sector, greatly reduced the country’s economic and social inequality, and provided resources for small business entrepreneurship. Second, a program of universal primary education proved to be extremely successful in developing the country’s human capital. Third, the government substantially increased its economic leadership capability by bringing skilled technocrats into the top levels of the regime. Finally, import-substitution policies of protecting the domestic market allowed light industry to develop quite rapidly (Galenson 1979; Ho 1978).

Despite the initial success of this transformation, import-substitution soon reached its inevitable high point with the saturation of the local market for light industrial goods, setting off a new challenge for the Republic of China (ROC). The resources accumulated during this first stage then formed the foundation for a new transformation to exporting light industrial products in the 1960s. The technocrats conceived and implemented the major policy changes that made this transformation possible, but its success rested on the human capital that had been developed in the workforce and business community. The results were certainly spectacular as Taiwan recorded double-digit real economic growth through most of the 1960s and early 1970s based on an even more rapid expansion of primarily light industrial exports. In the political realm, the liberalization of the economy to promote exports had the perhaps ironic consequence of undercutting state power by forcing Taiwan’s small businesses to become highly entrepreneurial in the face of stiff international competition. This also had a very salutary social effect by increasing the power of the primarily Taiwanese business community, thereby bringing a little more balance to the relations between mainlanders and islanders (Galenson 1979; Gold 1986; Haggard 1990).

Just as with import substitution, the success of Taiwan’s export-led strategy contained the seeds of its own destruction in the sense that the island’s rising prosperity and wages began to price it out of the niche of low-cost manufactured products in the world economy. Economically, the ROC responded to this new challenge with two somewhat disparate transformations during the late 1970s and 1980s. First, there was a state-led push into heavy industry (e.g., steel and petrochemicals); second, the small-scale business sector began to upgrade its production techniques, especially in the electronics field (Fields 1995; Wade 1990). Important social change occurred with the emergence of a strong middle class (Hsiao 1991). The authoritarian regime also began to liberalize significantly with the emergence of a coherent opposition and the growing role for “electoral politicians” within the KMT (Copper 1988; Tien 1989).

The final structural transformation commenced in the late 1980s. Economically, Taiwan emerged as a major player in the global high-tech industry (e.g., ranking third in the world in semiconductor production at the beginning of the new millennium) and, correspondingly, saw a massive movement to offshore production in its traditional labor-intensive industries, primarily to the People’s Republic of China (Chang and Yu 2001; Chow 1997; Ling 1996). Unlike earlier eras, though, economic change was probably dwarfed by the transformation of the polity, as the ROC went through a very successful democratic transition. By the early to mid-1990s, Taiwan’s citizens were electing their political leaders in free and competitive elections, and the formerly opposition Democratic Progressive Party won the presidency in 2000 (Chao and Myers 1998; Rigger 1999, 2001). Perhaps because this final structural transformation is not yet complete, it appears more problematic than the first three. Economically, the massive loss of old industries periodically raises fears of impending crisis, and the polarization and gridlock in Taiwan’s recent politics have taken a little of the luster off its successful democratization (Clark 2006).

Cumulatively, therefore, these four transformations have radically reshaped Taiwan from a poor agricultural dictatorship to a prosperous industrial (or postindustrial) democracy. Such far-reaching and fundamental change certainly presents many opportunities and resources that women might potentially use for greater empowerment. Yet, as noted in the introductory section, development in many Third World nations has not really benefited women very much because of various barriers that prevent them from availing themselves of theoretically potential resources and opportunities. The next two sections, therefore, examine what socioeconomic and political development has meant for women in Taiwan.

Women’s Socioeconomic Status in Taiwan

Most indicators of women’s socioeconomic status in Taiwan imply that they have made substantial progress and now experience conditions that are, for the most part, equivalent to those in the developed world. For example, women in Taiwan now have a life expectancy of 80 years and a fertility rate of 1.7 children, both typical of figures in the developed nations (Statistical Bureau 2008). Women have a high rate of participation in the formal labor force at 48 percent, which is widely seen as an important prerequisite for their social empowerment (Statistical Bureau 2008). Most impressively, women’s average wages and salaries are 78 percent those of men (Taipei Times 2006). Although this is still far from equality, it is approximately equal the ratio in the United States.

The one somewhat questionable statistic is that women only averaged 8.8 years of schooling at the turn of the 21st century compared with 10.2 for men (Statistical Bureau 2008). This is clearly a holdover from the past when school attendance was much more limited than the almost universal secondary education that exists today. In 2005, for example, of the girls in the relevant age groups, 98 percent were enrolled in primary schools and 93 percent in secondary schools, almost exactly the same figures as for boys. Indeed, as Table 1 shows, there is little difference between the school attendance of girls and boys in Taiwan through the college and university level, although a clear male bias in graduate education remains.

The attainment of increased and increasingly equal education for women in Taiwan is crucial because a good education is almost required to broaden one’s possibilities and achieve independence and empowerment. Traditionally, before industrialization, most families in Taiwan were reluctant to invest in education for their girls who were regarded as “spilled water” because they left the family upon marriage. Consequently, educational opportunities are vital if women are to develop their skills and resources. At the beginning of Taiwan’s industrialization drive, educational opportunities were quite limited, and substantial gender inequality existed in the education system. For example, in 1951 the average man had attended school for four years, whereas the average woman had only a year and a half of education (Chiang and Ku 1985 .

Table 1. Females as a Percentage of All Students by Grade, 2005
Grade Percent Females
Source: Statistical Bureau (2006).
Kindergarten 48
Primary 48
Junior High 48
Senior High 50
Vocational School 45
Junior College 58
College or University 50
Graduate Programs 37

The government instituted compulsory primary school (grades 1-6) at the beginning of the country’s development drive, and compulsory schooling was expanded to nine years or junior high in 1968 (Hsieh 1996). Universal education paid for by the government is obviously very advantageous for girls because it overcomes cultural prejudices against girls’ going to school. The data on the percentages of girls and boys in various age cohorts who attended school in 1969 and 1988 in Table 2 demonstrate the importance of Taiwan’s educational policy. In 1969, just after the increase in compulsory schooling, there was nearly universal schooling for girls and boys through the age of 11. For older children, however, the proportion of those in school dropped considerably, and serious gender inequality existed for those who continued their schooling. For example, only little more than half (54 percent) of the girls aged 12-14 were in school, compared with nearly three-quarters (70 percent) of the boys. Clearly, the patriarchal traditional culture was acting in a biased manner to limit the resource endowments of many girls and women in Taiwan.

Two decades later, as Taiwan emerged as an industrialized society, the picture was much more positive. School attendance for both girls and boys had increased substantially. Furthermore, the decided gender inequality that existed in the educational system had also been overcome. Indeed, by 1988 women had become a little more likely than men to have continued their education beyond 15 years of age. Despite this aggregate equality in educational opportunities for girls and boys, however, more subtle but serious gender biases continue in the educational system. For example, lower levels of schools seem to be more oriented to educating and encouraging boys than girls, and substantial gender segregation by subject matter exists at colleges and vocational schools (Hsieh 1996). Even with these limitations, though, the tremendous expansion of educational opportunities for women during the postwar era is widely seen as making a major contribution to women’s empowerment in Taiwan (Chiang and Ku 1985 ; Farris 2000 ).

Taiwan’s pattern of economic development also proved to be helpful for improving women’s status, although the results were more contradictory than for the expansion of educational opportunities. The implications of land reform were very significant. During the 1950s and 1960s, these effects were clearly positive. Because of the small agricultural plots that were institutionalized by the Land to the Tiller program, large-scale mechanization was limited, thereby curbing the pressures for a gender-based division of labor in which men would monopolize the new, much more productive technologies. Consequently, women shared the benefits of vastly increased ownership and somewhat increased productivity with men without facing the negative spin-offs that the Green Revolution can produce for the status of women. Furthermore, Taiwan’s early development, which was based on the growth of geographically dispersed small factories, reduced the problems that early industrialization often creates for rural women. For example, the existence of nearby factories minimized the disruption of traditional ties and support systems that industrialization inevitably generates. More importantly, aggregate data on women’s employment showed that, perhaps surprisingly, they were not grossly underrepresented or overrepresented in most job categories except the very highest one of managers and administrators (Clark, Clark, and Chou 1996 ).

Table 2. Percentage of Age Groups Attending School
1969 1988
Source: Clark, Clark, and Chou (1996, 47).
Age 6-11
Male 98 99
Female 97 99
Age 12-14
Male 70 91
Female 54 90
Age 15-17
Male 43 73
Female 31 80
Age 18-21
Male 20 29
Female 15 33
Age 22-24
Male 7 8
Female 3 8

Taiwan’s rapid passage through industrial development into an Information Age economy by the 1990s was also quite beneficial to women because this tertiary economy created innumerable professional positions for which educated women were well qualified. This economic transition brought significant pressures and undercut traditional family relations. Several traditional norms continued to hold sway even as what has been termed the “new nuclear family” has increasingly replaced the extended rural kinship system in urbanized Taiwan. For example, daughters are still viewed as “marrying out” of their natal families. However, women, especially those who are educated and employed, have become much more independent. For example:

Highly educated urban women after marriage use their greater economic independence to help their natal families financially. Thus, various tensions within the family are evident as women assume new roles in the larger society. Many men resent challenges to their traditional prerogatives of domination in the public domain and also resent challenges to a sexual double standard. This contributes to domestic discord and a slowly rising divorce rate. (Farris 2000, 158)

Despite Taiwan’s relatively good record in terms of aggregate statistics, more detailed and qualitative studies point to continuing and substantial biases that women faced in labor markets during Taiwan’s industrialization. Most importantly, women’s role in the industrial labor force has always been subject to very considerable discrimination. For example, women have formed a highly disproportionate number of the “part-time proletariat” who work in factories before marriage, rank at the bottom of pay and status among manufacturing employees, have almost no opportunity for advancement, and continue to be subordinated within traditional family structures. In agriculture and small-scale commerce, moreover, women are far more likely than men to occupy the marginalized status of “unpaid family help” (Greenhalgh 1985; Hsieh 1996; Kung, 1981). This marginalization of a substantial number of women in Taiwan’s postwar economy spotlights class differences among women as well as the growing role of education and professional employment in promoting the independence and empowerment of many (but far from all) women in Taiwanese society.

Women’s Political Status in Taiwan

Women can use government and the political processes in two distinct ways to improve their status. First, women officials are usually assumed to be especially responsive to women’s concerns and issues. Thus, having more women officials should result in more governmental policies supportive of women (Clark, Clark, and Chou 1990; Thomas 1994). Second, women’s groups and individual women can lobby public officials to gain favorable policies. Indeed, the activities of grassroots women’s organizations have been quite effective in upgrading the status of women in a wide range of contexts in both the developed and developing worlds (Bystydzienski and Sekhon 1999; Lee and Clark 2000). This section, hence, examines women’s political status on Taiwan. (Clark and Clark 2002 provides a much more detailed discussion of these data.)

Women in Political Office

In terms of holding official political offices, women have gained significant representation in many areas of government. As illustrated by the data in Table 3, the question of how well women are represented in Taiwan’s politics is one of whether one sees a glass as half full or half empty. On the one hand, women are grossly underrepresented in almost all categories of political offices and jobs; on the other hand, they now have very significant representation that is fairly high in comparative perspective. At the turn of the 21st century, for example, women held about a fifth of the seats in legislative bodies at all levels of government, although they did not achieve this level of representation in the most important Legislative Yuan until the 1990s. As described in the sidebar on page 616, this success in electoral politics was the result of a constitutional mandate that reserved a minimum number of legislative seats for women (Clark, Clark, and Chou 1990). Likewise, women now generally hold at least a fifth of the cabinet posts, although a woman was not appointed as a minister until 1988. Women are even less well represented among the mayors and chief executives of cities and counties and at the top levels of the judiciary. Finally, women hold only approximately 10 percent of the high-level positions in the civil service, but they do have much better representation (nearly 40 percent) at the middle levels.

Table 3. Women’s Political Representation in Taiwan, 1998-2001
Legislative Representation Number of Women Percentage of Women Members
Source: Clark and Clark (2002, 21-24).
Legislative Yuan 43 19
National Assembly 61 18
Provincial Councils 16 20
District Councils 151 17
Town Councils 620 17
Executive Representation
National Government’s Cabinet 9 23
County/City Executives 3 13
Town Mayors 18 6
Judicial Representation
Grand Justices 1 6
Supreme Court Justices 10 13
Administrative Court Justices 5 21
High Court Justices 39 13
District Court Justices 261 32
Civil Service Representation
Political Appointees 23 7
Grades 10-14 775 11
Grades 6-9 28,754 39
Grades 1-5 39,826 54
Employees 7,871 62

Gaining political office, of course, does not necessarily mean women will be able to exercise effective power or pursue their own policy objectives. This is especially true for Taiwan where the patriarchal Confucian culture might well result in women officeholders acting and being treated as second-class “tokens.” Moreover, especially during the authoritarian era, many governmental positions did not really confer much power upon the officeholder. Still, there are several important indications that women officials did participate meaningfully in government. For example, two studies of Taiwan legislators based on in-depth interviews with matched samples of assemblywomen and assemblymen found a surprising similarity in the activities and role orientations of female and male legislators in both the authoritarian era (Clark, Clark, and Chou 1990) and the more recent democratic period (Yang 1999).

During the mid-1980s, of course, Taiwan’s politics still retained considerable authoritarian controls, and, in particular, legislative activities were clearly constrained. Thus, it might be argued that the relative similarity between assemblywomen and assemblymen at that time lacked much substantive import. The same cannot be said for Taiwan’s politics after the democratic transition was completed in the early 1990s. Consequently, the argument that women legislators in Taiwan are far from inactive tokens receives strong support from similar findings about the activism of women legislators in Wan-ying Yang’s study of the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s national parliament), which was based on interviews conducted in late 1997 with a matching sample of about 20 women and 20 men (Yang 1999).

Table 4. Emphasis in Bill Sponsorship by Gender, 1996-1997
Area Women * Men*
Source: Yang (1999 , 106).
*Columns do not sum to precisely 100% because of rounding.
Feminist issues 13% 1%
Caring issues 42% 17%
Judicial issues 20% 13%
Economic development issues 17% 36%
Politics and government issues 1% 19%
Defense and foreign affairs 1% 5%
Group advocacy 4% 10%

Furthermore, Yang was explicitly interested in the question of whether women and men legislators differed in their representative activities. Table 4, for instance, explores the hypothesis that women and men would specialize in sponsoring different types of bills (these data are not based on Yang’s interviews but on the records of the Legislative Yuan for all parliamentarians). In particular, Yang hypothesized that a much higher proportion of the bills introduced by women compared with men would address either (1) feminist issues (legal equality and improving women’s status in society) or (2) caring issues (such areas of women’s traditional concerns as children, education, health care, and social welfare). Table 4 provides strong support for this hypothesis as more than half (57 percent) of the bills sponsored by women were in these two fields, whereas less than a fifth (18 percent) of men’s bills were; the difference (as might be expected) was especially pronounced concerning feminist issues (13 percent to 1 percent). In addition, women accorded a slightly higher priority than men to bills concerning judicial affairs (20 percent to 13 percent), perhaps reflecting a greater interest in human and legal rights (which can benefit women even if not specifically targeted toward them). Overall, therefore, women legislators in Taiwan do appear to be specializing in the representation of women.

The “Reserved Seats” System and Women’s Political Representation in Taiwan

While women remain grossly underrepresented in almost all categories of political offices in Taiwan, they now have very significant representation that is fairly high for a developing country. At the turn of the 21st century, for example, women held about a fifth of the seats in legislative bodies at all levels of government. The historical operation of Taiwan’s electoral system provides the primary explanation for women’s comparatively good representation today. Article 136 of the 1946 Constitution mandates that women be guaranteed a minimum representation in legislative assemblies at all levels of government. In practice, this has meant that one or more seats are “reserved” for a woman in Taiwan’s multimember electoral districts, and the number of “reserved seats” is determined by the size of the district. When a sufficient number of women candidates collects enough votes to be elected, they are considered to meet this quota. However, when no or not enough female candidates collect enough votes to be elected, those with the most votes are awarded the seat or seats reserved for them. Overall, about 10 percent of legislative seats were reserved for women by this system. The fact that there were competitive local elections even during the highly authoritarian era of the 1950s-1970s in which the central government played off local factions against each other meant that these factions had a strong incentive to recruit women candidates in order to prevent the reserved seats from falling to their rivals by default. Over time, therefore, women candidates had to develop their political skills; and by the 1970s or 1980s, depending upon the office, women were exceeding their reserved quotas by significant margins in all of Taiwan’s legislative elections. The institutional support of the “reserved seats system,” to sum, allowed women to enter into Taiwan’s electoral politics. Gradually, women candidates and officials built up their political skills and resources, so they now are quite competitive in their own right.

In contrast to the reserved-seats system, the specific political dynamics of Taiwan’s political democratization were not particularly helpful to women because they worked to marginalize women’s issues. Questions of ethnic justice have always been central to politics in Taiwan because the 15 percent mainlander minority dominated the government and the ruling KMT party during the authoritarian era. For example, the Democratic Progressive Party, which emerged as the leading challenger to the KMT in the late 1980s, has always emphasized Taiwanese nationalism in its platform (Rigger 2001; Wachman 1994). Consequently, other issues, such as women’s and social welfare issues, have been shunted to the margins of political debate. More recently, beginning in the late 1990s, the balance in Taiwan’s politics became so even and highly polarized that very little opportunity for policy initiatives existed (Clark 2006). In combination, therefore, these factors have kept women’s issues fairly low on Taiwan’s political agenda.

Women’s Groups and Political Activism

In the realm of civil society, feminist and women’s groups have pushed for an aggressive agenda of democratization, social reform, and equal rights for women. During the authoritarian era, a variety of women’s groups existed. However, they were either officially organized by the regime, such as the KMT’s Office of Women’s Activities, or were fairly conservative social and professional organizations that were closely tied to the Office of Women’s Activities. Consequently, these organizations were highly supportive of the political status quo and refrained from challenging Taiwan’s patriarchal culture (Chiang and Ku 1985; Lu 1994).

Taiwan’s feminist movement in the 1970s was something of a “one woman whirlwind,” in large part because of the open hostility from the regime. Hsiu-lien Annette Lu, who had been exposed to American feminism during her studies in the United States, launched Taiwan’s feminist movement with a talk on International Women’s Day in 1972 and with the publication in 1974 of a book, New Feminism, which described Western feminism, gave a historical overview of the position of women in Chinese society, and argued that considerable gender inequalities still existed in Taiwan. Although Lu quite consciously limited her analysis and arguments to seemingly moderate issues, the regime quickly concluded that her brand of feminism constituted a threat to the island’s social order, thus contradicting its women’s policy, which was aimed at preserving the patriarchal tradition in Taiwan. For example, when Lu was arrested after the Kaohsiung incident, a huge 1979 protest that was followed by a harsh crackdown on opposition leaders, her interrogators specifically berated her for her activities on behalf of the feminist movement, even though they had nothing to do with the alleged reason for her arrest:

Your motivation to launch such a movement is to destabilize the society, especially to arouse dispute between the husbands and wives of our high ranking officials so that their marriages may be broken. (Farris 1994, 311)

In the face of repression from the KMT, support for Lu and the feminist movement remained limited. The Women’s New Awakenings Foundation, which was founded in 1982, continued Lu’s work in the 1980s (while she was in jail); it was the only women’s group that openly promoted feminism and women’s rights before the end of martial law in the late 1980s, even though women continued to suffer from substantial handicaps. For example, despite the fact that the Constitution proclaimed equality of the sexes, many laws discriminated against women, especially the marital property law, which prevented married women from developing economic independence. Even so, the foundation’s journal, New Awakenings, had to struggle in its work to raise female consciousness, encourage self-development, and voice feminist opinion. The magazine was considered radical by many and failed to win a wide readership. In addition, most of the feminist leaders were mainlanders, which unfortunately limited their appeal to islander women (Chiang and Ku 1985; Teng 1991).

The beginning of Taiwan’s democratic transition in the mid-1980s, however, opened up much more “space” for feminist activities and the formation of new, independent women’s groups. For example, Lu’s New Feminism was reissued in 1986, and, after martial law was lifted in 1987, a coalition of women’s, human rights, and religious groups organized a large public demonstration against child prostitution. More generally, many new women’s organizations were formed. In 1986, for instance, Chen Hsiu-hui established the Homemakers Union, which was concerned with environmental protection and a wide range of social issues. The growth in the number and kind of women’s organizations demonstrated concern not only for the traditional women’s issues of child care and hospital services but also for broader social goals. Women displayed an increased willingness to focus on shared substantive issues such as prostitution, pornography, and discrimination in the workplace. They also participated in protests related to nuclear development, pollution, police-protected prostitution, and aborigines’ land struggles. Somewhat later in the 1990s, the feminist movement in Taiwan also began to expand. In particular, the diversity (as well as the number) of feminist groups increased to meet the needs of particular groups of women. For example, the Feminist Studies Association became quite active in academic life, the Warm Life Association was formed by divorced women, and the Taipei Association for the Promotion of Women’s Rights and Pink Collar Solidarity supported working women against the still prevalent patriarchal norms in Taiwan’s economy and society (Chiang and Ku 1985; Farris 1994; Ku 1998; Weller 1999).

Not all women’s groups were particularly feminist, though. In fact, several seemingly derived their success from appealing to traditional values. For example, the Homemakers’ Union Environmental Protection Foundation primarily appealed to middle-class housewives who “root their environmentalism in issues of household and motherhood” (Weller 1999, 114). Moreover, probably the most successful women’s group through the 1990s, the Compassionate Relief Merit Society, appeared distinctly unfeminist. Compassionate Relief was founded by a Buddhist nun in the 1960s and had grown to a membership of 4 million (80 percent women) 25 years later, making it the largest civic organization in Taiwan, with an annual charitable budget of more than $20 million. This organization, in addition to its traditional religious orientation, ignores normal feminist concerns in its support for the traditional family structure and in its appeal to wealthy housewives:

Many of the followers’ stories speak of alcoholic husbands, shrewish mothers-in-law, and disappointing children. Compassionate Relief teaches them to accept their problems, gives them a supportive group of friends, and offers new interests that give them a feeling of worthy accomplishment…. Compassionate Relief’s unique appeal to women in Taiwan thus stems from its universalization of women’s family concerns. It confirms women in their family roles yet also extends them beyond the family itself for the first time. (Weller 1999, 98)

This importance of women’s groups also suggests that conventional stereotypes of women’s subordination and submissiveness in Confucian societies are somewhat oversimplified. For example, Emma Teng (1996) points to a research tradition based on Margery Wolf’s Women and the Family in Rural Taiwan (1972). Wolf’s anthropological fieldwork found a variety of social phenomena that were at variance with the prevailing stereotype of women’s universal oppression and victimization under Confucian patriarchal culture. Women’s status differed considerably over their life cycle; women actively participated in informal social networks that exercised considerable power; and some of these social networks even constituted “a women’s community.” Overall, Wolf’s work:

offered a radical challenge to the idea that women were wholly subordinated in the Confucian patriarchal family. Wolf’s notion of the “uterine family,” centered on the mother, opened the way for an investigation into an alternate women’s view of Chinese society that contrasted with the official Confucian view. (Teng 1996, 125)

Robert Weller’s work on civil society and democracy in China and Taiwan (1999) represents a somewhat broader application of this approach. His analysis of civil society in Taiwan and China, in particular, is distinctive because of the strong emphasis he places on the role of women in developing informal social organizations in Chinese societies. Weller argues that historically women have played a leading role in a wide array of “horizontal” social organizations (e.g., religious groups, poetry societies, clothes washing groups, and revolving credit associations) at every level or class in society. Although these organizations, unlike those dominated by men, were almost exclusively communal and local in nature, the ties were often more intense and more trustworthy than in male organizations. In contemporary society, Weller sees women as taking a leading role in small business and revolving credit associations, charitable groups (e.g., Compassionate Relief), and even more conventional political interest groups (e.g., the Homemakers’ Union).

Women in Taiwan

Women in Taiwan have certainly made considerable, if not remarkable, progress over the postwar period. They have done so by using new resources to enhance their independence, empowerment, and status. Although not generally recognized, women’s networks were important even in traditional Taiwanese society, creating a basis for women’s activism and empowerment. Tremendously increased opportunities for education, professional employment, and political influence allowed numerous women to transform and improve their lives and life opportunities. Still, despite these expanding opportunities, Taiwan’s development pattern also created very significant barriers to the empowerment of many women. For example, those who did not have access to better education and professional employment have been generally marginalized in Taiwan’s increasingly postindustrial society. Furthermore, although democratization has allowed a wide array of women’s groups to emerge and become politically influential over the past two decades, the dominant issue dynamics in the polity have also made it hard to get many women’s issues onto the political agenda. In short, much has been accomplished but much also remains to be done.