Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s First Elected Female President, A Supporter Of Feminism & LGBT Rights

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In a landslide and historic victory, Tsai Ing-wen has been elected Taiwan’s first female president. She is the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, and managed to secure 56.12% of the vote, beating out her rival Eric Chu of the ruling Nationalist party KMT.

It is a move that is being celebrated for a few specific reasons. First, it sends a message to China that although they are a technically still governed by them, they are a sovereign state making their own decisions. Although Taiwan is self-ruling after it split with China following a civil war in 1949, it has never declared independence and Beijing still sees it as part of its territory awaiting reunification. A win for Tsai is a win for democracy and a generation who wants their identity to be separate from China.

It is also a significant win because Tsai now joins a growing list of women in Asia who are being elected heads of state. Myanmar, Nepal, South Korea, and Bangladesh are just a handful of countries choosing to go against decades of patriarchy which have dictated the limited role of women in public life, let alone positions of leadership.

In relation to China which is ruled by a Communist government, it puts the pressure on the Chinese government to break away from patriarchal tradition and include more women to positions of power, .

In her first speech to the media, Tsai exerted her democratic voice to remind China of why she was elected.

“Our democratic system, national identity and international space must be respected. Any forms of suppression will harm the stability of cross-strait relations,” she said.

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Under the outgoing KMT-led government, Taiwanese people have become angry about their countries growing ties with China and their willingness to bow down to their demands. In response, Beijing has warned it will not deal with any leader who does not recognize the “one China” principle, part of a tacit agreement between Beijing and the KMT known as the “1992 consensus” which is the bedrock of the rapprochement. However, the DPP has never recognized the consensus.

Aside from a new direction for Taiwan, the KMT also lost its hold on the legislature, leaving no room for wondering why China feel the need to exert their authority at this time.

While that relationship will be an ongoing struggle for Taiwan, especially after Tsai officially takes office in May, there is so much about this woman that is inspiring and a clear indication of the way the majority of Taiwanese people want the country to go.

After earning a Master’s Degree at Cornell and a PhD at the London School of Economics, she was a professor at several Taiwanese universities before foraying into politics. She joined the DPP party in 2004, ran for mayor of the capital Taipei in 2010 but lost, then first ran for president in 2012 before losing that bid, to the KMT.

The significance of being the first female president for the Island nation is certainly not lost on Tsai, as she cites certain female leaders as her role models. She is a fan of Sheryl Sandberg’s philosophy on getting women to “lean in” to positions of leadership, she advocates political quotas as a way of encouraging more women to take those opportunities, and advocates the female leadership style.

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“Whether you are male or female, we have a great deal to learn by studying female leadership qualities. Attentiveness, tolerance, calm, flexibility and organization — not only women, but every leader should strive for these qualities,” she said during a recent trip to Silicon Valley.

Women’s leadership, workplace equality, and female participation in politics were regular topics brought up in her campaign speeches. In July 2015 she gave a speech for female undergraduate students at National Taiwan University, where she spoke about the work she did, including proposing the Gender Equality in Employment Act. This law gives women maternity leave rights, prohibits sex discrimination in hiring, and strengthens anti sexual-harassment laws.

What’s interesting about her victory against the outgoing incumbent party is that she was initially going to be running against another woman. The KMT originally fielded Hung Hsiu-chu as their leader, but after bad reception in polls accusing her of being too abrasive for voters. Eric Chu became her replacement but didn’t stand a chance against Tsai Ing-wen.

Both women have benefited from a political system which reserves seats for women specifically. About a third of the 113 lawmakers elected to the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, in the last polls in 2012 were women. In Asia, only East Timor has a higher percentage, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Women make up about 20% of the U.S. Congress, by comparison.

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Bloomberg reports that the Taiwanese constitution now sets aside 15 percent of the legislature for women. In 1986, women held less than 10 percent percent of the seats in Taiwan’s legislature; today they hold one-third, and head 10 central government departments.

Another great quality about Taiwan’s new president is her stance on LGBT rights. Tsai and vocalized support of expanding rights to same sex marriage couples, which is not altogether surprising given that Taiwan has some of the most progressive LGBT policies across Asia. Just recently we saw how China implemented its first ever domestic violence law, and while the move was hailed as important, it did not include rights for LGBT couples.

Her biggest statement affirming gay rights came in 2015 during the Chinese version of Valentines Day when she appeared alongside 3 gay couples and also taking part in gay pride parade festivities via a video which was shared thousands of times on Facebook.

“When it comes to love, everyone is equal. I am Tsai Ing-wen, and I support marriage equality. Every person should be able to look for love freely, and freely seek their own happiness,” she said.

Tsai Ing-wen’s stand for unification is a clear message for democratic rights, as she doesn’t want the country to be divided based on political lines.

“I will only recognize the people, I will not see blue or green. When the DPP takes the central office, all counties will be treated equally,” she said in a statement in January ahead of the election, referencing the colors of the two opposing parties.

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It’s not just Taiwan that is ready for a new direction headed up by new leadership, there are many countries looking for change, including here in the US. Democracy is worth fighting for, as evidenced by the number of millennial voters who actively participate in the electoral system in countries like Taiwan and Myanmar. Now with millennials making up a bigger demographic than baby boomers for the first time in the United States, it is important candidates recognize who is going to take notice of their policies the most.

Unlike other leaders who rise to power in Asia, Tsai Ing-wen is not related to anyone powerful, and does not come from a political family. She is not married and does not have any children, which is a big deal in the Asian culture. Nevertheless, the voice of the people have spoken, saying that for the first time in Taiwan, they are willing to elect a leader based on her policies, not her gender or connections.

In a speech to the Council on Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. last year, she echoed the sentiments of what the Taiwanese people are looking for in a leader and signaled a change in the country’s image on the international stage going forward.

“Of course, there are some people in Taiwan that are still rather traditional and they have some hesitation in considering a woman president. But among the younger generation, I think they are generally excited about the idea of having a woman leader. They think it is rather trendy,” she said.

When it comes to choosing politicians, it’s not their gender, their spouses, family members, powerful connections, religion, or how they conform to cultural and societal norms that matters. It is their policies, what they stand for, and how they plan to lead ALL people, not just some. Here’s to a new era of government and leadership in Taiwan under president Tsai Ing-wen.

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