Elevate Difference

Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan

Women's Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan by Doris Chang offers a compelling history of the recurrent feminist movement in Taiwan’s imperial and post-war eras. Though Chang’s primary concern is establishing a historical survey of Taiwanese feminism, the book contains an even more valuable—if largely incidental—subtext about the vulnerability of feminism against competing political and cultural movements.

We tend to think of sexism as the final barrier following a millennium of social progress; after centuries spent peeling away layers of barbarism and prejudice, it is a final lingering injustice. We also imagine that, following these other achievements, the realization of women’s rights should be natural and frictionless. Chang shows us that this is exactly wrong.

In fact, feminist thought ebbed and flowed in colonial Taiwan under the Japanese, then under the Chinese, and then again under the autonomous Taiwanese government, always emerging briefly before being shuttered away by competing political and cultural identities. In a time when women were married off as chattel or sold into brothels, advocates for women’s rights were again and again cast as selfish agitators sapping vitality from the political cause du jour.

This is not to say that the violent swaying of Taiwanese politics was in any way frivolous. Taiwan confronted the Sino-Japanese War, World War II, the Chinese civil war, and then decades of martial law under the Kuomintang. Each period sagged under the weight of ethnic and class inequalities, all of which retarded economic growth and democracy. Throughout this turmoil, feminist groups were repeatedly encouraged to ally with cultural movements, political parties, and class-based entities, and then were admonished to abandon their objectives to the greater goals of their partners.

This will sound familiar to progressives who feel themselves pushed to put women’s issues on a back burner. The implication was—and remains—that in times of distress, women should shelve their feminist ideals and divert their attentions to some larger cause. Of course, it is impossible to ask a woman to prioritize her gender identity over her national identity or her class sympathies. Yet Chang shows us that this very tension drowned the advancement of women’s rights at every moment of political reckoning.

The implications of these observations are unclear. Maybe the recent successes of Taiwan’s feminists could only have been realized in the absence of war, imperialism, and censorship. Perhaps it was the eventual triumph of democracy that paved the way for women’s freedom to marry, divorce, work, and study as they choose. But it begs the question: If the feminists of the 1920s had been able to find their voice, would it all have taken so long?

Written by: Rebecca Zerzan, July 10th 2009