Gender/Sexuality Matters: Governance in New Liberal Democracies

【這是何春蕤2012年3月24日在新竹清華大學主辦的International Symposium on the Future of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies中的發言】

In my contribution this afternoon, I would like to briefly reflect on the significantly changed status of gender matters in Taiwan.  From their originally marginal position in the social sphere before the 1990s to the privileged height of being a state policy since 2000s, gender-equity issues have now solidified into a moral imperative that resonates with other politically correct decrees, such as the ban on smoking, the ban on pornography, the cause of child-protection, etc. in constituting governance in this new liberal democracy.  In this process of change, women’s access to state power and resources may have been greatly improved, yet at the same time, a string of social-purity-oriented legislations have also been urged into place by women’s groups and proactively enforced without any relaxation, aiming at containing non-normative sexual activities and access to sexual information, to the extent that now a pervasive what I term “gender governance” is coming into place.

This is a governance that stretches beyond the mere collaboration or “mutual embeddedness” of the civil society with the state, as usually described by scholars of political science or international relations.  For it is a governance that operates on a thick stratum of emotions sedimented from perceived or imagined powerlessness of certain groups, and as such, insists on extreme protectionism in the form of stringent laws, as a response to social anxieties and insecurities.  More importantly, this is a type of governance that is conducive to producing and nurturing the fiercely indignant and highly sensitive emotions that have come to define the civilized citizens of new and evolving liberal democracies such as Taiwan.  It is this relation between emotions and citizenship that constitutes the core of gender/sexuality studies as it is conducted at our Center for the Study of Sexualities.  And as I try to propose a local explanation for the growing power of gender governance in newly emergent liberal democracies such as Taiwan, I am hoping that my explanation will help illuminate on a wider scale how progressive ideas, such as feminism and others, could, in the context of a modernizing/civilizing process, end up aligning with very oppressive practices.

Women’s groups had been quite insignificant among the new social movements pushing for democratization in Taiwan in the 1980s.  Yet, as the lifting of martial law in 1987 opened up the political terrain for general elections, “gender” increasingly came to be taken as a potent social division that could become politically pivotal at election times.  After all, rapid social change in the previous decades had already exacerbated existing and emerging social “problems” that concern women in particular—domestic violence, divorces, extra-marital affairs, teenage rebellion, and so on—producing anxieties that could be, with the help of state-oriented women intellectuals, configured into election platforms that not only mobilize women into becoming concerned voting citizens but also, as it turned out later, enlist nascent women’s organizations as social service franchises in post-election governance.  This prospect of mainstreaming and power-sharing soon tapped into latent differences in class orientation among feminists, polarizing them through a successive string of debates in the mid-1990s over the obvious signs of an on-going sex revolution, respectively, female sexuality, lesbianism, sex work, pornography, surrogate mothering, teenage sexuality, and freedom of sexual information and contact on the internet.  And it was in this process of discursive contestation that mainstreaming feminists unfolded their class-specific temperament of sex-negativity, showing little tolerance, in fact strong condemnation, for anything outside the sexual norm.  This sex-negativity, typical of what my colleague Ding Naifei has termed “good woman feminism,” would prove to be central to the gender governance to be construct later.

The schism within the feminist camp deepened as mainstreaming feminists developed their orientation more and more toward the state.  Echoing the opposition party’s choice for the Swedish “welfare state” as the ideal political platform to frame a new and independent Taiwan state, mainstreaming feminists followed suit and chose the Nordic/Scandinavian model of “state feminism” to design socio-economic models for the promotion of gender equality.  When opposition Democratic Progressive Party politician Chen Shui-bian won the Taipei mayoral election in 1995, women’s groups that had chosen to support his campaign persuaded the new mayor to establish, not an isolated thus easily ghettoized agency for women’s issues, but a structure of negotiation called The Committee for Women’s Rights Promotion,[1] led by none other than the mayor himself, but also with heads from all departments and agencies of the city government attending.  Of course, the Committee would include a number of so-called gender studies/women’s studies experts as well as representatives of women’s groups.  And as the structure allowed issues and policies to be discussed in a space where communication, negotiation, integration are conducted right on the spot, face to face with high-ranking government officials, this was a rare opportunity for women to approach and access the center of power and directly affect policy formation/execution first hand.

The entry of state feminists and women’s groups into the government structure may have been accomplished through timely involvements and opportune maneuvers in electoral politics; the force of their appeals, however, was greatly enhanced by certain high-profiled tragic events that involved women as victims.[2]  Cases of sexual harassment of college women had mobilized women’s groups into organized protests in 1994; the brutal rape murder of a DPP feminist politician at the end of 1996, followed immediately by that of the teenage daughter of a famous performer in 1997, both intensely covered by the media, exploded public fear and outrage.  A massive street demonstration took place, leaving the government deeply entrenched in a legitimation crisis.  At the demand of women’s groups, gender equality education was approved as a preventive measure, thus giving state feminists and women’s groups easy access to formerly enclosed campuses as well as ample resources in the education institution.  A negotiation structure for women’s issues was also established in the Executive Yuan in 1997 to raise the level of the central government that is committed to the promotion of gender equality.  As state feminists and women’s groups moved up the political ladder, the sentiments surrounding the tragic events were left to consolidate the perception that women and children are easy prey in a hostile (male) world, and that protectionism, in the form of intricate networks of punitive legislation, was the only effective form of response.

While women’s issues have succeeded in building up negotiation structures within the government, the actual formation of the structures revealed the political intentions of state feminism.  Two problems were obvious: one had to do with representation.  Since the days of Taipei city’s Committee for Women’s Rights Promotion, this decision-making structure had been known for its exclusivity.  For the so-called gender scholars/gender experts and representatives of the women’s groups that sat on the committees were usually hand-picked by the mayor or the premier, and most of them tended to belong or at least sympathetic to the mayor’s or the premier’s political camp.  This has led many to suspect a monopolizing of benefits in order to return campaign favors and to consolidate the mayor’s or the premier’s rule.  Moreover, the women often overlapped in their affiliation with the women’s groups, revealing not only their overall exclusive class position as privileged intellectuals (and good family women) but also the deliberately restricted pool of choices from which they came.  One practical consequence of this exclusive representation which has a profound impact on the operation of the Committees is that it is quite easy for the women to present their demands in unison, making the demands all the more irresistible since they seemingly represent the desire of “all” women.

The second problem had to do with how the Committees operated.  One senior feminist who had served on the Committee of Taipei City, described the operation as “kidnapping the emperor in order to command the generals”(「挾天子以令諸侯」).  As state feminists and women’s groups were eager to introduce new orientations into the way the government worked, they often used the power of the mayor or the premier to pressure for speedy results.  Unfamiliarity with bureaucratic procedure or decision-making processes did not stop the women from loading emotional statements unto their demands, now couched in a language that constantly invoked the prevalence of sexual discrimination and women’s disadvantage.  As the heads of the departments or agencies suffered the upbraiding, the atmosphere often became so awkward that the mayor had no other recourse but to make quick decisions that may appease the delegates at the time but later turn out to be bad policies that could not be revoked.  The above-mentioned senior feminist was deeply concerned about this situation as she wrote:

“The delegates held immense power, but did not have to bear any responsibilities.  They had power but they didn’t have to be accountable…Heads of departments may lose their jobs if they did not do a good job, but Committee members from women’s groups never had to shoulder any responsibility for the quality of their proposed policies.  Sometimes, proposals from individual members may be quite unreasonable, but the civil servants dare not oppose them…No one dare to disband the Committee; it has become a matter of political correctness” (Gu).[3]

The intriguing question is: what is the nature of such power of persuasion?  Civil servants and officials have been known to occasionally refuse to comply with their bosses’ demands.  But now, faced with state feminists and women’s groups on even grounds of negotiation, what made it so impossible for them to say no to the women’s unreasonable demands?  To answer this key question, allow me to turn to some other developments that I believe worked hand in hand with the gender initiative to create a social milieu of evolving moral absolutism.  This social milieu would polarize any issue into a struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed, with the oppressed monopolizing the moral high ground to the extent that no justification or even room for argument is allowed the alleged oppressor.

In the first decade of the 21st century, concepts and practices of electoral democracy, gender equality, environmentalism, animal rights, social welfare, health consciousness, and other progressive ideas seem to have taken root in Taiwan.  Significant changes in temperament and sensibility (or at least demands for such performances) are likewise observed: politeness, self-restraint, order, calmness, respect and all the desirable qualities of the fair sex are now expected from all members of the general public.  Street demonstrations are much more tamed and expected to meet standards of lawfulness and civility.  Smoking is banned from all public or enclosed spaces, frowned upon, if not reprimanded openly, by indignant non-smokers.  Order in queues or on escalators is automatically upheld and defended with strong disdain toward offenders.  Use of sexist language, racist language, and even impolite language is taken to court and sentences have been known to be surprisingly harsh.  Playful acts of minor brutality against animals are no longer tolerated but subjected first to internet man-hunt and then to the new laws of animal protection.  Consumer rights have become supreme human rights, vehemently enforced in every individual’s daily transactions, be it demanding compensations for delayed flights or regular pricing at airport restaurants.  It seems like overnight the law of the jungle has been turned upside down, and the weak, the small, the disadvantaged have suddenly found a system that at least professes to side with them to fight against the oppressors, or so it seems.

Whether the system really works in such ways is not my concern here.  What I AM interested in is the speed and ease with which these changes took place, as well as the strength and absoluteness of the demand to comply.  Aside from structural changes in Taiwan’s mode of production and its location within the global economy, I believe a thickening of moral sense, expressed as a self-assumed sense of moral indignation that aims to inhabit certain progressive ideas and chastise those who would not conform, has been cultivated as part and parcel of a citizenship that would make Taiwan worthy of nation-state status, and thus international recognition.  In this modernizing/civilizing process, state feminists and women’s groups certainly played their important roles.  For one thing, women are said to possess the right sensibility and sentiment to be the prime civilized and civilizing subject.  And in the hands of the state feminists and mainstream women’s groups, a distinct vulnerability is created to describe women’s relation to sex.  Lustful men, prostitution, extra-marital affairs, pornography and whatever falls outside the norm are seen as dangerous not only to women but more so for children.  In this light, the tireless efforts by state feminists and mainstream women’s groups to eliminate sexual discrimination through social purity campaigns have become paradigm cases for social struggles, further consolidating an atmosphere where other efforts to erect instruments of social control/social exclusion/social discipline find ready audience and a receptive public.  After all, who can argue against proposed legislation that aims to protect vulnerable women and children, ban despicable and decadent pornography, put a stop to brutality against animals (pets), extinguish smoking and second-hand smoking altogether, save the environment for future generations, etc.?

On the last page of her powerpoint introducing the idea of “gender mainstreaming” to civil servants in 2006, the daughter of ex-president Lee Deng-huei wrote these symptomatic words: “Toward a More Civilized and Progressive Nation.”[4]  The words aptly reveal the aspirations of gender mainstreamers and their class-specific projects of civilizing and nation-building, while glossing over all the legislations and litigations that have made the life of non-conforming, non-civilized citizens miserable.  It is this prevalent desire to be civilized and progressive that we in the new liberal democracies of the Third World have to contend with.

So to go back to the question of career prospects in the field, if you can blend in with the mainstream feminists in formulating and executing gender governance and child protection, you may join the fierce battle to grab at the bureaucratic jobs opened up for this field.  But if you are like us at the Center for the Study of Sexualities, discontent with new forms of regulation and surveillance, unhappy with the neo-moralism of gender/sexual political correctness, then you have very few chances of getting a decent job but lots of challenges and a meaningful and vigorous life.


[1] 台北市婦女權益促進會。

[2] Stetson and Mazur observe that state feminism comes into place usually during election periods when women’s groups join forces with specific political parties at pivotal elections.  Franzway et. al’s study further demonstrate that it is when the state experiences a legitimation crisis that it is forced to respond to the demands of universal citizenship; accepting policy proposals from women’s groups makes up one such response (Franzway, Court, & Cornell, 52-54).  Both help to explain the observation the follows in this section.


[4] Cf. Lee. 「邁向更文明、更進步的國家」