The Entangled Histories of Taiwan’s Women’s Movements: A look at Two Pioneering Groups

Written by Elizabeth Frost.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Much of Taiwan’s impresive progress towards gender equality is thanks to the Taiwanese island’s women’s movement. Two groups that have been instrumental in the post-martial law era Taiwanese women’s movement are Awakening and the Homemakers United Foundation (HUF). The early stages of both groups were similar – Awakening began as a magazine in 1982, and HUF was initially established as the women’s auxiliary of the New Environment magazine in 1987. After the lifting of martial law, the groups were incorporated into independent foundations – Awakening in 1987 and HUF in 1989. Awakening is one of the most influential feminist groups in Taiwan, and HUF is now one of Taiwan’s largest environmental NGOs. 

Both Awakening and HUF were founded on the idea of female empowerment. In 1982, the Awakening magazine was created “to promote gender equality,” and one of its core goals remains “promoting women’s self-development and potential.” Similarly, HUF has continuously advocated that women, particularly housewives and mothers, have an important role in society, not just in the domestic sphere. This stems from the idea of relational feminism. Rooted in the 1980s Taiwanese Confucian family-centred context, relational feminists believe that women are equal to men but can nonetheless maintain their gender-specific roles – such as the primary household consumer and educators of children within the family – and conventionally female qualities such as nurturing and compassion. This is exemplified by HUF’s core belief that empowered housewives and mothers can contribute to society as environmentally conscious consumers, campaigners, and educators.

At the time of their creation, both groups were determined to challenge Taiwanese society’s predominant mentality, which held that women were inferior to men and belonged primarily in the home. These goals have been pursued in tandem with other aims. For Awakening, this has included advocating for women’s rights, and for HUF, this has included improving and protecting Taiwan’s environment.

Both Awakening and the Homemakers United Foundation have achieved measurable success in achieving their aims, although – ostensibly – by employing quite different campaign strategies. 

In attempting to achieve legislative change, HUF has had the greatest success through community-level campaigns aimed at influencing the behaviour of individuals and households, combined with educational initiatives and campaigning on a broader scale. Two campaigns exemplify this: their campaign against Taiwan’s waste crisis credited as key to the government’s decision to implement a national recycling program in 1996, in which they spread awareness at a grassroots level (including educational campaigns promoting recycling), and a 1998 home composting project, which ended up being adopted by the Taipei government. In addition, given the organisation’s focus on lifestyle changes, many of HUF’s successes have been at the community and individual levels, such as the recent creation of Taiwan’s first community-run solar power project and encouraging families to adopt more sustainable lifestyle practices. 

These campaigns exemplify HUF’s unique approach to environmental activism: connecting environmental challenges to other societal issues such as food safety and children’s health, and thus increasing support for its work amongst homemakers. The success of HUF’s practical grassroots campaigns has often seeped upwards to influence policy decisions. This bottom-up approach reveals the plurality of HUF’s identities: it is simultaneously a women’s, environmental, and consumer movement, able to engage housewives who may not typically engage with environmental issues.

In contrast, Awakening generally takes more of a top-down approach, formulating and advocating for policy changes at the highest levels of decision making. Since the lifting of martial law, legislative lobbying has become a core element of Awakening’s strategy. The Awakening Foundation has worked extensively to draft bills. Its focus on non-partisan cross-party lobbying has directly led to several pieces of legislation that have tangibly improved gender equality in Taiwan. For example, in 1984, abortion was legalised with the passing of the Eugenic Bill for the Protection of Health. This is thanks mainly to the lobbying of Awakening feminists. Other legislative successes include the 2004 Gender Equity Education Act, which was based on a draft bill written by a coalition of campaigners and called “one of the greatest achievements of the Awakening Foundation” by Taiwanese scholar Dr Doris T. Chang.

Awakening feminists have developed different political stances towards feminism over time, sometimes leading to conflict between members. However, the range of perspectives endorsed by Awakening feminists has played a large part in the movement’s success by enabling broader conversations on feminism within Taiwan and enabling the movement to successfully campaign on a range of issues, including abortion, prostitution, gender discrimination, family law, and the employment rights of migrant female workers. In this way, Awakening has attracted a wide range of feminists with different perspectives and priorities.

While the two groups can be characterised as adopting substantially different approaches to campaigning, with HUF adopting a more bottom-up approach than Awakening’s top-down strategy, they nonetheless share some significant similarities.

For example, educational awareness-raising events have remained a core component of both groups’ campaigning. Indeed, in the 1980s, Awakening feminists wrote articles and coordinated lectures and panel discussions addressing gender inequality. At the same time, HUF held study groups and produced educational materials on environmental matters such as household recycling. In 2020, HUF organised workshops on solar power and food waste, and Awakening held talks on issues including transnational surrogacy and migrant workers’ rights. The continuation of these educational activities from the 1980s to the present demonstrates the lasting power of the groups’ core principles: for HUF, expanding traditional ‘female’ roles such as that of educators, and for Awakening, encouraging female empowerment through knowledge acquisition.

The two groups have also adopted the strategy of allying with other social movements and organisations with similar aims. Indeed, they have worked together on several occasions, such as co-signing the 1988 Declaration in Opposition to the Building of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant. This strategic approach has enabled both groups to affect change on a wide range of issues and contribute to the richness of Taiwan’s wider civil society.

Another key element of Awakening’s approach to legislative change is its involvement in state feminism, such as its impact on Taiwan’s educational reform. Unfortunately, HUF’s activists have not been co-opted as successfully into state-led decision-making processes. Nevertheless, the example of Chen Man Li, a former president of HUF and recently a DPP Legislator, shows this process may be about to accelerate as environmental issues, especially climate change, gain increasing awareness on the political agenda.

Despite being characterised by scholars such as Dr Doris T. Chang as an “elite-sustained organisation without a mass membership,” Awakening has attempted to address criticisms of its failure to engage a large grassroots support base. For example, Awakening Associations, beginning in 1994, were established specifically to mobilise female supporters at the grassroots level. Similarly, after working with the Warm Life Association to draft an amendment to Taiwan’s family laws, the Awakening Foundation recruited and trained female activists from a wide range of backgrounds to raise public support for the amendment. 

Awakening’s need for greater grassroots engagement is still a hurdle for the movement. However, as the work of the Awakening Associations demonstrates, Awakening feminists have attempted to address this issue with some success.

Much like Awakening, HUF began as a group of middle-class housewives, and it only succeeded in mobilising a grassroots membership after the lifting of martial law. Many of the group’s successful activists include housewives who were previously uninvolved in environmental movements. However, given HUF’s reputation as a successful community-based movement, it is crucial to interrogate the intersectionality of the group’s membership. It is unclear if HUF’s homemakers-turned-activists come from diverse class, educational, and ethnic backgrounds or if they are still primarily well-educated middle-class women. Further demographic analysis of HUF’s membership and leadership is needed to understand if the perceived bottom-up nature of their activism truly engages the full range of Taiwan’s grassroots community or if its activists continue to come from a small pool of privileged women. 

As key groups within Taiwan’s women’s movement, both HUF and Awakening can be credited with advancing women’s empowerment in Taiwanese political life and society more widely. Female politicians who began their careers as members of these groups are a testament to this, as well as the number of feminist activists currently campaigning on issues from gay rights to climate change. 

Exploring the similarities and differences between how the two groups have successfully campaigned for change enables us to see the diversity of Taiwan’s civil society. From the Homemakers United Foundation and Awakening examples, we can see that adopting different feminist understandings – and using both top-down and bottom-up campaigning strategies – can prove successful for engaging women on a wide range of social issues. It can also achieve legislative and behavioural change on issues from recycling to abortion. Finally, it also offers lessons for the success of social movements in the present, particularly those aimed at empowering women.

Elizabeth Frost has just graduated with a BA in Chinese and International Relations from SOAS. Her research interests include climate governance, environmental policy, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

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