For the past decades, female politicians in Asia have gone through an evolution form hereditary power to self-made role models for other women in politics. The secret of their success depends on their level of education, economic independence and support from their male patrons. The last one is particularly important. What makes women in the highest political position seems to be her choice of marriage, childbirth and employers who create all gender friendly work environments.
Hereditary power from their male family members
The old model is when female politicians are the wives, daughters, or sisters of previous male politicians, the hereditary power. Southeast Asia headed first. Cory Aquino (1933-2009), the 11th President of the Philippines and the first female president in Asia, was married to Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. who was assassinated on August 21, 1983. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (1947-), the 14th President of the Philippines in 2001- 2010, is the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal. Aung San Suu Kyi (1945-), the first State Counsellor and leader of the National League for Democracy, is the youngest daughter of General Aung San, the founder of the Myanmar Armed Forces, Tatmadaw and the Communist Party. Yingluck Shinawatra (1967-), the 28th Prime Minister of Thailand and Thailand’s first female and youngest Prime Minister is the youngest of nine children of Loet Shinawatra, a member of parliament for Chiang Mai and sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister of Thailand.
In South Asia, Benazir Bhutto (1953 – 2007), the 11th and 13th Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988–90 and then 1993–96, was the eldest daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a former prime minister. Sheikh Hasina Wazed (1947-), one of the most powerful women in the world, the current and third time serving Prime Minister of Bangladesh, is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, first president of Bangladesh.
Northeast Asia was the last to join this trend on the power inheritance to daughters. Park Geun-hye (1952-), the current and first female President of South Korea, is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the President of South Korea from 1963 to 1979 who was assassinated.
Women who inherited their power from their male family members tend to continue the respective political agendas from their male family members. Mostly democratic and neo-liberal with the exception for Park whose father was a military dictator. South Korea’s democracy regressed significantly since she’s been in power.
They also heavily rely on their families’ political support base. It is often their personal motivations that drive them political career such as the assassinations of their husbands or fathers, rather than their own independent political value systems learned through education or grassroots experiences. Because of this, they are often criticised for being out of touch from ordinary people who suffer from economic hardships or daily struggles to survive.
Some might say this is not just in Asia but in the US too, given Hilary Clinton, the wife of the former President Bill Clinton, running for the same job. However, a husband is a woman’s choice in most modern democratic countries unless they’re forced marriages. In this regard, women whose husbands are politicians are in a slightly different category from those whose fathers or brothers are politicians.
Self-made women in politics
These days, we see more self-made female politicians in Asia. Europe and Oceania have led this trend. To name a few, Margaret Thatcher and Teresa May from the UK, Angela Merkel from Germany, Yulia Tymoshenko from Ukraine, Julia Gillard from Australia, and Helen Clark from New Zealand are the ones who established their political career independent from their family ties. There are some observable common features here. They all have university-above degrees. The highest degree holder is Merkel who has a PhD in quantum chemistry. Some were politically active from a young age. Others started their career in non-political sectors such as in commercial sectors, gaining economic independence. They all have partners who don’t involve in politics but their own fields of academia, businesses and hairdressing. May, Merkel, Gillard and Clark do not have children. The ones without children are often harassed by the media whether their partners were gay or by the mother politicians who claimed that being a mother makes a better leader.
Asia now has the first self-made female head of government, Tsai Ing-Wen (1954-), the current president of Taiwan and only the second president of the Democratic Progressive Party.
It is especially inspiring for many other self-made talented young women in Asia who are mostly shadowing their male bosses or tasked to do some PR roles for their parties. Yoriko Koike (1952-), the current governor of Tokyo in Japan, had to resign from the ruling party candidate as the party was nominating a male candidate for the role. She ran independently and won the position. Sylvia Lim (1965-) from the main opposition Workers’ Party in Singapore is another example of self-made female politician who made top in party politics.
What is common in the backgrounds of these three is, first of all, that they all had high degrees in overseas universities. Tsai has a PhD in Law from London School of Economics; Koike has a BA in Sociology from Cairo University and speaks perfect Arabic; and Lim has a Master in Law from the University of London.
Second, they all had their first career, outside politics, and established their professional career before entering politics formally. Tsai and Lim and started their first career as a university lecturer. Koike was a Japanese-Arabic interpreter and TV anchor.
Third, it sounds irrelevant and anti-feminist, but all three are single (Tsai and Lim are never married; Koike is divorced) and no children, which cannot be a mere coincidence.
It is somewhat sad as it’s the women’s academic degrees, outside their own prestigious home-grown university education, their established professional career, outside party politics which is probably dominated by their male competitors, and singlehood, outside traditional wifely and motherly roles, that made these outstanding woman politicians successful in Asia. All three traits were achieved outside their male-dominated societies in Asia.
What can be drawn from this is for many talented young Asian women who are interested in politics is, first, go abroad to get your education, then establish your career outside domestic politics before joining any political parties while staying single or childless. Is it the right message we, older generations, want to delver to our next generation female politicians? I’m not quite sure.