On the 35th Anniversary of the Women’s Research Program
at National Taiwan University
Lan-Hung Nora CHIANG
Professor Emerita in Geography
National Taiwan University, Taiwan
This article aims to inform the readers on how the Women’s Research Program (WRP) at the National Taiwan University was started and later thrived for the last 35 years as the home of women’s and gender studies. As the inaugurating coordinator in 1985, I feel obligated to provide the story on the origin of the WRP, to inform the academic community and those who took an interest in women’s and gender studies.
Keywords: 35th anniversary; women’s and gender studies; Women’s Research Program; National Taiwan University
I truly believe that women and gender studies should take an
inclusive approach, and reflect the needs of Taiwan
from the local perspective, while being connected
globally. I also believe that everyone should
be treated with respect and generosity.
The Women’s Research Program (WRP) at National Taiwan University celebrated its 30th Anniversary (see Figure 1) in 2015, but we could not do the 35th year anniversary celebration in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope that this piece would refresh our reader’s memory of the key players of WRP which started 35 years ago.
In the 1980s, the Asian Foundation in Taiwan, represented by Dr. Shel Severinghaus1 identified different women’s studies scholars and supported them to attend women’s conferences and visits abroad. As a social geographer who took a feminist perspective in studying rural-urban migration of women in Taiwan for her Ph.D at the University of Hawaii, I was selected to attend a conference at the Madame de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University in Montreal in 1982. Later in 1984, I was asked to lead a small group of delegates from Taiwan to attend an Asian women’s research conference in Davao, Philippines, including LUNG Yin-tai, LEE Su-Chiu, and KU Yen-ling. We all had a chance to visit with Mrs. Edith Coliver who was the Representative of Asia Foundation in the Philippines, and later succeeded Dr. Shel Severinghaus in Taiwan as representative. Yen-ling and I co-authored a paper on “Past and Current Status of Women in Taiwan” which was published as a monograph (Chiang & Ku, 1985) of Women’s Research Program, Population Studies Center. The conference in Davao provided us with a good opportunity to be acquainted with many women from East and Southeast Asia. As a consequence, Dr. Severinghaus suggested that a conference be held at the Population Studies Center, as he noticed that “not much was happening there.”
The First Conference on Women’s Studies in Taiwan
As Associate professor in Geography of the university and Executive Secretary of the Center at the time, I called a committee at the National Taiwan University to organize the first conference on women studies in Taiwan. Coming from different disciplines, each of the members identified different speakers whom they knew. Apart from that, Nancy CHEN, a professor in sociology at National Chengchi University suggested that the conference be called “The Role of Women in National Development in Taiwan.” Held on March 15-16, 1985, the conference was well attended by an audience with a majority of female scholars and practitioners.
Dr. Chen SUN, the President of National Taiwan University presided at the event, and helped to host our keynote speaker, Mr. K. T. LI, who was the senior presidential adviser and former Minister of Economics and Minister of Finance in Taiwan, R.O.C. (see Figure 2). Mr. Li delivered a speech that echoed well with the theme of the conference on women’s role in national development. He supported a higher labor force participation for women by employing married women, to contribute to their household income, not just “serving the husband and tending children,” which was the norm that prevailed in Taiwan until the mid-eighties.
My memories of this first women’s research conference in 1985 are still vivid, although my friends would no longer recognize the people in the attached pictures. The Chinese proceedings and an English summary came out in June, with the collaborative efforts of two capable assistants. We also compiled a summary of the conference in English and a Bibliography of Literature on Women in Taiwan (Chiang & Hsu, 1986).
The conference was a timely event for Taiwan, in response to the U.N. Decade for Women (1975-1985) which generated a worldwide women’s concerns that led to the formation of organizations on women’s research and teaching on women in universities. As Martial Law in Taiwan was lifted in 1987, the women’s movement in Taiwan was one of the significant markers among social movements, alongside other movements that aimed at improving laborer’s and consumer’s rights, legal rights, and environmental preservation, etc.
Relatively less women had taken up employment than men at the time, showing a labor force participation rate of less than 43% among women in 1985. Taiwan’s labor participation was the lowest among developed countries in East Asia (e.g., Korea, Japan, and China) and had risen to 51.4% in 2019 for women aged 15 and older. Their educational levels have risen greatly in the last three decades. With this awareness in mind, I tried to document rise of women status over the years as part of the women’s movement, mostly led by middle-class women and educated abroad (i.e., the US). This was one of the major objectives of my pursuit in women studies.
The conference was like a call to awaken middle-class women who could not choose work over their familial role, and unable to make breakthroughs in their gender roles to live out a life of their own (活出自己). It received very positive response from a small community of women’s research scholars, and largely the media. Notably, educated women in Taiwan had already played significant roles in the media, being reporters, editors-in-chief of newspapers and women’s magazines. Many women who did not join the labor force were good writers working on a freelance basis. Often, they graduated from Departments of Journalism from accredited universities in Taiwan.
Establishment of the Women’s Research Program (WRP)
With the recommendation of Dr. Shel Severinghaus, the Women’s Research Program (WRP) was established on September 1, 1985 in the Population Studies Center of National Taiwan University. Funding support came from the Asian Foundation for the first four years (1985-1989), when I was the coordinator. The location was perfect for WRP to earn credibility as a research institute in the leading university in Taiwan. There are no extra logistical costs required by the Center, nor overhead charges by the university.
Generous funding was provided to support two full-time staff, a token stipend for the four co-founders of WRP, and all other logistical costs. WRP was operated as a full-fledged program that issued a Bulletin, generated a library collection, and introduced a seed money research grant for graduate students. The Journal on Women’s and Gender Studies was launched in 1990, while seminars and workshops were organized regularly. Consultation was offered to university teachers to start courses or programs on women studies at their universities.
Meanwhile, the Asia Foundation supported National Tsinghua University to start their program on Gender and Society (兩性與社會研究室) in 1989, focusing on curriculum development, and Kaohsiung Medical University to start their Gender Research Center (性別研究中心) in 1992. Up to 2013, 18 research centers/programs and three graduate institutes have been established in universities in Taiwan. It is small wonder that various universities have expanded their curriculum in ways to include more courses on gender, starting with Gender Relations ( 兩 性 關 係 ), which was a required course after the Gender Equity Education Law was passed in 2004. The Women’s and Gender Certificate Program was initiated by WRP as early as 1997 (Chiang & Song, 2020).
With suggestions from the Center’s Director, Dr. LIAO Cheng-Hung, a proposal on research on women and gender was submitted to the National Science Council. This was approved by Prof. HUA Yen, head of the Division of Humanities. It facilitated a small team of scholars from different disciplines to focus on women’s issues in their research. Dr. LIAO participated in almost all the meetings, and said to me one day: “Do not carry out a women’s movement here.” Whatever that meant, I personally did not see the need to separate ourselves from any women’s movement, nor to exclude any women’s group or individuals pursuing a similar cause. Women’s organizations labeled as “right wing” had long existed before the Awakening, which advocated feminism. Despite different focuses, all were welcome to join the activities held at the WRP. “Traditional” women’s organizations, such as the YWCA, and Central Women’s Committee sent their delegates to our seminars with interests in sharing information with other women’s organizations and learned about the compelling issues on contemporary women in Taiwan. People working in various government agencies were welcome to participate in all the activities at the WRP. This was not difficult to do so if the leader is a non-partisan, teaching and practicing feminism in academe.
The Bulletin published mostly in Chinese became a major source of information, before the age of internet set in. The ideas generated by the WRP received media support (see Figure 3), spread far and wide to many international women’s studies organizations, and created a boomerang effect by getting news, visitors, and invitations to attend their activities in return.
In the first four years, WRP had about 1,000 visitors, including quite a number of distinguished international visitors, such as Elizabeth Luce Moore, Janice Monk, Cordia Chu, Esther Ngan, Chilla Bulbeck, Karen Mason, and Fanny Cheung, who were leaders in women’s and gender studies/issues globally. WRP had also attracted teachers and students from abroad (see Figure 4). Last but not least, we created a seed money research grant which lasted to this day for graduate students (see Figure 5).
By spreading the gospel and planting our roots in the first four years, the four co-founders were aware that major funding from the Asian Foundation would come to a halt. We thank the two successive representatives of the Asian Foundation, Dr. Shel Severinghaus and Mrs. Edith Coliver for their constant support and advice, and Mr. Rex WANG, the program officer, to steer us in the right direction. As inaugurating coordinator, I was privileged to lead a team of dedicated scholars in anthropology (Elaine TSUI), Sociology (Bih-Er CHOU), and English (Yen-ling KU) as core members of WRP. Even though our academic approach to study feminism may vary, we had innovated women’s and gender studies at different universities and contributed our energy and compassion to WRP at the expense of our time to meet our other obligations.
We acknowledge the earlier efforts of Annette LU and Yuan-chen LI who were “the forerunners of the women’s movement, to advocate feminism and raise female consciousness through publications and mobilizing young and well-educated followers” (Hsieh, 1994, p. 132). 2021 was the fiftieth anniversary of the pioneering Taiwanese feminist, Annette Lu. She published an article in the United Daily News on “NeoFeminism.” Lu and her followers that include scholars and practitioners were movers and shakers in the women’s movement. Their contributions in the 1980s were different from women’s studies, starting to bear fruit in custody of children for divorced women, eugenics, women’s right to work, inheritance, personal safety, and participation in politics in the 1990s
Impact of Women’s and Gender Studies in Taiwan
The development of women’s and gender studies in Taiwan is important to sensitize the public and obtain support from different sectors on the cause of gender equality mainly in the academe. Teaching, research, and curriculum changes have played important roles in achieving gender equality. It has been noted that the impact of Women’s and Gender studies in Taiwan on curriculum development in the last three decades had raised gender consciousness in higher education.
I believe that Women’s Studies is a scholarly arm of the women’s movement that found parallels in Women’s studies literature in the west (Chuppa-Cornell, 2002; Bird, 2003). In the past three decades, women and gender studies in Taiwan, which have been in place since the mid-80s continue to pursue the same cause, hand in hand with the women’s movement in Taiwan, through efforts in the WRP and organizations affiliated with academic women, such as Taiwanese Feminist Scholars Associations (女學會).
To this day, I am truly grateful to the capable and conscientious leaders who succeeded me at the WRP, especially CHANG Chueh and LIN Wei-hung who each took on the task of coordinator for eight years for (1990-1998) and (1999-2007), respectively. Due to the tireless dedication, courage, and accomplishments of the succeeding coordinators, WRP has thrived to this day, and accomplished a proud record of academic achievements.
National Taiwan University relentlessly provided office space and other logistics, although we have no reservation in reporting annually on our shortage of funds and a full-time researcher. The Center was reviewed every five years, and its name was changed to Population and Gender Studies Center in 1999 after a review which convinced the university to incorporate the word “Gender Studies.”
Meanwhile, the Journal of Women and Gender Studies successfully earned TSSCI status. Most importantly, Gender Studies-H24 is endorsed by the Ministry of Science and Technology (formerly National Science Council) as a perspective that prevails in humanities, social science, and physical sciences subjects. As Hsieh (1994) wrote correctly, “…The enrichment and advancement of women’s studies in Taiwan will need the long-term collaborating efforts of activist groups, researchers, and all other interested parties” (pp. 141-142).
Looking back, we can see that the WRP had made steady headways in the last 35 years. I strongly think that National Taiwan University needs to have a Graduate Institute of Women and Gender Studies, as in other leading universities in East Asia. The University can start a Gender Studies Degree Program conducted in English for local and international students. This had been successfully achieved at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The present coordinator of the WRP plays a critical role to carry the flag forward. Connecting globally is the way to get support nationally and otherwise.
1. I would like to dedicate this article to Dr. Sheldon R. Severinghaus (1940-2015) who spent most of his professional life in Asia, including nearly two decades of distinguished service to The Asia Foundation. He served as the Foundation’s representative in Taiwan from 1980 through 1987. Dr. Severinghaus was also active with the Foundation’s Luce Scholars Program. He was a member of the Luce family, his mother being the sister of Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated and other well-known publications. Dr. Severinghaus and his wife, Dr. Lucia Liu Severinghaus are well-known ornithologists, who were actively involved in preservation and environmental issues in Taiwan.
About the author
Lan-Hung Nora CHIANG ( 姜 蘭 虹 ) is Professor Emerita at the Department of Geography, National Taiwan University. Her recent research focuses on Taiwanese migrants to developed countries. She sits on the editorial boards of several journals and has edited many books, monographs, conference proceedings and journal theme issues. Between 1988 and 1992, she served on the Steering Committee of the IGU Gender Commission (formerly Study Group on Gender). She was a member of the
Editorial Board of Gender, Culture and Place from 2007 to 2011. She has been a member of Society of Women Geographers since 2009. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bird, E. (2003). Women’s Studies and the Women’s Movement in Britain: Origins and Evolution, 1970-2000, Women’s History Review, 12(2), 263–288. DOI: 10.1080/09612020300200351
Chiang, N. & Hsu, M. (1986). Bibliography of Literature on Women in Taiwan, 1945-1985. Population Studies Center, National Taiwan University.
Chiang, N. & Ku, Y. (1985). Past and Present Status of Women in Taiwan, Monograph 1, Population Studies Center.
Chiang, N. & Song, C. (2020). Practicing feminist geography in Taiwan, Gender, Place & Culture, 27(4), 524-545, DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2019.1608914
Chuppa-Cornell, K. (2002). The Scholarly Arm of the Women’s Movement: A Look Back at the Journey. In The Women in Literacy and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English. Vol. 11. VirginiaTech: Digital Library and Archives.
Hsieh H. C. (1994). Women’s Studies in Taiwan, 1985-1992. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 22(3/4), 132–145. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40004260