In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and Politics in East and Southeast Asia

  • Introduction
  • Key Books
  • Survey Data Sets
  • Attitudes and Voting Behavior
  • Single-Case Studies
  • Comparative Studies
  • Security and Gendered Experiences of Conflict
  • Intersectionality

Political Science Women and Politics in East and Southeast Asia
Netina Tan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0314


Women’s descriptive representation in East and Southeast Asia remains lower than global average. Apart from Timor-Leste and Taiwan, no country has achieved the 30 percent “critical mass” of women parliamentarians—a number seen as the minimum proportion necessary to influence policies. East and Southeast Asia is a diverse region where, unlike in South Asia, the rise of powerful women leaders came about only in recent decades. With the rise of prominent women leaders, such as Corazon Aquino, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Yingluck Shinawatra, Park Geun-hye, and Aung San Suu Kyi, studies on dynastic or familial ties have become more prominent, and political science and area studies journals now publish frequently on gender and politics in Asia. Previously, qualitative, descriptive work based on historical archives, ethnography, or elite interviews has dominated. With more cross-country and public opinion data sets, however, quantitative studies have flourished. Similar to those dealing with the Global North, theories to explain the supply and demand of women in politics in Asia include: (1) international factors and diffusion theory, (2) women’s activism and mass movements, (3) institutional designs (e.g., quotas, electoral systems, candidate selection, party politics), and (4) culture and religion. Beyond the literature that theorizes how women engage in politics, another body of literature explores the experiences of women in politics. Who wins in elections? What are the experiences of women candidates and politicians? What are the barriers to substantively representing women? Findings demonstrate that highly educated, professional elite women win elections, while women in cabinet tend to hold “soft” and lower profile portfolios. Moreover, many prominent female state and party leaders come to power through their connection with prominent male leaders. The experiences of female politicians also differ depending on the level of politics, namely, local or national level. The status of women’s representation is further impacted by the regime type. A striking anomaly is the higher number of women politicians in authoritarian, one-party states than in established democracies in the region. Yet do authoritarian regimes with high numbers of female representatives better serve women’s interests? What is the relationship between women and democratic revolutions? In the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea, women’s activism and women leaders played key roles in democratic revolutions. More research is needed on assessing women’s substantive representation in both regimes. While it is important to examine politics through the lens of gender, it is equally important to understand how gender inequality intersects with ethnic minority and religious identities. Thus far, few researchers have adopted intersectional approaches in examining how women in politics can be disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression.

Key Books

The landmark books on women and politics in East and Southeast Asia typically highlight the role of women’s movement or elite women political leaders. For example, Chang 2009, Edwards 2008, and Jones 2006 show how women’s activism in Taiwan, China, and South Korea, respectively, improved gender equality. Derichs and Thompson 2013 is a classic book that features dynastic female political leaders in Asia. Using ethnography or historical archival sources, authors of single-country studies delve more deeply in tracing women’s rise in national or local political power—see, for instance Dewi 2015 on Indonesia, Dalton 2015 on Japan, and Harriden 2012 on Myanmar (Burma). The main comparative or regional works on gender and politics include Fleschenberg and Derichs 2011, Bjarnegård 2013, Roces and Edwards 2010, and Iwanaga 2008.

  • Bjarnegård, Elin. Gender, Informal Institutions and Political Recruitment: Explaining Male Dominance in Parliamentary Representation. New York: Springer, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137296740

    Unlike most studies that focus on female underrepresentation, the author takes a unique approach by focusing on male domination in parliament to demonstrate that men should be assessed as gendered beings as much as women.

  • Chang, Doris T. Women’s Movements in Twentieth-Century Taiwan. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

    A historical study that shows how the Taiwanese women’s movement emerged, collapsed, and reemerged in line with changes in political structure.

  • Dalton, Emma. Women and Politics in Contemporary Japan. New York: Routledge, 2015.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315732176

    An overview of gender inequality in Japanese politics. Covers a range of issues, including the role of political parties, the history of patriarchal political systems, gender policy, experiences of female politicians, and domestic movements for gender quotas.

  • Derichs, Claudia, and Mark R. Thompson, eds. Dynasties and Female Political Leaders in Asia: Gender, Power and Pedigree. Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2013.

    A key book that traces the dynastic origins of many female leaders in Asia and the gaps between women leaders and national women’s movements. Argues that despite traditional gender stereotypes, female leaders have benefited from stereotypes such as “mothers” and “sisters.”

  • Dewi, Kurniawati Hastuti. Indonesian Women and Local Politics: Islam, Gender and Networks in Post-Suharto Indonesia. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1nth4c

    A contemporary account that dispels the misconception that Islam hinders women’s rights. Examines how women succeed in politics in local elections while navigating the role of Islam, networking strategies, and familial ties. Published in association with Kyoto University Press.

  • Edwards, Louise. Gender, Politics, and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage in China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

    A historical study that explores women’s suffrage, democratic activism, and feminist campaigning in China over the course of the 20th century.

  • Fleschenberg, Andrea, and Claudia Derichs, eds. Women and Politics in Asia: A Springboard for Democracy. Zurich: Lit Verlag, 2011.

    An edited volume that examines how women seek political representation and participation. Chapters reflect on the connections between gender and democracy, the sociopolitical impacts of gender relations and ideologies, and gendered forms of political participation and agency in Asia.

  • Harriden, Jessica. The Authority of Influence: Women and Power in Burmese History. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2012.

    Adopts an interdisciplinary approach to examine the rise of female political power from precolonial times to the present in Burma/Myanmar. Examines the concept of “family” in Burmese political culture and shows how some women gain political influence through their familial connections with powerful men, even while cultural models of “correct” female behavior have prevented most women from attaining official political positions.

  • Iwanaga, Kazuki, ed. Women’s Political Participation and Representation in Asia: Obstacles and Challenges. Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2008.

    An edited volume on the underrepresentation of women in select governments in East and Southeast Asia. Chapters focus on women as agents of change, the role of elitism in women’s political participation, and the effects of gender quotas.

  • Jones, Nicola. Gender and the Political Opportunities of Democratization in South Korea. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4039-8461-6

    Traces the rise in women’s movements and explores how civil society actors drove democratization in South Korea.

  • Roces, Mina, and Louise Edwards. Women’s Movements in Asia: Feminisms and Transnational Activism. New York: Routledge, 2010.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203851234

    A study of feminism and women’s movements in twelve countries in Asia. The authors investigate how transnational factors, such as colonialism, international agencies, and women’s activism in other countries, influence local women’s movements and national feminism.

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