Women’s politics unrelated to traditions

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/3/9 19:23:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Back in October - before the presidential election - I was invited to be a guest speaker at a local TV station, talking about minority voters' preferences. The host asked many questions that he and I had discussed before via emails. Then, he added one out of the blue: whether traditional expectations of women in Chinese culture would have driven Chinese voters to choose Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Being caught off guard, I gave a firm answer -- no, based on instinct. Then the program was over before I could give it further thought.

As the International Women's Day was approaching, the question kept flashing back in my mind. My instinct turned out to be right. There were many Chinese who voted for Trump and I personally know some of them. But, no one has cited gender as a reason for their choice.

Indeed, it's very likely there were more Chinese voters who voted for Clinton than Trump. There are no statistics on the turnout of Chinese voters, who make up less than one percent of the country's voters. But according to a survey conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in 14 states, 79 percent of Asian voters went for Clinton and only 17 percent voted for Trump. Since Chinese are the biggest subgroup of Asian Americans, this may offer a rough picture for the preference of Chinese voters.

But the program host, who is not Chinese, was right about the traditional Chinese culture in which women are expected to be docile, gentle and domestic. And, it was a reasonable guess that people who grew up in this culture may prefer to see a male leader than a female one.

Indeed, this view may even be backed up by the behavior of the traditional community organizations in Chinatown. The township associations in the Chinese community in New York are all headed by men. In January, when the Gee How Oak Tin Benevolent Association in Boston, a 93-year-old organization representing Chinese immigrants whose last names are Chen, Hu and Yuan, elected its first female president, it made big headlines in the Chinese language newspapers around the country. 

But in politics, this couldn't be further from the reality. In New York, the Chinese community has elected more Chinese American women than men to public office. Of the four Chinese Americans currently sitting in public offices at the city, state and congress levels, three are women.

Also, several districts dominated by Asian voters that had long been represented by whites have been won back by Chinese, and initially, a Chinese woman. For example, the 22nd assembly district in Flushing first voted in an Asian candidate in 2006 with the victory of Ellen Young. In 2009, Margaret Chin became the first Chinese Council member representing Chinatown in its entire history. And this January, Yuh-Line Niou joined the assembly representing the 65thassembly district, which included Chinatown. It had been represented by Sheldon Silver for more than 40 years before his disgrace. 

Nationwide, it's also true that Chinese women are doing better than men in politics. Among Congress members, there are two Chinese women and one Chinese man. And in the current presidential cabinet, Elaine Chao, the Secretary of Transportation, is the only Asian. 

Some may attribute the discrepancy between traditional culture and political reality to the unique history of gender equality in China. When the communists took over, the gender stereotypes were arbitrarily smashed. But the Chinese voters in the US are not all from the Chinese mainland. Indeed, a substantial proportion is from Taiwan, Hong Kong or Southeast Asian countries where the traditional culture is well preserved.

A more decisive factor, I suspect, is immigration.

In 2015, Harvard Business School released a study showing girls growing up in families with working moms achieve more at work when they grow up. They are more likely to make more money and gain leadership than those with stay-at-home moms.

The study was based on a survey of 50,000 adults, aged 18 to 60 in 25 nations worldwide from 2002 to 2012. It didn't differentiate immigrants from natives. But it's not hard to see that to have women stay at home to take care of the children full time is an unrealistic luxury for immigrant families. No matter what your traditional culture tells you, you have to go out to work like a man, or even juggle between two or three jobs to make ends meet.

Girls in immigrant families who see their mom as a role model are likely to have big ambitions themselves. And the communities where women work hard are likely to embrace women's ambitions too. 

The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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