Sixth Asian Studies Conference Japan
    Saturday and Sunday, June 22-23
    Ichigaya Campus of Sophia University


last update 2002/03/09

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Contact the organizers: Asian Studies Conference (ASCJ) c/o Institute of Asian Cultural Studies, International Christian University 3-10-2 Osawa, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo 181


Session 2
Woman' s Suffrage in Asia
Organizer: Mina Roces, The University of New South Wales
Chair: Yumiko Mikanagi, International Christian University

While there has been extensive work on suffrage campaigns in the Americas, New Zealand and Australia, to date there has been no comparable comprehensive scholarship on the experiences of women struggling for the democratic right to vote and stand for election in the Asian region. The common (and erroneous) assumption is that there were no campaigns for women's rights in the nations of Asia. This panel which uses case studies from three different Asian countries (one from East Asia-Japan, one from South Asia-India, and one from Southeast Asia-the Philippines) contributes to the history of democracy in Asia by exploring women's campaigns for suffrage and women's rights. The Asian context which may involve geo-political instability, colonial situations or multicultural and communal societies presented Asian women activists with different challenges than had been faced by their western counterparts. Often too, the suffragists were more likely participants in nationalist or independence struggles with the men and had to grapple with the dilemma of whether or not to prioritise women's rights over nationalist issues.

Though the current perception is that these women were from the elite class and therefore conservative, in actual fact what these women proposed was quite radical. Suffragists lobbied for pro-women legislation and were proactive in the nation's education for citizenship. Hence, as Melanie Dolan and Caroline Daley have argued about international suffrage movements, suffrage was "the beginning, rather than the end of the narrative of women's citizenship". .

1) Mina Roces, The University of New South Wales. "Women and Nation-Building: The Ilustradas, the Suffragists and the Beginning of a "Feminist" Narrative in the Philippines."

As early as 1909-1910 when the Philippines was just made an American colony (Americans annexed the Philippines in 1898) Filipino ilustradas (elite women) assumed that women should be part of the nation-building process towards independence. But although women's interests were subsumed within nationalist agendas, the colonial context which opened new public spaces for women for the first time (women were allowed into universities and the professions), contributed to a new rethinking of 'woman', 'women's roles', and 'women's rights'. Hesitating to critique the cultural construction of the feminine at the time (which was defined by the Spanish colonial context), these university educated women nonetheless proposed revolutionary changes such as the changes to the Spanish civil code that would give women equal rights as men in matters of marriage and inheritance. Whether or not women were going to be enfranchised or not suffragists and their allies hoped to pressure their male politicians to make these legislative changes. Furthermore, as women began to publish their own periodicals, debates about women's status, women's roles (other than wife and mother), and particularly women's roles as citizens, revealed a clear shift towards a budding feminist consciousness (though they would never refer to themselves as 'feminist', feminism still being an "F" word in the Philippines until today).

2) Gail Pearson, The University of New South Wales. "The Construction of the Female Identity Through the Suffrage Movement in India."

Some women have had the right to vote in South Asia since 1920. Since Independence in 1947, there has been adult franchise in India. From the late nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth century the various forces shaping the future Indian state included notions of sovereignty associated with a liberal democratic state, protection and representation of minorities, secularism and social planning. Alongside this dominant discourse there is a story of communalism, appeal to divisive symbols of nationhood and retention of resources for the privileged. "Woman" was an upper class, upper caste concept. This paper explores the construction of "woman" as a citizen and as an Indian in the context of competing and sometimes overlapping constructions of identity as companionate wife, inheritor of a ancient mythic past and bearer of the virtues of a pre-colonial social order and preserver of caste and community in the new colonial city.

3) Sally Hastings, Purdue University. "Justifying and Exercising Women's Suffrage in Japan: The Idea of the Separate Spheres."

Some of the Japanese women who argued for women's suffrage in the 1920s and 1930s went on to hold office after suffrage was granted in 1946. Some of these women, such as the teacher Kiuchi Kyo and the professor Kora Tomi had considerable employment experience in fields dominated by men. Nevertheless, they argued for women's rights on the basis of separate but equally important spheres. In this paper, I will explore how professional women supported what has generally been termed "maternal" feminism.

Discussant: Yumiko Mikanagi, International Christian University


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