Wed, Dec 10, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Madame Chiang’s club, six decades on

Formed in 1951 by then first lady Soong Mei-ling, the Taipei International Women’s Club began as a way for the KMT to restrict women’s participation in the public sphere. Membership has plummeted since the end of Martial Law, as new women’s groups offer a wealth of options for philanthropy

By Enru Lin  /  Staff reporter

The Taipei International Women’s Club meets at the Howard Plaza Hotel. The club, with a membership of 150, has a general meeting each month and gets together for smaller events throughout the year.

Photo: Enru Lin, Taipei Times

On a brisk autumn day, a group of women are convening at the Howard Plaza Hotel banquet hall.

These are the members of the Taipei International Women’s Club (TIWC, 台北國際婦女協會) and their monthly meeting is about to begin.

Livia Yu (俞馮彤芳), who was the club’s president in 1982, says the event looks vastly different from the first that met in 1951 under its honorary president, former first lady Soong Mei-ling (宋美齡).

Unlike other women’s groups of today, the TIWC was not founded as a rights advocacy organization for women. Taiwan’s modern feminist movement saw its first real push in the 1970s.

Instead, TIWC was formed as a socializing club for English-speaking women, mainly the wives of US military attaches and diplomats.

“Madame Chiang used to entertain a lot of diplomats’ ladies with tea and those ladies found there was very little to do in Taiwan besides attending teas and baking. They said to her, ‘Can we do something?’ And do something meant charity,” Yu says.

Upon admission to TIWC, members joined at least one working committee, each in charge of commitment-heavy special projects and events such as visiting orphanages, visiting nursing homes and fundraising for the Salvation Army. It was constructive work, and it allowed expatriate women to engage with each other and the host community.

GOVERNMENT SCRUTINY

But much like the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) Women’s Department, TIWC was also a way for the government to manage the political environment, according to the late Norma Diamond, a professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan.

Soong and the KMT had supported the rise of the educated woman, but made it clear that the definition of their public service should be “consistent with those duties that embrace the care of their homes,” Diamond wrote in her 1975 study, Women Under Kuomintang Rule: Variations on the Feminine Mystique.

Under government sanction, clubs like TIWC helped socialize women to gendered roles and to direct their time to select issues within a state that was technically at war. Meanwhile, Martial Law restricted the freedom of other groups to form and take up more contentious pursuits.

Susan Babcock, an American who arrived in the 1980s, originally declined to join TIWC in the first decades of her time in Taiwan. Instead, she started her own, and ran a covert group for women who worked with issues like HIV/AIDs awareness.

“‘The club didn’t have a name and we weren’t registered,” says Babcock, now 71.

“It was an international group that also included women from Taiwan. We also organized a way for these women to go to different places to learn about the local culture,” she said.

Though they were once high profile, the cultural and charity activities of TIWC go largely unnoticed today by the public.

This year, the TIWC has held teas, cooking classes and a computer class to teach members the usage of tablets and smartphones, in addition to the monthly meetings.

Several of its events have been fundraisers and proceeds have gone to a college scholarship for women, a shelter for families and to other social welfare services.

Since the 1980s, TIWC activities and fundraising profits have scaled down as club membership ages and new members join at a below-replacement rate, says longtime member Shaw Lin (林秀慧).

At the height of its popularity in the 1980s, TIWC claimed a total membership of 500, while today it is down to roughly 150.

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