Drawing on oral and written Chinese and Tibetan accounts, this paper aims to provide a preliminary discussion of the role of Khampa women in political life by examining the lives of three notable women chieftains in the first half of the twentieth century. The case studies demonstrate that there were different paths or avenues for women to rise to power, since due to traditional biases against female political leaders, limitations and obstacles hindered their ability to access and exercise power. These accounts show that at the key juncture when a family was faced with crisis in the turbulent late Qing and Republican periods, it was often the female ruler who exercised power and authority and saved the family. Their assumption of power was possible because, in situations involving the absence of male heirs, both traditional customary law in Kham and the laws of the late Qing and Republican periods allowed women to inherit titles and positions. These women were caught up in power struggles between multiple forces, notably male leaders within their lineages, competing males from other lineages, sub-state agents like provincial warlords, the Chinese state and sometimes the Tibetan government. These examples demonstrate how the fragmentary, decentralised nature of interstitial polities opened up additional spaces for local leadership and particularly for female leadership.
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