As Women’s Month comes to an end, I am rereading essays written by my mother (Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, CGN) about the Filipino woman. She was not a feminist, yet she defended women’s rights to education, freedom of speech and assembly, the pursuit of happiness and self-fulfillment. Her most famous articles about women were published in the 1950’s and 1960’s; a woman’s world was radically different then, nevertheless, her conclusions are still valid today because they are bolstered by historical truths.
CGN’s most famous essay “The Filipino Woman” was the lead article in the maiden issue of “Philippine Quarterly” in 1952. It was tumultuous because she said that the Filipina has a past and that there were 3 men in her life. It was not meant to be taken literally. CGN wrote: “The Filipina’s looks are so heterogeneous– due to her polygenetic ancestry– that it seems rash to try to reduce her physical characteristics to some common denominator…Her psyche is just as complicated because the Filipina is a woman with a past– a long unburied, polychromatic, delicious past which is forever returning to color her days. There have been three men in her life: her Asiatic ancestor, the Spanish friar and the Americano, and like Chekhov’s Darling, she echoes all the men she has known in her person.” It is such an incisive and elegantly written essay that an American male writer lifted it in toto and included it in his book about Asia. My mother filed suit, but the plagiarist died before conviction.
My mother had no sympathy for Maria Clara. She wrote: “The greatest misfortune that has befallen Filipino women in the last hundred years is Maria Clara. I mean this in a very real sense, for in trying to live up to the pattern set by Rizal’s beautiful heroine, millions of Filipinas became something other than their real selves.” CGN believed that Filipinas have squeezed themselves into Maria Clara’s “narrow mold, affecting modesty to an absurd degree…And because Maria Clara was ill so often…it became vulgar to be healthy and almost un-Filipina to be happy.” As you can see, CGN had a sardonic sense of humor. (30/12/1956,This Week magazine)
In “Myth and Reality“( 8/ 1962, Woman and the Home magazine), she delves into the duality of the Filipino woman. The myth about the Filipina is the creation of the Filipino man, CGN declared, so one should begin by asking what the Filipino man is like. “He does not believe in the equality of sexes…Perhaps, at bottom, he distrusts woman and feels safer when she is confined to the kitchen or to the pedestal on which he has placed her.” The reality of the Filipina is best expressed by the epigram produced by a male foreigner who said that the Filipino woman is the best man in the Philippines. “This statement is not mere gallantry, “CGN observed, “It is devastatingly correct although it shares the weakness of all generalizations… Filipino society has a built-in release for this clash between myth and reality; it is the systematic infidelity of Filipino men who assert their pagkalalake (maleness) through the querida system… Baffled by the Filipino women’s efficiency, energy and insatiable ambition, thwarted by her pragmatic worldliness….his promiscuity is an escape from her suffocating, half-masculine efficiency.”
The touching tale of, “Maestra Nena” (18/6 1958, My Humble Opinion, Manila Chronicle) was about an elderly widow who came every Thursday afternoon to give little Carmen private lessons on “Politeness and Good Deportment.” CGN wrote: “ She was a gentle, soft-voiced woman who had lost both a husband and a comfortable living long ago and we sat together on the sofa…having an extremely genteel and anachronistic conversation in Victorian Spanish…” Those weekly lessons were my grandma’s way of helping Maestra Nena who, ”… made a living pickling bagoong and starching the wide-sleeved camisas and pañuelos of her more prosperous contemporaries…”
Take a glimpse of CGN as a young widowed mother on a Christmas day with my brother, Toto: “ …. after he has allowed the flow of Santa Claus’s gifts to rub off on his midmorning ennui…my little boy walks up to me. Full of what I like to think is innocence, but what I am afraid is cunning, he pops the question: And what are you giving me for Christmas, Mama?” Rather than shatter his faith in the representational goodness of Santa Claus and turn him into a psychotic, I damned myself with the admission that Santa was indeed a better person than I was.” (22/12/1950 “Why Santa Claus?” Women’s magazine )
CGN lost her very first essay. It was about Maria Rizal, her husband’s grandmother who was much too audacious and enterprising for her time. She loved to talk about her famous martyred brother to an enthralled Carmen Guerrero Cruz. I have mined libraries, private collections and archives but have yet to find a copy of that masterpiece.