“In history, some of the most powerful and influential women were authors, writers and poets. Then, as now, few avenues have presented themselves to women to better make their point, affect the world around them, inspire other women to stand up for their opinions, or put their stamp on the world than to have their writings published,” says Petty Benitez-Johannot, a culture historian who has worked for major museums in New York, Geneva and Manila.
The woman who was among the first to write about the Filipina was Carmen Guerrero Nakpil — who has been described, in today’s buzzwords, as a “proto-feminist” who anticipated the current feminism of our era.
This year marks the 99th year of her birth anniversary and it’s the perfect time to revisit one of her seminal essays, “Myth and Reality,” on the occasion of Women’s Month. It was written in 1962 when the “tear-stained” cult of the long-suffering Maria Clara, as Mrs. Nakpil put it, was a very real role model. The right to vote, in fact, had been given to Filipino women just 25 years earlier. The essay, however, is as fresh, incisive and drily humorous as if it were written today.
“A myth,” begins Mrs. Guerrero Nakpil, “is both distortion and aspiration. It is a dream that is part wakefulness. It is symbol and allegory invented by men to fill some particular need. The Filipino woman is such a myth.
“She was born of the Filipino Adam. Not of his rib but of his mind and heart. Whenever a Filipino male found a real-life woman difficult and contrary, he took refuge in her shadow.
“The real woman still will not do his bidding; she develops wrinkles and migraines; she may make more money than he does. A month after the wedding she may turn into a shrew or into a successful business executive. The Filipino likes her shadow better because it is his own concoction.
“If the myth of the Filipino woman is a creation of the Filipino man, then we must go to him to understand it.
It is often said that Filipino society is a matriarchy. But it is a kind of underworld matriarchy. Ostensibly, it is a man’s world. But the women rule without anybody but themselves knowing it.
“What is the Filipino like?
“The Filipino male does not believe in the equality of the sexes. He holds that woman is both inferior and superior. He is too gallant and too domineering to grant her mere equality; it is a dull, pedestrian gift anyway. He prefers to reserve plain humanity, with all its follies and splendors, for himself. 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 Filipino thinks a great deal of himself and is almost constantly pleased with himself. He is brought up that way. The birth of a male child is an event of supreme happiness in a Filipino family. And from that moment a boy’s maleness is the only thing he has to work at. He soon learns that it is enough just to be male.
“The happy milieu makes him cheerful, good-natured, and as generous as a king. He is a creature of impulse and instinct. He is unrestrained in his emotions, reckless and imprudent and filled with the urgency of his own appetites. He is also fiercely brave and paradoxically, languid and impractical. He is as innocent of crass material things such as moneymaking and getting ahead as his ancestor in Eden.
“Such a man must create a woman, not in his own image, but in the image which will make his own reality possible. He needs a pliant, submissive woman who will also be splendidly strong and noble. She must have no desires except that he alone can satisfy. Her devotion must be unending, her love, though unrequited, must be eternal. Yet she must not expect him to desert his pet rooster for her or to fix the leaking roof.
“The Filipina as myth must cling, but never badger. She must be humble and modest to the point of self-effacement. She is religious enough for two, because piety is a feminine prerogative and, in any case, God, being male, is much more lenient on his own kind.
“For the greatest compliment that the Filipino male pays his woman is that he expects her to be infinitely more virtuous than he is. He believes, fiercely, that she is above every temptation except the one he once offered. Being so unstable himself, he needs her incorruptibility. She must be custodian of all the goodness in the world. A man’s a man and therefore mostly devil; but a woman has no right to be anything but saint and angel.”
As for the reality, Guerrero Nakpil continues, “The Filipina is unwilling to be imprisoned in this myth. She does not live up to it and, in many ways, surpasses it.
“The reality is that, as the epigram produced by a male foreigner goes, the Filipino woman is the best man in the Philippines. It is possible to say that the Filipino woman in general is aggressive, vigorous, and madly ambitious. There is almost no limit to her intelligence or her capabilities. She will rise to every challenge, time after time, tirelessly and magnificently. She will take the world on her shoulders, even when she does not have to. She works endlessly to improve herself and the status of her family. But she is a lady, and the truth remains her secret.
“It is often said that Filipino society is a matriarchy. But it is a kind of underworld matriarchy. Ostensibly, it is a man’s world. But the women rule without anybody but themselves knowing it.
“The fact is that, while the Filipina’s legal rights are already enormous and far beyond her Asian sisters’ wildest dreams, her actual performance is even more impressive. Filipino women cannot be divorced, they can inherit, and hold property without sharing it with their husband, they enter into contracts, can sue and be sued without husband-participation.
“But even when, under the law, they were no better than infants and idiots (as, for instance, during the Spanish regime) Filipinas have always held the family purse strings firmly in their soft little hands. Filipino husbands, by tradition and convention, turn over all income to their wives who administer the family moneys, make all the purchases (including the husband’s clothes) and make all the decisions on savings and investments.
“All this often gives the Filipino male the uneasy feeling that the myth does not ring true. Maybe he feels it in his bones, if it is not actually thrust under his nose.
“And why not? As myth and reality the Filipina already has the best of both worlds. She nurtures the myth with loving care and thus keeps the Filipino male reasonably happy. But by refusing to live within its confines, she fulfills herself. If she fails, if anything goes wrong, she dissolves into tears: I am only a woman, after all, she cries. If she succeeds, she is a woman still and, in her eyes, shining, she says wistfully, Think what I could do, if I were a man!”
Mrs. Guerrero Nakpil was ahead of her time in speaking in her voice, a strong woman’s voice: assertive and frank, but polite, and elegant and refined. She was more than a feminist in Philippine literature.
Indeed, reading through this piece, “Guerrero Nakpil was a force to reckon with,” continues Benitez-Johannot, “because her voice shaped how her readers understood Philippine history, culture and their place in the world. She empowered women and men with her bold proposals, accessible style, and her embrace of herself, her experiences, and her country’s colorful and chaotic past.”
Anthropologist Corazon S. Alvina explains further, “Ms. Nakpil was extraordinary in the breadth of her literary vocation and the depth of each creation. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find someone else with her range, and unequivocal commitment to excellence in letters. She was an essayist, historian, a journalist/columnist, novelist, and a public servant. In all these endeavors, attended to and excelled in, in equal measure, something was evident: that hers was work that was, ultimately, in the service of nationalism.”
By writing relentlessly and non-stop for more than 60 years, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil’s output spans over 10,000 columns, monographs, articles, feature stories and lectures. These have been distilled into some seven books; one translated in Filipino, several going into many printings; plus one fiction novel and three volumes that comprise an autobiographical trilogy.
She is no doubt a pillar of Philippine prose, her works becoming required reading in schools and the benchmark for several generations of writers, men and women. Her essays and writings would receive journalism awards, win book prizes, and draw rave reviews in both national and international publications.
Alvina emphasizes, “Mrs. Guerrero Nakpil was ahead of her time in speaking in her voice, a strong woman’s voice: assertive and frank, but polite, and elegant and refined. She was more than a feminist in Philippine literature. The issues and themes that she assayed were essential not only to women, but also to all individuals in a dynamic and heterogenous society. In so doing, she inspired other women writers to express themselves unambiguously and intrepidly, without what have been perceived as the unseemly aspects of the enterprise of feminism.”
What better way to celebrate Women’s Month than to mark it with words that shine a probing light not only on the Filipino woman, but our Filipino condition as well?
(In recognition of her distinguished career as both a writer and historian, as well as for her achievements as reporter and columnist, essayist and editor in almost all the leading publications in the country, including the Philippine STAR, the board of the Philippine STAR has resolved to authorize the company to be the official nominator of Mrs. Carmen Guerrero Nakpil for the Order of the National Artist for Literature.)
Banner photo via ph.asiatatler.com