Woman Enough: Carmen Guerrero Nakpil
Very early in life, Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil learnt “…the most obvious kind of feminism by being the youngest and only girl in a family of dominant, lordly males.” Her father, described as “a gallant of the old school,” treated her with unabashed partiality simply because girls were not expected to get better grades than boys, or keep their word and their temper. Her pampered upbringing did not prepare her for the Battle of Manila (February 1945) during which she lost the love of her life, Ismael Cruz, my father, as well as her childhood friends and all her material possessions.
Both her parents and two elder brothers survived, but they were all destitute. She was a war widow at 22, with no income and two babies to feed. But, like the proverbial Phoenix, she rose intrepidly from the ashes of war, that was probably why she wrote “Woman Enough” (December 1951), her first essay on the Filipino woman.
Unwittingly, “Woman Enough” became a salvo for feminism. The Philippine Quarterly, one of the first glossies, asked Mrs Nakpil to contribute to its March 1952 issue, women’s month. She wrote “The Filipino Woman,” a more serious piece which delved into the historical roots of why Filipinas are women enough. “She has a long, unburied past,” said Mrs Nakpil intriguingly. “There have been three men in her life—her Asiatic ancestor, the Spanish friar, and the Americano. Like Chekhov’s ‘The Darling,’ she echoes all the men she has known in her person...” That made the Filipino woman heterogeneous and unpredictable.
In pre-colonial times, native women were autocratic matriarchs who could inherit, lead in battle, rule with their husbands or by themselves, and become priestesses and oracles. When the Spaniards arrived, they were smitten by the “hedonistic little pagan, beautiful but unchaste ...well-dressed ...very clean and very fond of perfume...” However, “...like a jealous lover, the Spaniards destroyed all evidence that might remind her of her former state.” During colonial times, women were classed with infants and idiots, and could not do anything without their husband’s or parents’ consent. Fortunately, they remained tough-minded especially among the women of lower classes; many were forced by economic necessity to continue their ancient aggressive role.
To her American “lover,” the Filipino woman was appreciative, imitative, and glad to be educated. Only after 27 years of “indoctrination,” there were 40 physicians, 53 dentists, 562 pharmacists, and thousands of school teachers. In 1937, women achieved suffrage. During the Japanese occupation, the Filipina proved she was woman enough to depend on herself.
Mrs Nakpil’s explanation of the Filipina’s attitude towards men is fantastically amusing. Men belong to the lowest caste as suitors, so courtship is an ordeal; but once married, the Filipina no longer wants to be attractive to men, her husband included, so she lets herself go and becomes dowdy. She lives only to please her husband and in exchange for his nominal protection, she sublimates her drive by pushing him up the social and corporate ladders. Nagging is her favourite occupation and a mere mention of divorce means her husband no longer loves her.
Traditionally, the Filipina is virtuous and shy (mahinhin), but her religiosity is an assertion of femininity rather than a quest for spiritual values. Her beauty “...is a subtle compound of Malay, Chinese, and Spanish strains flavoured by half a dozen others and characterised by a peculiar and pervasive softness of feature and figure... In comparison, European women are beefy, American women mannish, and other Asiatic women too flat-featured.”
In her time, the Filipino woman was “sorely confused and uncertain;” but Mrs Nakpil predicted that in a few more generations, Filipinas would, “...crystalise into a clear, pure, internally calm, symmetrical personality with definite facets in the predictable planes.” But when that happens, the prescient Mrs Nakpil warned, “ ...the Filipino woman will have lost the infinite unexpectedness, the abrupt contrariness, the plural predictability which now make her both so womanly and so Filipino.”
Like today’s feminists, Mrs Nakpil despised Maria Clara and wondered how a heroine so over-stuffed with stereotyped virtues and whose tragedies are ascribable only to fate, became the apotheosised ideal of Filipino womanhood. In a stinging essay, “Maria Clara” (This Week, December 1956), she called the heroine of Noli Me Tangere, “the greatest misfortune that has befallen Filipino women in the last 100 years,” through no fault of Jose Rizal. There is no evidence that he tried to enshrine Maria Clara as the ideal Filipina. In fact, Rizal admired those 20 audacious young women of Malolos who opened a school against all odds. In his letter to them, he said that had he known about them earlier, the heroine of his novel would have been different.
In “Myth and Reality” (1962) Mrs Nakpil argued that the Filipina is the creation of the Filipino man. So, what is he like? “The Filipino male does not believe in the equality of sexes. He holds that woman is both inferior and superior...The Filipina as myth must cling, but never badger. She must be humble and modest to the point of self- effacement... But the Filipina is unwilling to be imprisoned in this myth.” A boy soon learns that it is not enough just to be male, expounded Mrs Nakpil. Such a man must create a woman who is pliant, and submissive, but also strong and noble. She must have no desires except that which he alone can satisfy. There are two sets of laws, a double standard. “The woman has no right to be anything but saint and angel, but he is entitled to be wicked and depraved.”
Mrs Nakpil shows us the penumbral vaudeville between reality and the male- fabricated myth because “... the Filipino woman, in general, is aggressive, vigorous, and madly ambitious. There is no limit to her intelligence or her capabilities. She is determined, ruthless, and disposed to take infinite pains... There seem to be more women smugglers, tax evaders, and influence peddlers; they commit more than their share of illegal acts and are indirectly responsible for official corruption.”
Mrs Nakpil concluded that the built-in release for the blinkered clash between myth and reality is the systematic infidelity of the Filipino male, the “querida [mistress]” system, concubinage. “It is a badge of maleness... but the reality is that, as the epigram produced by Justice George A Malcolm, the Filipino woman is the best man in the Philippines.” She is woman more than enough.