Cover BenCab, "Woman with Fan", acrylic on canvas, 2001

Through the centuries, the Filipina has adapted to the changes necessary for her to claim her prominent role in society and the world

“You’ve come a long way, baby.” Do you remember this memorable line from the Virginia Slims ad back in the day? This 1968 Virginia Slims campaign somehow empowered women and encouraged them to smoke. It was a cigarette commercial, after all. The slogan is apt, and what came to mind when thinking of how far the Filipino woman is and how far she’s gone. Indeed, Filipinas have come a long way.

Let’s begin with Maria Clara, her full name being Maria Clara de los Santos, a fictional character in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere in 1887. She embodied the ideal woman at that time, virtuous, feminine, graceful and charming. In A Study of Psychopathology by Lourdes V Lapus, the late esteemed psychiatrist wrote that “the Filipino culture, for all the increasing signs and protests to the contrary, still has a large hangover from its ego-idea for women of many bygone years. This is the so-called Maria Clara image of a shy, demure, modest, self-effacing woman and loyal to the end”.

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Her influence in our culture is so profound that “Maria Clara” has become a part of our vocabulary centuries later. When it is said that you are a “Maria Clara”, it means you are of pure virtue or conservative. On the other hand, it can also mean “old fashioned” or “prissy”. So, when one is called a “Maria Clara”, can it be regarded as a compliment, or not? It all depends on context.

Did we veer away from the archetypal Maria Clara to the modern Filipina today? No person is one dimensional; there is more to complex human beings than labels. But in the interest of simplification, here are the different

The Homemaker

The Filipina housewife and mother is the primary nurturer of the family. In the local setting, the wife has a dominant role in budgeting, raising the children, managing the home and pretty much covers the whole gamut of responsibilities and activities required. Traditionally, the man provides financial support; the wife takes charge of the house. I know of some very powerful and successful men who are subservient to their wives and acknowledge that the real boss is their homemaker wives. Nowadays, there are different circumstances for each family. Sometimes, the housewife contributes to money matters; or even provides financial support. Whatever dynamics are in place, the Filipina homemaker is the CEO of the family.

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The Matriarch

There is the truth that the Philippines is a matriarchal society. If the homemaker is the CEO, the matriarch is the chairman of the family board. She is older, respected and, yes, made of steel. The matriarch has been around even before we were colonised by Spain centuries ago. Back then, Filipino women were already allowed to inherit property, become religious leaders and even join the military. Women also owned and controlled personal assets and had an equal share in inheritance, rights that empowered Filipina matriarchs through time. Families orbit around matriarchs and lean on them, especially during difficult times. I have seen grown men on the verge of tears when displeasing the family matriarch, who is either their mother or grandmother. Though challenging, macho men seem to dominate our society, the matriarch often rules. She does this powerfully or quietly; either way, she is highly esteemed.

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The Beauty Queen

What makes the Beauty Queen, the “It Girl”, Sex Symbol, Celebrity Crush and the like famous figures in society? Pinoys are fanatical when it comes to beauty queens and pageants. When the country has a contender in an international competition, it becomes a national obsession. Everything stops, and everyone seems to be watching the beauty contest on the live feed, cheering Miss Philippines on. Pretty much like a Pacquiao fight. Historically, beauty pageants were inherited from our colonisers, Spain and the US. Our first beauty competition was during the Manila Carnival in 1908. The winner was crowned as the “Carnival Queen”.

Then, of course, there is the influence of Hollywood. The first “It girl” was Clara Bow, whose movies in the Twenties were massive hits. Since then, we have had our own local “It girls”. When Philippine cinema in the Sixties churned out bomba (sexy) films, it created the first sex symbols. Today, many young girls aspire to be beauty queens, celebrities or admired for their features. This preoccupation with external beauty is universal and as old as time. It is not unique to Philippine culture.

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The Feminist/Activist

Only last year, the Philippines ranked 17th among 156 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum. We were second in the Asia Pacific region, right behind New Zealand. The report further states, “This result is due in part to the fact that the Philippines is one of the few countries that has closed at the same time its gender gap in senior roles, and professional and technical roles.” This is good news, but there is still room for improvement.

The first feminist organisation in the country was the Asociacion Feminista Filipina in 1905. So early on, women already had an awareness of their rights or lack thereof. Today, many influential feminist activist groups focus on women’s struggle for freedom, equality, and social justice. There have been improvements in breaking the glass ceiling, so to speak; however, there seems to be a duality in the treatment of women. They had to act and look a sure way to be taken seriously, speak forcefully to be heard and constantly “lean in”, as suggested by Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In. Sadly, misogyny still exists in the real world. However, credit should be given to Filipina feminists who have helped improve working conditions for women through the ages. There is still more work to be done, but there have been breakthroughs.

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The Businesswoman

In her thesis, The Rise of the Manileña Entrepreneur: Her Story in Periodicals from 1898 to 1938, Katherine G Lacson stated that “the Manileña owned and operated enterprises in multi-industries showing that even though their numbers were small, women were active participants in the growing urban marketplace”. The Filipina businesswoman has been around for centuries. She just wasn’t given credit for her contribution to the local economy. Perhaps, the Maria Clara types were also business savvy. Thank God that this has all changed, and the Filipina businesswoman is acknowledged and given due recognition. Presently, there are so many strong women business leaders and trailblazers.

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The President

Finally, when it comes to the highest position in the land, we can proudly say that the country has had two female presidents: Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. We could even have a third one soon. However, the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2021 says that “in terms of political empowerment, only 36.2 per cent of this gap has been closed as women-only occupy 28 per cent of the seats in Congress and about 13 per cent are holding minister positions”. Despite these odds, this is a role that the Filipina excels in. So yes, Maria Clara for president!

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Who is the Filipina today? Where is Maria Clara in the modern world? Is she even relevant? Or are we just simplifying an ideal?

The evolution of the Filipina shows that Maria Clara does exist in today’s world, but she has transformed and adapted. The current Maria Clara is an amalgamation of the different types of Filipinas through time. She is a Filipina who has solid values knows her worth, capabilities and rights. She applies her intelligence and skills to the home, business, or even government. She greatly contributes to society. There is a Maria Clara in every one of us. Indeed, we can genuinely say the Filipina has come a long way, baby.

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