So how did women and beauty, as historically figured in the political discourse, fit within the national project, and what are the consequences of those figurings?
Masculinist interpretations of the national project have long discounted women as full political agents, reserving political agency and action for males. Instead, the discourse has primarily coded women as mothers and wives, and has gone so far as to symbolize the nation as a woman or as a mother in need of rescue, which privileges male action within the national and political project. In this, the primary association of beauty with femininity further immobilized women as symbols, rather than defining them primarily as political actors, which is most problematic when Imelda Marcos and others declare the safeguarding of beauty to be one of, if not the, primary responsibilities of women in the Philippine nation-state.
Since the Philippine Revolution, Philippine discourse has popularly portrayed the nation as a subordinated mother, in need of rescue by her sons—one example of this is Andres Bonifacio’s revolution poetry. Similarly, in Claro Recto’s 1910 poem “Rosas á María Clara,” Recto places all patriots in the position of the Noli Me Tangere hero, Crisostomo Ibarra, while figuring María Clara as the immobilized feminized nation in need of rescue—“Do not cry, beautiful sprite, graceful María Clara, under the sacred walls, Crisostomo Ibarra is not dead! There he is, with his lantern raised beside the altar guiding those who travel by the uncertain road…” (no llores, hada hermosa, gentil María Clara, bajo los santos muros. ¡Crisostomo no ha muerto! … Allí está él, con su lámpara, erguido junto al ara, guíando á los que viajan por el camino incierto”).
Meanwhile President Jose P. Laurel in his 1943 Inaugural Address declared and admonished that “the home is [the Filipina woman’s]sovereign realm and motherhood is the highest position to which she should aspire. She should look forward to the rearing of children as the consummation of her noblest mission in life.”
Within this discourse on the Philippine nation as a heteronormative family, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos styled themselves as the idealized First Family. When the Philippine Women’s University conferred upon Imelda an honorary degree on February 20, 1969, in her speech Imelda advised that “it would be a tragedy if our women chose to sacrifice their husbands and family on the altar of their own personal ambition or pride.” Listing obligatory roles for women in the national project, Imelda declared that the New Filipina “will also, because she is a woman, find time, even if it is her leisure time, to be concerned with being beautiful.” Moreover, Imelda intoned, “[the New Filipina]will encourage [beauty]in every form, in language, in music, in painting, in drama, in social manners, in customs, in the standard of values by which people live, for by nature she is the custodian of life and these things nourish life.” Imelda’s understanding privileged beauty above excellence as the preferred feminine transcendental, or, otherwise, inscribed excellence within the larger ambit of the beautiful.
The elision of country and woman (as in Bonifacio’s writing) and of patriotism and romantic, male-female love (as in Recto’s poems) excavates the masculinist, heteronormative understandings of nationhood guiding the most influential Filipino politicians’ hegemonic conceptualization of that project. In this, full political agency is reserved for males, while females are immobilized as symbols—of sacrifice, love, solace, inspiration, and beauty. Figuring as the passive and inspirational complement to men’s agentive and purposive political action, women form a harmonious whole once in union with men.
The originary gender divide in the Filipino creation myth that features male as Malakas and female as Maganda not only makes clear the dominant association of beauty with femininity (rather than with masculinity), but also underscores the enduring way in which beauty has organized hegemonic conceptions of the female’s potential contribution to the national project. Just as beauty is socially situated and at times even socially purposed, so too, in certain contexts, is femininity. Femininity, following the tradition of the cult of the Virgin Mary, marianismo, necessarily exists for others, and is marked by self-sacrifice, submission, and the unflagging provision of solace, love, and inspiration. Masculinist conceptions of nationhood and the hegemonic national discourse immobilize women as symbols, while defining their political existence only in relation to their male complements—as wives and mothers.
The conceptions of femininity and nation in Bonifacio, Recto, Laurel, and Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’s thought do not encompass the entire range of the discourse’s imagined role for women in the nation-state—only that of the hegemonic, masculinist mainstream. There are of course many agentive female political forces both in history and today, as well as multiple understandings of the role of women in the multivocal political discourse. Yet, it is worth thinking through the images of femininity in our public sphere and the roles that our most powerful and influential politicians have assigned and continue to assign to women, and what those roles privilege and deny.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University