In the fall of 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition politician, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and chairperson of the National League for Democracy, visited Yale University as part of her tour of the United States. I attended her two talks, both of which concluded with lengthy question-and-answer sessions with the audience. In these, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke of her formative years at Oxford, of her political decisions, of her positions on human rights issues, and of her family. She told us that she was never one of those children who resented or rebelled against her parents; she was always proud to be her father’s daughter, and to bear his name.
General Aung San was a Burmese revolutionary and nationalist, and he is considered to be the father of modern Burma. He was crucial to the gaining of independence from British colonial rule, but he was assassinated six months prior to the effecting of Burmese independence. At the discussions I attended, many among her Western audience wanted Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss her positionality as a woman politician, asking her questions that built upon the premise that she had broken a significant gender barrier.
At these moments I was inevitably reminded of former Philippine Presidents Cory Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Indeed, Americans I meet often ask me about the “stunning” fact of the election of two female presidents in Philippine history. Yet, the division salient to discussions of these women’s election and prominence—Aung San Suu Kyi, Cory Aquino and GMA—is not gender, but socioeconomic class. All of these women are from elite, political families of national prominence. This is not to say that there are no gender barriers in either country (there remain grievous gender inequalities in both), but rather that the much deeper operative barrier to power remains socioeconomic.
Some would argue that this conversation about the class position of Cory Aquino and GMA was still made possible by the long history of feminism and of women’s rights struggles in the Philippines. Indeed, in surveying the rest of Southeast Asia, one must concede the importance that these histories have had in building the Philippine society we know today.
The Philippines can boast of a longstanding fight for women’s rights and of the achievement of much narrower gender disparities than many countries both regionally and globally. Filipino women gained the right to vote in September, 1937, after three decades of organizing and legislative lobbying by women’s groups. According to Athena Lydia Casambre and Steven Rood’s March 7, 2012, article for The Asia Foundation’s publication, In Asia, the women’s suffrage movement was spearheaded by the Asociacion Femenista Filipina, founded in July 1905 and led by Doña Concepcion Felix, who married Felipe Calderon. Subsequently, Pura Villanueva, who married Teodoro M. Kalaw, organized the Asociacion Femenista Ilonga in response to Asociacion Femenista Filipina’s call to organize women across the nation. I mention their husbands’ names only to draw attention to the national, political connections these pioneering women’s rights activists had, and to the socio-economic class from which they too came.
Casambre and Rood’s article argues that the social activism of these asociaciones “was rooted in the concept of women as precisely positioned in the domestic sphere as shapers of moral sentiments of the young in their care first of all, as well as influencing their husbands and other family relations.” The asociaciones advocated for improved women’s education in order to allow women to fulfill these roles, and agitated for other social concerns, such as prison reform and the “prevention of individual immorality.” As with other women’s movements around the world at this time, the championing of women seemingly aimed toward the empowerment of men, not the empowerment of women. However, as the audience for these women’s arguments was decidedly male, it seems natural that early feminism would employ such language. After meeting with two international suffragettes, Dr. Aletta Jacobs of Holland and Carrie Champan Catt of the United States, in 1912, the asociaciones redirected their focus toward gaining women the right to vote.
Gabriela, the leading alliance of cross-sector and cross-region women’s organizations, is one of the direct inheritors of early feminists’ activism and political organizing. The progressive, militant women’s movement in the Philippines was made possible by women such as Doña Concepcion Felix and Pura Villanueva. And now, much of what Gabriela works to achieve is women’s empowerment across socioeconomic class, the achievement of which would be a far better marker of the effacement of entrenched power disparities. It is not enough to tout the mere fact of our past female presidents.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Student in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University