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Empowerment in Progress: Feminisms in the Philippines From the Pre-Hispanic Period to the Duterte Regime (Part I)


Author(s):  Danielle Erika Hill (Asian Working Group Chair, Young Humanists International) and Scott Douglas Jacobsen (Secretary-General, Young Humanists International)

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/12/04


The Spanish conquest and imposition of Christianity continues to mark the conscience and culture of the Philippines.Modern feminist thought in the Philippines developed in this environment, alongside the revolutions and regimes that shaped the nation. Today, it operates within the context of an environment of religious thought and macho society, often as a reaction to it. Philippine feminism, in a nutshell, can be understood as “a bifurcation of Western liberal feminist thought and the Philippine colonial experience (Arnado, 2011).” Knowledge of the history of Philippine Feminism is crucial to any reading of Filipino history and culture, not least because because feminist values and struggles existed in the archipelago long before feminism became an internet-age buzzword in the modern Filipino woman’s fight for full reproductive rights and against the misogynistic Duterte regime.

To understand the unique flavor of feminism in the Philippines, we need to consider the long history of the country, and place where its women are found in its national struggles and its colonial, political and economic history. This series is an attempt to trace that history.

Filipino Feminism: A Genesis

In her 2011 paper “Theorizing Filipina Feminism: A survey of the theoretical and political streams of feminism in the Philippines”, MJ Arnado says that “feminists’ vision of society and their perceived sources of women’s oppression vary depending on how they have experienced differentiation, oppression, or exploitation.” Feminism is not monolithic; it is a movement with various “strains”, pushing and pulling against each other throughout history, all based on the personal struggles of their demographics. See how 19th-century liberal feminism focused on representation on the public sphere and claimed that suffrage would be enough to birth equality, and how Marxist feminism was born as a critique of this view, arguing that a purely liberal reading of feminism left out the lived experiences of working-class women, and pinpointing capitalism and wage labor as the source of women’s oppression. Years later, radical feminism (which coined the term “patriarchy”) was born out of the realization that even class analysis wasn’t enough and that women of all classes were being oppressed both in the public and private spheres by virtue of their being women, and socialist feminism was invented shortly thereafter as a comprehensive amalgamation of these three strains.

These “Big Four” feminist theories are the foundations of the modern women’s movement. However, consider how all of these schools of thought were born in the West, born of the experiences of white middle-class and working women. Obviously, then, their feminism would focus on the liberation of American women, unknowingly excluding the experiences of women of color. If humans create cultural reality through symbols and stories, then entire identity groups are erased from the narrative when the only stories being told about them are alien to their lived experiences.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, when Third World/Postcolonial Feminism became a field of study, that women of the global South finally saw themselves represented in the narrative of the women’s movement. The creation of Filipino feminism was part of this narrative shift, combining what was learned from Western feminism thus far with its own colonial experience, and ending up with a bespoke women’s movement that fit its own context.

What differentiates the Filipino women’s movement from its Western counterparts is that the Filipina’s struggle is not about having to carve out spaces for women to occupy, but about taking back a space that they were forcibly removed from, which will be discussed in the next section. Postcolonial feminism notwithstanding, though, the Filipino women’s movement still has to deal with the effects that “white feminism,” having been the dominant narrative for so long, have brought about. Even today, it is challenging to explain the nuances of feminism to people outside the movement, and even within the movement feminists find themselves disagreeing with each other on many issues, depending on what strain they ascribe to. To top it off, “traditionalists” in Filipino society insist that feminism is a Western invention (patently false, and can be rebutted by the argument that it was patriarchy, in fact, that was brought to the Islands by the White Man.)

Mujer indijena and “traditional” Filipino culture

Many Filipinos imagine Hispanic colonial tropes when they think of “traditional” values. However, going back in time further reveals that women in the precolonial period enjoyed a much more liberated existence compared to their colonized descendants.

Historians and anthropologists writing about pre-colonial Philippines all note that before the Spanish invasion, male and female offspring enjoyed relatively equal status, with both men and women having equal access to societal resources and inheritance rights (or the equivalents thereof). Children bore the mother’s name. Lineage was traced both from the maternal and paternal lines (a practice that still manifests in the Filipino naming system: a child’s “middle name” is their mother’s maiden surname). Women could move as freely as the men, could acquire education, retained equal rights in marriage and divorce, were eligible to be leaders in both political and religious domains, and while there was a bias towards males in terms of inheritance and martial leadership, it was by no means a systematic bias against women. Society was not, in the words of anthropologist Robert Fox, “patricentric”. Part of this was due to the lack of a strong capitalist engine and no clearly-defined division of labor, which a traditional patriarchal family institution sacralizes in a number of ways, and which we will discuss later on.

The notion of women as property — prominent in Western feminist critiques of history — only took root with the Spanish conquest. The islands, having no centralized means of production and no conceptualization of women as lesser than men in a fundamental sense, ensured that women remained human beings with full and equal rights. The conquistadores, witnessing this and realizing that the power wielded by women in native society was a threat to their subjugation of the islands, imposed Roman Catholicism, a sexual division of labor, and a concept of “womanhood” very different from that which had prevailed in native society.

300 years of Spanish mercantilist trade shaped Philippine agriculture industry, the development of social classes, and shifts in social relations. Whereas men developed higher labor value because the Spanish hired them, and only them, as farmhands, soldiers, etc., women were systematically removed from the labor force through aggressive Catholic indoctrination. The goal was to neutralize the problem of independent women within the society, and thus make conquest and colony management easier. And so the babaylans — female spiritual leaders of the barangays working hand-in-hand with the datus — were demonized and hunted down. The women of the barangay lost their prestige as indigenous rites and rituals were outlawed, ancient symbols of worship burned down, and even the practice of their medicinal knowledge led them to be tagged as mangkukulam — witches. Monogamy and chastity culture further solidified the view of woman as a display item, as fragile, delicate, and in need of utmost care. Beaterio education, which taught Spanish ideals of womanhood (a Mary-like figure, docile and obedient) was offered to women of the upper class, and became aspirational for the lower classes. From being cultural and spiritual pillars of the community, women were forced to take on a strictly domestic role as unpaid caregivers, answering to their husbands, the governor, the Spanish king, and the Abrahamic god. And with the imposition of a breadwinner/caregiver dichotomy, women became tied to the household, made dependent on husbands and relatives, and unable or unwilling to enter the workforce because their “rightful place” was the home and church.

From here on out, “women’s position became one of subservience. Any status a woman enjoyed derived from her role as mother and wife, or from her relationship to men. In both roles, her body was subject to male domination, either as vehicle of progeneration or as chattel acquired through marriage.” (Illo, 1999)

The transition from pre-feudal to feudal solidified the further subjection of women. In Anglo law, there is the idea of communal ownership or the commons. Similarly, among indigenous Filipino societies, there is a notion of communal ownership of land. With the calcification of the process of colonization by the Spanish of the pre-feudal territories and cultures, these communal lands became part and parcel of private reserves. Debt peonage and sharecropping became more common, and with this, women were further entrenched in their oppression in a systematic way. Census and taxation reflected only single men and families headed by males (as the padre de familia). The new status of women left land to be owned solely by men, and both land and women became private property — of men, of families, of Hispanic colonial Roman Catholic society.

To this day in the Philippines, men are seen as primary income earners, as well as holding household power. Meanwhile, women are seen as secondary income earners, whose primary role is to “take care of the kids”. This is not “traditional culture” at all, but a result of a long-term, colonizer-imposed ideology which relegated women to the household and severely limited their social and economic roles. To be a Filipina is to be unfree in these conditions, the shackles unseen but in place, and affecting the lives and livelihoods of Filipinas since the Spanish invasion all the way into the present.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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