17 AUGUST 2007
THIS MONTH'S FEATURES
LITERATURE AND LITERACY
FACES OF CHANGE AND CHANGELESS PLACES
i R E P O R T — T R A C K I N G T H E W O M E N ' S J O U R N E Y
HOW DOES the current status of women — in terms of their capabilities and opportunities — compare with the situation 50 or so years ago? Unfortunately, available time series data on women’s capabilities and opportunities do not extend back that far, while researching Philippine census data was not an option for this piece (in any event, gender disaggregated data half a century ago were scarce).
And so, absent the empirical data that would have provided a solid baseline for the status of women five decades or so ago, I conducted an informal survey of a group of women who were either on the verge of adulthood or were already adults at the time.
I asked them two questions: (1) What do you think has changed between the time you were growing up and now, as far as women’s capabilities and opportunities are concerned? And (2) if you had your druthers, would you rather belong to this generation of women or stick to your own?
Before I discuss their answers, let me clarify that the term “survey” is used very loosely here. The respondents, whose ages range from 65 to 83, call themselves “The Walking Group,” live near each other, and enjoy walking, praying, or eating together. The questions were discussed over breakfast (with a telephone follow-up), and there was much sympathetic laughter as we reminisced, not only about our own experiences, but those of other friends and classmates.
As the conversation progressed, it was abundantly clear that in general, there was much less freedom, choices, and opportunities for women 50 years ago as compared to the present. But it was also abundantly clear that even then, there were tremendous disparities — restrictions on the women were greater or less depending on their family background, religion, and even age (the younger members of the group seemed to have had a relatively easier time of it, and I was one of them) — which meant that even then, the times, they were a-changing.
CAREER CHOICE was limited then, if at all allowed, for some of the women in the group. It was not unheard of that girls were sent to “finishing school” for a year or two right after high school, to learn the social graces and prepare them for what was considered then the ultimate achievement for women: marriage. College was considered by a lot of parents — fathers, mostly — to be useless for their daughters because their husbands would support them anyway.
If they did go to college, the University of the Philippines (UP) was usually forbidden to those from “convent schools” — because it was a godless, immoral place, and for some parents not even the presence of Father Delaney and the UP Student Catholic Action (UPSCA) could make up for the perfidious influence of the godless, immoral faculty.
And while in college, the choice of a major was pretty narrow, since it was considered less a preparation for a career and more an opportunity to meet a future life partner. Menchu recounted that she really wanted to take up journalism, but she bowed to her father’s wish (really a command in those days) to take up music — a more ladylike profession, that would be of more use to her in her ultimate role as housewife and mother. Amelita recalled that her father did not want her to pursue graduate studies in the United States; women who go there, according to him, all ended up “desgraciadas (unwed mothers).” He refused to finance such foolishness, but stopped short of forbidding it, as (I think), his wife, who was an exceedingly active churchwoman, would have put her own foot down. Amelita had to seek financing on her own (she won a Fulbright).
Then there is Meding, who reminisced that when she was in medical school (at the University of Sto. Tomas), there were separate classes for the men and the women. She also observed that at least half of her classmates ended up not practicing medicine — their husbands of that day preferred that their wives stay at home. A working wife somehow reflected badly on her husband’s ability to support a family, and heaven forbid that his macho ego be bruised in such a way (never mind that his wife studied for years to hone her skills).
If women’s educational choices were restricted, so was their social life. Chaperones and curfews were de rigueur – Menchu was chaperoned all the way to the altar. Maybe that’s one of the reasons women were encouraged to marry early — chaperoning can be exhausting for all sides. With all that chaperoning, I often wondered how on earth an unmarried woman could get “in the family way” — but it happened, and when it did, it was a foregone conclusion that a wedding would take place, shotgun or no shotgun.
In any case, it was not uncommon for a girl to wed right after high school (or a year later, to give allowance for the finishing school). If one was still unmarried at 22, she was looked upon with a certain amount of pity and talked about with condescension — after all, she was practically well on the way to being an old maid.
There were any number of unwritten rules and procedures that had to be followed when one went a-courting – although by the time I got to college (UP, naturally), our Dean of Women Ursula Uichanco Clemente, in her Euthenics classes, had attempted to codify the rules of behavior: the proper time for visits (five p.m. — after merienda and before dinner); the proper length of visits (30 minutes, max one hour); the topics to discuss (nothing too personal — and the chaperone must be included in the conversation). There was also advice on the proper distance between man and woman while dancing (the length, not the width, of a book should separate them), and the conversation that would take place before, during, and after the dance. (I must say that although we never had the nerve to question her in class, we laughed at the poor lady behind her back.)
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