Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (The more they change, the more they stay the same.)
–Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
While not entirely bleak, the status of women in this country is still not something to jump up and down about. The recent spate of killing, raping, and tawdry female rivalry and jealousy is fact of the flimsiness of female life as regarded by predatory sexes, both male and female, in our midst. On the academic side, there are more women getting better educated everyday and are being heard from, which hopefully translates to more women standing up to discriminatory practices in the work place. More importantly, education should equip women to do a better job of defending themselves from attacks, both physical and psychological.
More deeply-rooted forms of discrimination persist, however, but they are for the most part only mildly irritating: a driver making a wrong turn earns the ire, alternatively a cluck-clucking, of male motorists deadpanning “Babae kasi” (“Oh. A woman driver.”); a mom who comes home late one night is asked by her husband: “Uwi ba ito ng matinong ina?” (“Is this appropriate time for coming home by a mother such as yourself?”); a “Sneakers” commercial succumbs to the double whammy of Asian/woman as whipping girl for industrial idiocy, and other vexations.
In my side of the world, what one woman has managed to achieve is more earthbound and workaday. It is best illustrated by a retelling of a personal story.
Since losing my maid of four years in December last year to a vagabond slash husband slash “I-know-I-am-bitter” beepbeep, I had naturally taken over our domestic “business”. So there I was, an Assistant Professor with PhD units from a snobbish academic institution and considered by some relatively well-off (by most Filipinos’ standards, at least) scrub, scrub, scrubbing away at a bathroom. Not ego-boosting, to be sure, but it provided eureka moment for me. The reason why I was able to do the things I enjoy doing prior to my help’s leaving was because she had been willing to place her life on hold so I could practice my profession, read books to my heart’s content, run, have coffee with my women friends, and wallow in liberties not normally enjoyed by many married Filipino women with kids without her marital life drowning in domestic mess. When a woman enjoys her liberties, there is another woman–a help, an older female relative, or one’s own selfless mother–willing to take up the slack for her. Women had always looked to one another for help.
Sobering realization aside, I know this had always been the case with women throughout history. Women had kept house so that the menfolk could go off and get educated and map the trajectory of a nation’s fate. The few women who had been lucky to be educated, wrote and joined the fray had done so because they had female help or women servants. But that’s not to say they weren’t harassed by male colleagues or made to feel inferior. “Damned mob of scribbling women,” remember?
I look at my raw and red hands. They’re nothing compared with what millions of women suffer on a daily basis on top of the mind-numbing, repetitive, and onerous chores they do keeping house for a (however hugely helpful and liberal-thinking) husband and adorable children: verbal abuse and domestic violence, women trafficking, molestation and rape, unequal pay, discrimination in the workplace, ‘double day,’ et cetera, et cetera. How women are taking everything in stride without hurling themselves collectively at the LRT tracks speaks of their resilience.
That’s why I find Cokie Roberts‘ We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters a one-of-a kind anthology of herstories a trenchant celebration of female lives, and for which I am willing to burn the midnight oil to read. Filling pages after pages are stories of superwomen sans the iconic red cape. This little book compiles profiles of individuals who have made a name for themselves regardless of, or in fact because of, their gender.
I feel morally buoyed, truly moved to partake of this female kinship. For such a one who has engrossed herself in (dilettante ^_^) feminism or for anyone remotely interested in gender as a lens through which cultural and political phenomena may be looked at, Roberts’ book recounts what American women had to go through before they could enjoy their birthright. A glance at the table of contents will give you stories of a politician, a human rights champion, an educator, a sister, a wife, a mother, all powerful vignettes of ordinary women’s lives that changed the landscape of political activism or of the marketplace of consumerism. Women’s fingers have always been, to be domestic in my metaphor, in every pie.
Cokie Roberts writing style is both lucid and honest, and she was upfront with her own experiences. Growing up in the 50s and coming into her own in the 70s, when thorny issues of gender equality were just then being hammered out, in the streets, in congress, between couples, I, as a Filipina, feel at one with a kindred spirit whose own herstory is in progress.
People who do decide to read We Are Our Mothers’ Daughters will not feel cheated of time spent reading it. There are worse ways of squandering it.