Feminism Across Our Generations


 We are a Filipino mother and Filipino-American daughter whose perspectives on feminism—as a theory and as a political practice—have been formed over years of study, discussion, debate, and struggle in the Philippines and in the United States. In this piece, we offer our reflections as food for thought. We offer them because, despite the inevitably personal markings of the experiences we recount, they are in reality reflections of specific historical moments and of ongoing sociopolitical changes to which others, Filipino or not, might in some ways relate. We believe that our individual stories are ultimately all tied up with a broader and more enduring collective narrative about gender, race, colonialism, and national liberation.

Who are we? Delia was a professor of Women’s Studies and Comparative American Cultures at Washington State University and at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She now teaches women’s studies courses at the University of Connecticut. She has written several books published in the Philippines: The Feminist Challenge, Filipino Housewives Speak, and Toward a Nationalist Feminism. Her most recent book, an anthology titled Women and Globalization and co-edited with Anne Lacsamana, addresses her latest concern. She was born in Capiz in 1938 and has lived in the United States since 1961. Karin, the older of Delia’s two children, was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1962. Karin is a former editor for Dollars & Sense magazine, a progressive monthly for non-economists, and a former member of the South End Press publishing collective. Ten years ago, she edited and introduced an anthology, The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s, published by South End Press. Since 1999, she has been a tenure-track faculty member in the American Studies Department at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her courses focus on racism and racial inequality, urban sociology, and Asian American Studies. She likes to refer to living in Minnesota as being “stranded in the Great White North.”

In place of a co-authored formal essay on feminism, we decided to engage in a “dialogue” where we would draw out each other’s ideas by responding to a set of questions that we could answer in writing and exchange over e-mail. Our first question, “How did you become a feminist?” led naturally to the second question. The third and last question, “What do you see as the concerns of young Filipino-American women today, and how would you address them?” came as an effort to connect our thoughts about the past to the present, and to establish some generational links in our own experiences that we hope would interest not only Filipinos and Filipino Americans, but also those whose feminism has an international reach.

Question 1: How did you become a feminist?

Karin Aguilar-San Juan: I feel that the “how” in this question must first bring in the “when,” and then the “why,” and finally the “with what consequences.” I would say that I became a feminist in utero. How could I not with a powerhouse for a mother? But that answer would as easily implicate my mother—who will speak for herself here—as it would take me off the hook, as if biology could provide any kind of answer to this ultimately political topic.

If I was not a feminist by birth, at least I was born a girl into a world that does not see girls as having the same potential as boys. Maybe that was not always true in my family, but it was true in school, with my friends, and in the town that I grew up in. I was encouraged to read and write and practice spelling, not to play soccer or basketball as I would often have preferred. Sometimes I cannot separate the moments in which I was treated “as a girl” from the moments I was treated “as not American.” In fact, being racialized—treated like a foreigner because of my physical appearance and assumed cultural traits—during childhood is a much more vivid memory for me than being gendered. So actually, I do separate out the gender and the racial process as I look back on my past. Perhaps that is also because I probably fit into many of the expectations of girlhood, much more than I fit into the expectations for being “an American.”

My mother taught me to fight for my rights. I began practicing these lessons in the backyard. I remember wrestling little Bobby Tate to the ground for borrowing my bicycles without my permission, stealing it really. I think Mom watched from the kitchen window. She might have cheered me on. Later, I had to confront the white boys (always boys) in high school who would taunt me with racial slurs. Armed at home with nasty rejoinders by my mother, I would walk up to these pathetic individuals and say, “Do you know that in my country we EAT white monkeys like you?” I don’t remember any response from them—just mild shock. Sometimes I would have to confront my high school teachers for their narrowness of mind, particularly regarding the politics of the time. I learned to use polite language, and references to ideas and books in my comments. It was the late 1970s, and there was plenty to debate in the classroom: the justness of the war in Vietnam, police brutality against anti-war protestors, whether radical activism is an American tradition, the role of labor unions in improving society. Then, of course my favorite topic: the role of the U.S. government in propping up the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. I gave my teachers all of my mind in those years, and I could only do so because I thought I deserved to be heard. I think that made me a feminist of some kind, at least in the eyes of those I harassed.

In college I began to take on feminism as a political cause. I remember writing an essay for the newsletter of the Women’s Center on Raya Dunayevskaya and her idea of humanism. Early on, then, I wrote about social change as a feminist, from a feminist perspective. Instinctively I knew that the Women’s Center was providing one of the only venues I would ever have for developing and articulating my views about the world. Feminism became one place, one theoretical platform, from which to interpret and criticize the world. I remember in a seminar on Marx and Social Theory, my classmates and I had a mutiny when our professor declared that feminists had nothing to say about Marxism or social theory. After that session, we took over and taught the class to ourselves. I worked hard on a paper about Juliet Mitchell, one of the first Marxist Feminists I encountered, as if I were planning to convince our professor about the relevance of feminist theory. It was good for me, but I don’t think he ever changed his view about feminists.

When I came out as a lesbian in my last year of college, “feminism” finally made sense to me as a theory and as a way of life. It just felt like all the pieces fit together and I got a clue about who I was and who I might become. Looking back, I would say that feminists made a place for me to take control of my own future; without an idea of personal independence (which is a very loaded, biased, and historically constructed idea), I could not have pushed on to new things. As far as I was concerned, feminism allowed me to deal with my inner world on my own terms. In a way, feminism allowed me to move “past” gender, to disregard people’s expectations of me as a young woman who should eventually marry a man and produce his children and live in his, and their, shadows.

In the end, I was not as interested in feminism as I was in other social issues or causes. My main issues back then were Central America and the Philippines. I was mostly interested in fighting U.S. multinationals and their death grip on the Third World. Of course, the people who cared what I thought were usually feminists, or people who were influenced and informed by feminism. You know, I don’t think I made much of an impact on big, old, white corporate men or women. When I began to work as an educator and organizer in Boston in the mid-1980s, I did so in an environment that accepted and encouraged women to be strong people in their own right. So that had to involve feminism in some way. As a young lesbian, I also had to find my way in a local movement that did not always know what to do with me. Within a week of moving to Boston, I had a semi-traumatic encounter with the hard-core leftists in Chinatown who told me I would have to “subordinate my cause” (meaning “homosexuality”) to the cause of socialism. They actually used those words, too. It was semi-traumatic because I had the same attitude towards them that I had towards the boys who taunted me in high school. I was just enraged and annoyed at their stupidity. I could not believe people could be so idiotic as to draw such simple lines in the sand, and believe in them heart and soul.

My 11 years as an activist in Boston are in many ways foundational to my thinking now about feminism. I don’t attend to being a feminist. I mean, I don’t label myself that way, nor do I spend much energy in feminist organizations. I gave $25 to Planned Parenthood and I walked miles and miles to help find a cure for breast cancer, and that is what many people—especially rich, white, suburban housewives mean by “feminism.” But those gestures are simple, not profound or radical. I did those things because they don’t hurt anyone and maybe they help a tiny little bit. But I think I do other things with much more gusto, attention, and belief. I attend to other ways of creating political and social change in the world.

When I think about whether or not I am a feminist, I remember what Sonia Shah wrote in her introduction to Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire. She said that Asian American women have to deal with Asian American issues because no other feminists will do that for them. It’s not like we can expect white or black women to take up our Asian issues. In the same way, I think I cannot pretend I don’t care about feminism, because there is hardly any other venue in which my work and my vision—and more generally, the fate of women like me—will be entertained as worthwhile. If I were to walk away from feminism as a cause, I think I could not expect to be treated seriously by non-feminists, or anti-feminists, or homophobes, or racists. In the end, I am forced to embrace feminism and to make feminism matter to me, because the world is otherwise not going to have a place for someone who thinks, and acts, like I do.

Delia D. Aguilar: This question would have been easier to answer ten or fifteen years ago. It isn’t that I would have had a different response then. It’s simply that feminism means so many different things now, partly as a result of the success of the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s. Now institutionalized and integrated into the mainstream, feminism has become domesticated, losing its critical edge. So it just isn’t possible for me to speak with the same excitement or urgency. But perhaps I can talk about this later.

I came to feminism, I suppose, the way that many others during my time did–through political struggles of a broader nature. I was politically awakened, to use the jargon of liberation movements of that period, by events transpiring in the homeland. The declaration of martial rule by Ferdinand Marcos was met with fierce opposition by large masses of people, many of whom were placed on the wanted list of the regime and forced to join the revolutionary underground. In the United States, a group of young Filipino progressives who had fled the repression began to organize in support of that anti-imperialist, national democratic movement, urging attention to the US government’s complicity in giving military and economic aid to the dictatorship. It was through participation in this movement that I came to grips with what leftist circles called “the woman question.” Put more plainly, it was in the process of organizing—at rallies, picket lines, house meetings and, more crucially, in closed meetings where the “political line” was set forth and discussed—that I was struck by the incongruity of it all. Here we were, talking about fighting for a more humane society, one in which class differences would eventually be eliminated and where women would gain equality with men. Yet I saw that the way we were conducting ourselves contrasted sharply with these stated goals. Without question, men consistently took leadership positions in the most important activities (those requiring the use of the mind), while women were relegated to traditional support roles.

I think it is important to emphasize that my awareness of women’s subordination by no means came automatically. I happened at this time to be attending meetings on my campus of a group called the Women’s Radical Union. We read socialist literature, discussed the Marxist analysis of capitalism, and talked about the emancipation of women. While many of the women in this group were graduate students who were acutely sensitive to macho behavior among their male peers and professors, their feminism was tempered by their socialism. In this way they differed markedly from liberal or radical feminists whose feminism was confrontational and direct, but narrowly confined to gender relations. The latter never had any appeal for me because, of course, I was deeply conscious of my “Third World” status. It was also at this time that I first began to teach women’s studies, courses in marriage and family, and gender roles socialization. Because textbooks on these topics broached from a women’s perspective were not to see print until several years later, in the beginning years of my teaching I used pamphlets from the New England Free Press and other underground publications, all of which stressed the overthrow of patriarchy as well as capitalism. Interestingly enough, despite these activities, I did not refer to myself as a “feminist.” “Feminism” in revolutionary Third World struggles was then anathema. It was considered bourgeois, individualist, and divisive. I understood well that MAKIBAKA, the revolutionary underground women’s organization founded in 1970, stood for the liberation of women, not feminism.

Feminist though I was not, I was determined to engage “the woman question” among my revolutionary comrades because, by this point, the limitations of the national democratic platform’s stance on women had become apparent to me. The fights I had were angry, fierce, and heated, and these were not confined to men. I questioned what I saw then as the productivist orientation of the movement and its instrumental reckoning of women’s participation in it. I wanted conventional gender relations addressed and changed. I was told in not so many words that women in the Philippines were already liberated because they controlled the purse strings in the family, and because they were respected members of society, and because they were strong. Weren’t women guerrilla fighters proof of this? That’s what I received in response to my mailed queries to the Philippines–underground photos of red women fighters! And aren’t women, by merely joining the movement, already beginning to cast off old norms that require them to stay home? I remember addressing an audience of mostly women in the Philippines in the early 80s, where one very articulate woman stood up and told me exactly that, using this very language. (A mere two years later, she was to become an outspoken feminist and head of a women’s NGO.) Those were extremely frustrating times for me, so frustrating that I decided to turn to academic work to find empirical support for my stand. I set to work on an examination of the gender division of household labor in the Philippines, an issue I considered vital to my argument, by conducting interviews with women across class (women who were mothers) and letting them speak for themselves. I decided to write about this as I could not find a receptive ear and felt that our debates had reached an impasse.

At about this time, I was invited to join an ongoing Marxist/feminist study group that had been in existence since the early 70s. My involvement here also proved to be another significant source of tension. For if I was waging a battle against sexism among my Filipino comrades, with these women I would be raising doubts about their specific version of Marxism, or of Marxist/feminism. Within this group, however, I found support in the few women of color who had been invited to join along with me. They, too, were active in national liberation solidarity struggles and had reservations about these Marxist/feminist women identical to mine. What was “Marxist” about these women when their vocabulary was circumscribed by patriarchal issues and the politics of gender? Holding our own separate meetings, we women of color explored the ways in which we could effectively bring our anti-imperialist concerns to the main group. We were particularly taken aback and appalled by the reaction of one white woman after we had given individual presentations on national liberation in Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Turning to the other white women, she casually dismissed our very presence by asking: “Should we support national liberation struggles that are patriarchal?” I would say that the tensions I encountered in this and other arenas of conflict were often quite unsettling, but they were useful in goading me to study Marxist feminism on my own.

In the meantime, feminist stirrings could be discerned at the margins of the national democratic movement back home. In groping for answers to my questions, I was put in touch with a group of women in the Philippines who, themselves no longer satisfied with the old line on women, were starting to hold forums about organizing an autonomous women’s movement. Many of them had earned their place in the movement as cultural workers; several had undergone incarceration as political prisoners. I am certain that it was their immersion in the movement that gave them the confidence to express dissent without feeling vulnerable to the facile charge of “divisiveness.” I still recall the excitement of those small gatherings. While these activists called upon me to provide the theoretical frame within which their discomfiture as women could be articulated, the now gendered stories which they shared with me gave me the foundation, in practice, upon which to base my critique. I was also much encouraged and energized in knowing that there were several such aggrupations of women, not just the one I was meeting with. Not long after this, Ninoy Aquino was assassinated. The event drew the ire of the middle class who took to the streets as it had not before. The ensuing opening up of what is now referred to as a “democratic space” led to the mobilization of a wide variety of “sectors” comprising Philippine society. Shortly afterward, a semi-autonomous women’s movement developed and flourished, easily becoming the most vibrant of the sectoral organizations. GABRIELA was founded and, with its establishment, women came out in the open declaring themselves “feminists.” It must be remarked that when they did, they made sure to explain that they were appropriating the term for themselves and imbuing it with their own nationalist content. It was not until this moment that I, too, could give myself this label.

Go to Part II 


Leave a comment