Rethinking Womanhood

Mina Roces delivers a lecture on “Filipino Migration and the Rethinking of the Family, 1906–2010,” at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Astrid M. Barros)

Mina Roces immigrated to Australia as a teenager, after graduating from high school, yet the Philippines has always been in the heart. For the past 23 years, she has written nine books, 20 chapters, and several articles on Philippine politics, gender and power, women’s movements, overseas workers, and 20th century history, particularly women’s history.

Today, Roces holds the distinction of being the first woman professor in the history discipline in University of New South Wales, in recognition of her prodigious research work and teaching.

It was in college at the University of Sydney that Roces found her calling. She had drifted towards English and anthropology but it was her Asian history class, which she found “fascinating,” that pivoted her decisively toward a degree in history. After graduating with a BA (Honors), she went on to earn a Masters and a PhD in History from the University of Michigan.

Mina Roces researches at the San Francisco Public Library (Photo by Astrid M. Barros)

Recently, Roces gave a lecture in UC Berkeley on “Filipino Migration and the Rethinking of the Family, 1906–2010,” a precursor to her tenth book, currently in progress. One of the strengths of Roces’ work is extensive field research. For this project, the fieldwork involved interviewing Filipino women workers in Hong Kong and Singapore, and finding out how they have started reassessing the family as an institution.

“Interestingly, the women openly discussed their sexual promiscuity,” Roces said. Some women related how they would meet up with strangers at a mall on their days off. The affairs were characterized by mutual consent, with little or no commitment.

Roces holds the distinction of being the first woman professor in the history discipline in University of New South Wales, in recognition of her prodigious research work and teaching.

Invariably, the conversation would return to their hardships and the lack of gratitude from family members who concoct ways to demand money for imaginary expenses.

One mother related to Roces that she had been sending money for a daughter’s college tuition for years. Upon going home, she faced the bitter truth: she had been a victim of a scam devised by her own family. The daughter had never gone to school, and the money was all gone. The woman was so distraught that she immediately flew back to Hong Kong and cried on her employer’s shoulders.

Mina Roces, center, at Manilatown, San Francisco, with fellow authors Catherine Ceniza Choy, Vangie Buell, Penelope Flores and Dawn Mabalon (Photo by Elena Mangahas)

Being abused by family seems to be a common thread in the women’s narratives. Complaints about their families’ lack of empathy for their hard work and self-denial were prevalent. “Phone calls with their families are dominated by requests for money,” Roces said. “Many of the women said that just once, they would like to hear their family ask how they are.”

“These women have a strong sense of family,” Roces added. “The Filipina is dutiful, she is the obedient daughter, the obedient wife.” Yet these women also see that the family is exploitative and disloyal, and some women do become unfaithful themselves. Through their own stories and memoirs, migrant workers have suggested alternative ways of viewing the family.

Mina Roces with her latest book, "Women's Movements and the Filipina, 1986-2008" (Photo by Astrid M. Barros)

Women’s Studies

Of the nine books she has authored so far, Roces is most proud of the latest one, “Women’s Movements and the Filipina, 1986-2008,” published in 2012.

“I would like to think my main contribution to scholarship is my work on women’s movements in the Philippines and on the history of women’s movements in Asia,” says Roces, who interviewed no less than 60 subjects.

One of them was Sister Mary John Mananzan, a political activist nun who rose to prominence during the Marcos dictatorship. A brilliant Missionary Benedictine sister, Mananzan holds the distinction of being the first woman to graduate summa cum laude from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. She returned to the Philippines at the height of Marcos’ martial law regime. She headed a Philippine-based feminist group, GABRIELA, and founded the first academic women’s center in the Philippines.

Mina Roces, third from left, at the Philippine International Aid (PIA) annual fundraiser in San Francisco, with Maya Ong Escudero of the Filipina Women's Network (FWN), Mona Lisa Yuchengco of PIA and Edna Biscocho-Murray of Alliance for Community Empowerment (ALLICE) (Photo by Elena Mangahas)

As an outspoken activist, she “criticized the regime on the rise in oil prices” and urged fellow Filipinos to resist the price hikes. She criticized the Church for being male-dominated, and joined striking workers in barricades.

Sister Mananzan gave Roces a tip on how to protest in the streets of Manila. Roces relates that in 2003, she stood on top of a jeepney denouncing then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as a liar.

“It was a fairly intimidating experience considering the jeepney faced a group of riot armed police. As Mary John Mananzan explained … one cannot protest in the streets and assume a demure or sweet personality asking policemen to ‘please’ give them a space in the streets. One had to be feisty (mataray),” Roces said.

The inclusion of the feminist Catholic nuns in her research allowed Roces to fill in a crucial gap in gender studies literature. To date, she is most likely the only person in women’s studies who acknowledges their influence in the context of the women’s movement.

Mina Roces, fourth from left, with Filipino workers in Singapore (Photo courtesy of Mina Roces)

An interesting angle of the book is its focus on how women’s organizations have transformed the image of the Filipino woman in their efforts to advance the status of women:  from the docile Maria Clara to a strong and confident woman. Even the militant nuns rejected the image of the long-suffering doormat model of a good wife, and offered gender-sensitizing workshops.

“I’ve analyzed the cultural side of the feminist movement in the Philippines and examined how activists grappled with how the Filipina has been defined and represented while working towards providing alternative roles for womanhood,” Roces said.

From her unique vantage point in Australia, which allows her to view the Philippines objectively from afar, Roces appreciates the progress of the Philippine women’s movement. “It is the most robust among Asian countries, and this is something we should be proud of,” Roces concluded.

And yet, there is so much more to write about. It seems the supremely driven and prolific Roces cannot write fast enough to explore history, society, politics, media, and even fashion from the feminist perspective.

Astrid M. Barros

Astrid M. Barros

Astrid M. Barros is a former journalist and Web editor. She is based in San Francisco.