Wake Up, Philippines!

History in the eyes of women

Posted in History, Women by Erineus on April 22, 2009

Each term I assign my students to visit the microfilm section of the library and dig up the newspaper on the day they were born. I know students hate being sent to the library to physically handle a book that unfortunately is not available on the Internet. But the visit is a chore most of them actually enjoy. The aim of the exercise is to make them experience historical research and writing. Students are also asked to interview their parents to find out what they remember so they end up learning an important lesson—that parents can be an unreliable source of information!


For this column I go back in time like my students, except that I travel at least a century back to see how much we have changed or not. Some people think that history is biased in favor of men because most of the primary sources being used by historians were written for and by men. Thus a feminist school of thought tries to remedy the situation by trying to let us see history from a different point of view, from historical sources for and by women. Rabid feminists even want to change his-tory which they claim is unfairly masculine, into something current and politically correct. They insist we should remember her-story instead. As if that wasn’t enough, the so-called “third sex” wants equal space in the past, thus causing yet another paradigm shift they call “Queer-story.” The only problem is that gays and lesbians are quite invisible in history. One can only wonder what new school of thought will come next.

One of the her-story accounts of the Philippines is “An Ohio Woman in the Philippines” by Emily Bronson Conger (1904) who spent time in Jaro, Iloilo. Although her impressions of the country and its people are over a century old, these are not stale but surprisingly current and engaging. The 23rd chapter of the book is on domestic life and begins:

“The houses are made of bamboo; some of them are pretty, quite artistic; the plain ones cost about seventy-five cents each; no furniture of any kind is needed. The native food is rice, or as it is called in the vernacular, ‘sow-sow.’ It is cooked in an earthen pot set upon stones with a few lighted twigs thrust under it for fire. When it is eaten with nature’s forks, the fingers, with a relish of raw fish, it is the chief article of diet.

“House cleaning is one thing that I never saw in practice or evidence. I took a supply of lye with me and it was a huge joke to see the natives use it in cleaning the floors.

“The windows are made of oyster shells which are thin and flat; these, cut in three-inch squares, make a window particularly adapted to withstand the heavy storms and earthquakes; it transmits pleasant opalescent light.

“Coffee is raised, but not widely used by the natives; they prefer chocolate. After many unsuccessful attempts, I gave up trying to have my dishes washed in my way; I soon discovered that the servants used the tea towels on their bodies. This convinced me, and I let them wash mine as they did their own, by pouring water on each dish separately, rinsing and setting to dry on the porch in the sun, the only place where the vermin would not crawl over them.

“The irons used for pressing clothes are like a smooth, round-bottomed skillet, the inside is filled with lighted sticks and embers. The operator who sits on the floor, presses this smoking mass over the thing to be pressed. The article, when finished, looks as if it had been sat upon.”

Unlike most expatriates who did not adapt and complained a lot, Conger was more flexible and seemed to have enjoyed her stay in Iloilo even if you get a sense that the Philippine-American War was always in the background. She had to take an interpreter and an armed guard when she travelled about to protect her against the “insurrectos.” The irons she described are not in use today and can be found in antique shops where they are sold as either plant holders (large ones) or ashtrays (small ones). You will find capiz shell windows only in old houses and nowhere will you find a hut that costs 75 cents today. Coffee shops abound throughout the country for a people whose tastes have shifted from thick Spanish chocolate to frapuccinos. We are slowly being warned against the dangers of smoking tobacco and some places like Makati have no-smoking ordinances for public spaces. Yet in Iloilo, Conger found children smoking:

“Nearly all little children are naked. One day I saw a little fellow, about three years old, who was suffering severely from the smallpox. He was smoking a huge cigar of the kind the natives make by rolling the natural tobacco leaf and tying it with a bit of bamboo fiber. He did look ridiculous. A native teacher told me that they all begin to smoke when [they are] about two years old; poor, little, stunted, starved things, fed on half-cooked rice and raw fish.”

Of course, Conger brought to her writing her Ohio background and saw the Philippines from her American viewpoint. But what is striking in her book is the sympathy for the poor. Much of the things she described in the early 1900s are no more but the poor remaining the same.

We often think that the Philippines has changed a lot in the past century, reading travel accounts like that of Conger’s makes us realize how much it remains unchanged.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu


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