teaching, blogging and researching on art and culture, viewing the world through the camera's eyes, continually contemplating on the world of aesthetics and art theory and expressing it in art criticism and discourse…
by: Maria Portia Olenka C. Placino
What is a woman? What defines her? Is she different? How so? These are some of the questions I asked as the strength of my character was challenged and measured today. Things were on track. My paper was working out in its own way. Everything was relatively fine. And then, bam, my month old laptop froze and quick fixes just weren’t working. No other choice but to give it up for repair or even replacement. Two to three weeks, he says. On the last three weeks of the semester, with papers to write and grades to compute. More importantly, with research materials stuck inside that laptop, a laptop that they need to rip apart piece by piece. It will come back in mint condition, but containing nothing of what was placed there.
This concern, my concern, is a middle class concern. Obviously, in some way or another, I managed to purchase a supposed quality laptop. I am writing, an undertaking not open to everyone, especially not to those who are too busy with children to take care of, a household to run or manual labor to exhaust. They can, if they really wanted too, but too often, they just don’t. This particular moment is when I remember a remarkable woman, Virginia Woolf. In a way I have always felt for A room of one’s own, but moments like these in particular would remind you of what she says, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well” (Woolf 210). I am fortunate because despite of having to work, I still have the time, energy and capacity to study, contemplate and write, rather than simply being occupied with everyday life. I have my independence, first provided by my family and then supplemented by my own capacity. Again, as Woolf says, “…what a change of temper a fixed income will bring about. No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house, and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me” (230). This is the independence that she has been given, that I have been given. But, unfortunately, this independence is not given to all women, not even to most women.
Being a single woman in Philippine society is not simple. Even if good circumstances in life bring you independence—society, culture and tradition will make independent living difficult. I for one have been termed a soltera in the most derogatory fashion. Women in ragged clothes with unkempt children, even those borrowing money from the family would express their sympathy for my sorry state in life, being never married. I was 25 when I was first called that. I expected to be at least 30 before being termed such. In a society such as ours, we can go back to the first wave of feminism and witness the same concerns expressed in present time. Society will make you feel like an incomplete woman without a man by your side and without birthing children to carry on the line. Unless of course, if the soltera is useful, such as in educating siblings and cousins, providing money and material things to their family. Living an academic life, teaching and writing, being in the art world, does not count. Being an only child, not having to provide but will in fact inherit—being unmarried is confusing if not downright unacceptable. Society assumes that there is something seriously wrong with you. You are the incomplete woman. This is part of the price to be paid for independence—the independence that you need to study, contemplate and create.
Yet, this independence that I enjoy, despite the challenges of society, is not enjoyed by most women. It is like we never learned, never grew up from the past. I know for a fact that a lot of women now still have no voice. I remember the assertion of Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, ”But, if women are to be excluded, without having a voice, from a participation of the natural rights of mankind, prove first, to ward off the charge of injustice and inconsistency, that they want reason- else this flaw in your NEW CONSTITUTION will ever shew that man must, in some shape, act like a tyrant, and tyranny, in whatever part of society it rears its brazen front, will ever undermine morality. I have repeatedly asserted, and produced what appeared to me irrefragable arguments drawn from matters of fact, to prove my assertion, that women cannot, by force, be confined to domestic concerns; for they will, however ignorant, intermeddle with more weighty affairs, neglecting private duties only to disturb, by cunning tricks, the orderly plans of reason which rise above their comprehension” (2). She fights for women’s voice. Despite the grounding of this in the domestic life, which has been a dominant place of the woman for a very long time, her assertions are still relevant in the present time. Though the feminist discourse today veered away from the moralist discourse of Mary Wollstonecraft, she still paved the way for it, and her discourse still hits home. Where is feminism now, if we are still at a time that a universal human right is still widely denied—the provision for women’s health?
We keep on going back, remembering the first wave of feminism, “Moralists have unanimously agreed, that unless virtue be nursed by liberty, it will never attain due strength- and what they say of man I extend to mankind, insisting that in all cases morals must be fixed on immutable principles; and, that the being cannot be termed rational or virtuous, who obeys any authority, but that of reason” (Wollstonecraft 164). Unlike the time of Wollstonecraft, feminists broke away from the moralist tendencies. In fact, the fight for women’s rights goes against the grain of the traditional moralists. The fight for the RH Bill is raging. The sexist patriarchal Philippine society is rearing its head. A law that provides gender equity, freedom of choice and education is barred by moralists as something evil and demonic. It is a different world from which Wollstonecraft came from but we still have the same problems, the same concerns.
“The State recognizes and guarantees the exercise of the universal basic human right to reproductive health by all persons, particularly of parents, couples and women, consistent with their religious convictions, cultural beliefs and the demands of responsible parenthood. Toward this end, there shall be no discrimination against any person on grounds such as sex, age, religion, sexual orientation, disabilities, political affiliation and ethnicity.
Moreover, the State recognizes and guarantees the promotion of gender equality, equity and women’s empowerment as a health and human rights concern. The advancement and protection of women’s human rights shall be central to the efforts of the State to address reproductive health care. As a distinct but inseparable measure to the guarantee of women’s human rights, the State recognizes and guarantees the promotion of the welfare and rights of children.
The State likewise guarantees universal access to medically-safe, legal, affordable, effective and quality reproductive health care services, methods, devices, supplies and relevant information and education thereon even as it prioritizes the needs of women and children, among other underprivileged sectors. The State shall eradicate discriminatory practices, laws and policies that infringe on a person’s exercise of reproductive health rights.”
Current feminist discourse keeps falling into the trap of post-modernism, the trap of non-difference. How can we look forward without seeing that the earliest feminist concerns are still unrealized? We had two female presidents; the first was a hero-worshipped weakling and the second was a demonized political leader. The society still admires the woman that is weak and is afraid of a woman that shows strength. What we now see is the death of feminism, its status as a ‘post’, yet in reality, we have not yet fully enjoyed the fruits of feminism. Amelia Jones say in Postfeminism, Feminist Pleasures, and Embodied Theories of Art, “The recent resuscitation of this patriarchal fantasy by the right under the guise of ‘family values’ is a symptom of the massive anxiety of the patriarchal system, signaling a reaction formation against the threatening incursion of women into the work force and, more recently, the political arena” (384-5). A grieving widow is a hero and a fighting leader is a demon, that is how we still see women in the political arena and this is still the country’s model.
The fighting, screaming voice of feminism is now made to be tame if not silenced. I find this incredibly sad, frustrating even. The work, the ideology is not yet done, yet it’s already starting to ebb. The fire is dying a slow painful death as feminism is appropriated in a non-different post-modern world, “The strategic appropriation of feminism both radicalizes postmodernism and simultaneously facilitates the silencing of the confrontational voices of feminism–the end result being the replacement of feminism by a less threatening, postfeminism of (non)difference” (Jones 388). Where is the woman then? Where is her voice?
How can women gain the power and dominance of her voice? In finding the women’s voice and place, it is interesting to look into the French feminists. They look into the personal aspect of relationships and breaks down the sexism of psychoanalysis. Simone de Beauvoir deals with this in The Second Sex, “Today the combat takes a different shape; instead of wishing to put man in a prison, woman endeavours to escape from one; she no longer seeks to drag him into the realms of immanence but to emerge, herself, into the light of transcendence. Now the attitude of the males creates a new conflict: it is with a bad grace that the man lets her go. He is very well pleased to remain the sovereign subject, the absolute superior, the essential being; he refuses to accept his companion as an equal in any concrete way. She replies to his lack of confidence in her by assuming an aggressive attitude. It is no longer a question of a war between individuals each shut up in his or her sphere: a caste claiming its rights attacks and is resisted by the privileged caste. Here two transcendences are face to face; instead of displaying mutual recognition, each free being wishes to dominate the other” (51). This struggle of the heteronormative relations is still present today. In the more traditional curve of Philippine society, this is the struggle of the male and female. As a woman, I know my voice and I want to express it. I have no sovereign; I have no wish to be dominated. Looking in the bigger picture of the society in which I belong, my struggle is simply not right.
Like almost every Filipino woman, I am expected to marry and to bear children. This is if I am to belong and if I am to become a complete woman, according to expectations. Helene Cixous’s take in The Laugh of the Medusa challenges this expectation, “There are thousands of ways of living one’s pregnancy; to have or not to have with that still invisible other a relationship of another intensity. And if you don’t have that particular yearning, it doesn’t mean that you’re in any way lacking. Each body distributes in its own special way, without model or norm, the nonfinite and changing totality of its desires. Decide for yourself on your position in the arena of contradictions, where pleasure and reality embrace. Bring the other to life. Women know how to live detachment; giving birth is neither losing nor increasing. It’s adding to life an other” (891). There is nothing wrong in marrying, and giving birth, but there is also nothing wrong in not doing so, or having no desire to do so. It is a matter of the right and freedom of a woman to choose, and not to be judged or discriminated for her personal choices. This basic principle is still denied most women. There is no law for or against it, but for women to live in accord with her society, this is what is expected of her. She is not expected to create, other than that of her own children. Cixous, admirably, tries to break this barrier down and go beyond the psychoanalytic expectations of a patriarchal society, “Beware, my friend, of the signifier that would take you back to the authority of a signified! Beware of diagnoses that would reduce your generative powers. “Common” nouns are also proper nouns that dispar-age your singularity by classifying it into species. Break out of the circles; don’t remain within the psychoanalytic closure. Take a look around, then cut through!” (892).
Going back to Simone de Beauvoir, feminism and the fight for women’s rights is not about denying her a man, if that is what she wants. It is more on the relationship of the woman to her society, to other people, and to end her situation as ‘the second sex’, “To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue none the less to exist for him also: mutually recognising each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other. The reciprocity of their relations will not do away with the miracles —desire, possession, love, dream, adventure — worked by the division of human beings into two separate categories; and the words that move us — giving, conquering, uniting — will not lose their meaning. On the contrary, when we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the ‘division’ of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form” (De Beauvoir 60). Only in freeing the woman, emancipating her and giving her the rights to live the life she wants, can she truly be capable of art and artistic discourse. There may be few artists who surpassed such odds—Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt for instance, yet there are more to achieve when freed from society’s bounds. Imagine how many more Jane Austen is out there, that lies bound by society. Like Jane Austen, I may never marry nor gain fame in my lifetime, but, I will struggle to study, write and contemplate like she did. But my hope, as in the hope of feminism, is that women will not have to be bound, silenced or pressured to conform.
Being in the academe, a woman is allowed to express more as opposed to her peers. But we have to always be careful of some academic pitfalls. There is still hope in the academe, “Interestingly, then, while the postfeminism of popular culture works to deny the continuing empowerment of feminist discourse and the sexually and professsionally active feminist subject, the postfeminism of academic criticism works simultaneously to celebrate and absorb feminism and feminist theory. Postfeminism in art discourse is precisely this absorptive operation: the incorporation of feminism into postmodernism as ‘post’ (Jones 389). The challenge though, is to translate feminism from an academic and artistic discourse into the discourse of women everywhere. The struggles enumerated by Linda Nochlin in Why have there been no great women artists? still holds true today, “The question “Why have there been no great women artists?” has led us to the conclusion, so far, that art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, “Influenced” by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by “social forces,” but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast” (Nochlin online). We cannot enter into the realm of post-feminism, we cannot allow the death of feminism, because the end of feminism has not yet been realized.
Looking into writing, and art production in general, Helen Cixous still resounds in my mind,”I shall speak about women’s writing: about what it will do. Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies-for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text-as into the world and into history-by her own movement. The future must no longer be determined by the past. I do not deny that the effects of the past are still with us. But I refuse to strengthen them by repeating them, to confer upon them an irremovability the equivalent of destiny, to confuse the biological and the cultural. Antici-pation is imperative” (Cixous 875). There is no changing the silence of women’s past, but the silence of the present and the future is unforgiveable. Maybe there is also a seed of truth into writing as the symbolic phallus. I have men enough men that are easily intimidated by women who write, women who create. It is through these productions that we break our silence, “It is by writing, from and toward women, and by taking up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus, that women will confirm women in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence. Women should break out of the snare of silence. They shouldn’t be conned into accepting a domain which is the margin or the harem” (881). It is a time that women should break away from the bounds of expectations, and for society to stop trying to bind their women according to patriarchal ideals.
Instead of the death of feminism, going into post-feminism, we should look into the re-embodiment of feminist. The goal of feminism is still unrealized, women’s struggles are still alive, and there is still a need for feminist discourse. Instead of ending a much needed discourse, perhaps we need to re-embody it into our present situation, “My central argument is that at this particular moment the most radical rethinking of feminism can take place through the articulation of re-embodied theories of female artistic subjectivity, feminist agency, and representation in the broadest sense. Ideally, by re-embodying the subjects of feminism–by saturating theory in and with the desiring making, viewing, and interpretative bodies of art theory and practice–the notion of a unified feminist subject (a notion that we saw was integral to this subject’s termination in the popular press accounts of postfeminism) can be rejected. And, by acknowledging multiple feminist subjects of infinitely variable identities, we can perform reinvigorated feminist art histories and practices that are radically empowered through the newly recognized diversity of feminisms” (Jones 395).
I am lucky that I am not Virginia Woolf’s Judith Shakespeare, I was not a poetic mind driven mad with frustration by society’s bounds. It may be a middle class, elitist dream, but creation can more easily happen in Woolf’s imaginings, “By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream” (300-1). More so, she says, “So that when I ask you to earn money and have a room of your own, I am asking you to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life, it would appear, whether one can impart it or not.” This is what I hope for every woman, as her story goes. This is just the beginning too, as its merely scratching the surface of a heterosexual woman in society, a place that I also belong too. And women’s stories do not, in any way, end here. We can start again by taking care of health, and then break the bounds of society instead of conforming to it. After that, creation, writing, artistic productions and criticism may easily follow. A woman as a writer, as an artist, as anything she may want to be would be just as acceptable as her role as a daughter, a wife and a mother. Hopefully, not just in my ideals but also in reality.
Brand, Peggy. “Feminism and Tradition”. Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 1999.
Brodsky, Joyce, “Feminist Art History”. Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 1999.
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp. 875-893
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Online.
Jones, Amelia. “Postfeminism, Feminist Pleasures, and Embodied Theories of Art” The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, ed. Donald Preziosi. New York: Oxford University Press (1998) 383-395.
Nochlin, Linda. Why Have There Been no Great Women Artists? Online.
Silvers, Anita. “Feminism”. Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, 1999.
The Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population and Development Act of 2011. 15h Philippine Congress.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Online.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.