[Blueboard] GMA: A Simple Feminist Afterthought

polsci at admu.edu.ph polsci at admu.edu.ph
Fri Mar 12 11:56:06 PHT 2004

GMA: A Simple Feminist Afterthought
by Lourdes Veneracion-Rallonza
Part-time faculty, Department of Political Science

The Philippines, in its pre-state form, saw the egalitarian distribution of 
power between women and men.  All over the land, groups of people or barangays 
were under priestess or women leaders known as babaylans who shaped the 
spiritual and ritualistic lives of the people.  “Together with the datu and the 
panday, the babaylan was (also) a leader who took care of the socio-cultural 
needs, and provided wisdom and guidance to the people bringing healing into her 
community (Aquino, Joanne Natalia. “The Re-awakening of the Babaylan: Her 
Story”. Online. Available:  
html. Accessed 5 November 2003).” Women and men had equal representation in 
decision-making.  However, these all changed when the land came under a 
colonial power – women took the backseat in decision-making activities, 
particularly within the public realm; they were relegated to the private world 
of the household, having no identity of their own except the one defined by 
their fathers or husbands.  

But with the advance of capitalism in the Philippines that created wealth for a 
few families, young men were able to educate themselves and bring the winds of 
liberal thought to the country.  Women from this new elite came to ride the 
wind and demanded that they be given the same right accorded to men, 
particularly the right to be educated and the right to vote.  Despite being 
relegated to a subordinate status, women struggled to be heard and be included 
in affairs that affect them. As individuals or as members of a collectivity, 
women politicised themselves.  Ironically, it was from their colonial 
experience where one of their great triumphs emerged: the right of suffrage 
that gave women the political persona to participate in choosing the country's 
political leaders.  In fact, data from 1947 to 1992 indicated a large turnout 
of women voters averaging 79.3 percent in contrast with men voters at 78.57 
percent.  Women have been voting, lobbying, and taking into the streets to 
protest about various issues relating to women and social/gender injustice.  
Women have also taken the challenge to be part of the political contest 
themselves by running for elective positions.  And in all these, one may deduce 
that the Filipino women have made headway in the political arena.  

A Simplified Feminist Critique of Philippine Politics

There is no question that a lot of Filipino women have been politically active –
 participating in activities of formal politics such as elections and other 
political engagements.  However, one must take note of the following:

1. Despite the large turnout of women voters, there is still no women’s vote to 
speak of. In other words, the quantity of women voters has not yet been 
consolidated and solidified to form the women’s vote.
2. Despite the great triumphs of women on the legal front (i.e. anti-rape law, 
anti-trafficking in women and children) there  still remains societal and 
institutional barriers that block the emancipation of women from specific forms 
of gender violence (i.e. domestic violence, feminisation of poverty).
3. Despite the entry of women as candidates in political contests, there still 
remains a small, but distinct number of women being elected into public 
office.  For example, from 1946 to 1987, only 63 women (about 4.98%) were 
elected to the Philippine Legislature; and in 1989, of the 16,560 seats in 
various branches of government, women occupied only 1,622 or 9.78% of these 
Though the increase in the number of women political leaders has not been 
staggering, there is still an expectation that the placing of women in decision-
making positions would somehow bring about some marked improvement in the 
status of the female half of the population.   Virginia Sapiro notes that “one 
of the most often-voiced desires of women’s movement is placing women in 
position of power
 and that the very term ‘representation of women’ is usually 
taken very specifically to mean increasing the number of women in political 
office because of the assumption that women in power would be more responsive 
to women’s interest as men would be ” (“When are Interests Interesting? The 
Problem of Political Representation of Women” in Ann Phillips’ Feminism and 
Politics.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1998)”. But as the reality check 
would show, it has been observed that these women political leaders do not 
automatically put women’s issues on top of their national policy agenda – ergo, 
this manifests that women political leaders have not emancipated themselves 
fully from a ‘masculinised’ policy making.

Since 1945, there have been 31 women who occupied the position of the 
presidency through elections and appointments (i.e. completing an unfinished 
term of the predecessor or in an acting capacity or for an interim period of 
time) and 33 have been installed as prime ministers. According to Julia I. 
Suryakusuma, “the majority of women who become heads of states are from 
developing countries (about 17 out of 31); many are from countries with a 
democratic orientation; most came to power in a period of social and political 
unrest; most ruled in secular regimes ( “Maggie, Mega or Gro” in Jakarta Post, 
June 1999. Online. Available: 
http://www.feminista.com/archives/v3n4/suryakusuma.html. Accessed 27 Febraury 
2004).”  Most of the women head of states, particularly in Asia, rose to power 
by virtue of a male-figure and more often than not, this male-figure was a dead 
father or a dead husband from whence the women captured the leadership 
position.  This is to say then that these women did not run for public office 
with their own platform or political agenda but with the political blueprint of 
whoever they needed to fill-in for.

In the Philippines, women politicians now form an emerging women political 
elite bloc.  Coming from elite political families, these women become the 
defining identity of the gender component of women elected to public office. 
However, women who get elected to public office are not able to do so out of 
their own merit but simply because of their familial-patriarchal legacy.   
There are also instances when women come to power as part of the ‘political 
compromise’ among political party members.  In both cases – when women become 
politicians because they are the ‘chosen ones’ of their political family/clan 
or because they are given a chance by their political party – the practice 
remains the same: women actually become ‘surrogate or proxy leaders’ because it 
is still the men (in the family or in the party) who call the shots in 
political decision-making.  At the same time, “women entering political spaces 
through patronage and patriarchal structures are unlikely to challenge the 
structure that brought them to power and to champion women’s causes (Kincaid, 
D. “Over his Dead Body: A Positive Perspective on Widows in the US Conquers.” 
Western Political Quarterly. Vol. 31, March 1978).”  

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo thru a Feminist Lens

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo became the 14th President of the Philippines when 
President Joseph Ejercito Estrada was impeached and eventually eased out of 
power by a people’s uprising in January 2001.  Being the Vice-President of the 
country, GMA was the constitutional and legitimate successor to the Presidency 
as declared en banc by the Supreme Court.  However, although the people who 
congregated during the so-called EDSA dos wanted to oust Estrada, it did not 
necessarily follow that the people wanted to install GMA to the highest 
position in the land.  Yes, she was indeed a popularly elected public official –
 to the vice-presidency but not to the presidency. To make her at least 
acceptable to the people, GMA had to be packaged as a perfect anti-thesis to 
the corrupt and ‘morally bankrupt’ Estrada.

Thus, the gendered image of babae (woman, a.k.a. GMA) vs. babaero (womaniser, 
a.k.a. Estrada) had to be capitalised on more.  Her image as a devoutly 
catholic woman (from her educational and family background) that was heralded 
as a ‘Madonna’ image exacted the persona of a woman grounded on a “cult of 
feminine spiritual superiority, which teaches that women are semi-divine, 
morally superior to and spiritually stronger than men (Sylvestre, Jaylyn. “The 
Rise of Women Leaders in the Philippines: A Study of Corazon Aquino and Gloria 
Macapagal-Arroyo.” Online. Available: http://www-
mcnair.berkeley.edu/2001journal/Jsylvestre.html. Accessed 18 May 2003).” The 
Catholic Church then supported GMA because she was someone who “epitomizes the 
Christian, feminine ideal (Delgado-Yulo, Karla.“Woman on the Verge.” in 
Philippine Daily Inquirer. 5 November 2000.  Online. Available: 
http://www.Inquirer.net/mags/nov2000wk1/mag1. Accessed 5 May 2003).”  These 
plus the mantra of “do(ing) what is right, do(ing) your best and let(ting) God 
do the rest” – which was her father’s advice and something that she supposedly 
lives by – are clear manifestations of her cashing-in on her father’s political 
name and legacy.  And of course, one must not ignore the influence of political 
allies (i.e. former President Fidel V. Ramos) and spiritual advisers (i.e. 
Jaime Cardinal Sin) in her actions. In other words, GMA has not really been 
able to free herself from the very patriarchal character of Philippine 
politics.  But in the first place, does she really intend to do so?

More often than not, women are perceived to be capable of leadership that is 
more open, cooperative and empowering as opposed to a more hierarchical and 
coercive style of male leadership. For it has been observed that within the 
context of women’s movement, “women have demonstrated that ‘sharing power 
increases power’ and (that they) fought against tactics of ‘divide and rule’ 
(Viezzer, Moema. “Feminist Transformative Leadership: A Learning Experience 
with Peasant and Gatherer Women in Brazil”. A paper presented in the Fifth 
Annual Dame Nita Barrow Lecture, Toronto, November 2001. Online. Available: 
http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/~cwse/Moema%205.pdf. Accessed 27 February 2004)” ---
 and this is the very idea of transformative leadership. According to the 
UNIFEM, transformative leadership is a leadership style that is transparent and 
accountable; it is something that promotes gender equality, women’s rights and 
human rights, and provides for strong balanced linkages between leaders and 
constituencies (Online. Available: 
on.pdf. Accessed 27 February 2004). The challenge to women political leaders is 
to make a difference.
GMA intended to come out as a reformer who will triumph against poverty; she 
intended to do away with old traditional politics of patronage; she intended to 
breed a culture of morality in public service; and she intended to be a Chief 
Executive who would be remembered for the record of good governance of her 
administration.  But as she intended all of these, she came out more like a 
man – assertive, dominating, calculating every political move she made and 
indebted to the institutions that reminded her of her position as being owed to 
them (i.e. civil society, church, military). 
As a traditional economist, she is a staunched believer in trade and investment 
liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation.  As Chief of the Armed Forces 
of the Philippines, she has taken on the “policy of war” in dealing with 
insurgency, separatist and terrorist threats in the country.  As Chief 
Executive, she has taken on the Catholic Church’s belief that the natural 
family planning method is the only legitimate population control policy of her 
Indeed, her political actions speak of a traditional Filipino politician.  She 
has not capitalised on the notion that women can be transformative leaders of 
society.  Her efforts at putting forward policies for women empowerment such as 
Republic Act 7822 (An Act Providing Assistance to Women Engaging in Micro and 
Cottage Business Enterprises, and for Other Purposes) and Republic Act 7877 (An 
Act Declaring Sexual Harassment Unlawful in the Employment, Education or 
Training Environment, and for Other Purposes) are not enough.  This is because 
most of her economic policies on liberalisation and privatisation and her 
national security platform on militarisation have been detrimental to women. An 
example is the increase of unemployed women from 9.9% to 10.3% in the first 11 
months of 2001. As of October 2001, 52% of employed women were in the informal 
sector or unpaid family labor (Alquitas, Hetty C. “Filipino Women” IBON Data 
Bank, 8 March 2002.  Online. Available: 
A.htm#challenge. Accessed 18 March 2003). Another example is the increase in 
the displacement of women and children hit by militarisation in the countryside 
that also accounts for women’s forced migration in cities (i.e. feminisation of 
migration) and entrapment in sex trafficking. This is what Viviene Taylor calls 
marketisation of governance where governance ideals, mechanisms and policies 
all target institutions and not individuals (citizens that form a collective) 
and resulting (economic) decisions broadly answer efficiency but not efficacy; 
thus, not addressing the various types of inequalities in society but catering 
more to quasi-government institutions (Taylor, Viviene. Marketisation of 
Governance: Critical Feminist Perspectives from the South, Cape Town: DAWN, 
As a feminist afterthought, a woman political leader should not only be good 
and efficient but should also be someone who factors in women and gender 
concerns in decision and policy-making.  Drawing from the notion of alternative 
leadership styles, she should embody the ideal of feminist transformative 
leadership.  Moema Viezzer postulates this type of feminist leadership 
as “transformative in the sense that it challenges the existing structures of 
power; it is inclusive, in the sense that it takes into account the needs, 
interests and points of view of the marginalized and the poor in society; it is 
integral, in the sense that it attends to all forms of social injustice 
(“Feminist Transformative Leadership: A Learning Experience with Peasant and 
Gatherer Women in Brazil”. A paper presented in the Fifth Annual Dame Nita 
Barrow Lecture, Toronto, November 2001. Online. Available: 
http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/~cwse/Moema%205.pdf. Accessed 27 February 2004).” 
But what gives it the distinct feminist flavour is the use of gender 
analysis.   This form of analysis puts forth the idea that the system of 
patriarchy pervading every aspect and fabric of society is greatly responsible 
for how society has constructed and has socialized men and women.  The task 
then of the feminist transformative leader is to make a difference.  But as 
Julia Suryakusuma notes, “from all the female leaders that have existed, none 
can be said to be revolutionary - none has questioned the patriarchal power 
structure of their society  (because) to do so would be akin to political 
suicide.”  Very few women will run for public office with the intention of 
representing women; and fewer are the women who would run a campaign based on 
women’s issues.  For despite the fact that women’s issues (like violence 
against women) cut across all classes, age brackets and religions, women’s 
concerns remain marginalized.  Thus, they are never seen as mainstream concerns 
and thereby, not a policy priority.
As for GMA, she is a woman political leader who has been moulded by patriarchal 
institutions and practice: from her family background, education, religion, 
political party affiliation and political actions.  And unfortunately so, she 
has not transcended the patriarchal schema – the politics of patronage, 
political dynasties and clan politics, marketisation of governance, increased 
militarism, and Catholic dogma informed population policy – all of which 
encroach upon the social and political role of Filipino women in contemporary 
Philippine society. 

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