A feminine nationhood

By John Anthony S. Estolloso

One of the recurring discussions that usually surface in a humanities class is about whether to address the country as the ‘Motherland’ or its masculine equivalent. Grammatical conventions would agree that states, ships, and schools are conventionally ‘she’, reminiscent of the Jungian image of the nurturing yonic space where ideas and journeys are born and cultivated. Add to this the classic archetype of Lady Liberty or of her leading the people, so championed by the arts. After everything has been said and seen, this eventually reverts to the examination of the role of women in nationalism.

A chapter from Cynthia Enloe’s book Bananas, Beaches and Bases explores this contribution of women in the role of nationalism, ranging from the culturally controversial to the exploitative. Commencing with their portrayals in the postcard business that ‘sanitized’ the image of the latter stages of imperialism, Enloe discusses their neglected yet often-exploited role in the struggle for nationalism by colonial states. Yet even among imperialist states, the role of women is limited to Victorian standards, of being schoolteachers or governesses. In all appearances, their contribution to nationalism boils down to becoming ‘gender-checks’ intended to keep the patriarchy functional and the men in line.

Then, there is the romanticized perspective offered by Hollywood. While the past decades have seen a rise in (hyper) feminist-themed films, it rarely puts their characters on the political spotlight. As such, it falls short of giving full participation to women in the nationalist quest. Women from various countries are still limited, either by culture or the predominant male hierarchy, to just backdrops or garrisons in the fight for national identity. It is still, in a sense, the unequal struggle for equality.

A recurring argument in Enloe’s article is the ‘imaging’ of women – or rather the ‘feminization’ of the image of nationalism. Imaging here is defined in the sense that in the actual representation of women in nationalism, they are limited to becoming symbols, either metaphorically or literally. For instance, the American lady teacher in the turn of the century becomes the image of proselytizing and educating their little brown brothers in the boondocks – or the Muslim woman in a hijab becomes a bone of contention between Islamic conservatism and Western liberalism.

That artistic circles have metaphorized political ideas through female archetypes is not something new. One can readily cite Leni Riefenstahl’s art-film Triumph of the Will as an infusion of feminist overtones and Nazi propaganda – or Rosie the Riveter as an American parallel. Vietnamese plates and vases unabashedly depict local women sporting a nón lá, their iconic conical palm-leaf hat, as a popular design to these lacquerwares. These are certainly nationalist ‘imagings’ but which are not necessarily exploitative.

On the other hand, it can regrettably take the other extreme end. The pin-up girl and the Playboy bunny – or the ‘French postcard’ – are illustrative of the periods wherewith they were proliferated, with the purpose of ‘boosting the morale’ of men who took part in times of war. Hence, the issue of female representation in nationalist movements lies more on the manner with which these women are portrayed – and nationalism can either be a tool for feminist empowerment or an alibi for exploitation.

But in the context of national identity, are women really left only to these semiotic devices? The chapter skirts issues on feminism and gender roles. When men march to battle, women are left to tend the fields and the children. Can women then contribute to the nationalist cause by becoming mothers, or by staying at home and maintaining traditional roles and chores? Are these female roles inherently contradictory to that of the the activist woman on the streets, holding a nationalist placard with nationalist slogans?

Then again, feminism vis-à-vis nationalism is not just about empowering women in one prescribed way. In history, we are saturated with stories of women transcending and taking on male gender roles in the name of nationhood: Joan of Arc, Boadicea, and even our own Gabriela Silang. Enloe’s argument swims against this mainstream: that there are women in many communities who assert their sense of national identity through accepted feminine roles can be empowering as well. Conservative as it may sound, traditional gender roles may indeed be an option to take in a feminist-inspired nationalism.

As coda, a scene from Mona Lisa Smile comes to mind: the teacher, a headstrong feminist, was appalled when a bright girl decided to get married after passing admissions to a prestigious law school. The girl then explains to her that it was her choice and doing so does not make her any less smart. She further opines that being a housewife does not make her someone without depth or interest – nor does it make her less of a woman.


                Regardless from which side of the ideological spectrum these viewpoints emanate, they agree upon a crucial point: whether at home or at the workplace, women are indispensable in the realization of nationhood.

(The article was originally written as a requirement for the writer’s postgraduate studies; the image of Rosie the Riveter is from Britannica.)