Women’s Popular Writings and Phlippine Studies Discourse

Joi Barrios-Leblanc

How do popular references participate in Philippine studies discourse? As Atang de la Rama sang “Nabasag ang Banga” in sarsuwela productions, as carnival queens reigned in Manila, and as women campaigned for the right to vote, Tagalog women writers were writing for Liwayway and Taliba.

Literary historians such as Bienvenido Lumbera and Soledad Reyes have long lamented the lack of scholarship on Tagalog women fictionists, attributing this to the dominance of Philippine literature in English, as well as the preference for realism. In Reyes’s Introduction to the story collection of Rosario de Guzman Lingat, a post-war fictionist, she argues that this preference stems from the frameworks of formalism (that privileges works that are objective, non-sentimental), and Marxism (that looks into how works represent and analyze society).

How can we study the works of the women fictionists in Liwayway? This paper, builds upon the work of Reyes on post-war women fictionists, the researches of Edna Manlapaz, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo and Rose Yu on women writers, and my earlier work on Tagalog women poets and playwrights.

In this paper, I focus on Liwayway issues published in the 1930s – the decade of the the Philippine Commonwealth government, the vote for women’s suffrage, and the formations and of the old Communist (1930) and Socialist (1932) parties in the Philippines. I present two arguments: First, that Liwayway should be read as discursive text. Embedded in the stories and other texts are: tensions between the tagabukid (from the countryside) and tagabayan, (from the urban center) (terms by Lumbera); tradition and modernity; and the desire/anxiety for independence and women’s rights. Second, these works participated in discourses on gender and colonialism through romantic conventions, strategies of comedy, signifiers of modernity and colonialism, and ruptures in the narratives.


In the 1930s, the popular Tagalog magazine Liwayway contained the following: recipes; advice columns; dress patterns, comic strips; advertisements for sewing machines, stockings, and sewing schools; beauty contest announcements; and articles such as “Ang Paghahanda sa Pakikipag-isang Dibdib” (Preparing for Marriage) by Carolina Sevilla and “Ang Masagwang Pananamit ng Kababaihan (Women’s Indecent Clothes), by Philippine Women’s University Dean Ramona Tirona. Alongside these, women writers Rosalia Aguinaldo, Susana de Guzman, Hilaria Labog, Belen Manalo Santiago, Carmen Batacan and Andrea Vitan-Arce wrote: kuwentong katatawanan (funny story) or maiksing nobela (novelette), nobela (novel), poetry, and drama. Should we read these literary texts, alongside visual texts and other articles, we find, for example, contradictions in the discourse on beauty during this historical period.

Allow me to walk you through the pages of Liwayway. First, let us look at a popular comic strip character, Ponyang Halobaybay, whose only problem seems to be choosing among her many suitors. Wearing modern dress and seemingly shallow, she reminds us of two characters: English-speaking, coat and tie wearing Kenkoy, and Greta Garbo wannabe-Monina Vargas in Deogracio Rosario’s story “Greta Garbo.” With Kenkoy usually beaten up and Monina falling off the train, their narratives can be read as indictments of the colonial way of thinking. However, Ponyang’s narrative is not a cautionary tale. None of the comic strips have Ponyang suffering in the end, and the only thing we can seem to be certain of is that in manner and dress, Ponyang seems to be the binary opposite of Kenkoy’s wife Rosing, who is always portrayed wearing the baro’t saya or traditional dress.

Next, we can study pages featuring dress patterns and advertisements. In the March 1937 issue, we have “Anim na Kasuotang may Kaakit-akit na Tabas sa Leeg” (6 Dresses with Enticing Necklines). However, in the April 1936 issue, both modern and traditional dresses are highlighted: “Tatlong Magandang Tabas na Dapat Ipagkapuri sa Ating Baro at Saya” and “Magandang Tabas ng Damit.”

Similarly, in December 1934, an ad reads: “Maging Maganda at Kaakit-akit. Maging popular at hangaan. Bumili ng Club beauty set ngayon” (Be beautiful and enticing. Be popular and admired. Buy Club beauty set today.) This is accompanied by a photograph of Jeanette Macdonald. And yet, below this photograph, we find an announcement: Ang magandang libretang ito, na tungkol sa “Kung paano makapagpaganda,” ang ipadadalang gratis sa bawat pagbiling C.O.D. (This great pamphlet, “How to become more beautiful” will be sent free of charge for every C.O.D. purchase). This is accompanied by a picture of a woman in traditional dress.

But how did the women fictionists describe their female characters? In Susana de Guzman’s novel “Pamana ng Tulisan,” (The Bandit’s Legacy) she writes: “Mga matang mapupungay at tila nag-aantok ang nakatitig sa kanya, pisnging kulay rosas at walang balatkayong kagandahan ang kanyang namasdan; ilong na mainam ang pagkakahugis, bibig na maliit at alon-along buhok na nakapusod tagalog, at kulay na di maitim at di naman kaputian.” (Staring at him were tender eyes, seemingly sleepy, he is looking at pink cheeks and beauty without a mask, a well-formed nose, a small mouth and wavy hair in a tagalog bun, not dark and not that fair.)

In Belen Manalo Santiago’s “Pusong Babai” (A Woman’s Heart) she also talks about wavy hair in a bun – “alon-alon ang buhok na nakapusod tagalog, kaakit-akit ang tindig, maputi ang balat… (wavy hair in a tagalog bun, an attractive stance, fair skin)

Emphasis on simplicity is also echoed in Hilaria Labog’s “Pagkatapos Mangumpisal” (After a Confession), 1937: “Bakit nga sila hindi magugulat ngayon sa hindi kulot ang mahabang buhok ni Celina, walang kolorete sa pisngi at walang lipstik sa mga labi, walang cutex ang mga kuko…” (Why would they not be surprised that Celina’s long hair was no longer wavy, there was no make-up on her cheeks, no lipstick on her lips, no nail polish on her nails…)

And yet, in spite of the traditional beauty described, most of the characters were women whose lives took them beyond the home. Rita in Carmen Batacan’s “Mga Puso sa Himpapawid” (Hearts in the Air) 1937 was an aviator, Leonor in Hilaria Labog’s Ang Mahiwagang Mang-aawit (The Mystery Singer), 1936 was a singer, Tinay in Susana de Guzman’s “Dalawang Kuwentista,” (Two Writers), 1936 was a fictionist; Paz in Epifania Alvarez’s “Ang Guro sa Nayon” (The Teacher in the Village) was a teacher, and Marcela in Labog’s “Pagkatapos Mangumpisal.” 1937 was a bordadora or embroiderer. In the hands of the women fictionists, the heroines were women workers whose space extended beyond the home.

To understand the contradictions of the women characters in Liwayway, we need to look into the experience of the suffragettes. As these women advocated for the right to vote, they shunned modern clothes and haircuts that characterized the “babaeng tagalungsod” (city girl), and instead, wore traditional clothes.

Mina Roces calls them “panuelo activists” and explains that wearing the Filipina dress were “perhaps their deliberate strategy to blunt the radical changes. In Roces’s conclusion, she points out that while panuelo activism was effective in that women gained the right to vote in 1937, these women reaffirmed traditional values that glorified motherhood and the home, and thus “did not alter 19th-century definitions of the feminine.”

The women in Liwayway were thus similar to these suffragettes – they were neither Estrella nor Caridad in the sarswela Paglipas ng Dilim, neither Puri nor Dolly in the novel Mga Ibong Mandaragit. They were both Estrella and Caridad, both Puri and Dolly, and going back to our first characters, both Ponyang and Rosing.

Let me now turn to three strategies employed by these women fictionists: the insertion of English and other signifiers of modernity and colonialism in the texts; breaks/gaps that result in disruptions in the narratives; and the use of humor.

English and other Signifiers of Modernity and Colonialism

The short stories, novelettes and novels are peppered with signifiers of modernity. Characters go about town in roadsters or the berlina, live in tsalets or chalets in New Manila, dine in restaurants like Chicago and Boston, listen to the radio, drink orange, and talk about the new airplane named the Philippine Commonwealth.

One short story, “Ang Guro sa Nayon,” 1937, by Epifania Alvarez, stands out because of thenumber of English words used. Among these were: co-ed, normal school, third year, academic degree, semester, preparatory medicine, appointment (referring to a job appointment), ideal man, very timid, and Assembly Hall, and third class na municipio. A study of code-switching reveal the following. one, many of the words are used in reference to education and jobs; two, these words reveal binary opposites — the taga-bukid (from the countryside), on one hand; the tagabundok (from the mountain) and the taga-bayan (from the city center), on the other.

Paz, the lead character, teaches in a village where the people are described as “mga taong bundok na hindi pa gaanong nabibihasa sa maunlad na paraan ng pamumuhay” (mountain people not used to a prosperous way of life.” Although she encounters several challenges, she succeeds in winning the hearts of the people and becomes not just a teacher but also hukom (judge), tagapagturo ng pananim (farming teacher), and tagapayo (counselor). After rumors of her transfer circulates, the people act immediately– “nagsipagtulis ng sibat, nagsipaghasa ng pisaw” (they sharpened their spears, and long knives) and swore that “dadanak ang dugo” (blood will be shed). Thus, the story emphasizes the dichotomy between the civilized and the savage which justifies colonization. Moreover, it underscores education as the path to maunlad na pamumuhay or prosperous life.


With “Ang Guro sa Nayon,” as well as other texts, the influence of the awit and korido metrical romances remained strong. Many of the narratives had the following conventions: forbidden love, unspoken love, unrequited love, love triangles, reversal of fortune,and secret revealed in the end.

However, the narratives are ruptured with the fictionists’ persistent insertion of their ideas about womanhood and nationalism. Here are a few examples:

Responding to a character’s mockery of women, Santiago’s writes in “Pusong Babai” (A Woman’s Heart): “Pusong babai! Maaring nag-aangkin ng maraming kahinaan, ngunit hindi maikakait na nasa kanya ang pusong ina na nagtataglay nang kalahating kagitingan ng daigdig.” (A woman’s heart. It may have many faults, but we cannot deny that it has a mother’s heart that bears half the bravery/heroism of the world.)

Commenting on stereotypes of nurses and dancers, we find this conversation in Rosalia Aguinaldo’s “Pantay-Kawayan,” 1937. “Hindi man nars at hindi man bailarina, “ ani Purita, “ay may mga kapintasan din.” “At hindi naman lahat ng nars at bailarina ay masasama,” ang pagtatanggol ni Sabel. (They may not be nurses or dancers,” said Purita, “but they also have faults.” “And not all nurses and dancers are bad,” defends Sabel.

Reflecting on colonial rule, the novel “Binibining Maynila” (Miss Manila), 1937, by Susana de Guzman, says this of traditional songs: “Ang kantahin ng bayan ay isang paggamit ng kanyang damdamin, palibhasa’y nabuhay ang ating bayan sa ilalim ng pagtitiis at pagkaalipin. Kaya ang kanyang kantahin ay isang hibik, daing, at panaghoy.” (The songs of our country use their emotions, that’s because our country lived under suffering and slavery. That is why her songs are lamentations, pleas, and moans.)

Similarly, in Labog’s story “Ang Tatlong Anak” (Three Children), the characters lament the lack of divorce. And in Aguinaldo’s novelette, “Inday!” 1937, and Guzman’s “Matatandang Liham” (Old Letters), we find women struggling with the pressure of being defined by their wombs.

The writers also used romantic conventions to their advantage. In Aguinaldo’s “Ulirang Anak” (Exemplary Daughter), 1937, men are conveniently gone – they either die or go away to work – emphasizing the relationship between a mother and her daughters. In de Guzman’s “Ang Kanyang Memorandum,” (Her Memorandum), 1937, a woman speaks through her diary. And while love triangles abound in these stories and novels, in a few, such as de Guzman’s “Ang Pamana ng Tulisan,” 1937, women rivals can be supportive of each other.


The women writers, were at their best in the humorous stories and novels dubbed “kuwentong katatawanan” and “nobelang katatawanan.” In Aguinaldo’s “Me Diperensiya,” (There’s Something Wrong), 1939, supporting characters poke fun at people who look down on those with physical shortcomings– a strategy similar to the humor of the sarsuwelas. In Anita Concepcion’s “ Kahiya-hiya ka Anak,” (You Bring me Shame, Son), 1937, the know-it-all priest becomes the butt of jokes. Finally, in Batacan’s “Ibig Maging Presidente” (Wants to be President), the ambitions of a wannabe-politician is the target. These stories and novels bring to mind the pusong or jester, which according to Nicanor Tiongson, was mediium by which people could laugh at and criticize those with power.

In the 1930s and beyond, women writers had to grapple with editors, the demands of publishing,and critics. However, by using conventions of romance, maximizing strategies of comedy, and creating ruptures and dissonance in their texts, they succeeded in articulating their thoughts on women’s issues, labor, and colonialism.


I end here with a cartoon drawing of Hilaria Labog, a suffragette. I take my hat off to her and to the other women writers, who in writing the popular, participated in political discourse in 1930s Philippines.

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