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Altering the Maria Clara

Working Women of the 19th Century
by Ma. Luisa Camagay
University of the Philippines Press

For the female reader, to read Ma. Luisa Camagay’s Working Women of Manila in the 19th Century is to recognize her part in Philippine history regardless of who her father, brother, or husband is.

It took Camagay nearly a decade to first find records of 19th century working women in the National archival haystack, then rework this sliver of previously overlooked names and dates into a book that will forever alter the Maria Clara stereotype. Working Women of Manila in the 19th century tells the stories of seven groups of women: those who roll cigars for a living (cigarreras), vendors and shopkeepers (vendadoras y tenderas), embroiders and seamstress (bordadoras y costoreras), domestic servants, (criadas), teachers (maestras), schooled midwives (matronas titulares), and prostitutes (mujeras publicas).

There was no part of colonial life that was left untouched by these 19th century Filipinas. One’s favorite breakfast drink, leche de carabao, got to the table from the farm courtesy of the lechera (milk vendor), who started her 3:00 a.m. rounds at times by diluting the precious liquid in coconut milk or the water leftover from washing rice. She had no choice but to resort to such practices to keep the price of milk affordable to customers, who were sure to stop buying once she raised her price so much as one tenth of a centavo.

The señor and señoras after breakfast cigarillo, meanwhile was a trade majority of the female population of 1887, employed as cigarreras, were engaged in. These cigarreras went on strike (alboroto) to demand, among other things, that tobacco leaves be given to them ready for rolling since they were paid by the number of cigarillos they rolled. Getting rid of the rough midrib that separated the tobacco leaf vertically in half was a tough task, requiring quick but gentle fingers to keep the precious cured leaf from ripping or crumbling apart.

Hours the señor y señora spent smoking cigarillos was a result of the additional leisure time their ownership of many criadas presented them with. Criadas were usually 13 years old and did everything from sweep the house, fetch water for baths, look after horses, cook food, and wash clothes.

The jusi and piña that made up the señor y señoras wardrobe was transformed into wearable art in the hands of the bordadora. The bordadora was so underpaid that she couldn’t afford to buy a fragment of her own delicate work, the same work that left her with a bad back and poor eyesight before her time. One can only wonder why they were so poorly paid since the bordarora’s handiwork was fit enough to delight Queen Elizabeth, who was given their embroidered piece as gifts.

Another woman worker who was similarly underpaid was the maestra. Armed with an education degree (majority could teach around their 18th birthday), the maestra was qualified to take care of educating the señores’ heirs, even if she was paid less for the service on account of her being female.

For the birthing of heirs, however, the señores looked to the matrona titular (schooled midwives). The matrona titular was not to be confused with the plain matrona or partera of the lower classes who were likewise above 40 years of age and had sufficient experience in birthing children but lacked degree from institutions like the University of Santo Tomas. Licensed and capable as she was, the matrona titular’s specialized UST training was not sufficient for tending to the ills of a syphilis-inflicted señor, who probably a customer of one of the many mujeres publicas, said to be responsible for the syphilis outbreak of 1895.

One thing that collectively binds the colleges-educated sinamayeras (textile vendors) and matrona titulares to the barely literate criadas and mujeres publicas, was their readiness to enter the world of paid work to augment family income regardless of their class, age, and/or race. Continued male productivity and an esteemed status in the community then, may have relied not only on the unpaid domestic labor of mothers, wives, sisters, and/or daughters, but also on the extra income these women could bring home for doing “less laborious” tasks.

Thinking that the extra income they earned can send another son or daughter to school or pay for the growing food expenses of the family made it easier for women to accept the rigors of their trade. There was the mobility required of a maestra or matrona titular who could be assigned as far as Ilocos Norte or Pangasinan. Though underpaid, the regular monthly P2 to 8 wage made the verbal and physical abuse that came with being a criada or cigarrera slightly more bearable, and if the cursing and low wages became too much to handle, they could try their luck as a mujer publica. Sometimes women applying as criadas end up as prostituted women in brothels thick with opium smoke.

There was nothing the 19th century working woman did not try. A foreigner who, after a glimpse of the vendadoras with their skirts gathered between their legs, balanced on their haunches while selling their wares, quipped that the wealth of Manila’s rich families could be attributed to single enterprising matriarch—a sentiment Camagay hardly stops short of agreeing with.

The exclusion of Manila’s 19th century women’s everyday accomplishments from the historical record was enough to reinforce the Filipina’s mythological image as a shy, docile, and unquestioning creature. Even today, the Maria Clara construct is so strong that both the presence or absence of this cultural “ex-factor” can be used to justify the Filipina’s difficulty in applying for certain types of paid work, just as it can like wise facilitate her entry into other jobs in the “productive” sector. Maria Clara is the spectre behind the “pleasing personality” rhetoric that all Filipinas seeking employment have to deal with. It is the ‘packaging of this ”x-factor” that has partly made our women one of the country’s top three exports as sought-after domestic helpers and entertainers abroad. Although such work overseas eventually give women access, though a somewhat limited one, to other part of this shrinking planet and earns for them the title of “head of household”, majority of Filipinas are stuck in service-oriented jobs anchored on the very stereotype that plagued our grandmothers.

This is perhaps the reason why, for the Filipina reader, reading Camagay’s Working of Manila’s in the 19th Century is like gazing out the same window and watching what happens on the very street that one has been contemplating all of one’s life.

Source: Review by Ava Vivian Gonzales. First appeared in the Philippine Collegian, “Book Reviews,” November 23, 1998

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