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From Cory to Kamala: Women Breaking Glass Ceilings Explained

Has Malacañang's glass ceiling really shattered?
by Ara Eugenio
Nov 10, 2020

Kamala Harris punched through the world's highest glass ceiling, securing three firsts: first woman, first black, and first South Asian to be elected Vice President of the U.S.

The Philippines on the other hand, has had two female presidents, two female vice president and a best female president it never had (Miriam Defensor-Santiago), according to a new beauty queen. It might seem that Malacanang's glass ceiling  has been shattered since 1986. Has it?

"I cannot really say that it means a lot for us to have these women presidents and vice presidents. I cannot say that we are at par, or we should be regarded as achieving quite a lot just because we’ve had them, " said Jean Encinas-Franco, a political science professor at UP Diliman. 

Sociologist Nicole Curato also has a different view: it's not enough to use gender as a lens to determine whether or not a glass ceiling was broken in the way feminist thought would intend it. 

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The glass ceiling has been shattered, but not for 'feminist' reasons

There are Presidents Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Vice Presidents Arroyo and Leni Robredo. These women's presence in Philippine politics can be interpreted in two ways, Curato told reportr. 

First, women who occupy political positions are usually beneficiaries of the status and political machinery of their male relatives, she said. Such is the case of so-called "political widows" as seen in the presidency of Cory Aquino. 

Following an outpour of public support from the death of her husband, Senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr., Cory transformed from housewife to a presidential candidate overnight, rivaling dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a snap elections marred by allegations of electoral fraud. She ascended to the presidency by virtue of People Power

Arroyo took a similar path to power when she became the first female vice president in 1998, capitalizing on the pedigree from her father, former president Diosdado Macapagal. She would become the longest-serving president since Marcos, at nearly 10 years.

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"In normal situations, you also have to think about whether they were elected based on the fact that they were women," said Encinas-Franco. Aquino and Arroyo are both products of nepotism in Philippine politics. 

Robredo is the political widow of beloved Naga City Mayor Jesse Robredo and they worked had-in-hand with the Liberal Party machinery and her wide network of grassroots organizers and activists, Curato said. 

As such, Robredo is an example of how women can assume positions of power through their involvement in grassroots organizing, according to Curato. 

Philippine politics is a man's world 

It takes a lot to elect a woman president. Leadership is seen as a masculine trait, which is why politics is predominantly male. For women politicians, appearing masculine tend to become necessary for them to be considered for high office.

When her legitimacy was being challenged, Arroyo had to appear tough so she could 'institute' a strong republic. "Parang ang nangyayari, even when women are elected into office, they have to mimic the manner in which men lead, the standard which people are accustomed to," Encinas-Franco said. 

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President Rodrigo Duterte's eldest daughter, Sara Duterte, poised to follow her father's footsteps, is expected to follow his style. "People will expect it from her, to act and lead like her father should she ascend to power," Encinas-Franco said. 

Political campaigning in the Philippines is also expensive. It's another roadblock dictated by gender, because it's usually men who have the money, she said. 

"You really have to ask: were they elected because they were women? Or were they elected because of dynasties?," Encinas-Francos said. These are also questions worth asking female senators and congresswomen. 

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It's not just about electing women, but electing the 'right women'

The best electoral system to elect more women in politics is a "proportional" one where a certain quota will be set to ensure equal representation, analysts said. It's not necessarily the presidential setup.

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The assumption is that when more women are in politics, more of them can serve as role models, and they tend to support programs that enhance social welfare, said Encinas-Franco. The usual argument against this is "men can also legislate women-friendly policies". 

"The answer to that is you need women there because if we want to be a democracy, we need to represent people who are supposed to represent the population," Encinas-Francos said. Roughly half of the Philippine population are women. 

It's wrong to assume that women have a "single interest," Curato said. They have varying views on reproductive health rights, and divorce.

"Consequently, we cannot assume that women in power will look after women's interests, because even the concept of women's interest is fragmented," she said. Hence, it's not enough that a female politician is a "first" or was able to shatter the glass ceiling. 

"They have to put their money where their mouth is. If they are indeed for women's empowerment, then pay women well. Women at the top have the power to look after women at the margins by valuing their labor," Curato said.

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