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Extraordinary Housewife? The Understatement of Leni Robredo, Explained

What happens when competent women seek power?
by Ara Eugenio
Oct 28, 2021
Photo/s: REUTERS/Lisa Marie David
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Sen. Imee Marcos on Wednesday described Vice President Leni Robredo, her brother Bongbong's rival, as an "extraordinary housewife" who should never be underestimated. Seemingly flattering at first, the VP's camp soon saw it as a backhanded compliment that minimized her achievements.

There is nothing wrong with being a mother and moreso, to be described as an extraordinary one. However, the Marcos sister's statement in context reflects a glaring problem in Robredo's candidacy that shows what usually happens to women when they seek power: their achievements minimized, mistakes magnified in varying forms across the political spectrum, analysts said.

"There is really that tendency to undervalue or invisibilize what women do. It's partly ‘cause we don’t talk ourselves up as much, but also because society tends to just undervalue the work of women," Sharmila Parmanand, a Filipina Gender and Human Rights Teaching Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told reportr. 

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Robredo is not getting enough credit for her accomplishments, not just from her opponents who would understandably discredit her, but also from her fellow progressives, intentional or not.

The 56-year-old widow and mother of three accomplished young women is simply a woman in politics, a field historically reserved for men.

"VP Leni is also an extraordinary lawyer, a productive legislator, an actual degree holder (several times over in fact), and, of course, the duly elected Vice President," Robredo's spokesperson Barry Gutierrez replied to Marcos. 

ALSO READ: Can Mother Leni Robredo in Pink be the Philippines' Third Woman President?

'Benevolently sexist'

Compared to the U.S., which in 2016, witnessed the highly qualified Hillary Clinton try so hard to become its first woman president but fell so short against the inexperienced but bombastic Donald Trump, the Philippines has elected two female presidents against 14 men.

It's important to note that those two womenCory Aquino and Gloria Arroyowere among the country's elite families and whose rise to power were more of nepotism, instead of grassroots leadership which Robredo stands for.

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Though she's a "political widow" herself, Robredo's rise to the vice presidency was quick but bottom-up: a labor lawyer by profession, she ran for Congress in 2013, succumbing to public clamor to represent her late husband's old constituency in Camarines Sur.

Her performance as a lawmaker, lauded for championning transparency and inclusivity in government, catapulted her to the vice presidency come 2016. She was the "dark horse" that defeated dictator son, Marcos Jr.

Having overcome all that, Robredo endured five years of fake news and criticism from supporters of the current administration, led by macho President Rodrigo Duterte. Despite wide recognition of her achievements as vice president who did it all with meager resources, Robredo was again reluctant to vie for the presidency as she lagged behind in polls.  

"Women tend to be well-loved and well-supported when they do great stuff," Parmanand, the feminist scholar said. "But the moment they seek power, they get punished for it. It’s not that you don’t belong in government, but you cannot possibly be the highest person," she said, noting that the Philippines' problem with sexism is a bit complicated, compared to countries like the U.S.

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"There are certain elements of our society where we do accord prestige to motherhood and to women. We have a bit more respect for mothers and women, but that respect is still sexist. But I just qualify it as benevolently sexist,Parmanand said, citing Duterte as an example.

Before he was president, Duterte was known as the iron-fisted mayor of Davao who protected women from abuse. He justified his centerpiece program, the drug war, as protecting women and children from drug addicts. 

"It masquerades as care and protection," Parmanand said. "But when women start threatening him or opposing him, suddenly all that respect disappears," she said.

In 2018, Duterte defended his “shoot them in the vagina” statement in reference to female rebels, saying that they were being terrible mothers. Early this year, he said the presidency was no job for a woman, deeming their "emotional set-up" as unfit for the role. 

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"So we see, respect is only contingent on you performing your cultural role as a mother, as an ally to men. That’s where i’m worried because Leni is to some extent, stepping out of that cultural role by seeking power," Parmanand said. 

ALSO READ: Madam President, Does Gender Matter in Leadership?

'Unconscious sexism'

Much of this "sexism" towards Robredo is unconscious or implicit, Parmanand said, noting this is true for when critics unknowingly zero in on her more compared to her rivals.

"And then they’re like, 'no, no, no, but i’m also condemning Marcos.' Hmm, not quite actually, 90% of that was spent on Leni," she said. 

To be fair, Robredo's position as the opposition's bet is tricky. She is emerging as the best bet of progressives, a sector known for its high standards of leadership given the marginalized sectors they represent for whom even the littlest of compromises have real everyday costs.

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"We do hold our candidates to a much higher bar because progressives like purity tests, and they like pushing the envelope. Robredo is a woman, but she happens to have taken up the opposition progressive mantle. The criticism is fair, but it's one-sided in such a way that it tends to misrepresent what she can offer and what she has done," she said, citing how when Robredo's senatorial slate was questionned, it reflected how little room she is given for "errors". 

Robredo is caught in what scholars call the "double bind". Unlike Sara Duterte-Carpio, whose association with her male patriarch has given her free pass to be aggressive and assertive as a female leader, Robredo, "who doesn't perform masculinity", is made to tread carefully.

ALSO READ: Sara Duterte is Her Father's 'Alpha,' How Far Can She Flex Her Power?

She may have to talk more about her achievements, enough to remind people that she's not just running to oppose a Marcos or a Duterte. In fact, her performance in the last five years may be enough to speak for what she could offer as president.

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"Women are made to pay a price for being palaban, but men are not. But then you also can't be too kind and loving, because then you’re soft. I think that’s really the challenge for Lenisaan ka lulugar as a woman politician. You're really made to find this perfect balance of 'I am assertive and credible, but i’m also not a bitch'," Parmanand said. 

ALSO READ: From Cory to Kamala: Women Breaking Glass Ceilings Explained

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