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The Old Maid
by Nicanor G. Tiongson
Date: 2/19/2010

The 19th Century Role

A deeper analysis of reasons given by respondents, especially those relating to jilting, strictness of parents and religious reasons, drives us to the realization that the biggest obstacle to marriage encountered by women is the concept of woman created and imposed by feudal society on its female partners. This stereotype, first crystallized in the 19th century book of ethics and etiquette called Urbana at Feliza, identifies coyness and passivity, among others, as essential characteristics of a true lady. Thus a woman should never show her preference for any male (to be forward was untoward), since flirtation is censured as a sin needing the absolution of confession. A real lady is always the object of pursuit, never the pursuer.

The stereotype further requires fidelity to one suitor. In the same way that it condones the querida but stones the adulteress, our macho society decrees it “natural” for men to pledge fidelity to several women (“Lalaki ‘yan eh!”), but brands as salawahan or landi, a woman who entertains alternatives in courtship. A popular adage drummed into maidens’ ears is “kung saan ka madapa, doon ka bumangon,” which in realistic and cruel application, orders a woman to put all her eggs in one basket and never mind if she ends up with dashed dreams, she could at least weep for the rest of her life, proud in the knowledge that she was faithful to one suitor only.

As if the cards were not stacked against the woman enough, feudal society also equates the value of a woman with her purity, which means nothing else but her physical virginity. “The purity of a maiden,” says Urbana, “is like glass which, though it might not be breached or broken, is stained by the very breath” of a man. Maidens are, therefore, forbidden to sit by the window (“A maiden at the window is like a bunch of grapes, waiting to be picked”), are prohibited from serving their suitors betel-nut chew on a tray (the man will surely move hand or foot to touch her), and are ordered to have chaperones, especially when venturing outside the house (if not, she was surely going to be raped).

Corollarily, men are to be avoided, because “they are all the same” (maniacs), and have no other obsession in life but to deflower maidens. Urbana puts it beautifully: “When a maiden speaks in secret to a young man, to what can we compare her but to a fragile doe that is being pursued by a dog, that will not stop till he has bitten her, or killed her?”

In this view, marriage had only one reason for being—procreation, and enjoyment of the sexual act is almost sinful. Thus, praise is heaped on women who decide to turn their backs on all earthly pleasures, in order to devote their whole being to the service of the “heavenly groom.” For those who, for some reason or other, could not be wedded to Christ, perpetual virginity became the refuge and excuse for never having to engage in the squalid act of sexual intercourse.

On the other hand, two other reasons given by the old maids interviewed, namely the inability of a woman to find someone to her liking, as well as the strictness of her parents, may be rooted to the second major obstacle to marriage encountered by both male and female—the “requisites” demanded by parents of would-be in-laws. The first of these refer to the class and status, especially of the male. “Good families” demand that their daughters marry the sons of (at least) equally good families, i.e., possessing wealth, or political power, or social prestige, or all of these. These marriages are called “perfect”, because they preserve or multiply the wealth, power or prestige already enjoyed by the two families.

Aside from this, other personal characteristics are deemed important, especially by religious families. Urbana pontificates that a marriage will work only if husband and wife have the same ways, love each other moderately, trust each other, are of the same age, love peace and quiet as they hate gambling, are neither misers nor wastrels, are both holy and have fear of God, are not vain, and are industrious and willing to suffer.

Lastly, there are the physical criteria, most of which is that of “lahi” or generic descent. Since the belief is rampant that diseases, whether psychic or physical, were inherited, extremely taboo are marriages with those who are “lahing loko,” or are descended from a line that had members with psychological disorders. Less taboo but similarly avoided are marriages into families with tisikos (tubercular victims) or ketungins (lepers).

A third hurdle in a woman’s odyssey to find a suitable mate is found in yet another role assigned to woman in general by our macho society, namely, that of workhorse and super-maid, on whom all responsibility may be dumped. The role is fixed from childhood. Where boys, for example, are expected to go out and play after dinner, girls are ordered to help clear the table, wash the dishes, roll out the mat, and put up the mosquito net, or keep herself busy with “women’s work.”

The expectations mount in adult life, as more and bigger sacrifices are practically demanded of women, especially elder, unmarried daughters. If the parents of a brood of children are somehow incapacitated by age or physical handicap or lack of education from raising the family, the eldest daughter is almost always given the “privilege” of spending her salary on the feeding, clothing, housing and education of the younger children. Likewise, if a mother or father is old and ailing, daughters, not sons, are expected to offer their lives to the care of these parents.

The number of these “virgin martyrs” is legion. Typical is one famous English professor, who forgot about her own life and ambitions for about 20 years, in order to feed, clothe, house and educate her brothers and sisters. In literature, there are Candida and Paula, of Joaquin’s “Portrait of an Artist” who bear the burden of their father and his ideology, amidst the onslaughts of commercialism.

A last but significant condition and reason for spinsterhood is the economic status enjoyed by the women who become old maids. Roy’s survey discovered, for example, that 96.66 percent of the old maids interviewed, were happy with their economic status, a phenomenon which is far from surprising. For, in traditional landed families, unmarried sisters have almost always been awarded a special “mejora”, simply because they are unmarried. Thus, in the division of inheritances, they are usually given the ancestral house and lot, and often, a bigger share in the total number of lands. Sometimes, if the married brothers and sisters are well-off the total harvest of the land, fishpond or orchard is reserved for them. In urban centers, on the other hand, spinsters have gotten into professions that pay well or enough for them to live in comfort, or even luxury.

Unlike women of the lower-classes, for whom economic wants make early marriages desirable and necessary, women of the landed gentry as well as professionals and career women need no shoulder to lean on, and are thus bereft of yet another reason for marriage. Spinsterhood then is definitely an institution in the Philippines, but one found primarily among the comfortable classes.

Source: From Gilda Cordero-Fernando (Ed.), Being Filipino. Quezon City: GCF Books, 1991

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