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Book review: Revolutionizing Feminism

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Understanding the grassroots activism of women’s groups in the Philippines.

Anne E. Lacsamana’s new book, Revolutionizing Feminism The Philippine Women’s Movement in the Age of Terror, both critiques current trends in Western academic feminist theory and offers a more historically grounded method for understanding the grassroots activism of women’s groups in the Philippines.

At the centre of her critique is what she sees as the current trends in feminist theory that depoliticize women’s experiences and divorce them from “concrete realities” which underpin their choices or lack of choices for women in the Global South.

Lacsamana is particularly concerned with Western feminism being applied to non-Western cultures.

She believes that Western ahistorical and individualistic theories do a disservice to women in the Global South because their material existence is embedded within communal identities and they directly reap the ramifications of Western imperialism.

What she describes as the “standard lenses”—agency and resistance—Western feminism employs are not useful for understanding women’s activism in the Philippines precisely because they are theoretical tools not grounded in the capitalist and imperialist processes that have shaped the modern Philippines and women’s lives within the nation.

Furthermore, Lacsamana challenges the notion that nationalism is patriarchal and cannot be functional for women’s advancement because, in the case of the Philippines, women’s movements have been intricately connected to nationalist activism.

Lacsamana’s book focuses on the collective action of grassroots women’s organizations in the Philippines using a framework of historical materialism that allows her to examine women’s activism within a trajectory of Philippine relations with the United States and Spain.

Her book begins with a discussion of the historical factors that have tied the Philippines to the United States economically, culturally and militarily and how this tense relationship has contributed to the current political situation in which the government regularly violates human rights.

From there Lacsamana presents a history nationalist feminism in the Philippines starting with an explanation of how the Spanish and the United States presence affected women and how this history impacts the contemporary women’s movement.

Lacsamana also takes on the two of the most prevailing issues for women in the Philippines – overseas contract work and tourism.

She situates the current trend in exporting the labour of Filipina workers as domestic and service workers within the international division of labour and argues that collective resistance is necessary and effective rather than individual agency.

Similarly, Lacsamana examines the debate on sex work/prostitution in order to argue that choice for Filipinas in selling their bodies for sex or marriage is qualified by the larger political circumstances that draw them to these highly limited options.

In her final chapter, Lacsamana analyzes the Subic rape case, when a US soldier raped a local woman.

In this complex case, she argues that the US-Philippine relations interfered with justice and even though women’s groups actively supported “Nicole,” the victim, the history of colonial relations created an ambivalent public response to Nicole’s case.

The value of Lacsamana’s book lies in its groundedness in Philippine history and how this history still resonates in contemporary life, especially for women.

Further, her focus on women’s groups and their collective identities rather than individuals is far more appropriate than the Western feminist focus on the individual given that family relations are more fundamental to Filipino culture than Western cultures.

However, Lacsamana’s critique of Western feminism is extended and overplayed to the point of being defensive of her own method and ultimately detracts from her analysis of the Filipina women’s movement.

Her rebuttal of Western postmodernist feminism is repetitive and takes up more of the book than a more substantive analysis of the history, strategies and legacies of the Filipina grassroots feminist movement.

And while she points out in the Subic rape case chapter that Catholicism heavily influences people’s views of women in the Philippines, she does not take on the Church in her analysis, something that, I believe, should have been a more central part of her project.

Despite these shortcomings, Lacsamana’s book is a valuable contribution to understanding feminist activism in the Philippines.

Its value lies in its reorientation of the feminist lens and challenges readers to rethink their understanding of feminism and its limitations as a one-size-fits-all ideology.

While Lacsamana’s argument assumes an understanding of Western academic feminism in its current formation, she provides enough grounding for those less versed in the nuances of postmodernism.

Anne E. Lacsamana is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York.

She is the coeditor of Women and Globalization (2004) and has published several articles on global/transnational feminist theory and US-Philippine relations.

Revolutionizing Feminism The Philippine Women’s Movement in the Age of Terrorism is the first feminist analysis of the contemporary human rights crisis in the Philippines, where over 1,000 activists have been murdered since 2002.

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