Perspective: Women in Guam History: A Critical Reflection
|Editor’s Note:||This speech was presented at Guampedia’s Chamorro Heritage Series, 24 October 2012, Latte of Freedon Hall of Governors, Ricardo J. Bordallo Governor’s Complex, Adelup.|
Hafa Adai everyone and thank you for coming out tonight to recognize and honor the contributions of women in Guam’s history.
I’d like to begin by sharing a research finding that I came across a few years back. This was the Minutes of a 1937 session of the Guam Congress. For those of you not familiar with the Guam Congress, it was created in 1917 by the naval government of Guam to serve as an advisory body to the governor. Initially, its members were all appointed by the naval governor, but by 1930, Chamorros were allowed by the military to elect its members. The Guam Congress was the island’s first legislative body, eventually replaced in the 1950 Organic Act with the Guam Legislature. It was a bicameral legislature – having two chambers, the House of Assembly and the House of Council. Although, as an advisory body, they didn’t have the power to enact laws, they nonetheless addressed matters important to the local community, as well as to the naval government.
On this particular session, held on 4 September 1937, a joint session of the House of Council and House of Assembly was called. There were twenty-nine members present on that day, all men, eleven of them from Hagåtña, and the rest from different villages throughout the island: two each from Asan, Inarajan, Merizo, Sinajana, Talofofo, and Yigo, and 1 each from Barrigada, Dededo, Piti, Sumay, Umatac, and Yona. Some of those present are household names in Guam History: Baltazar J. Bordallo, Eduardo T. Calvo, Luis P. Untalan, F. B. Leon Guerrero, F. Q. Sanchez, and Jesus Cruz Barcinas. It was a veritable “who’s who” of prewar Guam politicians. In fact, since our textbooks focus primarily on politics and political leaders, it’s also a who’s who of prewar Guam’s history.
On the agenda that day was an issue forwarded to them by the naval governor, Benjamin McCandlish. McCandlish wanted the Congress to consider passing a motion that would ban women from working in bars on the island.
There was considerable discussion on the subject. Barrigada Congressman Jose S. Aflague said that, “In the olden days…all bars in Guam were manned and operated by men folks,” and, anyway, “men folks make better bartenders than girls.” One Hagåtña Assemblyman, F. M. Camacho, stated, “these girls are in constant association with undesirable men in saloons, and needless to say, [this] might result in some indecent practice.” Later in the discussion, Camacho added, “a girl can find other industry for her sex. Take for example, the weaving industry…or do some embroidery at the home, for sale, or some laundry work.” This comment aligned with the Navy’s own view of women, seen in the school curriculum which focused female education on classes like sewing, weaving, baking, and cooking.
Yet there were also those who objected to the motion. Councilman G. R. Kamminga from Piti expressed his view that, “girls and men have equal right to work for a living, and I don’t see any reason why a girl shouldn’t be given employment or make her choice of profession.” Dededo Councilman Manual Ulloa stated that, “These women folks have the same suffrage as we men and they shall be given a chance to earn their living in this world.”
After some continued debate, the Chair called for a vote: 13 voted for the ban, but 16 rejected it, and the motion thus failed. This was an unsuccessful piece of legislation. It didn’t result in any changes, big or small. Yet this seemingly uneventful episode from our past teaches us something about our island and our history. And it teaches us something about our women.
These women took on employment in a sector previously monopolized by men, as one congress member pointed out. They pursued jobs at a time when employment opportunities for women were rather limited, particularly for women without much schooling or without training in some profession.
They entered a space – the bar – that was not socially or culturally sanctioned, particularly since those were the days of the mandatory chaperone for women in the company of any men other than immediate family. Even the navy hospital hired a chaperone to accompany the female nurses and nursing students in the hospital.
These barmaids defied the social, cultural, and economic norms of their time, contributing to their family’s coffers while, at the same time, making a statement about women’s roles on Guam.
These women could really be considered “ordinary” by historical standards. That is, they are among the masses of women who were not mannakhilo, not the elites of the island. They represent the masses of ordinary women whose names do not appear in the society columns of the Guam Recorder. They are not wealthy, not of blue-blooded lineage, and not highly educated. Yet this Guam Congress episode reminds us that so-called “ordinary” status was not an impediment to being respected and even exercising power in society. One could be a valued, respected woman without the privileges of money, lineage, or education. But one of our on-going problems is that women without money, lineage, and education are typically ignored in history.
Yet on Guam ordinary women could make important contributions to their family, village, and church and thus distinguish themselves as extraordinary, in the process earning a rightful place in our historical collective memory.
Ordinary women distinguished themselves as extraordinary on a regular basis, as teachers, nurses, techa, pattera, suruhåna, mothers, grandmothers, and godmothers. Some, like Clotilde Gould, had such a gift with language, stories, poems, and song that I know the ancients would have ranked her among their esteemed poets. After all, an observation from a Spanish priest in the 1700s tells us that, “Among [the Chamorros], a poet is a miraculous [person], and the title of Poet makes one respected by the entire nation,” (“Guam Two Hundred Years Ago. From the Spanish of Padre J. J. Delgado,” Guam News Letter April-May 1912, Vol. III, No. 10-11, page 2). Today, we see and we know that si Difuntan Ding Gould continues to gain in respect and admiration.
Another example of the women ordinaire/extraordinaire comes to us in the legend of Sirena. For many years now, I’ve been fascinated with the Chamorro Sirena and with how unusual our mermaid story is from others around the world. For the mermaid is quite a universal figure, found since antiquity in maritime societies from China and Japan to Iceland and Russia, from Scotland and Ireland to Alaska and California. Sirena, of course, is a Spanish word deriving from the word “Siren,” referencing the sexually seductive mermaids of Greek mythology. Mermaids were provocative, femme fatales who lured sailors with their enchanting music and singing; even the sanitized Walt Disney version, Ariel in The Little Mermaid, contains an element of this seductiveness.
Yet Guam’s mermaid story is uniquely not about seduction, although I have to say that the Sirena statue at Hagåtña bridge challenges my analysis since she’s portrayed there quite voluptuously. Nonetheless, our mermaid story is not about a voluptuous temptress; ours is a story about respecting one’s mother, a story demonstrating the immense powers of motherhood. Sirena’s mother acts out the ancient Chamorro proverb: “yanggin siña hao hu fañagu, pues siña ha’ lokkue hu dispone hao.” Robert Underwood has provided us with a rough English translation of this proverb: “I gave you birth, I can kill you” (“Hispanicization as a Socio-Historical Process on Guam,” 16). Of course, we should here emphasize that the power of a proverb isn’t in its literal meaning, bur rather its figurative meaning. In this case, Sirena’s moral and the proverb’s figurative meaning is to obey your mother…or else. The great dissimilarity between the Chamorro Sirena story of obedience to one’s mother and the seductive mermaid stories around the rest of the world reveals part of the uniqueness of our history – that a woman can be, at the same time, an ordinary mother and an extraordinary powerhouse.
Sirena’s story is all about the mother ordinaire/extraordinaire and this theme of the ordinary/extraordinary women can be found in another gem of Chamorro oral history – the story of a group of women who saved Guam from destruction when a giant fish was eating the island. These women jumped into action, wove their hair into a net, and captured the beast, not waiting around like damsels in distress for some knight in shining armor to come and save the day. These women who saved the island from destruction, like Sirena’s mother, exerted leadership because they were in a society that acknowledges that, as women, they are no less capable than men of making critical decisions, leaping into action, and writing themselves into the historical memory.
Tonight, we have come together to recognize the importance of writing, publishing, and disseminating these histories, stories virtually invisible in our history books.
Indeed, of the 26 women profiled in the Guampedia “Women of Guam History” project, only a handful are even mentioned in any of the island’s history textbooks. The first major historical textbook, Carano and Sanchez’s 1964 A Complete History of Guam, mentions none of the women – zero. Granted, it was 1964, before the women’s liberation movement showed its influence in history. Nonetheless, even more current Guam History textbooks do little better. In Robert Rogers’s Destiny’s Landfall, first published in 1995, but recently updated last year, only three of these women are mentioned: Agueda Johnston, Gertrude Hornbostel, and Laura Thompson.
Perhaps even more surprising is that the Hale’-ta books don’t do much better in this regard. The first volume of I Manfayi: Who’s Who in Chamorro History (1995), features only nineteen women versus fifty-one men. And, just to make it clear that I’m not pointing fingers at everyone else, the text that I participated in writing, I Magobetna-na Guam: Governing Guam: Before and After the Wars (1994), mentions only ten women, five of whom are part of the Guampedia series. I’m pointing now specifically to the Hale’-ta series, funded by GovGuam, because it was self-consciously an islander-centered project. The whole goal of the series was to re-tell our history from our perspective, and yet even these texts seem to be trapped within the confines of a Western historical tradition that largely excludes women and their contributions to society and history.
So it is important that we take this moment in history to thank the wise women of Guampedia – Rita Pangelinan Nauta, Shannon J. Murphy, Dominica Tolentino, and Nathalie Pereda – as well as their contributing writers, for addressing this gap in our historical archive. Though some might see this is as but a slight contribution to Guam’s history, it is, in fact, a major advancement in our historiography. With the help of Guampedia, we can move forward towards a history that better incorporates the contributions made by women in our past.
I want to return now to the 1937 Guam Congress barmaids issue. Its failed outcome told us about the power of ordinary, yet extraordinary women. But its outcome also tells us something about the men of our island. Rather than using this as a golden opportunity to flex their muscles and define women’s place in society – and the governor surely wanted them to do this – they demonstrated instead their implicit respect for women and the choices that they make. This mutual respect and cooperation between the genders is, in fact, an important theme in Guam’s history, demonstrated most profoundly in the oral account of Puntan and Fu’una, a man and woman, a brother and a sister, working together to create the universe.
But for too long, for the past thirty years, perhaps in order to combat women’s invisibility in Guam’s history textbooks, scholars have swung to the far left and portrayed women as the be-all and end-all of Chamorro society, as the perpetuators of culture, as the protectors of the family, and as the true movers and shakers of the island. This view certainly brings women out from the historical darkness and into the spotlight. Yet it has, in my estimation, unfairly and inaccurately marginalized men in their also-important roles as fathers, grandfathers, brothers, uncles, godfathers, and sons.
In order to come closer to understanding our history, understanding what life was like in our past, I caution us to avoid overstating the roles of either men or women. I’m not saying that women did not perpetuate the culture, but the standard argument, firstly, insinuates that MEN DO NOT which is not correct. Secondly, the idea that women perpetuate culture also implies that women are engaged in a fight against men, for if women are the ones protecting the culture, then it must be the men who are destroying it.
Yet since ancient times and the matrilineal system, as our creator gods (Puntan and Fu’una) demonstrate, men and women worked together, cooperatively and interdependently for the good of their family and clan. Sometimes, women took leadership, and sometimes men did. And that’s part of the beauty of our history – that whether you were born a girl or a boy, you were not a curse or a burden, but rather, in either case, a blessing to your family.
In our history, Chamorro men and women worked together to deal with the challenges of a new religion, a new capitalist economy, new forms of government, and encroaching western value systems.
Bringing women into our history means appreciating the stories of these joint struggles, acknowledging and incorporating the stories of ordinary women who served their villages and families in extraordinary ways according to their talents, interests, and needs of the community. Finding those extraordinary women of history means appreciating the powers of ordinary women, rather than focusing primarily on those already in the political, economic, or social spotlight. Finding those extraordinary women of history, furthermore, means looking at the bigger picture – at the larger family or clan or village – to understand the interrelationships and interdependencies that existed to make life better for everyone. After all, Fu’una did not create the universe by herself.
So where to from here? There is still much to be studied and documented in terms of women’s contributions to Guam’s history, the stories of the techa, suruhåna, pattera, and other women ordinaire/extraordinaire. There is also much more to be contemplated regarding gender identities and gender formation. Guampedia has provided a valuable service to Guam and to our history, and for this, I offer my gratitude to the whole crew. Sen dangkulu na saina ma’ase, Guampedia, and keep up the great work!
By Anne Perez Hattori, PhD
Professor, University of Guam