Long Teaching Module: Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000

Mina Roces and Janelle Collett
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This module examines women’s attempts to negotiate political spaces in the realms of official and unofficial power in Southeast Asia in the 20th century. Southeast Asia is composed of 11 countries—Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei, and East Timor. In the early 20th century, Southeast Asian countries were still colonized (or semi-colonized) states. Hence, both Southeast Asian men and women were colonial subjects without political independence. This long teaching module includes an informational essay, objectives, activities, discussion questions, guidance on engaging with the sources, and essay prompts relating to the ten primary sources.


Nationalism and Feminism, 1920s-1970s

Western colonial rulers permitted Southeast Asian men a limited participation in the politics of the colonies, and by the 1920s the question of women’s suffrage had become an issue. The colonial situation introduced a tension between feminism and nationalism as budding feminists were pressured to prioritize national independence over women’s political agendas. While men campaigned for independence from colonial rule, women’s roles in that evolving nation were still contested. Women’s desire to be part of nation building and men’s reluctance to share that space equally raised dilemmas for the early feminists. For Southeast Asian men, supporting the nationalist project meant advocating immediate independence from Western colonial powers. For Southeast Asian women, supporting the nationalist project meant lobbying for a government that would disenfranchise them as women. Nonetheless, there was a lively suffrage movement in Southeast Asia with unique features that differed from Western first-wave feminism’s emphasis on formal political participation.

In the 1940s, the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia introduced a new colonial ruler and a wartime situation. The women’s movement was temporarily put on hold because of wartime conditions, but women were active in the resistance movements against the Japanese. With the end of World War II, and the end of the revolutions against their colonizers, the newly independent nations of Southeast Asia experienced fragile democracies as governments oscillated between dictatorship and democracy. In Indonesia and the Philippines, the dictatorships in the 1970s laid the groundwork for a different type of feminist—the militant woman activist who fought dictators and demanded human rights. The tension between feminism and nationalism surfaced as women once again were asked to prioritize national liberation (the restoration of democratic institutions) over women’s rights (perceived as a “soft” issue).

Unofficial Power Versus Official Power

Western feminist theories cannot be easily applied to these societies, because Southeast Asia has different concepts of power and different prestige systems. Southeast Asian concepts of power see power held by the kinship group, and not just the person in office. This unique trait enables women to exercise political power outside the symbols of power/office through their kinship ties—as mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, and even mistresses of male politicians.

Because kinship politics (the use of political power to benefit the kinship group) is the dominant dynamic in Southeast Asian politics, women have been able to exercise quite an enormous amount of political power—albeit behind the scenes. Although unofficial power is the traditional way women exercise power (roughly 11% of Southeast Asia politicians are women), it is often women who first exercise unofficial power who become politicians. Connected to the kinship politics of their male relatives, these women are able to win election campaigns. In fact, the pattern is so prevalent that the Far Eastern Economic Review’s humor section advised women would-be politicians with the quip: “The avenues to political success are to choose one’s father carefully, or a husband likely to be assassinated.”1

While this power behind the scenes has been the traditional way for women to exercise power in the Southeast Asian context, feminists have lobbied and campaigned for women’s rights to exercise official power and to run for political office themselves. Interestingly, scholars have focused on official power and have not dealt with unofficial power (because it is seen to be undemocratic, illegitimate, and unaccountable), and have so far ignored the potential of unofficial power.

This module focuses on analyzing the contradictions in the traditional gendering of power, where women are given enormous power, albeit unofficial, as well as on women’s more recent efforts to attain official power.


1 Frank Ching, “Asia’s Women Leaders Depend on Parents’ or Husbands’ Fame”, Far Eastern Economic Review, August 19, 1993, 28.

Primary Sources

Southeast Asian Politics: Nonfiction, Javanese Education

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Raden Ajeng Kartini is hailed in Indonesia as that country’s first feminist. She was born in April 21, 1879, in North Central Java, the daughter of a Javanese official serving the Dutch colonial government. During this time, women were secluded from the age of 14 until marriage. This did not stop Kartini from aspiring for higher education. She received a scholarship to study, but succumbed to family pressure not to continue her education. And despite her written pronouncements that she would never marry, she consented to be the consort (fourth wife) of a man 25 years her senior. A year after her marriage, shortly after the birth of her son, Kartini passed away at the age of 25. Prior to her marriage, Kartini founded a school for young girls. Influenced by Dutch feminists, Kartini wrote passionately for the improvement of education, public health, economic welfare, and traditional arts in her country. The following source is an excerpt from a memorandum she wrote in January 1903 in response to a request from an official of the Dutch Ministry of Justice during a visit to Batavia. In it, Kartini makes two main points. First, Kartini argues that women should be educated because they are the mothers of the future nation’s leaders. She wanted Westernization and instruction in the Dutch language, something which in today’s parlance is seen as “un-nationalistic.” “Modernization” at that time, however, was associated with “Westernization.” Thus, the desire to modernize her country and access the language of knowledge could be interpreted as a “nationalist” move. Second, in Kartini’s view, given the resources and the Javanese population of 27 million, educational policy should first be directed to elite women who could then open schools for the rest of the “masses.” She did not believe grass cutters should be taught Dutch, but she did criticize the Javanese culture’s hierarchical nature, where younger siblings had to grovel to older ones and where norms dictated elaborate rituals of hierarchy. Overall, she wanted to alter relations between Indonesians and the Dutch a decade before the flowering of the nationalist movement. This source is a part of the Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000 teaching module.

Southeast Asian Politics: Nonfiction, Philippine Suffrage

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This is an essay written by suffragist Trinidad Fernandez Legarda, editor of The Woman’s Outlook and President of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs (NFWC). NFWC led the campaign for suffrage in the Philippines in 1921. The essay presents a summary of the Filipino suffragists’ argument for the vote. The Philippines were an American colony from 1901 to 1935 and a Commonwealth from 1935 to 1941. The American government promised independence after a period of democratic tutelage, so Filipino men were allowed to participate in local and national politics. American colonial powers were willing to grant Filipino women the franchise, but Filipino men opposed the idea. In 1912, American suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt visited Manila in the hopes of starting a suffrage movement, but there was not much interest before NFWC activity began in 1921. Filipino suffragists did not challenge cultural constructions of the feminine (as moral guardian, beauty queen, wife, and mother). Mrs. Legarda was Carnival Queen in 1924 (beauty queen of the annual Manila Carnival, the precursor to the Miss Philippine Beauty Pageant), and was a noted civic worker. In this essay written for the Philippine Magazine, a mainstream publication with a primarily male audience, Legarda articulates the feminist position. Legarda’s essay draws out the differences between Western and Filipino feminism, stressing the non-militancy of the Filipino movement. Their strategies involved appealing to male reason rather than by violent protest (unlike British suffragists). She labors the point that they were already qualified to become doctors and lawyers and therefore, since women had been given access to tertiary education, it was incongruous that they be able to practice law but not be given the right to vote. Note especially that the essay shows quite clearly how much the suffragists were plugged into the global suffrage movement. This source is a part of the Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000 teaching module.

Southeast Asian Politics: Court Records, Imelda Marcos

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Unofficial power is difficult to document, yet the martial law years in the Philippines were often described in the media as the “conjugal dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos” (1972-1986). This epithet articulates succinctly the perception of the First Lady’s power behind the scenes. Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Livingston, of the government prosecution panel, gave this opening statement at the start of Imelda Marcos’s 1990 trial in New York for corruption and racketeering. In July 1990, Imelda Marcos was acquitted on all corruption charges against her. The statement provides insight into the unofficial power Marcos reportedly held, presenting it in a negative light. Unofficial power is prone to abuse, in part because it is largely unaccountable. It is not, however, invisible. Since the women politicians are a minority (11%), they still have to abide by male rules. In recognition of the existence of women’s unofficial power, wives of congressmen in the Philippines were asked to take an oath of office to the current president in 1992. This source is a part of the Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000 teaching module.

Southeast Asian Politics: Newspaper, Unofficial Power

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Unofficial power is often exercised in private, far from public view. This newspaper exposé discusses the power (real and perceived) of Rosemarie Arenas, an alleged former mistress of Philippine President Fidel Ramos, during a democratic regime (1992-1998). The basis of Arenas’s power was the fact that she was a major fundraiser in the presidential campaign of Fidel Ramos. Arenas’s use of power is portrayed as negative, in part because she exercised it to its maximum potential. Unofficial power is prone to abuse, in part because it is largely unaccountable. It is not, however, invisible. Since women are the support system in kinship politics (women run election campaigns and raise funds), this becomes the source of their power later on. This source is a part of the Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000 teaching module.

Southeast Asian Politics: Speech, Philippine State of The Nation

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When opposition Senator Benigno (“Ninoy”) Aquino was assassinated in August 1983, Filipinos rallied around the widow Corazon Aquino who symbolized all those who were victimized by the Marcos dictatorship. The housewife with no political experience found herself elected president of the Philippines after the overthrow of Marcoses’ authoritarian rule. As the Philippines’s first female president, she presided over the transition to democracy facing the challenges of no less than seven military coups attempting to topple her government. In this 1991 speech, her last State of the Nation Address, she reviewed her term of office, focusing on her husband’s ideas and the image of women as “moral guardians.” Aquino constantly refers to her Catholic religiosity. Note that her speech does not reflect a feminist perspective. Corazon Aquino presided over the transition of government from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one and she did not express an interest in women’s issues. After six years in office, she still focuses on her husband and his ideas. Though politically prominent in her own right, Corazon Aquino was perceived to be the alter ego of her husband, a Filipino hero. This source is a part of the Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000 teaching module.

Southeast Asian Politics: Speech, Burmese Democracy

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This speech, given in 1988 by Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, marked the beginning of her staunch campaign against the Burmese military regime. Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of Burmese nationalist hero Aung San. She spent much of her adult life overseas and married an English academic named Michael Aris. When she visited her mother in Burma in 1988, she witnessed massive student demonstrations and the massacre of demonstrators. She decided to lead the democratic opposition to the regime and has since been placed under house arrest. In 1991, she received the Noble Peace Prize. In this speech, as leader of the National League for Democracy, she called for the restoration of democratic institutions and “freedom from fear.” She delivered the speech in Burmese and later translated it into English. Note that her speech does not reflect a feminist perspective. Aung San Suu Kyi conforms to Southeast Asian constructions of the feminine as “moral guardian.” She delivered her first speech in the Schewedagon Pagoda, a Buddhist temple (Theravada Buddhism) believed to house the guardian spirits (nats) of the nation. In addition, she agitates for the restoration of democratic rights in Burma and fights for the human rights of both men and women victims of tatmadaw (Burmese army) rule. Aung San Suu Kyi’s first speech declaring opposition to Burmese army rule repeatedly mentioned her father, a legend whose photograph is carried by Burmese students during demonstrations. She justified her decision to speak out against human rights violations by the military dictatorship with the words, “I could not as my father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that was going on.” Though politically prominent in her own right, Aung San Suu Kyi was perceived to be the alter ego of her father, a Burmese hero. This source is a part of the Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000 teaching module.

Painting of Imelda Marcos, Philippine First Lady

Politicians are astute experts on the symbols and meaning of dress as part of self-representation. For women, the politics of dress are highly significant. This painting depicts a powerful woman, Former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos and shows her use of national dress in the Southeast Asian political context. Marcos popularized the terno, the Philippine national dress for women with butterfly sleeves, when she became First Lady. She used the national dress to craft a self-representation of herself as embodying the nation, presenting herself as a nationalist subject. Marcos was conscious of Southeast Asian cultural constructions of woman as bearer and wearer of national tradition, and tapped into these notions to achieve her political agenda. She stated during her trial that she wanted to be seen as a nationalist. Since she could not wear the Filipino flag, the terno became her flag. Filipinos, however, identified the terno with her personally and with her frivolousness. The terno became a symbol of Imelda Marcos rather than a metaphor for nation. This source is a part of the Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000 teaching module.

Photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese Activist

This photograph of a powerful woman, Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi, shows her use of national dress in a Southeast Asian political context. Aung San Suu Kyi was educated overseas and married to an Englishman. Yet she always wears Burmese national dress complete with a flower in her hair. This choice of clothing downplays her Western education and stresses her image as a nationalist fighting for the restoration of democratic institutions in Burma. Aung San’s dress demonstrates her awareness of Southeast Asian cultural constructions of women as bearers of national tradition. In addition, she appears frail, but this is most likely intentional. The “woman as martyr” can be a powerful symbol in Southeast Asia. Her image serves as a stark contrast to the machismo of army rulers who wear Western military attire. This source is a part of the Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000 teaching module.

Southeast Asian Politics: Song, Philippine Feminist Movement

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This song, entitled Maria and sung in Tagalog (a Philippine language), challenges cultural constructions of women as passive, as sex objects or domestic cooks. “Maria” is used as a generic term for woman. The song identifies heroines such as Lorena Barros, Gabriela Silang, and Tandang Sora. Barros founded MAKIBAKA in 1971, the first second-wave feminist organization. The organization was forced underground during the martial law regime of President Marcos (1972-1986) and Barros was killed by the military. Gabriela Silang led the revolt against Spanish colonizers in the 18th century and Tandang Sora helped the Filipino revolutionaries against Spain in 1896-1898. Maria is performed by Sining Lila, a performing group of GABRIELA (General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action), an umbrella organization of about 200 grass roots women’s organizations in the Philippines. Sining Lila performs songs during the demonstrations, workshops, and other public events where GABRIELA is a participant or organizer. GABRIELA was formed in 1984 and adhered to the national-democratic brand of feminism. There are now roughly 200 organizations under its umbrella from all over the country. They represent second-wave feminism in the Philippines and epitomize the new militant nature of feminist activism. Many women who join GABRIELA (like the Filipino “comfort women”) have not been given the opportunities for higher education, but the songs, demonstrations, and workshops introduce them to ideas and history. This group of feminists challenges cultural constructions of the feminine as wife and mother. Their workshops directed at women from all classes succeeded in developing a feminist consciousness. This source is a part of the Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000 teaching module.

Southeast Asian Politics: Website, Sisters In Islam

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The women’s movement has always been inherently global, but by the end of the 20th century there was a new burst of transnational women’s organizing as women used new technologies to network at home and abroad. Women’s movements are studied in the context of globalization, and Southeast Asian women’s “positioning” within this global context. The Southeast Asian women’s diaspora (for example, the significant number of Filipino domestic workers overseas) and the effect of globalization on women, has inspired the contemporary women’s movement to work in a transnational rather than a local context. At the same time, Islamic revivalism has made Southeast Asian Muslim women more conscious of their transnational Muslim identity. Sisters in Islam, based in Malaysia, reinterprets the Koran from a feminist perspective, focusing on issues faced by the “modern” Muslim woman in Malaysia and in the global Muslim community. Sisters in Islam (SIS) was founded in 1988 to promote the rights of Muslim women. A group of feminist, professional women organized SIS because men, as ulama (Islamic scholars), were the only ones permitted to interpret the text of the Koran (Qur’an). SIS presented a more egalitarian interpretation of the Koran, especially regarding women. In the 1970s, as women began to enter the labor force, Malaysia experienced a rise of Islamic revivalism (dakwa movement). Dakwa encouraged a more pious practice of Islam and veiling became popular (veiling is a relatively modern phenomenon associated with elite, university educated, middle-class women). SIS argued that one could be both a feminist and a Muslim. An examination of the titles of SIS publications (listed on the homepage) and seminars topics reveals a distinct interest in women’s rights, particularly in Shari’a Law or Muslim Law (Hudud) based on the Qu’ran and the Hadith (the traditions of the Prophet written down by his followers). This source is a part of the Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000 teaching module.

Teaching Strategies

The primary sources in this module are designed to demonstrate the ways in which women have interacted with political power in Southeast Asia through the 20th century.

The first two sources—Nonfiction, Javanese Education and Nonfiction, Philippine Suffrage—essays written by elite women, are set in the colonial era of Indonesia and the Philippines. They demonstrate the tension between feminism and nationalism as well as dilemmas faced by the emerging women’s movement. In addition, they present the opportunity to create a definition of a “feminist” and are useful for establishing suffragists’ primary arguments for the franchise.

The next two sources—Court Records, Imelda Marcos and Newspaper, Unofficial Power—examine women in unofficial and official power. Unofficial power here is represented by former First Lady Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, who wielded enormous influence, and by a “scandal” involving the alleged former mistress of President Fidel Ramos, also of the Philippines.

The two women whose speeches are reproduced—Speech, Philippine State of The Nation and Speech, Burmese Democracy—are classic examples of the workings of kinship politics. The photographs of Imelda Marcos and Aung San Suu Kyi—Photograph, Philippine First Lady and Photograph, Burmese Activist—address the politics of dress, exploring how women have tapped into symbols of dress, particularly cultural constructions of the feminine as bearer and wearer of national tradition, to achieve their political agendas.

Finally, there are several documents about second-wave feminism in Southeast Asia—Song, Philippine Feminist Movement and Website, Sisters In Islam. Feminism is still a negative word in Southeast Asia. “Feminism” is seen as “Western” and associated with the radical feminism of the 1960s (particularly the “bra burners”). Most activists prefer the term “womanist.” These sources offer insight into how feminists “packaged” their ideas to promote the women’s movement.

They provide the opportunity to raise the issue of the “Orientalized” image of Filipinas worldwide as domestic helpers, “mail-order brides,” or prostitutes. The song Maria provides an opportunity to compare the tensions between feminism and nationalism over time. Although Kartini wrote her essay (Nonfiction, Javanese Education) and GABRIELA produced Maria in different countries and at different times, the tensions between feminism and nationalism are ever present. This theme cuts across countries (space) and across time (colonial and postcolonial eras).

Website, Sisters In Islam is an example of women who have confronted religious definitions of the feminine in a transnational context. This source can be the basis for a discussion on feminism and religion—in particular Islam. It is possible to discuss veiling (dress) as well since veiling is not traditional to Malaysia. If students are interested, the Resources section offers website addresses of two other transnational organizations—in Singapore and GABRIELA in the Philippines. Students can analyze the character of these organizations through their websites.

Discussion Questions:
  • Is Kartini a feminist or a nationalist or both? Was she an elitist? Why or why not?
  • What are the differences between Filipino first-wave feminism and Western first-wave feminism?
  • To what extent was the debate on Filipino suffrage a debate about how “the Filipino woman” was going to be defined in the early 20th century?
  • Is unofficial power real power? Is it problematic that it is linked to the male? Should scholars ignore unofficial power and focus on women’s access to official power only?
  • Are Imelda Marcos and Rosemarie Arenas feminists? Are they the embodiment of women’s empowerment?
  • Do the speeches of Corazon Aquino and Aung San Suu Kyi reflect a feminist perspective?
  • What are the similarities and differences between how Corazon Aquino and Aung San Suu Kyi represent themselves as moral guardians and as alter egos of men?
  • How does Imelda Marcos and Aung San Suu Kyi's dress reflect their conscious self-representation? How do they want people to interpret their dress, and how might their audiences have interpreted it differently? For example, historian Emma Tarlo showed how Mahatma Gandhi wore the loincloth made of white Khadi (course, homespun cloth) to send the message that India’s poverty would be solved by hand-spinning and freedom from British rule. But for many Indian people, the loincloth sent a different message—that he was a holy man, a saint, an ascetic. (See Emma Tarlo, Clothing Matters Dress and Identity in India, (London: Hurst & Co, 1996), chapter 2.)
  • What does the song Maria portray as the traditional definition of Filipina woman (a cook, beauty queen, or sex object; someone who accepts oppression or is resigned to it)? The song raises alternative models for women. What sort of alternative role models does the song suggest?
  • How does Islam define the feminine in Malaysia? And then how does the Sisters In Islam group challenge or attempt to redefine the feminine?

Lesson Plan

Constructing Womanhood: Politics in 20th-Century Southeast Asia

Time Estimate

Five 50-minute blocks and DBQ as an independent assignment.


After completing this lesson, students will be able to:

  1. analyze textual primary sources.
  2. analyze visual primary sources.
  3. recognize gender as a social construction.
  4. understand that those social constructions change over time.


  • Sufficient copies of the Southeast Asian Politics Introduction
  • Sufficient copies of the following sources, stapled together:
    • Source 1: Nonfiction, Javanese Education
    • Source 2: Nonfiction, Philippine Suffrage
    • Source 4: Newpaper, Unofficial Power
    • Source 7: Painting, Philippine First Lady
    • Source 8: Photograph, Burmese Activist
    • Source 9: Song, Philippine Feminist Movement
    • Source 10: Website, Sisters in Islam
  • Sufficient copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images
  • Sufficient copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts
  1. Hook:

    • Write the word “feminine” on the board. Ask your students to write down the first three words that come to mind when they see that word.
    • Write the word “masculine” on the board. Ask your students to write down the first three words that come to mind when they see that word.
    • Ask your students to share their responses; as they say them, write their responses underneath of “feminine” and “masculine.”
    • Discuss their responses. What generalizations can they make about their ideas of femininity and masculinity? Where do these ideas come from?
    • Write the sentence “Gender is a social construction,” on the board, then explain that what they have been describing have been ways that our society constructs, or creates, gender. Other societies have different beliefs about what it means to be a man or a woman, and what roles men and women should play in a society. For the next week, the class will be examining how gender roles were constructed in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century.
  2. Contextualizing the Sources:

    • Direct students to read the Southeast Asian Politics Introduction.
    • As they read, they should answer the following questions on a separate sheet of paper:
      1. What time period and area of the world is the subject of the introduction?
        • Students should answer that it focuses on 20th-century Southeast Asia.
      2. Summarize how Southeast Asia’s relationship to the rest of the world changed between 1920 and 1970.
        • Students should answer that most Southeast Asian countries went from being colonized by European nations, to being occupied by Japan, to being independent nations.
      3. When independence came, Southeast Asian countries had internal struggles for power. Describe those struggles and analyze why independence would bring about internal conflict.
        • Students should see that as new governments were created, different groups of people wanted different things out of that government. Some wanted democracy, while others wanted a strong central authority. Students may theorize that these struggles occurred because there was a power vacuum left by the European colonizers.
      4. What roles did women play in those struggles for power?
        • Students should answer that women mostly played unofficial roles, meaning that they exercised power behind the scenes through their kinship groups. Some women campaigned for women to have official power as well.
  3. Introduction to Primary Sources:

    • Explain to students that they will be using primary sources to research social constructions of womanhood in 20th-century Southeast Asia. Introduce the idea of a primary source by explaining that they are sources created during the time period being studied.
    • Pass out copies of Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Images and Primary Source Analysis Worksheet: Texts
    • Instruct students to examine Source 7: Painting, Philippine First Lady and fill out the worksheet for images.
    • Instruct students to examine Source 1: Nonfiction, Javanese Education and fill out the worksheet for texts.
    • Discuss their responses as a class, emphasizing the importance of primary sources in doing historical research.
  4. Analyzing Social Constructions of Womanhood:

    • Direct students to read all of the sources in their source packet. Remind them that they are reading with a purpose: to understand and analyze how ideas of womanhood were constructed in 20th-century Southeast Asia. If students have access to computers, also direct them to explore Source 10: Website, Sisters in Islam on the web.
    • After students have completed an initial reading of the sources, direct them to work in partners to pull apart the sources. Ask them to:
      • Pick out clues that indicate what it meant to be a woman in this time period, in this area of the world. Students should circle key words and sentences and make notes in the margins. Remind students to make a note of the date each document was created so that they are aware of change over time.
      • Create a concept map to reflect the competing notions of womanhood they found in the documents. Students may create a map that shows two major trends: one of women as moral guardians and more traditionally feminine, and one of women as activists and more androgynous. Or, students may create a map that reconciles those competing notions by acknowledging that both recognize women’s power, just in different realms. Students may also create a map that reflects chronological changes in gender constructions. There is no “correct” concept map.
    • Ask each group to share their map with the class and explain why they made the decisions they made about organizing their information.
    • Guide students in a discussion around the following questions:
      1. What did it mean to be a woman in 20th-century Southeast Asia?
        • Students should make generalizations based on their concept maps.
      2. How were notions of womanhood used by women to achieve political goals?
        • Students should recognize that Southeast Asian women used womanhood as justification for achieving more rights. The most common argument was that women, as mothers and moral guardians, controlled the spiritual and political future of the nation and therefore should be given more education and entrusted with more political rights. Other arguments, later in the 20th century, focused more on women as men’s equals, and therefore deserving of equal rights.
      3. What generalizations can you make around how ideas of womanhood changed from the beginning of the twentieth century to the end? How can you account for these changes?
        • Students should see that portrayals of women as traditionally feminine were used in the early 20th century; feminist descriptions of women as equals to men were used in the late 20th century. The main trend is a move away from emphasizing women’s differences from men and toward emphasizing women’s sameness with men. Students might theorize that these changes happened because of the influence of Western ideas of power—the unofficial power that women held in Southeast Asia was not recognized as “real” power in Western society. Students might also theorize that the rhetoric used to argue for Southeast Asian nations’ independence would have resonated with women, who also wanted freedom and justice.
  5. Document-Based Essay Question:

    • Distribute copies of the Document-Based Essay Question.
    • Allow students time in class to brainstorm and outline their ideas.
    • Instruct students to complete the essay for homework.


  • Use a SMART Board to examine Source 10: Website, Sisters in Islam together. Discuss the language and the imagery chosen by the Sisters in Islam to convey their message. Click on the “Links” tab on the website to visit other, similar sites. Compare how those sites are constructed and which ones are the most effective at conveying their message. Note: The content of the sites may not be appropriate for all age groups.
  • Ask students to use laptops to create the concept map under step number four, “Analyzing Social Constructions of Womanhood.” They may use SMART Ideas or Inspiration. Ask them to email the maps to you when they are done, then display the best one on the SMART Board and use it to guide your discussion.

Advanced Students:

  • Accelerate the lesson by skipping step three, “Introduction to Primary Sources.”
  • Instruct students to complete the Document-Based Essay at home; do not allow for extra in-class time to complete outlines and do brainstorming around the question.

Less Advanced Students:

  • Give students extra time to complete the Document-Based Essay by adding an intermediate step of handing in their outlines for comments before writing the essay.

Document Based Question

Document Based Question (Suggested writing time: 40 minutes)

Directions: The following question is based on the documents included in this module. This question is designed to test your ability to work with and understand historical documents. Write an essay that:

  • Has a relevant thesis and supports that thesis with evidence from the documents.
  • Uses all or all but one of the documents.
  • Analyzes the documents by grouping them in as many appropriate ways as possible. Does not simply summarize the documents individually.
  • Takes into account both the sources of the documents and the authors' points of view.

You may refer to relevant historical information not mentioned in the documents.

Question: Analyze how the relationship between social constructions of womanhood and power changed during the 20th-century in Southeast Asia.

Be sure to analyze point of view in at least three documents or images.

What additional sources, types of documents, or information would you need to have a more complete view of this topic?


Abueva, Jose V. “Assessing the Presidential Leadership of Corazon C. Aquino.” In Abueva, Jose and Roman, Emerlinda R., eds., The Aquino Presidency and Administration (1986-1992): Contemporary Assessments and “The Judgment of History?” Diliman, Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press, 1993.
This chapter presents the many opinions, assessments, interpretations of the Aquino presidency by journalists, academics, and politicians. This article is a good source for exploring how she used official power and whether or not she was a “weak” president. Teachers could also assign this reading and ask students to compare Aquino’s exercise of power with that of Imelda Marcos.
Blackburn, Susan. “Winning the Vote for Women in Indonesia.” Australian Feminist Studies 14.29 (1999), 207-18.
Blackburn is the leading scholar on the topic of women’s suffrage in Indonesia. She is also the author of the Indonesia chapter in the Edwards and Roces volume.
Coté, Joost. “Introduction.” On Feminism and Nationalism: Kartini’s Letters to Stella Zeehandelaar, 1899-1903. Melbourne: Monash University Press, 1995.
This introduction gives a brief sketch of Kartini’s life and engages with the question of whether she is a feminist or a nationalist. It contextualizes her work in the history of the Indonesian nationalist movement. The rest of the book is a collection of Kartini’s letters to Stella Zeehandelaar, her Dutch friend who had inspired her feminist ideas.
Diaz, Ramona. Imelda. 2003; Singapore: Golden Village, 2004, VHS.
A documentary using interviews with Imelda Marcos that allows the viewer to hear her words and make their own interpretations.
Edwards, Louise and Mina Roces, eds. Women in Asia: Tradition, Modernity and Globalization. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2000.
This anthology explores the status of women in a number of Asian countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand..
Edwards, Louise and Mina Roces, eds. Women’s Suffrage in Asia. London: Routledge Curzon, 2004.
There is a chapter by Mina Roces entitled: “Is the Suffragist an American Colonial Construct: Defining ‘the Filipino woman’ in Colonial Philippines” which is a good companion to the reading. There are also chapters on women’s suffrage in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. This is the most recent and up to date one. There are few works published in this field. Prior to this volume the only other study was by Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. London: Zed Books, 1985.
Kartini, Raden Ajeng. Letters from Kartini: An Indonesian Feminist, 1900-1904. Translated by Joost Coté. Melbourne: Monash University, 1992.
This primary source is a collection of Kartini’s letters and writings.
Kyi, Aung San Suu. Freedom from Fear and Other Writings. London: Viking, 1991.
A collection of Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches since 1988.
Kyi, Aung San Suu. Letters from Burma. New York: Penguin, 1997.
A collection of Aung San Suu Kyi’s writings.
Leshkowich, Ann Marie. “The ao dai goes Global: How International Influences and Female Entrepreneurs Have Shaped Vietnam’s “National Costume” in Niessen, Sandra, Ann Marie Leshkowich, and Carla Jones, eds., Re-Orienting Fashion: The Globalisation of Asian Dress. Oxford: Berg, 2003.
This chapter is written by a social anthropologist and traces the recent popularity of the ao dai (Vietnamese National dress for women) when Miss Vietnam won “best national costume” at an international beauty pageant.
Lyons, Lenore. A State of Ambivalence, The Feminist Movement in Singapore. Leiden: Brill, 2004.
Singapore second-wave feminism. Or her article, Lyons, Lenore, “A State of Ambivalence: Feminism in a Singaporean Women’s Organization.” Asian Studies Review 24.1 (2000), 1-24. These are the first studies of AWARE, the feminist women’s organization in Singapore.
McGovern, Ligaya Lindio. Filipino Peasant Women: Exploitation and Resistance. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
This book on second-wave feminism examines one women peasant organization Amihan in one province in the Philippines.
Ong, Aihwa.. “State Versus Islam: Malay Famlies, Women’s Bodies and the Body Politic.” American Ethnologist 17.2 (1990), 258-276.
This article talks about veiling and its connections with the rise of the dakwa movement in Malaysia in the 1970s. It argues that women who veil are middle class, educated, urban and modern.
Othman, Norani, ed. Shari’a Law and the Modern Nation-State A Malaysian Symposium. Kuala Lumpur: Sisters in Islam, 1994.
This collection of essays was published by SIS and edited by one of their founders and leading feminist. This is one of their early academic publications and deals very much with women and Hudud law.
Roces, Mina. “Gender, Nation and the Politics of Dress in 20th Century Philippines.” Gender & History (forthcoming, 2005).
Explores how women and male politicians manipulated the semiotics of dress for political agendas. Looks at the contrast between Western Dress/National Dress used to express opposing political identities and how women’s dress is the “other” of men’s dress. This goes through several eras (one century) in Philippine history. Looks at how male and female presidents manipulated dress, and how activists such as suffragists and nuns (the habit) used dress to negotiate for political spaces. An alternative would be Roces, Mina. “Women, Citizenship and the Politics of Dress in 20th Century Philippines.” In Qi Wang, Wil Burghoorn, Kazuki Iwanaga, and Cecilia Milwertz, eds., Gender Politics in Asia—Processes of Change and Empowerment, (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, forthcoming, 2005). Focuses on women’s use of dress to negotiate political spaces, including the nun’s habit, and the indigenous women’s use of undress as a form of protest.
Roces, Mina. “The Gendering of Philippine Post-War Politics.” In Sen, Krishna and Maila Stivens, eds., Gender and Power in Affluent Asia. London: Routledge, 1998.
Roces, Mina. Women, Power, and Kinship Politics: Female Power in Post-War Philippines. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1998. This is the first study documenting the concept of “unofficial power” in the Philippines and uses case studies of Mrs. Marcos and wives, sisters, mothers, daughters and mistresses of male politicians.
Sekimoto, Teruo. “Uniforms and Concrete Walls Dressing the Village Under the New Order in the 1970s and 1980s.” In Nordhold, Henk Schulte, ed., Outward Appearances Dressing State and Society in Indonesia. Leiden: KITLV Press, 1997.
This chapter has a similar approach as the one by Taylor but applies it to the 1970s. Sekimoto observed the dress of Indonesian officials and their wives at independence day ceremonies. Political men wore safari suits but their wives wore the sarong and kebaya. The anthology Outward Appearances (above) is also recommended since it has chapters on the uses and meanings of dress in Indonesia from the colonial period to the contemporary era.
Stivens, Maila. “Gender, Modernity and the Everyday Politics of Islamic Revival in Middle Class Malaysia." In Summers, L. and Wilder, W., eds., Gendered States and Modern Powers: Perspectives from Southeast Asia. London: Macmillan, 1999.
This chapter by a well known anthropologist who had written extensively on the middle class in Malaysia explores the reasons why middle class women wear the veil and includes the argument that veiling is one way Malaysian women can assert a non-Western form of modernity.
Tarlo, Emma. Clothing Matters Dress and Identity in India. London: Hurst & Co, 1996.
Though not on Southeast Asia, this is a classic work on the meanings of dress in Indian society and politics. The chapter on Gandhi’s invention of Indian dress (chapter 2) is particularly useful.
Taylor, Jean Gelman. “Official Photography, Costume and the Indonesian Revolution.” In Taylor, Jean Gelman, ed., Women Creating Indonesia The First Fifty Years. Melbourne: Monash Asia Institute, 1997.
This chapter focuses on the analysis of the official photograph of the Indonesian independence day ceremony which showed the Indonesian president (Sukarno) in Western suit and the women in sarong and kebaya (Indonesian national dress). The original photograph had two other women in it in Western dress. This part of the photograph was cropped so that women in the photograph appeared in native dress and veiled. Taylor then analyzed this photograph in terms of how Sukarno presented the gendering of politics in the first day of independence with men in Western suits (as inheriting the power once exercised by the West—the Dutch), and women in national dress. Men were therefore associated with modernity and power, while women were embedded in the nations’ past.
Taylor, Jean Gelman, “Once More Kartini.” In Sears, Laurie J., ed., Autonomous Histories, Particular Truths: Essays in Honor of John Smail. Madison: The University of Wisconsin, Center for Southeast Asian Studies Monograph Number 11, 1993.
Jean Gelman Taylor is a leader scholar of Kartini. She is among the first Southeast Asian specialists to write about Kartini. This essay is her last essay on the topic. It is a terrific summary of the life and work of Kartini.
Wieringa, Saskia. Sexual Politics in Indonesia. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2002.
This book is the most comprehensive study of GERWANI, the second-wave feminist organization in Indonesia that was linked to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The organization was destroyed with the PKI when President Suharto took power in 1965.
Wilson, Verity. “Dressing for Leadership in China: Wives and Husbands in an Age of Revolutions (1911-1976).” In Burman, Barbara and Turbin, Carole, eds., Material Strategies: Dress and Gender in Historical Perspective, a Gender and History Special Issue. London: Blackwell, 2003.
This chapter originally appeared in the journal Gender & History in 2002. This article focuses on Chinese politicians, but does an excellent job analyzing photographs of Sun Yat Sen and his wife, Chiang Kai-shek and Song Meiling, and Mao Zedong and Jiang Qing and their use of clothing.

Websites AWARE (Association of Women for Action and Research), http://www.aware.org.sg/ GABRIELA (General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action), http://www.gabnet.org


Mina Roces is a Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, School of History, Sydney, Australia. She is the author of Women, Power and Kinship Politics: Female Power in Post-War Philippines. Janelle Collett is a history teacher and faculty technology leader at Springside School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This teaching module was originally developed for the Women in World History project. Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following institutions for primary sources:

  1. Joost Cote
  2. Theirry Falise
  3. University of Michigan, The United States and its Territories: the Age of Imperialism

How to Cite This Source

"Long Teaching Module: Women and Politics in Southeast Asia, 1900-2000," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/long-teaching-module-women-and-politics-southeast-asia-1900-2000 [accessed May 28, 2024]