Manifest Domesticity

Pretty Manila debutante Consuelo Madrigal, primping for a party, Manila, Philippines, October 1949
Photo: Jack Birns for Life Magazine. © Time Inc. Collection: John Tewell

Amy Kaplan posits that the domestic space exists as a malleable third realm between the nation and the foreign.[1] Among the variables that shape the “domestic” are the modes of domestication, rhetorics of family, and femininity. Amy Kaplan uses the concept to examine literary discourses that “use images of women and domesticity to obscure or sentimentalize exploitative and competitive expansionist relations.”[2]

The role of women has mostly been left out in the study of imperial expansion. Kaplan argues that the conduct of their domestic lives both moved the borders of the nation when pitted against the idea of the foreign and also complemented the role of men in the domains commerce and politics. “Domesticity,” Kaplan points out is not “a static condition but as the process of domestication,” and it involves an active generation of binary opposites to maintain its potency such as in conquest of “the wild, the natural, and the alien.”[3]

Amy Kaplan’s study chronologically stops just before American occupation of the Philippines (1899-1946), where Manifest Domesticity is translated in terms of colonial conquest. Rafael’s article in American Literature which came out three years earlier serves as a footnote to her study. For the purposes of my research, Kaplan provides the necessary backstory to chart the ulterior trajectory of the American “civilizing missions” which employed the agency of women, most of whom were wives of colonial officers and school teachers while Rafael’s writings serve to contextualize the complex participation of gendered and racialized social actors in American Imperialism. In Rafael’s writings during the formative period of United States rule (1899-1910), we witness the continuity of the “exploitative sentimentality” practiced by White American women who “invest colonialism with the sense of the domestic and the sentimental.”[4] Rafael explores the nature of  those investments which are “integral to the construction of colonial modernity  in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, colonial domesticity  in the tropics heralded the conjunction of ‘whiteness’ and ‘femininity’  as a sign of public entitlement as well as a source of private ambivalence.”[5]

Similarly, American imperialism in the Philippines, like its European counterparts in Asia and Africa, furnished a public idiom for representing as well as containing the private lives of its most privileged agents. Domesticity as a discourse of colonial modernity assumes that the structures of “public” and “private” are mobile and infinitely reproducible, capable of translation across cultural and bodily spaces.[6]

A reading of Kaplan and Rafael belies the view that “American imperialism” was
“an aberration.” The democratic trajectory of the American nation is proven to be historically suspect even before they reached the shores of the Philippines and that the intertwined notions of Manifest Destiny and Manifest Domesticity masked the violence as “benign” and more “progressive” than their European counterpart”[7]

Kaplan roots Rafael’s arguments in the formation of domestic during the many wars. Particularly the campaign of Indian removal which was first framed as a war against foreigners and wars in the Spanish borderlands. The white Anglo-Saxon woman has been implicated from then on to the “imperial project of civilizing,” and the racial underpinnings of domestic and imperialist discourse. The separation of gendered spheres in the service of a well-oiled imperialist machinery is partly to blame for turning blacks into foreigners.[8] Kaplan continues that the “conditions of domesticity often become markers that distinguish civilization from savagery.”[9] and that the process of domestication, the feminine spaces thought to be isolated and neutral serves as a unit of the nation that tames elements that are wild or foreign. In this sense, “domesticity not only monitors the borders between the civilized and the savage but also regulates traces of the savage within itself.”[10] In this regard, I observe the visual culture and the rhetorics employed by the benefactors of colonialism as it influenced Filipino modernist thought.

            I am particularly struck by the parallels between the strategies employed in the designation of the erstwhile foreign adversary as “domestic” in the case of Cherokee Nation vs. the State of Georgia cited by Kaplan and my investigation of the granting of “U.S. National status” to Filipinos, which primarily served as a legal loophole to allow them smooth migration as laborers but be granted none of the rights accorded to any person born on US territory.

In my research on the education during the American colonial rule, I found that manuals and guidebooks, not unlike the ones written by Catherine Beecher and Sara Josepha Hale, were similarly employed to teach Filipino school children a mish-mash of Christian Protestant values gender expectations, hygienic practices, and the basics of the English language, which served as the benchmark of Western politeness and civilized manners.[11] These materials have had a profound effect on the formation of generations of intellectual and nationalists leaders who would steer modernism in education, government, and culture. The acts of defiance against the lessons of these conduct books and other prescriptions, though rarely on record, are equally intriguing as a measure of the trauma and evolving morality caused by rapid Americanization in the early twentieth century.
            There has been a cautious stance however among scholars to consider Filipino artists thoroughly educated in American public schools and art academies as a case of an emerging colonial modernity but the gains of Kaplan, Rafael, and a number of scholars who wrote on domesticity indicate that the subject is ripe for reconsideration. The archive of propaganda and didactic materials produced by the U.S. government serve as a critical guidepost to examine the modernist ferment under American colonial rule and the immediate post-war period.


[1]Amy Kaplan, “Manifest Domesticity”, The Futures of American Studies, Robyn Wiegman, Donald E. Pease, 2002, 584.

[2] Ibid., 602.

[3] Ibid., 582.

[4] Vicente Rafael,”Colonial Domesticity: White Women and United States Rule in the Philippines,” American Literature 67, no. 4 (1995): 639-66. Accessed February 17, 2021. doi:10.2307/2927890, 639.

[5] Ibid., 640.

[6] Loc. cit.

[7] Loc. cit.

[8] Ibid. 584.

[9] Kaplan, op. cit., 582.

[10] Loc. cit.

[11] See, Warwick Anderson, Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines (London Duke University Press, 2006). Accessed February 17, 2021. doi:10.2307/j.ctv1168b5f.