Thai Enquirer’s ‘Women of Thailand’s Past’ series chronicles the lives of Thai women in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. We begin with Thak Chaloemtiarana’s prompt of Thai women as “multi-faceted beings” as an entry point for tracing different models of femininity developed in Siamese / Thai history. In doing so, we highlight the ways gender has intersected with political ideology and been used to legitimate, or resist, authoritarian rule.
In this article, we look back at Boonlua Thepyasuwan, renown Thai literary critic, teacher and novelist, who lived through and wrote about womanhood during the nascent years of post-1932 ‘Thai democracy.’ This article is based on Susan Fulop Kepner’s PhD thesis ‘A Civilized Woman,’ Thak Chaloemtiarana’s chapter ‘A Civilized Woman’ in Read Till It Shatters, and sources from the National Archives of Thailand.
1932 has become a landmark for today’s Thai protestors. The 1932 Siamese Revolution marked the end of absolute monarchy and has re-emerged as an allusion to the protestors’ more radical demands concerning monarchy reform.
1932 was a year of many changes, but for Thai women, these changes were not always good. The 1932 constitution instituted the right for men and women to vote. Chulalongkorn University had begun admitting female students since 1927. By dint of their university degrees, women were technically eligible to enter the civil service by 1932.
Yet, women were barred from taking on roles with real responsibility or power. When the first female law graduates applied to the Justice Department in April 1936, it sparked widespread debate within the bureaucracy.
“The work of an attorney involves hardship (‘kwan bak ban’) and being out in the field. When it comes to physical exercise and resilience (‘kwam od ton’), men are better than women…so I feel like women cannot serve in these roles,” wrote the Director-General of the Justice Department in a letter to the Cabinet Secretary. By November 1939, the Cabinet formalized such restrictions against women in the civil service in Article 32 of the Royal Decree on Civil Servants. Women were prohibited from becoming attorneys, or civil servants in provincial offices, nor to serve in the police force or army in any capacity. Although women had university degrees, they were seen as ‘naturally’ less qualified for this work than men.
This was compounded by a cultural shift in conceptions of womanhood that took place after the revolution. Plaek Phibunsongkram – one of the instigators of the original 1932 revolution, who took dictator-like power in 1938 – was determined to implement his vision of women as delicate ‘Flowers of the Nation’ (Dokmai Kong Chart). He did this through a series of National Mandates (Rattaniyom) which decreed that women – especially female civil servants – had to wear feminine, Westernized clothing. Beauty contests Phibun organized elevated women as aesthetic cultural icons rather than serious political actors.
These changes were felt keenly by M.L. Boonlua Thepyasuwan, a minor royal-turned-bureaucrat-turned-novelist. Although she spent much of her life in the shadows of her more well-known sister M.L. Buppha, or Dokmai Sot, she eventually earned renown for her own contributions to Thai literature.
Boonlua’s own experience of the bureaucracy was a testament to the reality that Phibun’s government would not elevate men and women equally. She was among one of the first cohorts of female students at Chulalongkorn University, graduating in 1938 with degrees from the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Education. She joined the Ministry of Education soon after as a low-level bureaucrat. However, she chafed against the culture of rank and hierarchy that refused to acknowledge her contributions. “If a woman is critical, they take it as a woman’s criticism rather than professional criticism,” she complained in a 1966 interview, “That’s why women are much more outspoken than men…but now…they’re sort of fatigued.”
Part of her fatigue with the bureaucratic system was due to her own classism. As the daughter of a Chao Phraya, she found it difficult to respect men who were higher in bureaucratic rank but who had no noble background. In her cremation volume, former Minister of Education Pin Malakul recognized her contributions to Thai education, but highlighted how unfit she was as a bureaucrat, because of her “high cultural values” (wattanatham sung).
Yet, there was clearly a gendered component to her dissatisfaction, a feeling that the prestige available to men was not available to women with the same qualifications. The inequalities of the new bureaucracy mirrored that of the old aristocratic system: (male) rank mattered more than (female) merit, and it was ritual rather than efficiency that preoccupied the new elite.
One clear example of this was Phibun’s celebration of female civil servants, a ritual which was designed to raise wartime spirits, although it inconvenienced the women involved.
In 1942, Phibun designated a ‘Memorial Day for Female Civil Servants,’ where female civil servants would be feted by the National Cultural Council. Yet, when Boonlua’s contemporary Sawaiwong Torngjue expressed her doubts – the event would take half a day, but would require a whole day’s preparation, and female civil servants would not be given extra leave nor excused from work for their participation – she was promptly shot down. As the Ministry of Education made clear, attendance at the event was more important than their actual work as bureaucrats. Their roles as ‘Flowers of the Nation’ trumped whatever contribution they could make to the actual workings of governance.
Suratnaree (Land of Women)
Boonlua channeled this dissatisfaction into the novels she wrote later in life, after she retired from the Ministry of Education. Boonlua was committed to writing novels that would stand as “social documents” of her time. One such novel was Suratnaree (‘Land of Women’), published in 1971 amidst the turmoil and uprising of the Thai political left.
The utopian novel took place on a magical jewel island Surat, the ‘Land of Women,’ where women are rulers and heads of households. Women are entitled to multiple male ‘wives’ and children, often siring them out of wedlock. This was a radical suggestion for Thai society, where the stigma around ‘illegitimate’ pregnancies frequently led young women to seek abortions that were not medically sound. This suggestion is the main takeaway that Thai women readers like Wibha Kongkanan and Duangjay Chumphol attribute to the novel.
In some ways, gender roles in Surat were not unrecognizable. Thai women were already responsible for running the household, and Thai men were dependent on them as the “hind legs of the elephant.”
In other ways, the inversion was witty and biting: Surat men fought for equal rights, but they remained distrusted for positions of political power, because at one point in history the queen’s male consort had sold the country to the British. Surat was an exercise in imagining what the country would look like if women reaped the profits of their contributions to society, and men were duly punished for their missteps.
Yet, as Susan Kepner points out, for all the differences between Surat and Thailand, there were more similarities. At heart, Boonlua was socially conservative, and never imagined a world without men nor a world without hierarchy. Surat was replete with the aristocratic nostalgia for a world with queens, consorts and royal power. Men retained the sole right to ordain as monks, although the prestige of the activity was diminished to something comparable to a nun’s ordination. Moreover, even though women had the socially sanctioned right to be sexually promiscuous, ‘good’ women chose not to exercise that privilege.
Boonlua’s phuu di conservatism explains why she has not been recovered as a great novelist of the revolutionary era. During the 1970s, young leftists doubted her possible contributions to a Thai society that seemed on the verge of massive change. However, as Kepner asserts: “she was not only astute, but prophetic.”
In a 1974 debate at Chulalongkorn, she was invited as an “old head” (hua kaaw) to defend ‘bourgeois’ Thai classics, against the “new heads” (hua maay) who were agitating for a new curriculum composed entirely of leftist “literature for life.”
“We thought, what did she know?” recalls one radical, “She was this old phuu dii.” Yet, he is quick to admit: “Twenty-five years later, my friends and I are teaching from those books we wanted to burn.”
Boonlua was far-sighted in many ways: in her defense of classical Thai literature, and in her critique of the patriarchal bureaucratic structure. This very structure would continue to birth masculinist military regimes throughout the 20th and now 21st century, a phenomenon that would puzzle male political analysts, but was abundantly clear to the woman who was never listened to at the Ministry of Education.
In the end, her reputation was caught up in the contradictions of the times. In the interregnum of 1970s Thailand, she could neither satisfy the demands of her radical students, her conservative bureaucratic elders nor her feminist contemporaries. But her “old head” ideas continue to live to this day, some of them seeming less “old” now than they did when she was alive.