Thai Enquirer’s ‘Women of Thailand’s Past’ series chronicles the lives of Thai women in the 18th, 19th and early 20thcentury. 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 to Lady Laiad Phibunsongkram, then-Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkram’s wife. She became one of the architects of modern Thai womanhood in the mid-20th century. This article is based primarily on Leslie Ann Jeffrey’s PhD thesis ‘Sex and Borders: Gender, National Ientity and Prostitution Policy in Thailand,’ and sources from the National Archives of Thailand.
What does it mean to be a ‘modern’ nation?
If siwilai was the main concern for Siam in the 19th century, ‘modernity’ was the focus for political elites in 20th century Thailand. Following the 1932 revolution, Plaek Phibunsongkram and Pridi Banomyong rose to the fore as key political leaders of ‘modern’ Thailand. However, ‘modern’ nationhood for them was not conceived in the clear-cut mold Marx, Weber or Lipset had laid out for Western empires. In Siam-Thailand, modernity was a fraught concept, caught between a need to preserve ‘tradition’ and the desire to ‘catch up,’ vacillating between Pridi’s egalitarianism and Phibun’s insistence on internal security, sovereignty and economic prosperity.
This anxiety was especially evident when it came to crafting ‘modern’ femininity. To retain Thai independence against encroaching Japanese and Western influence, Phibun argued, women needed to act as appropriate representatives of Thai culture – beautiful, delicate, traditional yet Westernized Dokmai Kong Chart (‘Flowers of the Nation’). For Phibun, the model woman was a beauty queen, cultural diplomat, mother and wife.
There were competing visions of ‘modern’ femininity of the time, such as Luang Wichit Wathakan’s militant feminist. In his 1936 play Lueat Suphan (‘Blood of Suphan’), the heroine takes up arms against the Burmese invaders of Ayutthaya. In Luang Wichit’s view, the erosion of traditional norms in modern society meant that women had to be vigilant and protect themselves. This sentiment is reflected in M.L. Boonlua Thepyasuwan’s utopian novel Suratnaree, in which women bore the chief responsibility for protecting the kingdom. If women were flowers in modern society, feminist writer Chiranan Pitapreecha wrote, they had to have “sharp thorns.”
Phibun’s vision officially won out. The Dokmai Kong Chart conception was championed primarily by Lady Laiad Phibunsongkram, Phibun’s wife. She proposed and chaired the Women’s Bureau of the National Cultural Council, created through Phibun’s 1942 National Culture Act. It was one of the five bureaus charged with socio-cultural reform, including the Bureau of Culture for the Mind, the Bureau of Customs and Tradition, the Bureau of Fine Arts and the Bureau of Literature. By institutionalizing women’s roles in building ‘modern’ nationhood, she created space for their political influence – a step forward from the domesticity that Rudivoravan faced in the Sixth Reign. In this sense, she is often upheld as a feminist hero. Thai newspaper The Matter calls Laiad “the legend of a woman who was simultaneously at the forefront [of politics] and the back of the house” (“แถวหน้าไปพร้อมกับหลังบ้าน”).
Yet, the emancipation she promised was primarily aimed at elite women, and limited in form. The Women’s Bureau consisted of upper-class women training lower-class women how to dress properly, practice social hygiene, housekeeping and childcare to make them “more compatible partners of their husbands.” In Lady Laiad’s words, national culture would be upheld through “courtesy, an optimistic outlook and the long-cherished conventions and traditions on part of Thai women” (‘Thai Women,’ 1958).
Lady Laiad made very clear that the modern Thai woman was ultimately subordinate to Thai men. As keynote speaker on the 1955 Thai ratification of the UN’s Convention on the Political Rights of Women, she argued that Thai women were only granted political rights because of the “fatherly kindness” of the King and the “generosity and broadmindedness of Thai men.”
“In the name of the whole Thai women, I wish, therefore, to put on the record on this occasion our profound gratitude for the farsightedness and the spirit of solidarity of the Thai men,” she declared of the convention. It guaranteed women the right to vote and hold public office, both of had already been in place since 1932.
Yet, she was profoundly aware of the international currents of first wave feminism, driven by the American ‘New Woman.’ In her 1950 visit to the U.S., she studied American women’s groups, which at the time were focused on emancipating white women through professional social work focused on helping poorer, darker women. Upon her return, Lady Laiad created a similar Women’s Cultural Promotion Association which spanned all provinces across Thailand, intended to spread ‘modern’ Thai womanhood to poor and rural women.
In her speeches to international audiences, she was careful to strike the appropriately feminist tone, closer to the ‘New Woman’ than the Dokmai Kong Chart. On the same trip to the U.S., her speech at the American Association linked the emancipation of Thai women to the overthrow of absolute monarchy. A 1957 speech at a UN Women Conference was more emboldened, with Laiad asserting: “we are here to promote the equal rights of men and women, the rights we have been seeking and fighting for.”
While the face of modern womanhood within Thailand meant embodying traditional gender roles, the face of modern womanhood abroad meant emphasizing the equal rights that Thai women enjoyed. To her international audience, women were not the grateful recipients of fundamental rights, but their authors and architects.
Her ability to thread between the contradictory demands of modern Thai womanhood eventually saw her become Thailand’s official female representative. She chaired the National Council of Women of Thailand, a liaison organization between the Women’s Cultural Promotion Associations and international organizations, acted as President of the UN Association of Thailand and the 1956 Assembly of the World Federation of UN Associations. For her efforts in international diplomacy, she received a Second-Class Order (Thutiya Chulachomklao Wiset) from the King.
Thutiya Wiset became the title of the novel written by M.L. Boonlua Thepyasuwan (Read more here) based on Lady Laiad’s life. As Boonlua aptly observed: “Men with great power have no dimensions – they only have power. [Phibun]’s wife was the interesting one.” Lady Laiad was a fascinating character, embodying what one political commentator calls the “eel-like” quality of Thai women. She navigated the contradictions of ‘modern’ Thai womanhood by simultaneously representing progressiveness and tradition to different audiences – a metaphor for the vacillating ‘modern’ Thai nation itself in the mid-20th century.
Her model of the submissive, traditional Dokmai Kong Chart may not have survived into the 21st century, but her malleability and Janus-faced nature survives in Thai diplomacy – an institution which increasingly relies on women today (to be explored in a future article).
At the close of Thutiya Wiset, the Laiad-like heroine reflects on the failure of her marriage, and the ‘false democracy’ that her husband built. If Lady Laiad had been more reflective on the limitations of her husband’s notions of womanhood and democracy, Thailand’s future may have been very different.
But that is part of what makes her interesting – her willingness to stand beside Phibun and accept the second-class honor.