Women’s Causes in Philippine History

Riel A. A. Diala, Jeremiah Inocencio, Angela Piguing
31 March 2021

The place of Filipino women in society is more often overlooked in contrast to the predominance of the patriarchy that has since been introduced by the advent of colonization. With the designation of March as National Women’s month, it is necessary to commemorate the efforts, contributions, and triumphs of Filipino women through the years. 

These efforts are, but not limited to colonial resistance, campaigning for suffrage, and excelling in the academic sphere. Immortalized in commemoration, sometimes general knowledge, and the rise of active militant and advocacy groups, the causes of the Filipina are now what the contemporary times benefit from.

Before “the Philippines”

Regarding discourse pertaining to the role of women during the precolonial period, it is necessary to consider the variety of ethnolinguistic groups that occupied what would become the Philippines today. Although to generalize women’s social standing in precolonial society is a speculative concern, it is certain that women held dignified and distinguished positions in their respective families and societies for some groups. According to Teresita Infante (as cited in Titgemeyer, 1998) Kalinga women enjoyed the same privileges received by men of similar ranks. 

For example, women may serve as pact holders—those who held agreements with prominent members of another ethnic group, assuring the protection and support of the members of both communities. On the other hand, according to Patricio Abinales and Donna Amoroso (as cited in Limos, 2019), women performed as babaylan, ritual specialists who served as healers of the sick, mediators between the human and spirit world, and commanders of other aspects of the environment such as the weather. In fact, according to Salazar (1994, as cited in Hega, Alpohra, & Evangelista, 2017) the babaylan was considered as the ‘proto-scientist’ in pre colonial Filipino society, being concerned with culture and medicine, along with religion and theological practices. With this, the babaylan were held in utmost regard in society. The babaylan was, in fact, not subservient to the datu—rather, they cooperated regarding community or social matters (Hega, Alpohra, & Evangelista, 2017).  

The depiction of a babaylan in Carlos “Botong” Francisco’s “The Progress of Medicine in the Philippines.” Photo from the Foundation for Filipina Women’s Network website.

Women also held a significant role in the precolonial household. According to Mananzan (as cited in Titgemeyer, 1998), wives were treated equally as a companion of the spouse and had the rights to decision-making not confined within familial concerns; that is, chores. In fact, women were able to decide on the number of their offspring, and practiced abortion when the number was achieved. 

Women and Spanish colonial period norms

Women’s roles in society were drastically changed with the imposition of Christian beliefs by Spanish missionaries onto the Filipinos, according to Carolyn Brewer (2004, as cited in Kawada, 2006). The woman’s ideal image was to bear the likeness of the Virgin Mary – a “dutiful daughter, caring wife, and a sacrificing mother” (Kawada, 2006). The babaylan became the antithesis of such ideals, being attributed to by the Spaniards as the epitome of evil and practitioners of the devil’s work.

Within the Spanish colonial context, women were deprived of both political and religious roles (Owen, 2000). Gender ideologies also became paternalistic, with women degraded as being subordinate to men. Abortion and divorce became prohibited, and women were confined to the home, church, markets or fields while men engaged with commerce, politics, and society (Owen, 2000). 

Drawing observation from Maria Paz Mendoza-Guazon’s book, Camagay (1989) noted that the woman’s education mostly revoked around matters that were related only to what was thought as the world she belonged to: “the church, the kitchen, and children”. These limitations were challenged in December 1888 by a group of young women from Malolos when they petitioned Governor General Valeriano Weyler to allow them to put up a school to study the Spanish language (Palafox, 2012). At first, their ambition failed to materialize due to the opposition of the friar curate (Ocampo, 2012). 

However, this setback did not hinder Elisea Tantoco Reyes, Juana Tantoco Reyes, Leoncia Santos Reyes, Olympia San Agustin Reyes, Rufina T. Reyes, Eugenia Mendoza Tanchangco, Aurea Mendoza Tanchangco, Basilia Villariño Tantoco, Teresa Tiongson Tantoco, Maria Tiongson Tantoco, Anastacia Maclang Tiongson, Basilia Reyes Tiongson, Paz Reyes Tiongson, Aleja Reyes Tiongson, Agapita Reyes Tiongson, Filomena Oliveros Tiongson, Cecilia Oliveros Tiongson, Feliciana Oliveros Tiongson, and Alberta Santos Uitangcoy from pursuing their goal and asserting their stand to receive and equal opportunity for education. Their struggle eventually bore fruit as the school finally opened in February 1889, albeit lasting only until May of the same year (Maño, 2020).

Katipuneras and the Revolution

According to Hega, Alpohra, & Evangelista (2017), women’s involvement in male-dominated matters can initially be traced to both the Philippine Revolution against Spain (1896-1898), and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902). One best example of this was the women’s chapter of the Katipunan which was mostly composed by the relatives of key revolutionary leaders and members. It signified a system of empowered partnership and sharing of power between the males and females within the same kinship group (Owen, 2000). 

Jose M. Mendoza’s statue of Gabriela Silang at the corner of Ayala and Makati Avenues. Photo from Jun Acullador (Flickr).

When the Revolution broke out, women also took part in leading battles, acting as messengers, gathering financial and material provisions, and attending to the sick and wounded (Doran, 1998). Notable was the participation of, but not limited to,the following female figures: Melchora Aquino (de Ramos), or “Tandang Sora”, the “Mother of  Balintawak”; Gregoria de Jesus y Alvarez, or “Oriang”, the “Lakambini of Katipunan”; Dona Gliceria Marella (de Villavicencio), a generous benefactor to the cause of the Philippine revolutionary government which led her to earn the title “Madrina-General de las Fuerzas Revolucionarios” or Matriarch-General of the Revolutionary Forces. 

Women have also participated in the battlefield, such as Trinidad Perez Tecson of Bulacan, the “Mother of Biak-na-Bato”, Marcela Marcelo of Malibay, who also went by the nickname “Selang Bagsik”; Agueda Kahabagan y Iniquinto, known as “the only officially-listed woman general of the 1896 Revolution and Philippine American War” (Vergara, 2019); and Teresa Ferraris Magbanua of Iloilo, the “Visayan Joan of Arc”. The combination of patriotism and industry was shown by Marcela Marino (de Agoncillo), Lorenza Agoncillo, Delfina Rizal Herbosa (de Natividad), and Patrocinio Gamboa when they sew the Philippine Flag that was flown in Cavite and Iloilo, respectively. Being worthy of recognition as well are organizations such as the Asociacion Filantropica dela Cruz Roja, composed of members from ilustrado families, collected monetary funds for the war and treated wounded soldiers (Camagay, 1998, as cited in Hega, Alpohra, & Evangelista, 2017).

Feminism, suffrage, and the American colonial era

In 1902, activist Clemencia Lopez arrived in the United States to petition for Philippine Independence and the release of her detained brothers (Prieto, 2013). In the same year, Lopez was invited by the New England Women’s Suffrage Association to deliver a speech (Angeles, 2020). It was in her speech, entitled “Women of the Philippines,” that Lopez discussed Filipinos as a civilized people long before the Spanish colonial period, contrary to the misconception of savagery (Prieto, 2013). Lopez also established the interests of Filipinas as aligned with Filipino men, and emphasized the prominent status of women in society before Spanish colonization (Angeles, 2020).

Marker commemorating the establishment of the Asociacion Feminista Filipina in 1905. The marker is installed at the corner of Rizal and Recto Avenues in Quiapo, Manila, where the home of Paz Natividad used to stand. (Photo source: Judgefloro, 2017. Wikimedia Commons.

Clemencia Lopez, along with Trinidad Rizal, Bonifacia Delgado de Barretto, Maria Arevalo, Sofia Reyes, Helen Wilson, Paz Natividad (Vda. De Zulueta), Maria de Villamor, Teresa Solis, Agueda Paterno and Jacoba Paterno became the co-founders of the Asociacion Feminista Filipina or the AFF (AFF Historical Marker, 1955). With the initiative of Doña Concepcion Felix (de Calderon), the AFF was established in 1905 (Angeles, 2020). Recognized as the first feminist organization in the country, the AFF supported the participation of women in politics, as well as proper infant, maternal, and childcare, and reformations in prison, education, and labor (Angeles, 2020). 

Pura Villanueva wearing her coronation attire. Photo from Katigbak, 1983 (as cited by Castro, 2008). 

A year later, Pura Villanueva, who was later crowned “Queen of the Orient” at the first Manila Carnival in 1908, established the Asociacion Feminista Ilongga. The suffragette organization’s credo was, according to Rodriguez (2020), was “What a man can do, a woman can do as well.” Kalaw would later on become a journalist and editor for the Western Visayan publication El Tiempo, in which she published articles on women’s rights (Rodriguez, 2020) 

According to Casambre and Rood (2012), suffrage was emphasized in Philippine women’s rights movements with the arrival of two foreign suffragettes – Dr. Aletta Jacobs from Holland and Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt from the USA – in 1912. With the visit of the suffragettes and the convergence of ideas came the establishment of the Society for Advancement of Women, later renamed as the Women’s Club of Manila (Casambre & Rood, 2012). While the women’s suffrage bill, initially filed by Cebu Congressman Filemon Sotto in 1907, was being endorsed by Governor Generals Francis B. Harrison, Leonard Wood, and Frank B. Murphy in congress, different movements were organized to express and assemble support, such as the Philippien Association of University Women (Camagay, 1989), National Federation of Women’s Clubs (by the Women’s Club of Manila) in 1921, the Liga Nacional de Damas Filipinas in 1922, and the Women’s Citizens League in 1928 (Casambre & Rood, 2012). 

On April 30, 1937, women’s suffrage was championed with overwhelming support in a plebiscite, with 447,725 (91%) Filipinas in favor of the motion (PCW, 2015; PCDSPO, 2015). Among the first elected females in public office were the 23-year old Carmen Lim Planas who became a councilor of Manila in 1937; Elisa Rosales Ochoa, the first congresswoman who represented Agusan in 1941, and Geronima Tomelden Pecson, the first Filipina senator who took office in 1947 (Tan, 2014).

President Manuel Quezon signs the Women’s Suffrage Bill. Photo from the Malacañang Palace archives (Wikimedia Commons). 

Camagay (1989) added that aside from the pensionadas, the working women also rallied for the advancement of their socio-economic status by forwarding campaigns such as the recognition of the right to suffrage, improvement of the working conditions and wage for women, prohibition of child labor, and free education for the children of impoverished families.

Aside from socio-civic affairs, Filipina women had also been involved in the sciences and developments in the academe. Although colonial education for Filipina girls initially focused on artistic and domestic skills such as dressmaking, these set curricula were given a more complex hierarchy during the American colonial period. Tertiary education provided opportunities for Filipino students who had exemplary performances at school, and with the establishment of the University of the Philippines, a wide variety of degree programs became open to both men and women, with the School of Nursing initially exclusive to women (Sobritchea, 1990). 

Such academic opportunities gave exceptional Filipinas such as the likes of Olivia Salamanca, Maria Ylagan Orosa, and Fe del Mundo to become well-known doctors and scientists in their own rights. Salamanca became one of the first female Filipino doctors while Orosa was best known for introducing food preservation methods and products that proved to be helpful during World War II (Ancheta, 1962). On the other hand, Fe del Mundo is remembered as the Filipino pediatrician known for innovating an incubator made with indigenous materials (Ilacqua, 2018). Several other women excelled in other fields; Encarnacion Alzona excelled in the social sciences, particularly in history. 

Meanwhile, other women had founded institutions which expanded education as a right, albeit still bound with colonial force. Nonetheless, these schools such as the Philippine Women’s University and Centro Escolar University continue to pass on leadership and excellence in academic and civic matters, and have extended these by means of co-education. The likes of Andrea Vitan and Concepcion Aguila have excelled in the art of teaching and their names immortalized on smaller thoroughfares.

The modern feminist Filipina

The struggle of Filipino women does not only pertain to developments in their chosen fields, but it is also a continual process of decolonization and uplifting gender equity. Women’s rights movements have led to the promotion and progression of gender equality in the Philippines; however, it is important to recognize that the patriarchal culture is still thriving in the country, that bias against women still exists among Filipino environments and institutions, and that everyone must continue to take part in promoting and protecting women’s rights. 

Nonetheless, the causes of Filipino women is a continuing process, and it is manifested in more ways that contemporary technology and advancements can permit. Acknowledging the legacy of past feminists greatly contributes to the continuation of the fiery resolve and involvement of women to have their rights and freedoms recognized.


Article co-written by Riel A. A. Diala, Jeremiah Inocencio, Angela Piguing
Vector art by Jeremiah Inocencio, Diego Torres
Renacimiento Manila. All rights reserved.

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