The Explainer: A Feminine Achievement

Rex Harrison as the misogynist Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” expresses the hostility men have had towards women down the ages. A political role for women seemed as out of bounds as decent working conditions for them. Until women took it upon themselves to demand equal rights.

March 8 marks International Women’s Day. Since 1990, that date has been a working holiday, known as National Women’s Day.  How women abroad at home, seized the day, is our topic for tonight.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. A Socialist Legacy


You know, only in the Philippines do we go in for overkill for a worthy cause. Presidential Proclamations 227 and 224, have declared the month of March every year as women’s month, and the first week of March as Women’s Week, respectively. And March 8 is Women’s Rights and International Peace Day, respectively.

All these executive issuances makes Republic Act 6949 which declared March 8 as National Women’s Day seems almost an afterthought.

But it isn’t an afterthought. In fact, March 8 has been the red letter day for women the world over even before governments, including our own, paid the cause of women’s rights any heed.

Women the world over will be celebrating how far the cause of women’s rights has come since the first Women’s Day was observed informally, in  1909.

The United Nations, which adopted International Women’s Day as an advocacy in 1975, tells us that Women’s Day began as a protest against inhuman working conditions for women in the United States. The Socialist Party of America made the call. They chose the date, of March 8, because on that date in 1857, women in textile and garment factories who protested their working conditions in New York City were attacked and dispersed by the police.

On that day in 1908, no less than 15,000 women marched in New York to demand better working conditions and the right to vote.

In 1910, an international Socialist conference in Copenhagen saw Clara Zetkin, a German Socialist, propose an international commemoration. By the next year, over a million people in Europe commemorated the first International Women’s Day. Women protested, too, the outbreak of World War I.

One such effort, in Russia, to commemorate International Women’s Day in 1917, led to the fall of the Russian monarchy. Women were fed up with the death toll, 2 million dead; they decided to strike for “bread and peace.” The brutal crackdown on the strike led to the abdication of the Czar four days later and the new government’s granting of the right to vote to women. March 8 became a cherished date of commemoration for women in Communist countries.

And for non-Communist countries, too. Including our own. What’s remarkable, though, is that Filipina women haven’t had to throw themselves under the king’s racehorse, as they did in England, or suffer imprisonment and persecution as suffragettes did in the UK and the USA, to achieve political rights. Filipinas campaigned for it.

We’re not alone in having founding fathers, but apparently, no founding mothers, though we do pay tribute to Tandang Sora. That was a time when women were supposed to feed and tend to the wounds of men, but leave the building of a new nation to the menfolk.

Rizal, writing to the women of Malolos, outlined his vision of what women should be –a moral influence on irresponsible men:

Why does the girl not require of her lover a noble and honored name, a manly heart offering protection to her weakness, and a high spirit incapable of being satisfied with engendering slaves? Let her discard all fear, let her behave nobly and not deliver her youth to the weak and faint-hearted. When she is married, she must aid her husband, inspire him with courage, share his perils, refrain from causing him worry and sweeten his moments of affliction, always remembering that there is no grief that a brave heart can not bear and there is no bitterer inheritance than that of infamy and slavery. Open your children’s eyes so that they may jealously guard their honor, love their fellowmen and their native land, and do their duty. Always impress upon them they must prefer dying with honor to living in dishonor.


Rizal’s view wasn’t very different from what Emilio Jacinto tried to teach, by means of the Kartilya for the Katipunan:

You must not look upon woman as a mere plaything, but as a faithful companion who will share with you the penalties of life; her (physical) weakness will increase your interest in her and she will remind you of the mother who bore you and reared you.


Apolinario Mabini, looking back on the defeat of the First Republic, offers up a reflection that summarizes his generation’s view on women:

I shall not end these remarks to my countrymen without putting on record the boundless disgust I felt whenever I heard of the rape of Filipinas by Filipino soldiers… How shall we get foreigners to respect our women when we ourselves set the example of offending them? Can we Filipino men expect to be respected when our women are not? In the chivalrous tradition of ancient times… was respect for womanhood because the custom of protecting the honor and life of the weak and defenseless surely showed greatness of soul and nobility of heart… if woman finds simple respect and consideration within her customary ambit, she quickly acquires that sense of dignity which protects her from many frailties, a dignity which, passed on to her sons, instills in them courage and fortitude for great enterprises and heroic deeds.


Rizal, Jacinto, Mabini, were all marked by great personal gallantry to womanhood and an unshakeable belief that their further education would help build a free nation. But providing support is different from being a participant. How our women took it upon themselves to secure their rights, when we return.


II. Despite the Men


That was a scene from an old newsreel from 1946, appealing to America for assistance for a war-ravaged Philippines. If Rizal had counseled the women of Malolos to be educated, increasingly educated women didn’t want to wait for men to give them political handouts.

Let us hear from one woman, Clemencia Lopez, supporter of the revolution and campaigner for independence. Tessie Tomas recorded her words from a speech delivered in Massachusetts in 1902:

Before closing, I should like to say a word about the patriotism of the women. This is a delicate subject, for to be patriotic to our country means that we must oppose the policy of yours. But patriotism is a quality which we all ought to be able to admire, even in an opponent. I should indeed have reason to be ashamed if I had come before this Association with the admission that our women were indifferent to the cause of their country’s independence. You would have a right to despise me and my countrywomen if we had so little love for our native land as to consent that our country should be governed by foreign hands. So true is this that the present Spanish archbishop, who is not accustomed in his own country to the idea of equality between the sexes, apparently came to the conclusion that the Philippine women are the superiors of the men, and understand political questions better. I should be sorry to have you believe this, however, for it is not true. But then, a celibate archbishop knows so little about the opposite sex that he cannot be expected to be a judge of such matters.


Lopez was questioning the old Rizalian belief that women were there merely to be a kind of moral cheerleader. A generation of Filipina women said they had to organize themselves, if men were to stop being so condescending. And so, since politics is addition, women played a major role in our independence movement and united it with the effort to insist on equal rights for themselves.

And thus, as this website’s digest of the women’s movement points out, history became herstory.

Three years after Clemencia Lopez’s appeal to American Women who were lobbying for their own right to vote, Filipina women formed their own suffragette movement.

Women like Concepcion Felix de Calderon who formed the Asociacion Feminista Filipina in June 1905, educator Rosa Sevilla de Alvero and Trinidad Almeda,  Constancia Poblete, herself founder of La Liga Femenina de la Paz, and the writer Pura Villanueva Kalaw and Paz Mendoza Guazon, Pilar Hidalgo Lim, President of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs and Josefa Llanes Escoda, president of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines, all came to the fore as campaigners for independence and the right of women to vote alike.

The Woman’s Club of Manila later expanded into a national association known as the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, the National League of Filipino Women and the Philippine Association of University Women,  attended public hearings of the Committee on Suffrage of the Constitutional Convention that drafted our 1935 Charter.

Their efforts resulted in Article V of the 1935 Constitution extending suffrage to women, on one condition.

That condition was 300,000 women qualified to vote would vote “yes” for the right to vote. An umbrella organization, the General Council of Women campaigned to get out the vote. And on April 30, 1937 the result was 447, 725 “yes” against 44, 307 “no” votes.

But another wrinkle remained to be smoothed out. In a story on September 20, 1937, Time Magazine reported that Filipino males had had to pay a head tax of $1 or 2 pesos apiece. The cedula receipt was the means by which voters are identified. The male leadership of the country insisted women should be taxed, too, recommending 25 centavos a head as a minimum tariff for Filipinas.

Filipina suffragettes erupted with indignation, according to Time. No way that a tax should go with the right to vote, they said. And so the National Assembly passed a bill which evaded the question of the poll tax by substituting a different method of identifying voters. Filipino voters would have to put their thumbprints on their ballots. You owe your messy fingers to the suffragettes, a small price to pay instead of being taxed to be able to vote.

 And so on September 17, 1937, Filipino women achieved the right to vote. Needless to say, Filipino men were rather shocked. If you were a Frenchwoman at this time, you’d have looked on Filipinas with envy –women in France didn’t get to vote until after World War II, and women in Japan didn’t vote until the Americans imposed a new constitution after the war.

By December, 1937, a total of 24 women, including opposition Carmen Planas, who was elected councilor in the city of Manila, were elected to office.

The House of Representatives had its first female member elected in 1941, Elisa Ochoa from the province of Agusan. The first Congress in 1946 also had a female member, Remedios O. Fortich  and in 1961, the House for the first time featured two female representatives, rising to six in 1965 and nine for the Interim Batasan Pambansa in 1978 and ten in the Batasan Pambansa in 1984.

By 1987, when Congress was restored, the number of female representatives had risen to 19. 

On a national basis, female representation took place a decade after the vote was secured for women. The first female Assistant Executive Secretary, Geronima Pecson, became the first female senator in November, 1947; she was elected twice. The next female senator was Pacita Madrigal Gonzalez in 1955, Maria Kalaw Katigbak in 1962: by 1966, the Sixth Congress had four female senators: Magnolia Antonino, Eva Estrada Kalaw, and Maria Kalaw Katigbak, and Tecla San Andres Ziga, incidentally the first woman to top the bar. The last premarital law Congress had three woman senators, Antonino, Kalaw, and Helen Benitez. In 1987, our first post Edsa Congress had two woman senators, Leticia Ramos Shahani, who would become the first female Senate President pro Tempore in the next Congress, and the first female Muslim senator, Santanina Rasul.

By 1992, the number of women holding elected office was truly impressive: 4 senators, 21 representatives, 7 governors, 5 vice governors, 77 provincial board members, 3 city mayors, 116 municipal mayors, 6 vice mayors, 135 muncipal vice mayors, 72 city councilors and a whopping 1,572 municipal councilors.

In the snap elections of 1986, former senator Eva Estrada Kalaw ran for vice-president in an election that toppled President Marcos and replaced him with Corazon Aquino, our first female president. Miriam Defensor Santiago almost won the presidency in 1992; in 1998 Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo became the first female Vice-President, then our second female president.

Today, of course, Article II, Section 14, of our present Constitution provides that ” The State recognizes the role of women in nation-building, and shall ensure the fundamental equality before the law of women and men.” Women were involved in the drafting of that charter, just as they were in the effort to draft a constitution in 1971-73. We have to be thankful that they haven’t left the question of rights and freedom only to the men.

When we return, our discussion with a veteran suffragette, educator, and senator of the republic, Helena Benitez.


My view


This morning, the National Historical Institute unveiled a marker at the White Cross. The White Cross has cared for the children of people with tuberculosis for seventy one years, or  since 1936. And the marker unveiled today commemorates the centennial of the birth of a remarkable woman.

That woman was Victoria Lopez Araneta, who founded the White Cross and was an exponent of practical nationalism. She was the moving spirit of the Women’s Chapter of the National Economic Protection Association (NEPA) which aimed to popularize Filipino products and help local industries. After World War II, with the help of her husband, Dr. Salvador Araneta, Mrs. Araneta helped organize the Far Eastern Air Transport Incorporated, the first Filipino airline, and opened a school for engineers and technicians which became the FEATI Institute of Technology and later the FEATI University.

A woman of indomitable will, Victoria Araneta was a remarkable member of a remarkable generation of Filipina women, a link in the efforts of all Filipina womankind to liberate themselves and render patriotic service to their country. This show is dedicated to her memory.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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