The Untold Story Of Nina Thomas: The American Woman Who Could Have Been First Lady Of The Philippines
First published by VAULT (Issue 22 2015 No. 4) and ABS-CBN Publishing, Inc.
It was the first edition of The Case for the Filipinos, a book promoting Philippine independence written by Maximo Kalaw. Kalaw would eventually become the first Filipino chair of the UP Political Science Department. In 1916, Kalaw was a Georgetown law student and Manuel Quezon’s secretary in Washington while Quezon served as Resident Commissioner. The book is quite possibly one of the first ever written by a Filipino in English. But the book turned out to be even more valuable than we thought.
On the first page, we read the inscription: “To Miss Nina Thomas. Cordially, Maximo M. Kalaw.”
Up until that moment, we had read only the most fleeting references to Nina Thomas in articles and books about Quezon. “He even found time for very serious romance and would have married Nina Thomas, a Washington attorney,” Michael Onorato wrote in his article about Quezon’s life in Washington as Resident Commissioner. Nina Thomas was “not only a good-looking woman but also very intelligent and well educated,” Carlos Quirino gushed in his biography of Quezon, Paladin of Philippine Freedom. However, Quezon’s friends warned him that it would be “political suicide” to marry an American, as Quezon had then become the leader of the independence movement, according to Carlos Romulo. Near the end of his term as Resident Commissioner, Quezon successfully lobbied the US Congress to pass the Jones Bill, the preamble of which promised Philippine independence. Sometime after triumphantly returning to the Philippines, Quezon reportedly ended his engagement to Nina Thomas.
None of these books, however, had ever said anything about Nina Thomas beyond her brief engagement to Quezon. Neither had they ever published a photograph of Nina Thomas. In Quezon’s rich, colorful life, Nina Thomas had been mostly a ghostly presence, the young American woman Manuel Quezon never married. Seeing the inscription now, our first tangible link to Nina Thomas, was electric.
Below the inscription was a fading rubber-stamped name “Mrs. William J. Hardy” and a street address in Northern Virginia. With no more than a hundred-year-old book as lead, we asked ourselves if we could possibly find a way to link Quezon and Nina Thomas to this name and address. We noticed that the book was in pristine condition–surely it must have been of value to its final owner. And might she tell us more about Nina Thomas?
We set out to work right away. We began digging into genealogical records, birth and wedding announcements, legal notices and obituaries. We looked at archival materials in local area law schools, high school scholastic records and newspaper archives. By the end of the week, we had constructed what we believed was Nina Thomas’ family tree and found an email address belonging to a daughter of a Mrs. William Hardy and grandniece of a Nina Irene Thomas. We sent her a note explaining our POPDC project, our recent find, and our search for Nina Thomas.
Then we waited.
Two days later, we received a response. “Miss Nina Thomas was, indeed, my great aunt on my mother’s side,” Marion LaRow wrote, the youngest of Sally Harwood Hardy’s children, and granddaughter of Grace Thomas Harwood, Nina Thomas’ older sister. Because Nina Thomas never had children of her own, Marion was among the few surviving members of Nina Thomas’ family. “My mother would have been able to relay a great deal of information about her Aunt Nina,” she explained, “but unfortunately my mother passed away 18 months ago. I assume the book you recently obtained came about as a result of our selling some of my mother’s books to a wonderful man who owns a used book store.”
We were eager to learn more about Nina Thomas, whatever Marion and her family could remember growing up. We also wanted them to confirm whether pieces of a life we had cobbled together from archival materials were her Aunt Nina’s. “We would be happy to try and help you by providing any information on her and her role of supporting Philippine independence,” Marion said. “I can tell you that the information you have relayed about her life in your email is accurate, including the information about her broken engagement to Manuel Quezon.” Marion told us that they had a couple of boxes of their Aunt Nina’s personal possessions—might we be interested in seeing them? She invited us to their home in Northern Virginia, not too far from where we live.
Nina Irene Thomas turned out to be more fascinating than we had ever imagined. She was one of the first female lawyers in the US. She studied at the Washington College of Law, the first law school founded by and for women (though eventually becoming co-educational) and now part of American University. She was voted president of her freshman class of 1908, received her law degree in 1910 at the age of 20, and in 1911 was one of “six young women” out of 130 applicants who had passed the DC bar examinations. (She passed the bar at age 20, the family said, but was not allowed to practice until the following year at age 21.) As an alumna of her law school, she continued to thrive. In 1915, the Washington Post reported a “spirited contest” to elect the new President of the Alumni Association of Washington College of Law. Nina Thomas won.
She was, in many ways, ahead of her time. She received her MA in Law in 1912, again one of the first female lawyers to do so. She wrote a thesis about the need to ensure a level playing field in economic transactions between poor and rich countries, using the “Calvo Doctrine.. It was a framework first crafted by the Argentine jurist, Carlos Calvo, which she likely read in the original Spanish text. She wrote, “The doctrine of good faith, of fair dealing, of high honesty and impartial justice though enunciated more than a century ago by illustrious men, is as old as the world and should be the policy of men and of nations as long as the world endures.”
Nina Thomas practiced estate and inheritance law though occasionally ventured into other fields. In 1914, according to the Washington Times, she successfully sued the Washington Railway and Electric Company for five thousand dollars in damages on behalf of her sister, Grace, who had been injured after falling out of a street car. In 1920, she served as divorce attorney of a Mrs. Florence Croton who was granted absolute divorce from her husband and allowed to restore her maiden name—an outstanding feat considering the norms of that era: the right of women to vote, in particular, had just been granted nationwide that year. A Justice of the DC Supreme Court, Frederick Siddons, who heard her argue a case was moved to write her a note, quoting a line from the Merchant of Venice, “I never knew so young a body with so old a head.”
She was artistically gifted. In high school, she won the Galt Prize for her writing. As an adult, she studied singing at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and sculpture at the Corcoran Art School of Washington. She delighted in writing light, playful verse (“My trip was dull, until you came. / You aren’t handsome, but just the same.”) for her family and friends. She was fluent in French, Italian and Spanish.
Sometime after the first email from Marion, we met the other members of the Hardy family, her brother, Thomas, and sister, Carol. The first thing we learned was how Nina’s name was pronounced, with a long “i” as in “nine,” it turned out, much to our surprise. Among Nina’s possessions that the Hardy family generously showed to us, we found a short, wooden stick bearing the old Philippine coat-of-arms and the initials MLQ. While we first thought it was a walking stick; the Hardy family referred to it as a “swagger stick,” an ornamental stick usually carried by military personnel.
Then they showed us an engagement ring. Using a magnifying glass, we made out a faint inscription, “Manolo and Nina,” though we could not tell whether it said 1913 or 1915. The ring, oddly, was missing its stone. Marion explained that their mother, Sally, was given the ring while their uncle, Thomas, was given the stone. When Thomas got married he used the stone for his wife’s ring. Unfortunately, they eventually divorced and the stone is forever gone. A letter from Sally attached to the ring, however, describes its provenance and the details are remarkably consistent with Philippine history. The ring, Sally wrote, was “given by Manuel Quezon (president of the Philippine Islands from 1935 until his death) to Nina I. Thomas, my aunt, at the time of their engagement. This engagement was broken at the request of Philippine political leaders…”
Although some may want to imagine a young woman crushed by a broken engagement, nothing could have been further from the truth. Nina Thomas had other romantic relationships though she never married. The love of her life, an outstanding Washington jurist, died suddenly of a heart attack in 1939, according to a note written by Sally. The opening lines of a poem she wrote to mark his death are poignant and movingly understated: “From twelve to two what do I do? / I walk with God and think of you. / From twelve to two.”
She was fiercely independent. She often traveled abroad alone leading her family to half-jokingly suspect that she may have been a government spy. The Hardy family brought out a large stack of her passports, including one bearing a stamp of Nazi Germany from the late 1930s. A biography of Eslanda Robeson, the anthropologist and women’s rights advocate, notes a chance meeting between Robeson and a Nina Thomas from Washington, DC who was traveling alone in Costa Rica. Together with two other people, they climbed the summit of the Izuru Volcano, over 11,000 feet high.
Notwithstanding her own independence, she was especially helpful and generous to other women. As a member of the Women’s Bar Association, Nina and a group of female lawyers formed a Legal Aide Bureau in 1918 that was first housed in Nina’s office at the Southern Building. She served on the Board of the Women’s Welfare Association also known as The Woman’s Evening Clinic. Upon her death in 1947, she donated $98,000, the equivalent of over $1 million in today’s terms, to the Florence Crittenton Home, a “home for unwed mothers” that survives to this day. She attached an unusual condition to a trust she left with her sister Grace, one that the Hardy family still finds amusing but expresses Nina Thomas’ individuality. “In trust, to pay over semi-annually, the net income from the trust estate hereby created,” Nina Thomas wrote in her last will and testament, “to my sister, to her sole and separate use and free from the control of her husband or any right in him, for and during the period of her natural life; and upon her death the trust hereinbefore created shall cease.”
Nina Thomas was the young woman Manuel Quezon never married—a convenient summary of a life that we knew so little about until very recently, one defined by an absence rather than its substance. There are many ways of telling this story—as an interrupted romance from a hundred years ago, a political metaphor for a young nation seeking independence, or a footnote in the flamboyant life of a dashing political figure. But to do so would be to completely miss the brilliant, singular life of a remarkable woman.
Titchie Carandang-Tiongson is a freelance writer. Her articles have been published in the Asian Journal, Metro Home and Entertainment, Newsbreak, Northern Virginia Magazine, Smart Parenting, VAULT, and Working Mom. She is the recipient of the 2014 Philippine American Press Club (PAPC) Plaridel Award (profile writing), the 2015 Mama Sita Foundation Award (“Mga Kuwentong Pagkain,” personal essay), and the 2016 Doreen G. Fernandez Food Writing Award (honorable mention).
Erwin R. Tiongson is an economist and a professor at Georgetown University. His personal essays have been published in the International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Washingtonian.
They are the creators of Philippines on the Potomac (PODPC) Project, a family project documenting landmarks of Philippine history and culture in Washington, DC. They live in Fairfax, VA with their children, Nicolas and Rafael.