Great Women in Philippine History
My wife Elvira is one tough cookie. How she would thunder and scold to get her way! But that is her passion and her wonder: my whirlwind life has been colourful, but she has made it more vibrant and meaningful than it would’ve been without her.
The same goes for the history of the Philippines which has been influenced, moved and shaken by many women who made a difference. This day’s history special is dedicated to them.
In focus is March which is known in the Philippines, according to Presidential Proclamation No. 227, as ‘Women’s Role in History Month.’
Enjoy the ride!
International Women’s Day (IWD)
Before we talk about how Women’s Month began in the Philippines, let’s take a look at what was happening on the other side of the world when women were just beginning to fight for their rights.
The celebration of women’s achievements can be traced to the Women’s Day celebrations around America beginning 1908. IWD, originally called the International Working Women’s Day and patterned after the American celebrations, was soon adopted in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland in the 1910s.
IWD in Europe was significant because it started to give Women’s Day celebrations a political flavour and was used as a tool by women to uphold their right to vote and attain equal rights.
Around that time, the feminist sentiment boarded a ship and reached the Philippine shores. In 1907, Filipinas started to invoke their right to vote and they slugged it out against the male-dominated legislative body for 30 years until the Women’s Suffrage Bill was passed in 1937.
After the suffrage debate was resolved, Filipinas and women around the world moved on to broader issues that affected them, including reproductive health, gender equality, violence, greater job opportunities and so much more. In the global level, the United Nations recognised the need to protect women against discrimination and declared the year 1975 as International Women’s Year and 1976–1985 as the Decade for Women.
International Women’s Day as it is celebrated worldwide today was made official in 1975. 8 March was the chosen day of celebration.
Women’s Month in the Philippines
The passage of a Women’s Month in the Philippines began in the unlikeliest of times: the Martial Law years.
In connection with the UN’s actions, President Ferdinand Marcos signed Presidential Decree No. 633 on 7 January 1975 which created the National Commission on the Role of the Filipino Women (now Philippine Commission on Women or PCW). The decree was also the first in the Philippines that recognised the Filipina’s contribution to the nation and the need to promote equality between men and women. Its basic roles were:
- to promote economic, social and political empowerment of women and
- to review and implement laws regarding women.
Greater women empowerment was later supported by President Corazon Aquino with the signing of the Presidential Proclamation No. 227 on 17 March 1988 that made March officially ‘Women’s Role in History Month.’
One of the outcome of PP No. 227 was it gave PCW the role of spearheading Women’s Month in the country through contests, exhibits, awards and other activities.
Today, Women’s Month is reserved to remember and celebrate Filipinas, regardless of background, who have strengthened the nation. During March, we are given the opportunity to recognise the value of Filipinas as social movers and as the foundation of our economy.
Prominent Filipinas in history
History has proven the importance of women in our society by giving us stories of their courage, intelligence and achievements. I am very happy to say there are plenty of Filipinas who have changed the face of Philippine history…even too many to mention! But let me just name a few:
Gabriela Cariño Silang
National Hero (1731– 1763)
Considered a national hero; the ‘Joan of Arc of Ilocandia;’ la Generala of Ilocano uprisings against the Spanish Empire
Melchora Aquino (Tandang Sora)
National Hero (1812– 1919)
Considered a hero of the revolution; ‘Grand Woman of the Revolution;’ ‘Mother of Balintawak;’ ‘Mother of the Katipunan;’ ‘Mother of the Philippine Revolution’
Josefa Llanes Escoda
Civic participation (1898– 1945)
Founder of Girl Scouts of the Philippines; advocate of women’s suffrage
Fe del Mundo
Medicine (1911– 2011)
National Scientist of the Philippines; pioneered pediatric care in the country; first woman admitted as student in Harvard Medical School; founder of Children’s Medical Centre; Order of Lakandula; Ramon Magsaysay Awardee
Medicine and Politics (1917– 2006)
First Filipina psychologist; first woman to become Cabinet secretary as head of the Department of Social Services and Development (now known as DSWD); founding member of Philippine Mental Health; founding member of Museo Pambata Association; assistant secretary general for the UN
Incumbent Ilocos 2nd District Congresswoman; former Leyte 1st District Congresswoman; former First Lady of the Philippines; former Governor of Metro Manila
Politics (1933– 2009)
11th President of the Philippines; First female president of the Philippines; ‘Icon of Philippine Democracy;’ Time Magazine’s 1986 ‘Woman of the Year’
Incumbent Senator; Incumbent Judge of the International Criminal Court; former Secretary of Agrarian Reform; former Commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration and Deportation; founder and leader of People’s Reform Party; Ramon Magsaysay Awardee
Incumbent Pampanga 2nd District Congresswoman; 14th President of the Philippines; 12th Vice President of the Philippines; former Secretary of National Defence; former Secretary of DSWD; former Senator
Beauty and Arts – Film (1951)
Miss Universe 1969; first Filipino to win Miss Universe; FAMAS Best Supporting Actress awardee
Arts – Film and Music (1953)
‘Superstar;’ first Philippine ‘Box Office Queen;’ FAMAS Hall of Famer; 5-time FAMAS Best Actress awardee; 7-time Gawad Urian awardee; 8-time PMPC Star Awardee; 8-time MMFF awardee; Centennial Honour for the Arts awardee; TOWNS awardee for the Arts; Ani ng Dangal Awardee; winner of various Asian and European awards (Russia, Italy, Belgium, Malaysia, Egypt, France); first Filipino to win an international acting award; first Filipino to receive an acting nomination for a top-tier international film festival; most number of singles in Philippine recording history
Arts – Music (1961)
Virtuoso classical pianist; The New Yorker’s ‘Pianist’s Pianist;’ Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra soloist; Leventritt Competition Gold Medalist; Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin awardee
Arts – Ballet (1964)
Philippine’s first Prima Ballerina; first foreign soloist to join Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet; Vice Chairman of UNESCO-Philippines National Commission; Artistic Director of Ballet Manila; former Commissioner of PCW
Lydia de Vega-Mercado
Sports – Sprinting (1964)
‘Asia’s Fastest Woman;’ ‘Asia’s Sprint Queen;’ 3-time Southeast Asian Games Gold Medalist; 4-time Asian Athletics Championships Gold Medalist; Philippine and Southeast Asia record-holder for personal best; 2-time Olympian; 1982 New Delhi Asiad Gold Medalist; 1986 Seoul Asiad Gold and Silver Medalist;
Arts – Music, Film and Theatre (1971)
Laurence Olivier Awardee; Tony Awardee; first Asian actress to play Eponine and Fantine in Broadway’s ‘Les Miserables;’ multi-awarded actress for ‘Miss Saigon;’ first Filipino to be signed in an international recording label; first Philippine-based singer to have a major album distribution in America; 3-time Aliw Awards Best Child Performer; Presidential Award of Merit recipient; Order of Lakandula Awardee
Sports – Equestrian (1974)
2002 Asian Games Gold Medalist; member of the 125th International Olympic Committee Session
These names are just the tip of the iceberg; there are plenty more which stand at the bylines of history. There are also those who completely do not believe they have made a difference, but have proven their worth to the nation simply by embracing their roles as mothers and sisters. Why, take a look in the mirror and you can see one!
The modern Filipina
Even as we recognise the significance of women in Philippine history, March more importantly serves to remind us to act upon improving the conditions of women today for the sake of our future. Here are some of the latest facts regarding the modern Filipina’s condition:
Today, the Filipina is challenged to take on greater roles for her self-fulfillment and for progress in the name of our country. She can pursue any degree, can apply for any job and can do anything she wants. I am thankful that the attitudes on women here in our country is more liberated compared to countries were women are severely restricted to the home. This is a blessing not just for the women in our country, but for the men who depend on them.
Maria Clara was Rizal’s ideal woman. Is it still true today? Share your opinion below!
To all my lady readers, mabuhay kayo! You may agree or not with my list of distinguished Filipinas, but these women are just actually some of the many Filipino women that had and are making us proud as a Filipino.
Now, I’m going to find Elvira and celebrate her month the way she likes it, with a bit of attention and a whole lot of intelligent conversation. See you in our next chapter in history!