Women in Philippine history you should know about
This International Women’s Day, we’re honoring Filipino women who bravely stood against gender norms and changed history
Mar 8, 2019
It’s 2019—a whole 82 years since Filipino women were first given the right to vote. And after all the hurdles and hoops women have had to jump over to get here, Philippine society has become a gender equal society, right? Yeah, no.
Women’s rights are still, unfortunately, under question. A woman is raped every 72 minutes. The president thinks it’s okay to make jokes demeaning women. Women still have to hide their use of contraceptives from their partners for fear being abused. We still have a long, long way to go.
Knowing all this, it’s easy to start losing hope and say, “Well, this is how it is. Society will always be like this.” Don’t. So many women in our own history have worked tirelessly to give us, the women living in the 21st century, the rights and liberties we enjoy now, and it’s our job to pay it forward and fight for the next generation.
So this International Women’s Day, let’s honor these Amazons by celebrating them and the lives they led.
Dr. Fe del Mundo
Most know her for being the first woman admitted to the prestigious Harvard Medical School in 1936, but del Mundo had pioneered a lot more, most especially in the formerly male-dominated field of medicine.
When she came back to the Philippines in 1941, she invented a makeshift incubator out of bamboo for families in poor communities without electricity. She then worked for a government hospital, quitting only after being distressed with the constraints of the job. This led her to sell her home and everything she owned to establish the first pediatric hospital in the country, where she worked and lived in for the rest of her life.
Concepcion Felix de Calderon
De Calderon led the foundation of two of the first few women’s organizations in the Philippines: the Asociación Feminista Filipina, the first Filipina club dedicated to promoting the participation and social welfare of women in public affairs, and the La Gota de Leche, a non-government organization focused specifically at helping mothers and their children. After finding the works of their organizations successful, de Calderon, along with other women volunteers, joined the organization called Society for the Advancement of Women, who pushed for the role of women in civic, social, and political programs.
Dubbed as Mindanao’s “Gabriela Silang,” Capistrano founded the Women’s Auxiliary Service (WAS) and trained women to be nurses, soldiers, and spies during World War II. She was equipped with the knowledge of using firearms and self-defense, which became handy in assisting other resistance fighters in Mindanao.
After the war, Capistrano would not accept merits and awards from the government until WAS (later renamed as Women’s Auxiliary Corps) was recognized as officially part of the country’s military, according to the National Centennial Commission.
Princess Tarhata Kiram
Did you know that the first female pensionado was a Tausug woman? Of noble birth, the headstrong Princess Tarhata flew to the United States in 1924 to study at the University of Illinois, making history for Muslims and women as a whole in the country. She was incredibly ahead of her time, and she was a feminist before the movement even started here.
Princess Tarhata later became known for her involvement in politics. She became a government consultant on Islamic affairs, and, among other landmark acts, she condemned the Bacon Bill of 1926 which sought to separate Mindanao and Sulu from the rest of the Philippines.
Rosales was one of the most legendary movie actresses in the 1940s. At the peak of her showbiz career, she joined the Huk rebellion after discovering that her husband Ramon Navales, who was part of the guerilla movement, died in the hands of the Japanese. She used a .45 and became a sharpshooter, going into battles with a mustache to disguise herself.
Her experience as a female guerilla fighter became the inspiration behind the film Guerilyera, which Rosales also starred in in 1946.
Helen Cruz was a singer and actress who was most active during the 60s. Herself a transwoman, she fiercely fought for the country’s LGBTQA+ community, and writer Tess de Carlo in Trans History credits Cruz as a pillar of transgender rights. Cruz is also known as the pioneer of “Swardspeak,” a special argot of the LGBTQA+ community that’s still in use today, and has started filtering through the mainstream Filipino language. Ever wondered where the word “churva” came from? You can partly thank Helen for that.
Maria Ylagan Orosa
This woman blazed the trail of some of the most important and sustainable culinary contributions in the country. A pharmaceutical chemist and food technologist by profession, Orosa saw the hunger of Filipinos during the war and put her food experimentations into work. She joined a guerilla group, devised a process of canning food, fed soldiers, prisoners of war, internees, religious communities, and people in concentration camps. She is also behind the development of many native fruit combinations, including banana ketchup.
Alonza was one of the first Filipino women who studied abroad as a pensionado. She came back to the Philippines as the first Filipina with a doctoral degree, a penchant for Philippine history, and a strong advocacy in pushing women’s right of suffrage. She became a member of the Department of History at the original campus of the University of the Philippines in Manila where she wrote several books, including the comprehensive report on the development of Filipino education titled A History of Education in the Philippines 1565-1930.
While teaching, she participated in talks with the members of the legislature to urge them to grant the right to vote to all citizens, which eventually became a part of the 1935 Philippine Constitution.
Marquez-Benitez is the woman behind the first Philippine short story in English, “Dead Stars,” which has been hailed as a paragon of Philippine fiction. The impact of her work transcended through generations, being continually taught in schools for its deep historical significance. She herself was a teacher, and she became a familiar fixture of the University of the Philippine’s English department from 1916 to 1951. All of these led her to be known as the “matriarch of Filipino writers in English.”
She went on to make even more firsts in the literary world. Marquez-Benitez founded the first women’s magazine in the country called “Woman’s Home Journal” in 1919, and compiled and edited the first anthology of Philippine short stories in English in 1928. She, along with six other women, also founded the then Philippine Women’s College, now known as the Philippine Women’s University.
— Commission on Women (@PCWgovph) June 9, 2016
Mendoza is known as the first female sculptor in Philippine history, a great feat for an artform that is still dominated by men. She is also known as the first female student of the then-Escuela de Dibujo y Pintura, which would later become the University of the Philippines College of Fine Arts. As a student, Mendoza made a name for herself with her bust of Christopher Columbus, which awarded her both local and international recognition, including second prize at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Unfortunately, all her works were destroyed during a WW2 bombing in Santa Cruz, making them lost to history.
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