Encarnacion Alzona, the First Filipina to Get a Ph.D., Fought for Women's Right to Vote
On September 15, 1935, President Manuel L. Quezon finally signed into law the legislation granting Filipino women the right to vote. Eighteen years earlier in 1919, a 24-year-old woman argued in an article for the Philippine Review that if women are to be respected, they should be given the right to vote, since “a person enjoying full political rights deserves greater respect and esteem than a disenfranchised one.”
This was Dr. Encarnacion Alzona. Aside being one of the country’s leading suffragists who pushed for women’s right to vote, Alzona was also a National Scientist, an eminent historian, the first Filipina to obtain a Ph.D., and an educator. There’s no doubt that she was one of the greatest Filipinos to have ever lived.
Born on March 23, 1895 in Biñan, Laguna, Alzona spent her childhood in Tayabas (now Quezon province). Her father was a trial court judge and a distant relative of the national hero Jose Rizal. Her parents both valued reading, which fostered her inclination toward academics.
The young Encarnacion grew up in a time of great societal upheaval. The Philippine Revolution came and gave way to a war against the Americans, and by the time she was old enough to go to college the country was firmly an American colony. She managed to enroll at the new University of the Philippines and graduated with a degree in history in 1917 and a master’s degree the next year. Her thesis, The Development of School Education of Women in the Philippines (1521-1917), declared what would become her lifelong advocacy in education and women’s rights.
A few years later, Encarnacion went from writing about history to making it when she became a pensionada, studying higher education in the United States. In 1920, Encarnacion Alzona became the first Filipina to obtain a Ph.D., graduating from Columbia University in New York City. After graduation, she returned home to teach at the University of the Philippines, a position she held from 1923 to 1945.
Alzona was a driving force in the academic study of History in the Philippines. As a historian, she authored several books on the history of the Philippines. She also wrote multiple biographies on pioneer Filipinas such as Paz Guanzon and Librada Avelino. Alzona stood alongside other eminent historians at the time such as Gregorio Zaide and Teodoro Agoncillo.
In 1955, she co-founded the Philippine Historical Association, a professional organization of historians. She also chaired the National Historical Institute (now Commission) from 1959 to 1966. In 1985, she was given the highest honor of being named a National Scientist of the Philippines.
She was recognized internationally for her greatness. In 1946, she became chairperson of the UNESCO Sub-committee on Social Science, Philosophy, and Humanities. In an interview, she said, “I consider my selection a tribute to women. It is my hope that this will establish a precedent in future international conferences.”
Alzona was especially interested in her distant cousin Rizal, and worked on translating a large body of his works and letters, even serving as the first president of the Kababaihang Rizalista, a civic group aimed at empowering women to embody Rizal’s ideas.
More than a historian and an expert on Jose Rizal, Alzona was a major advocate of women’s rights. She worked tirelessly with other key suffragists such as Sofia Reyes de Veyra and Trinidad Fernandez Legarda, among others, in the fight for women's right to vote, going so far as to invite legislators to tea parties to convince them to vote.
She firmly believed in women’s right to education and gender equality. The U.S. occupation gave her and other middle-class women the opportunity to pursue higher education in the United States, and she in turn, helped women like Fe del Mundo pursue their own studies.
Alzona was a great Filipino and a great woman. She was one of the few Filipino centenarians, reaching the age of 105 before passing away in 2001, just 10 days shy of her birthday. Hers is a legacy that cannot be understated. Her contributions to history allow us to truly appreciate our past and learn from it.
More important, her contributions to the fight for gender equality can never be forgotten, especially today when women face challenges in the workplace and within their own communities. The fight against discrimination continues, but it is through the greatness of women like Encarnacion Alzona that it began.
Camagay, M. (1990). Encarnacion Alzona, an Indefatigable Feminist. Review Of Women’s Studies, 1(1), 56-60.
Tomacruz, S. (2018, December 18). Philippines climbs to No. 8 in 2018 Global Gender Gap report. Rappler.
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De Veyra-Montilla, T. (2018, April 26). Recalling the long fight for women’s suffrage. Inquirer.
Lorenzo, S. (2017, July 21). A Filipina who promoted the feminine genius before John Paul II did. Aleteia.