Tea Parties and Women's Rights: How the First Filipino Woman With a PhD Fought For Suffrage

The UP and Harvard graduate fought for women empowerment for nearly a century.

It may seem like something we’ve taken for granted, but there’s no disputing the fact that the world has changed immensely in the last century. Technological advancements have revolutionized our way of life, and the cotton shirts of today are a far cry from the early 20th-century garb. But beyond the surface-level transformations are the ideals and norms that we hold ourselves accountable to. 

One such norm in the Philippines during the early 1900s was the fact that women were not allowed to vote. It was a hefty feat for anyone to take a stand on such a matter, and even more so to take action for it. However, this was exactly what multi-awarded polymath Encarnacion Alzona did as she used her skills to further not only historical achievements in the country but also the empowerment of women. 

Photo by National Academy of Science and Technology.

A Lifelong Learner

Born in Southern Luzon in March 1895, Alzona had always put importance on her education. She graduated from the prestigious University of the Philippines with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history. Most people would have probably chosen to stop their education at that point, but Alzona chose to go above and beyond. Her educational journey took her miles away from home as she became a pensionado scholar in the United States. 


This scholarship was based on a law at the time that gave only qualified Filipino students an opportunity to study abroad. And with her intellect and guts, Alzona was more than qualified for the grant. But the scholarship wasn’t just a way for Filipinos to pursue studies. There was an underlying motive. Back then, the U.S. colonial government believed that educating Filipinos with an American education setting would help shift the mindsets of the people into something a lot closer to their own. While it might have promoted a more Western way of thinking, one good thing that resulted from the program was the advocacy for a more equal world. 

Photo by Schlesinger Library, RIAS, Harvard University.

It’s hard to truly confirm if the American ideals were ultimately what brought her to realize her pro-women advocacy. It is, however, interesting to know that women’s suffrage was ratified in the U.S. around the same time that Alzona pursued further studies abroad. She came back to the Philippines with another master’s degree from Radcliffe College in Harvard as well as a doctorate from Columbia University. Both degrees were in history, which was consistent with her previous degrees. It was at this moment that the historian made history—she became the first Filipina to complete her doctorate studies.

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Even after such an achievement, Alzona went back to her roots to teach as a professor at the University of the Philippines. There’s a saying that the best teachers are the best learners, and perhaps the reverse applies as well in Alzona’s case. After all, she was, first and foremost, a learner.  

For the Filipino Woman

But what drove this passion for learning? Why was there this constant need to study and write? Perhaps it was Alzona’s own women-oriented advocacy. During the historian’s time, women in the Philippines had quite a different situation compared to now. They did not have much of a role when it came to political matters. A few women were able to take up occupations, but they had to fight for better wages and more appropriate working conditions. Many of the prominent writers at the time were also men. Take for example the famous Jose Rizal, Pedro Paterno, or Marcelo H. del Pilar—or pretty much any of the writers that most of us had to learn about in our schools.

Columbia University
Photo by George Eastman House.

This norm didn’t stop her from writing, though. Alzona penned her words with the Filipino woman in mind, starting with an article that explained why women should be allowed to vote. Women were, according to her, the “first teachers of men” as their mothers. The right to suffrage would also supposedly bring about more respect for women. She mentioned this was because it’s more likely for someone to respect another who has full rights as opposed to one who doesn’t. 

Her advocacy didn’t limit itself to the words of the many other papers she wrote. According to a biography by Maria Luisa Camagay, Alzona regularly hosted tea parties as a way to persuade those in the legislature to shape the women’s voting policy. It was a strategic move on her part, as it was in line with the feminine norms of the time and yet it served as a way for her to exercise her own power.

Camagay also talked about the way that Alzona viewed the women who were fighting for their rights. The lauded Harvard graduate said that the Filipinas who shared her advocacy were not “window-breaking noisy suffragettes.” It’s possible that she believed that women did not have to lessen or hide their femininity in order to be seen as equal to men—a concept that’s still a hot topic to this day.

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Photo by U.S. Information Agency..

Making History In More Ways Than One 

With her bravery in taking a stand, it’s no surprise that she’s made history in more ways than one. Besides being the first Filipino woman to earn a doctorate, she is also considered to be one of the first suffragists. She was also one of the few recorded centenarians in the country. 

Alzona has several awards, including the Award of Distinction given by the Philippine Institute of Public Opinion. She was also given the Rizal Pro Patria Medal in 1971, which recognizes individuals who have shown qualities akin to the distinguished writer, such as a prominent love for country and fulfillment of one’s citizenship duties. She was also proclaimed as a National Scientist in 1985, and upon her passing in 2001, she was buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

Even with all the distinction she received, Alzona’s efforts are still underrated. In the ‘50s, a poster was circulated that talked about the men who fought for our right to voteand yet, not much is spread about the women like Alzona who played a huge part in fighting for women to get the right to vote. Perhaps it’s time we learn more about them.

A Renaissance Woman

Nevertheless, Alzona was a woman who managed to make the most of the 105 years that she lived. She pursued equal rights for women in every way that she could, constantly learning and persuading. And she was a Renaissance woman in more than one. While she was no doubt a woman of many talents, she also allowed the birth of important ideas for women’s rights and empowerment. A polymath and a fierce advocate, people like Alzona are a rare breed that come every century or so—the ones that are truly fearless and consistent enough to invoke a great change.


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Teresa Marasigan
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