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Before Miriam Santiago, There Was Eva Kalaw, the Woman Marcos Feared Most

The late Senator Eva Kalaw was a Plaza Miranda Survivor. 
IMAGE Malacanang Presidential Libray and Museum
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Eva Kalaw was a force of nature when she was still alive. After surviving the Plaza Miranda bombings, she went on to survive the worst of what the Marcos regime could throw at her: political persecution, being jailed twice, and then the culture of chauvinism in politics during her time. 

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Eva Kalaw, the Lone Woman Senator

In 1965, Eva Kalaw became the lone woman candidate running for the senate. At the time, it was very hard for women to secure seats at the senate because of the prevailing machismo within political circles. She used her strong personality and political acuity to convince the male-dominated Nacionalista Party to nominate her as one of their tickets. She won. 

Photo by Malacanang Presidential Library and Museum.
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This marked her first political victory, which she described in her memoir as nothing short of “phenomenal.” Although her victory as a female candidate was not the first (Geronima Pecson was the first female senator of the Philippines), hers was a true feat that created cracks on the glass ceiling because she won without the endorsement of a sitting president. 

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After the votes had been tallied, Kalaw came out as one of the strongest candidates in the elections. She received over three million votes or 42 percent of the ballots cast. 

At the senate, Kalaw proved to the old boys she was not one to be messed around with or become a pushover. She played her cards well when, during a tussle for power at the senate in which Senator Gil Puyat sought to unseat Senate President Arturo Tolentino, Kalaw became the deciding vote on whether Tolentino would keep his post. She leveraged her vote to secure the chairmanship of powerful committees, including the education committee. 

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In her first year as a senator, she was able to pass laws that remain quite consequential to this day. Eva Kalaw is credited for legislation that created the following: 

  • The elevation of the Social Welfare Administration as a new department (it is now Department of Social Welfare and Development) 
  • The creation of student and faculty representatives in the governing bodies of state universities and colleges
  • A law increasing and standardizing the salaries of public school teachers “to dignify the teaching profession”
  • The creation of “barrio high schools” in remote areas in the provinces to make education more accessible 


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Eva Kalaw, the Woman Ferdinand Marcos Feared Most

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It was not long after her election as a senator that Kalaw became a staunch critic of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. 

In 1966, Kalaw vehemently opposed Marcos and the U.S. for wanting to send Filipino troops to the Vietnam War. Before being able to send troops, the president needed the approval of the senate, but Kalaw would not have it. She knew she did not have enough support, but she opposed Marcos anyway. 

It was during the Vietnam War when politicians around the world were labeled as either “hawks” or “doves.” “Hawks” were those who favored participation in the war, while “doves” are those who favored inaction.

      “Iyan ang babaeng may bayag! 

              —Jose "Pepe" Diokno on Eva Kalaw

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When she was being labeled a dove, she responded: “I am not a dove nor am I a hawk. I am a Kalaw, a truly Filipino bird.”

Kalaw wanted to send not soldiers but humanitarian aid in the form of doctors, engineers, and nurses to the frontlines. She voted against the Vietnam bill, earning her the ire of Marcos, who made sure that all her pending bills languished at the senate. 

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Although she would suffer the repercussions of her vote, she earned the respect of the few statesmen in government. After her opposing vote, Jose “Pepe” Diokno exclaimed: “Iyan ang babaeng may bayag!” (Now that’s a woman with balls!)

Surviving the Plaza Miranda Bombing

Because of Kalaw’s frequent criticisms of the administration, Marcos and the Nacionalista Party officially dropped her as a candidate for their senatorial ticket. Kalaw would be invited by the Liberal Party as a guest candidate instead. 

During the Liberal Party’s proclamation of its eight candidates at the Plaza Miranda on August 21, 1971, two bombs ripped through the atmosphere and killed nine people and injured 95. Among the injured was Kalaw, who was brought to the hospital.

Photo by Malacanang Presidential Library and Museum.
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Despite the political violence that almost killed her, Kalaw returned to the campaign trail in crutches after being discharged from the hospital. Her injury galvanized her voters, which is why she would later earn the distinction of becoming the first woman to be reelected as senator of the Philippines in 1971.

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A year later in 1972, Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law and padlocked the Senate to shut out and silence his critics. 

In this iconic photo from 1972, Senators Salvador Laurel, Eva Kalaw, Ramon Mitra, Gerardo Roxas, and Jovito Salonga attempt to enter the Senate after Marcos padlocked it.

Photo by Malacanang Presidential Library and Museum.
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Eva Kalaw Might Have Become President If She Had Not Yielded to Cory Aquino

Perhaps the greatest sacrifice a stateswoman like Eva Kalaw could give was to end her political career for the sake of a united front against a dictator, and that’s exactly what she did in 1985. 

“The imperatives of opposition victory require that I give way to one single opposition candidate,” Kalaw said in a public statement. 

Instead of competing against Corazon “Cory” Aquino, Kalaw decided to run as vice president instead, hoping that Aquino would select her as runningmate. But She selected Salvador Laurel instead. 

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Kalaw would subsequently seek senatorial bids in the following years, but her charisma had lost steam and would suffer losses at the ballots. After Aquino was catapulted into power in 1986, Kalaw would participate in governance as part of the opposition. 

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Her last and final attempt to run for public office was in 1992 when Laurel and herself ran for President and Vice President. They lost to Aquino-backed Fidel Ramos, the administration’s former defense chief. 

Eva Kalaw died at the age of 97 in 2017. Her remains were laid to rest at the Loyola Memorial Park in Paranaque.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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