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Women's Suffrage: How the Filipina Won the Right to Vote

The fight for women's right to vote lasted over three decades.
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO
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Lorena Barros once said that the “new Filipina is first and foremost, a militant.” But Filipinas have been militant for decades before Lorena uttered her famous phrase.

One episode in this history was on April 30, 1937, when Filipino women convinced the National Assembly to overwhelmingly approve the Woman’s Suffrage Bill, granting them the right to vote. Led by some of the nation’s most dignified and heroic women, it was a struggle that lasted over three decades.

The Struggle from Above

The story begins in 1905. The United States of America had recently concluded its invasion of the Philippines, and the country was now firmly in American hands. Philippine society was charging headfirst into the 20th century, and with it, were changes in almost every aspect of Filipino life.

The Revolutionary War, and subsequent American colonization, brought with it something almost equivalent to a total upheaval of Filipino society. In the country’s vast countryside, the war was far from over as figures like Miguel Malvar and Macario Sakay continued their protracted war from the mountains. Meanwhile, legislators from Manila enacted the Homesteading Act, annulling all previous land titles and allowing American businesses free rein in acquiring as much land as they want.

Inside Manila’s urban centers, workers organized into unions and started clamoring for political rights. The first Labor Day celebration occurred in 1903 and was attended by 100,000 workers led by the Union Obrera Democratica. By all accounts, it was only beginning.

But the focus of this story lies somewhere else near Tondo: with a middle-class woman named Concepcion Felix Roque and her association, the Asociacion Feminista Filipina. With Felix Roque were 12 other women, including Jose Rizal’s sister Trinidad.

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Felix Roque and her companions were at the time part of the social purity movement—a push from middle- and upper-middle-class women of the age against what they considered “immoral virtues” like gambling and prostitution. Suffrage was the last thing on their minds; they simply wanted a virtuous life for Filipinas everywhere.

To that end, the Asociacion supported campaigns against drinking, gambling, and prostitution and implemented moral campaigns in schools and factories. They also sought to include women in local boards of education and municipal committees, as well as worked for reforms in labor rights, health care, and the prison system.

Their efforts were successful enough that, by 1906, there was another feminist organization in the Philippines—the Asociacion Feminista Ilongga. Its founder was Purificacion Garcia Villanueva, who, in 1908, would be the first “Queen of the Manila Carnival” and would eventually marry Teodoro M. Kalaw.

Pura Kalaw’s drive energized the burgeoning movement. Felix Roque recognized that women held no legal rights in Philippine society, but was reluctant to push for reform. Instead, she sought the support of a group of doctors to help her push legislation. Kalaw, meanwhile, campaigned for suffrage. Eventually, in 1907, Congressman Vicente Sotto presented a bill to the First Philippine Assembly pushing for women’s suffrage.

The bill was shot down, however. Legislators were afraid that giving women the right to vote would destroy the fabric of the Filipino family—an argument rooted in feudal notions of “family values” and the woman’s role in society. 

Rise of Women’s Organizations

The fight for women’s suffrage did not end in 1907. Five years later in 1912, two suffragettes, Carrie Chapman Catt and Dr. Aletta Jacobs, arrived in the Philippines to meet with Kalaw and Felix Roque. At the time, the two were more interested in socio-civic programs, but Catt eventually convinced them to be more political. They formed the Society for the Advancement of Women to encompass the need for women’s rights and equality. The Society was later on renamed the Women’s Club of Manila.

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Although they were at first called “reluctant suffragettes,” the Women’s Club managed to continually exert pressure and gain the support of the American colonial regime, including Francis Harrison, Leonard Wood, and Frank Murphy. 

In 1920, Felix Roque and two other women presented a petition signed by over 18,000 women to the Philippine Assembly. The petition was unfortunately shot down once again.

During this time, and in the intervening years, the suffragette movement gained traction. In 1920, the Women’s Club formed the League of Women’s Suffragettes. The next year, the National Federation of Women’s Clubs was established with the express purpose of pushing for the right of women to vote. Two more organizations were prominent at this time: the Liga Nacional de Damas Filipinas in 1922 and the Women’s Citizens League in 1928.

These efforts were eventually met with success: In 1933, governor-general Frank B. Murphy signed the Woman’s Suffrage Bill, giving the suffragists an early victory. Or so they thought.

The 1935 Constitution and the emergence of the Commonwealth proved to be another problem. The Woman’s Suffrage Bill stipulated that a plebiscite take place and that the right of suffrage will be extended to women if “not less than three hundred thousand women” voted in the affirmative.

The suffragists took to the challenge. Prominent women leaders including Natividad Almeda LopezPilar Hidalgo Lim, Geronima Pecson, Josefa Jara Martinez, and Josefa Llanes Escoda mobilized women from all sectors to get them to vote. This included a multilingual radio program broadcast all over the country on the eve of the voting day.

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The vote eventually came on April 30, 1937. In total, 447,725 women, or 91 percent of all eligible voters, voted to extend the right to vote to women. It was an overwhelming victory.

Legacy of Women’s Struggle

Today Filipino women make up a significant sector in Philippine democracy. Two years after winning the right to vote, Geronima Pecson was the first woman to become Senator. Since then, women have continued the fight for rights and equality.

During the Marcos years, women took to the streets once more to demand their rights. Figures like beauty queen Maita Gomez and Lorena Barros would form the Makabayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan (MAKIBAKA) and protest inequality and sexism in Philippine society. During martial law, MAKIBAKA was forced to go underground, but it never gave up the banner of women’s liberation.

In 1984, Filipina nuns, mothers, and women from all sectors convened the General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action and were one of the decisive forces during the EDSA People Power Revolt of 1986. Today, GABRIELA continues to push for women’s rights against abuse and other forms of inequality.

It seems hard to imagine a time when women didn’t enjoy the rights that exist today, but we must remember that the rights and freedoms that we have now were built on the sweat and efforts of thousands of women from generations before. Today, the fight is far from over, and women all over the country still face oppression and inequality in many forms. But just like Pura Kalaw and Concepcion Felix Roque, we must be determined to struggle if we are to succeed.

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About The Author
Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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