When women throughout the world are asked which nations in Asia best represent the growth of feminism on the Pacific Rim, answers usually include the change in women’s status once Mao Tse-tung achieved power in China or Japan’s slow but steady empowerment efforts that have changed the lives of women in Japan.
In fact, the Philippines was way ahead of both cultures. Despite war, upheaval and social changes, this small nation has quietly become a leading voice for feminism in this corner of the world.
What was the catalyst that lead to this evolutionary change? A sisterhood launched throughout the Philippines called the Asociacion Femenista Filipina by its founder Dona Concepcion Felix in 1905. A few years later, Pura Villanueva Kalaw (a former beauty queen!), also organized women under the Asociacion Femenista Ilonga banner.
Though neither group’s first aim was empowering women, that message was implicit as members worked on issues like prison reform, educational advances and rectifying the state of immorality that dogged women as they sought to survive in horrific economic times.
Further, both of these organizations received encouragement from abroad. Suffragettes from the U.S. visited Manila in 1912, met with the high-profile women involved in the women’s movement and helped shape the Society for the Advancement of Women.
Twenty-five years later, the movement was still going strong when the Commonwealth’s National Assembly struggled to give every Filipina the vote. In fact, while the 1935 Constitution included mention of voting rights, the document included a stipulation: Unless at least 300,000 affirmative ballots were cast, the law couldn’t be enacted.
Never underestimate the power of the Filipina collective. Movement organizers launched an unprecedented “get out the vote” campaign. Movement leaders like Pura Villanueva Kalaw, author of “How the Filipina Got the Vote,” helped win the battle when more votes than were needed were cast in favor of the law on April 30, 1937.
While feminist movements have waxed and waned throughout the globe, women in the Philippines—and men, too—never let down on their mission to keep alive the feminist movement.
By the time University of British Columbia professor Dr. Michael Daniels embarked upon his Early Feminism in the Philippines research efforts in 2014, he was able to prove how far women have progressed on their road to equality, by delicaring the Philippines “one of Asia’s most forward-thinking countries when it comes to advancing women.”
To what does Dr. Daniels credit this boon? He states that “women in the Philippines makes the talent pool more robust,” basing his theory on anthropological data harkening back to the 16th Century. At that time, the people of the Philippines “showed great reverence for women.”
Unlike other Asian cultures at the time, Filipinas could “own or inherit family property, engage in trade, fight as warriors.” Some were revered healers and seers. He concluded that the Philippines was destined to teach Asia a lesson in feminism for many more years to come.
Was it inevitable that the nation was also destined to elect two female presidents (Corazon Aquino in 1986; Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2001)? Perhaps. But in 1973, elevating women to great status had already begun with the appointment of Supreme Court justice Cecilia Muñoz Palma almost a decade before Sandra Day O’Connor was named to the U.S. high court.
How powerful has this movement remained despite the passage of time? When writer Anna Bueno wrote the cover story for the 17 March 2017 CNN magazine issue, its headline reflected the amazing progress made by Filipinas: “Growing Up Without the Gender Gap”!