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3. Brief History of the Filipino Women’s Struggle for Participation in Politics

The struggles of Filipino women have always been intimately linked with the broad, popular struggles for social justice and sovereignty.

During the Spanish period, women joined the underground resistance movement KATIPUNAN in the struggle against colonialism. They fought alongside the men and acquired significant political skills and know-how. Such struggle enabled women to go beyond the traditional roles (i.e of homemaker and caregiver) which the highly patriarchal Spanish regime had imposed upon them.

Despite the dearth of literature on the contributions of the masses of women in the revolution against Spain, some records reveal that women indeed played significant roles in that part of Philippine history. In these records, the heroic deeds of women are well noted. Teodora Alonzo, mother of national hero Jose Rizal is recognized for her independent political views which drew the anger of the Spanish friars. For refusing to pay land taxes, she was made to walk under heavy guard for some 10 kilometers to the provincial jail and imprisoned for two and a half years. 6

Dona Leona Florentina defied the conventions of her time by loving a man inferior to her class and having his child out wedlock. The child, Isabelo de los Reyes, grew up to become one of the fiercest leaders of the Philippine revolution against Spain, founder of the Philippine Independent Church and "father" of Philippine trade unionism. 7

The list of prominent Filipino women in history include Gabriela Silang, Gregoria de Jesus, Agueda Kahabagan, Teresa Magbanua, Melchora Aquino, Trinidad Tecson among others. These women did not only attend to the sick and wounded or solicit food and money for the revolution; they also served in the more dangerous tasks of transmitting messages and hiding documents. A few actually fought and reached the rank of general in the revolutionary army. 8

Another key struggle was for women’s right to education, particularly for a school where women could learn Spanish. Such school was deemed important because the ability to speak Spanish was crucial to education mobility. 9

By the time of the American occupation (1940s), a significant number of Filipino women had become educated. In the hope of further shedding off their status as second-class citizens, these women enjoined and organized other women to fight for the right to suffrage. Until then, only the literate men were allowed to vote and run for office.

The Suffragist Movement provided inroads for women to get into politics. In 1937, women were finally granted the right to vote. The constitution of 1935 had stipulated that the right of suffrage would be extended to women only if 300,000 women voted in its favor during a national plebescite. A General Council of Women (whose forerunner was the National Federation of Women’s Clubs in the Philippines) was then established in Manila to direct the plebescite campaign. Its aim was to draw the support of the broadest number of women and launch various forms of campaign through media and personal connections. As it turned out, 447,725 women voted yes in the 1937 plebescite. 10

The American period also witnessed the re-emergence of women and children already working during the Spanish period. According to the 1918 census, 696,699 Filipinas (roughly 26% of the total female workforce which numbered

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2,690,331), were engaged in "industrial pursuits". Women’s entry into the workforce was yet another venue for politicization and political action. They started joining trade unions to fight for their rights and for " mutual protection and benefit". 11

When World War II broke out and the Japanese occupied the Philippines, women again fought alongside the men. After the war, these same women attempted to participate in the postwar government that was consolidated by the national elections in April 1946 and the proclamation of Philippine Independence of July 4. Not too many women, however, were visibly present in mainstream politics. Between 1946 – 1971 (the last year of free elections before Martial Law), only 26 women were elected into public office: 11 Representatives, 7 senators, 6 governors and 2 city mayors. In 1951, women attempted to form a National Political Party of Women but the project never got off the ground. Instead, in the same year, a separate group launched the Women’s Magsaysay-for-President Movement to support the presidential bid of Ramon Magsaysay. 12

In the early 70s, Filipino women joined the popular resistance against Marcos’ dictatorial rule. By this time, more and more women had become politicized. Quite a good number even joined ideological groups while others became combatants of the rebel movements.

At the height of anti-dictatorship activism, a new form of women’s organization emerged. In 1970, the Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan or MAKIBAKA (Free Movement of New Women) was established with an explicitly feminist agenda, as manifested by its initial activity – an all-women picket of the Bb. Pilipinas coronation night on April 18, 1970. Unfortunately, MAKIBAKA abandoned such agenda when Martial Law was imposed in 1971 and instead merged with the Communist Party of Philippines to struggle for class issues and national liberation. 13

MAKIBAKA’s brief existence, nonetheless, proved to be of major significance to the women’s movement. It was able to "set-up a model for Philippine women’s liberation … the first organization that stressed on the strategic import of women’s organizing toward defeating both elite and male rule. Accordingly, it began to forge a comprehensive alliance with peasant, working class, and urban poor women on the basis of gender oppression as well". 14

Another significant group at that time was the Katipunan ng Bagong Pilipina or KABAPA (Collective of New Filipinas). Closely linked with the old communist party, the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, KABAPA was launched on March 8, 1975 as a mass-based organization by some 2000 rural women. The group sought, not only political empowerment but also socio-economic empowerment for women. Aside from engaging in mass-based organizing and capability-building, KABAPA also took the streets and joined mass actions on national issues such as agrarian reform, debt moratorium, nationalist industrialization, and equitable distribution of wealth. 15

Still during the Martial law years, two other groups emerged and presented themselves as being "feminists": the Kilusan ng Kababaihang Pilipina or PILIPINA (Movement of Filipino Women), initiated in 1981 with the main purpose of mainstreaming gender issues in the social development sphere and the Katipunan ng Kababaihan para sa Kalayaan or KALAYAAN (Women’s Collective for Freedom), founded in April 1983 aimed at advancing feminist discourse within the national liberation movement. PILIPINA was and continues to be identified with the social democratic movement while the KALAYAAN is said to have connections with the (communist-leaning) national democrats. 16

When Ninoy Aquino (a leading opposition figure during the Marcos regime) was assassinated on August 21, 1983, women’s groups bearing anti-dictatorship positions proliferated. Among the more prominent ones were the Alliance of Women for Action and Reconciliation (AWARE), the National Organization of Women (NOW) and the women’s wing of the United Democratic Opposition (UNIDO). 17

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On October 28, 1983, women from these groups staged the first broad-based women’s march. An organizing committee, composed of representatives from the broad political spectrum, was formed to prepare for such an event. This committee later paved the way for the formation of the General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action (GABRIELA) in March 1984. 18

For the next two years, GABRIELA would take under its umbrella women’s groups from different sectors and ideological leanings (i.e liberal and leftist). Their basis of unity then was anti-fascism. Such unity, however, was put to the test in 1986 when GABRIELA’s member organizations went into a debate over the Snap Elections. The group also confronted the issue of whether or not to support Corazon Aquino’s candidacy. 19

GABRIELA, unfortunately, was not able to reach a consensus. Many of its members opted to par-ticipate in the Snap elections and support Corazon Aquino who at that time was gaining popular support as an opposition candidate. Women’s groups identified with the national democrats, on the other hand, wanted a boycott position. Some argue, however, that it was not the lack of consensus that broke GABRIELA’s unity, but more the manner by which the national democrats within the alliance allegedly manuevered decision-making processes in favor of the boycott stance.

Unity of women’s groups under GABRIELA was short-lived. Such experience, nevertheless, paved the way for various forms of women’s groups to proliferate and develop in the following years. The story of GABRIELA and those of all other groups in the century-long struggle of Filipino women prove that women’s organizations have indeed been schools where women acquire knowledge, orientation, and skill necessary to advance women’s interests in the public arena.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Oktober 2001

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