From Palace ‘cook’ to woman senator
The Global Gender Gap Index 2017 issued by the World Economic Forum ranked the Philippines 10th out of 144 countries on gender equality. In the Asia-Pacific region we are the highest. We are higher than France, Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, among others. In terms of educational attainment, we are given a “1” rating along with several other countries.
In 1937, Filipino women were given the right to vote and to be voted upon for public office by virtue of a national referendum that required a threshold of 300,000 positive votes. Women’s organizations rolled up an overwhelming victory with 447,725 “yes” votes as against only 33,307 “no” votes.
Shortly after, Carmen Planas would become the first Filipino woman to be elected to public office as councilor for the city of Manila in 1938. Two years later, Elisa Ochoa of Agusan was elected the first congresswoman.
Along Gilmore Street in Quezon City stands a house with a bronze plaque on its front wall. The wordings, in Filipino, indicate that at one time this was the home of Sen. Geronima T. Pecson, the first woman senator of our country.
Many years ago, I received from Alfonso J. Aluit a copy of his book “Geronima T. Pecson, 1896-1989: Portrait of a Filipino Patriot.” Aluit, a noted historian and travel journalist, is also the author of another book, “By Sword and Fire: The Destruction of Manila in World War II,” that records the life of horror and sufferings of many Manila residents, including my own father during the battle for the liberation of the city in 1945.
Let me share with you some of the interesting passages from Aluit’s book on Pecson. I fear that many of our young people may not be familiar with the lady who former education undersecretary Narciso Albarracin has described as “one of the greatest women this country has ever produced.”
“The presidential elections in 1946 were the last for the Commonwealth government and the first for the Republic of the Philippines. Election day was April 23, 1946, and it pitted the incumbent Sergio Osmeña against Manuel Roxas (grandfather of Mar Roxas). Geronima Pecson, a noted civic leader of Pangasinan, would side with Roxas and her reward would be the position of social secretary in the new administration.
“The Office of Social Secretary was new in Malacañang and it involved much more than organizing official luncheons, dinners, and other parties. It took care of all requests, pleas, demands for assistance, and the job called for tact, patience, knowledge of human behavior, and the clout to get things done.
“Estrella Alfon-Rivera had this comment on how Pecson was faring in her job: ‘It is debatable whether Mrs. Geronima Pecson is a good social secretary. She knows all the right people, and who to say ‘yes’ to all the time. Yet a social secretary should have some snobbishness, should learn to be a little more brusque and cold to the hoi polloi, the little people, the not very high society.
“‘And she isn’t. She is kind to all, pleasant to everyone, and a sucker for every kind of hard luck tale.’”
“In 1947, elections were being held for eight senatorial seats. For the Liberal Party slate of President Roxas, consensus seemed to develop for former solicitor general Lorenzo Tañada, senator Emiliano Tria Tirona, senator Vicente Madrigal, Carlos Tan, Pampanga governor Pablo Angeles David, and Iloilo City mayor Fernando Lopez. The last slot was hotly contested by Ricardo Gonzales, Geronima Pecson, Enrique Braganza, and Jose Bengzon.
“In the end, the issue was decided by Roxas’ commitment to a woman candidate on the Liberal ticket, and so Geronima Pecson of Pangasinan, took the eighth slot. The decision provoked much rancor from some sectors with one group denouncing it as ‘ignominious dictation from the kitchen cabinet,’ referring to the close relationship between Pecson and the first lady, Mrs. Trinidad Roxas.
“The Pecson candidacy was treated by the country as a novelty and she became the ‘star’ of the Liberal entourage, the main attraction for many people who traveled distances to see and hear her. There was a lot of black propaganda thrown at Pecson. Her being a former president of the YWCA (a Protestant organization) was used to denounce her as a Protestant even when everyone knew she was a Catholic. She was called ‘incapable and unqualified,’ and a ‘Malacañang cook.’
“But when the votes were counted on Nov. 4, 1947, the final tally showed: 1) Lorenzo Tañada, 1,570,390 votes; 2) Vicente Madrigal, 1,562,825 votes; and 3) Geronima Pecson, 1,559,511 votes.
“On Jan. 26, 1948, Geronima Pecson took her oath of office as senator, the first woman to assume this post in the history of the Republic.
“After taking her oath, Pecson scribbled a few notes on a duplicate of her oath of office, and asked a Senate page to deliver it to Mrs. Concepcion Felix Rodriguez and Mrs. Pilar Hidalgo Lim, who were both in the audience. Mrs. Rodriguez was the first president of the first organized movement for women’s rights in the country, the Asociacion Feminista Filipina, while Mrs. Lim was the president of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs of the Philippines that spearheaded the suffrage movement.
“The note read: ‘Doña Concha and Pilar — the first started the feminist movement; the latter pushed it through at the head of well-organized women leaders.
“‘To you both, and especially to the women for whose recognition you devoted the best years of your lives, to the Filipino people who finally realized the need for women’s participation in public affairs, I dedicate my services.’”
As senator, Pecson headed the committee on education, committee on health and public welfare, and the joint congressional committee on education. She was the first Filipino and the first woman elected to the executive board of the Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).
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