The long road to suffrage and respect
In her memoirs (“A String of Pearls: Memoirs of a Filipina Suffragist,” Women’s Media Circle, 1993) educator and women’s rights advocate Paz Policarpio Mendez wrote of her experiences teaching her family’s farm hands how to read and write. She and her other female relatives would gather the men working her father’s lands and teach them the alphabet. More specifically, the women taught the men how to write the names of their favored candidates on the ballots provided during elections.
But what of the women? While they were educated enough to teach men how to carry out their civic duties, Filipino women at the time still weren’t considered fit for the rights (and duties) of full citizenship. They weren’t allowed to vote and consequently to run for public office.
Policarpio-Mendez recalled an incident during her collegiate years when during a debate she “rebutted my opponents’ claim that politics was dirty business and women should not get involved in it. ‘If it is dirty,’ I retorted, ‘Who made it dirty? The men, since they are the only ones who can vote now. Women should step in and clean it.’”
Despite such a cogent argument Filipinas had to wait for all of 18 years before finally winning the right to vote.
In a statement to mark the 80th anniversary of the women’s vote for suffrage last April 30, the women’s group Pilipina traced the long, difficult road to full citizenship and political participation by our foremothers. It wasn’t until 1907 that a bill for women’s suffrage was filed in the national assembly. The bill could be said to be the flowering of the nascent women’s movement, with the founding two years earlier of the Asociacion Feminista Filipina not long after the founding of the Asociacion Feminista Ilonga which would form the backbone of the suffragist movement.
Still, 30 years (yes, three decades!) had to pass before the question of women’s right to vote was put to the test, with the 1935 Constitution requiring a plebiscite to determine if enough women wanted it. Two years later, with women leaders fanning out across the islands and spreading the gospel of suffrage, over 90 percent of eligible women voted overwhelmingly to have their right to vote recognized.
But even with the power to vote and the power to be voted for, Filipino women still find themselves struggling against inequity and prejudice. We have had two women presidents, as well as the first woman Supreme Court chief justice, and a good number of legislators and office holders in provinces, cities and towns. But our gains remain tenuous, ever at risk of being eroded, if not erased completely.
Thus, Pilipina’s message on the 80th anniversary of women’s suffrage is three-fold.
First is that “women must continue to protest even as they celebrate, saying “no to anything that diminishes our rights as women. The targeting of outspoken female politicians by their male peers must be exposed as acts of systematic woman-hating. The resorting to put-down remarks or sarcasm … should be called out as publicly degrading women to undermine their political strength.”
Second is that all women “must stand in solidarity with our sisters—as the largest minority in the country, we must parlay our strength in numbers to push a women’s agenda that will prioritize truth-seeking, to vote for women (and men) who will spearhead and shepherd this agenda, to protect and defend the women (and men) in public office who are persecuted for daring the male powers-that-be.” The statement singles out Vice President Leni Robredo and Sen. Leila de Lima, both of whom have been targeted by the political leadership.
The third message is that women “must stand in solidarity with the poor,” calling for the comfort and defense of “the mounting numbers of bereaved widows, orphans and parents of EJK victims, majority of whom are poor.”
The best way to celebrate the occasion, the women say, is by “tracking (the event’s) substance and ensuring that women can vote freely and that the women they vote for not be silenced or jailed for truth-telling.”
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