Guardian of a ‘national heritage institution’
A “national heritage institution” is under threat of extinction, and the Benitez family must join forces with its students and its faculty to keep it under the stewardship of its president, Jose Francisco “Kiko” Benitez. Three achievements must be brought to bear in order to animate our spirits in keeping the legacy of the Philippine Women’s University (PWU) and its founders together.
One, PWU is the first university for women in Asia founded by Asians. On June 9, 1919, PWU opened its first classes as the Philippine Women’s College (the first of two other far-reaching campuses that would eventually open in Iloilo and Davao). Founded after the Jones Law that promised Philippine independence, the school’s goal was to prepare young Filipino women for a life of service, leadership and active civic participation. In 1932, 13 years after opening, the college won university status. In consonance with evolving trends, PWU started admitting male students in the 1970s; it is now fully coeducational.
PWU was established to provide women “useful education for virtuous citizenship” prior even to the passage of women’s suffrage. From the very beginning, the experience of gendered exclusion from public life and the full political recognition of women’s active participation in nation-building motivated the founders to educate women as organizers of civil society above and beyond the call to fulfill their traditional roles as wives, partners and mothers.
The school has always taken on the mission to balance work and home, the private and public spheres. As part of its focus on women, therefore, PWU has collectively sought to cultivate the family as a site of intervention for social transformation. Among many of its pioneering initiatives are the Institute of Human Relations and the Family Life Workshop of the Philippines in 1948; the Community College, which is the first late-afternoon and evening school for working women, in 1949; and The Philippine School of Social Work that was also the first of its kind in the Philippines, in 1950.
The university’s second achievement has been the promotion of Philippine culture on the world stage. The Bayanihan Philippine Folk Dance Company that blazed the trail across continents for its use of indigenous music, costume and dance, was a unique form of Filipino soft power that was forged between the artistic genius of National Artist for Music and the Arts Lucresia R. Kasilag and National Artist for Dance Lucresia Reyes-Urtula and the vision and intellect of Sen. Helena Benitez. The latter, apart from being the first alumnae president, is surely one of our most outstanding Filipino women in national and international history, not only for her legislative work on women, education and family life but also for her labors in the UN System, being the first Filipino to chair the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, as well as, the first Asian and first female president of the UN Environment Programís governing council in 1975. At an amazing age of 100, the lady is not yet—and indeed, neither is her family—for turning.
The point I wish to make so far is that the institution’s lifeblood is to be found in the culture and the education of four generations that have put the interest of the country and its womanpower foremost in the national agenda.
The final “achievement” is the cultivation of a Filipino-cosmopolitan mind. It is a work in progress for which Kiko Benitez and I share the zeal. His training as a humanist, more specifically as a postcolonial and critical theorist in literature, and mine own as a social scientist, more specifically as a constructivist in international relations, have brought us together to serve PWU in this new-century vision.
The PWU president (a fourth-generation Benitez with Ilonggo ancestry) is committed to the intellectual bequest of his family. His fascination with the work of Jurgen Habermas on public reasoning has inspired him to undertake programs in teacher training, curriculum development and international partnerships necessary for linking PWU to the world and for transforming it as one of the conduits of the world to the Philippines. We believe in the power of democratic participation to emancipate humanity from oppressive structures and the possibility of an ever-wider moral community. It is a lifelong endeavor, and we are working with our students and teachers in a gradual process of reform because it is in education where everything starts.
Under Kiko Benitez’s stewardship, there are a hundred initiatives in bloom at PWU. But they will all take time to grow tall.
If PWU is to continue making its mark in history, I believe its present leadership must endure. I am behind its president all the way.
Kevin H.R. Villanueva is the founding director of Arise (The Asean Research Institute for Strategic Studies and Enterprise) and the presidential advisor for internationalization at the Philippine Women’s University. The views expressed in this article are his own.
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