A Bit of History: Great Women In Philippine History
The Philippines has had its share of historical and powerful Filipino men but it too, have great Filipino women who left their marks in the country's history. Here are some of them.
Leona Florentino was a Filipina poet who wrote both in Spanish and Ilokano. She is known as the “mother of Philippine women’s literature” and the “bridge from oral to literary tradition”. She was born on April 19, 1849 to a wealthy and prominent family in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. She already showed great potential and skill at a young age when she first began to write her own poems in her native Ilokano tongue. However, because she was a young woman she couldn’t receive a university education for laws at the time.
She was then taught by her mother and private teachers, one was an Ilokano priest who was educated in Spanish, at the time a language only the elite and those who could afford higher education could learn. He taught the young Leona the language and encouraged her to pursue her love in poetry and let her voice be heard through written words. By the time she was 10 years old she could fluently speak and write in both languages and used them in her poetry. Her poems were dedicated to her fellow Ilokanos and they were exhibited in the Exposicion General de Filipinas in Madrid in 1887 and in the International Exposicion in Paris in 1889. They earned fame and her works were included in the Encyclopaedia Internationale des Oeuvres des Femmes (International Encyclopaedia of Women’s Works) in 1889.
Leona died at a very young age at 35 years on October 4, 1884. Her legacy, though not known by most in today’s showbiz worthy society, is one that has helped form the wealth of what is Philippine literature. Some of her works include “Rucrunoy” (Dedication), “Naangaw a Cablaw” (Good Greetings), and “Leon XIII” which was dedicated to Pope Leo XIII. Though most of her brilliant work has been lost over time since her death, some of the original manuscripts have been preserved and kept in Madrid, London, and Paris.
Today her former home has been transformed into the Provincial Tourism Center (Vigan Heritage Commission) where a statue of her in her honor and dedication sits watching over those who come to Vigan. The restaurant there is also named after her, Café Leona, which was named by a scholar of her work who studied who studied Leona’s work. He wrote that she was “a pillar of feminism in the country.” She married a politician named Elias de los Reyes at the age of 14 and had 5 children. One of those children would later be the well-known Labour Leader, Isabelo de los Reyes, a Filipina writer, activist, and senator who inherited his mother’s passion for literature.
The First Filipina to Get a Ph.D., Fought for Women's Right to Vote
On September 15, 1935, President Manuel L. Quezon finally signed into law the legislation granting Filipino women the right to vote. Eighteen years earlier in 1919, a 24-year-old woman argued in an article for the Philippine Review that if women are to be respected, they should be given the right to vote, since “a person enjoying full political rights deserves greater respect and esteem than a disenfranchised one.”
This was Dr. Encarnacion Alzona. Aside being one of the country’s leading suffragists who pushed for women’s right to vote, Alzona was also a National Scientist, an eminent historian, the first Filipina to obtain a Ph.D., and an educator. There’s no doubt that she was one of the greatest Filipinos to have ever lived.
Born on March 23, 1895 in Biñan, Laguna, Alzona spent her childhood in Tayabas (now Quezon province). Her father was a trial court judge and a distant relative of the national hero Jose Rizal. Her parents both valued reading, which fostered her inclination toward academics.
Alzona was a driving force in the academic study of History in the Philippines. As a historian, she authored several books on the history of the Philippines. She also wrote multiple biographies on pioneer Filipinas such as Paz Guanzon and Librada Avelino. Alzona stood alongside other eminent historians at the time such as Gregorio Zaide and Teodoro Agoncillo.
In 1955, she co-founded the Philippine Historical Association, a professional organization of historians. She also chaired the National Historical Institute (now Commission) from 1959 to 1966. In 1985, she was given the highest honour of being named a National Scientist of the Philippines.
She was recognized internationally for her greatness. In 1946, she became chairperson of the UNESCO Sub-committee on Social Science, Philosophy, and Humanities. In an interview, she said, “I consider my selection a tribute to women. It is my hope that this will establish a precedent in future international conferences.”
Alzona was especially interested in her distant cousin Rizal, and worked on translating a large body of his works and letters, even serving as the first president of the Kababaihang Rizalista, a civic group aimed at empowering women to embody Rizal’s ideas
Alzona was a great Filipino and a great woman. She was one of the few Filipino centenarians, reaching the age of 105 before passing away in 2001, just 10 days’ shy of her birthday. Hers is a legacy that cannot be understated. Her contributions to history allow us to truly appreciate our past and learn from it.
More important, her contributions to the fight for gender equality can never be forgotten, especially today when women face challenges in the workplace and within their own communities. The fight against discrimination continues, but it is through the greatness of women like Encarnacion Alzona that it began.
Also known as The first known Filipina sculptor in history.
Extraordinary moments: Pelagia Mendoza y Gotianquin (1867-1939) stood out for excelling in the male-dominated field of sculpture. She was the first female student ever accepted at the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura, known as the first and only coeducational institution during the Spanish regime.
With an exceptional flair for painting, embroidery, and sculpture, Mendoza entered the prestigious school at the age of 22. With the help of her mentors Agustin Saez and Lorenzo Rocha, Mendoza’s artistic mastery grew by leaps and bounds, culminating to her award-winning entry to the Columbus Quadricentennial Art Contest, a competition organized by the Spanish Government in 1892.
Mendoza’s winning artwork–a wax bust of Christopher Columbus–also reaped other international awards such as the second prize at the 1892 Chicago Universal Exposition, making her the first Filipina artist to gain international recognition. Interesting facts:
• Pelagia Mendoza married Crispulo Zamora, a silversmith and her former classmate at the Academia de Dibujo y Pintura. To support their seven children, the couple established an engraving business, Crispulo Zamora and Sons, Inc., which became known for religious jewellery and ornaments. After her husband’s death in 1922, Mendoza took over the business. By traveling to different countries and studying the different carving techniques used in those places, Mendoza was able to help modernize the metal-working and engraving industry in the Philippines.
• All of Mendoza’s works–including the award-winning bust–were destroyed when her family home at Sta. Cruz was bombed during WWII.