Women’s Right to Vote: A Lookback at a Philippine Struggle for Human Rights

Posted by Hapi Editor | Posted on May 7, 2017

Almost eighty years ago to this day, Filipino women won suffrage or the right to vote. That glorious win came after a long struggle by humanist women and their supporters. Let us remember and celebrate this achievement in the history of Philippine humanism.

The photo depicts Pura Villanueva Kalaw, founder of the pioneering feminist organization. This Ilonga beauty won the first (1908) Queen of Manila Carnivals. The Manila Carnivals were like Ms Universe raised to the 10th power. They were dubbed as the greatest annual spectacle in the Orient. But Pura was not only known for her beauty or humanist advocacy. She was an accomplished academic, writer and artist. I guess it was a time when the beauty pageant winner aced the interview portion.

Women’s fight for suffrage started formally with the establishment of two feminist organizations. One was the Associacion Feminista Filipina, founded by Concepcion Felix Rodriguez in 1905, whose original members included Jose Rizal’s sister, Trinidad. The other was the Associacion Feminista Ilonga (take a bow, Ilo-ilo), founded by Pura Villanueva Kalaw in 1906. Both organizations did not only demand voting rights for women, but also for reforms in education, health care, labor and the prison system.

Later, the Manila Women’s Club and the National Federation of Women’s Clubs expanded the geographic and social reach of the movement to include middle-class women. But the struggle was not easy. The first congressional bill to allow women’s vote was filed in 1907, but the all-male National Assembly was worried that women’s suffrage would change the nature of the Filipino family. No bill became law for thirty years!

Finally, during the drafting of the 1935 Constitution, women’s suffrage was included, with the requirement that it will be passed with a vote of at least 300,000 women voters, a rather difficult threshold at that time. But the suffragists worked hard to achieve this target by raising awareness, addressing concerns and demanding their rights. Even a group of young women, the Junior Federation of Women’s Clubs, joined in by volunteering to take care of the children while mothers trooped to the polls. On April 30, 1937, the votes came in and it was determined that 444,725 women said “yes,” they wanted to vote in Philippine elections. That was 91% of the women’s votes cast, an overwhelming support indeed! Looking back, we cannot help but be awed and inspired by this humanist achievement. Our most heartfelt salute!

[Humanist Alliance Philippines, Inc., a leading secular humanist organization, works for the promotion of human rights, including women’s rights, as well as other humanist goals. Join us.]




Bobby Olarte, Asst Chairman of HAPI, currently lives in New York and has a six-month old poodle also named Hapi

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