5 Powerful and Fierce Women in Philippine History

Ma. Lorena Barros once said that, “The new woman, the new Filipina, is first and foremost a militant… She is a woman who has discovered the exalting realm of responsibility, a woman fully engaged in the making of history…No longer is she a woman-for-marriage, but more and more a woman-for-action.”

On one hand, many women in the present are imprisoned in the society’s definitions and standards. They are discouraged to fight for their rights in the society, to break the ceilings in the workplace, and to liberate themselves from social constructs. On the other hand, there are Filipinas who thrive to redefine the image of women in the country. These women challenge the “pankusina” and “pangkama” images associated to Filipinas.

These two types of women that exist in the country inspired us to write the fiercest Filipinas who lived in different ages to empower women and to prove that Filipinas’ strength in war and politics is evident throughout the Philippine history. In this article, we’ve listed five women who fight for women’s rights in the society dominated by men and in wars to liberate not only their fellow women, but the nation, as a whole.

Teresa Magbanua

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Teresa Magbanua is the celebrated Ilongga warrior who fought against American oppressors in Panay during the Filipino-American War. She was dubbed as “Joan of Arc of the Philippines” by Historian Gregorio Zaide, and was known as such since then.

Teresa was born to a distinguished family of Panay in 1871. Her father, Juan Magbanua, was a judge; while her mother, Dona Alejandra Ferraris came from a landed family. Unlike other women of her time, she studied teaching instead of home economics. Eager to master the field of teaching, she took post-graduate degree at the University of Santo Tomas. She became a teacher in Panay until she got married to Alejandro Baldero, an haciendero in Panay.

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According to anecdotes, Teresa was boyish. As a child, she loved climbing tall trees with her friends who were all boys.  Even when she got married, she loved doing and learning physical activities. She became a master horsewoman and a sharpshooter. Fearless as she was, she rode horse alone to visit their farm.

She finally used these exceptional skills when she and her brothers joined the Revolution. She led men on horseback in a battle in Capiz (1898). She gained recognition in the Battle of Balantong, Jaro, Iloilo in 1899, where her men killed over 400 Americans. However, she surrendered to the American forces in 1900 when her brothers were killed because of the treachery of fellow Filipinos.

Yet, she never stopped fighting for Filipino freedom. When the World War II broke out in the Philippines, Teresa offered her money and properties to support the guerilla movements. She died in 1947.

Pura Villanueva-Kalaw

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Most Filipinos of today know Purificacion Villanueva-Kalaw as the beauty queen-wife of historian Teodoro M. Kalaw. Yet, Pura was one of the Filipina suffragettes who changed the fate of Filipino women of yesteryears – many writers even recognize her as the “first Feminist in the Philippines.”

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In 1906, she founded the Asociacion Feminista Ilonga, one of the foundations of the Asociacion Feminista Filipina. Besides, Pura was the one who encouraged Assemblyman Filemon Sotto to push for the women’s suffrage in 1907. Unfortunately, Sotto’s Bill was turned down by the Assembly. But women, including Kalaw, continued their fight for suffrage until women were granted the right to vote in 1934. However, women started to vote in 1937 because of the 1935 Constitution.

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Pura continued to empower women afterwards. She is one of the founders of Philippine Women’s Writer Association and the first president of the League of Women Voters.

Pura was born in 1866 to couple Emilio Villanueva and Emilia Garcia. Her father was a Filipino lawyer, while her mother was Spanish elite from Palencia, Spain. She studied at the Colegio de Santa Catalina in Manila. Then she became an established writer in Spanish of the newspaper El Tiempo. Her popularity spread throughout the Philippines when she was crowned as the first Carnival Queen. She died in 1954.

Josefa Llanes-Escoda

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Josefa Llanes-Escoda was not only the founder of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines, but also a suffragette and a World War II hero.

Josefa was born in 1898 at Ilocos Norte. She was a consistent honor student from elementary to high school. After graduating cum laude at the Philippine Normal University, she studied at the University of the Philippines and obtained Certificate of Teaching.

She taught in different universities, such as the Philippine Normal University and Far Eastern University for a while until she joined the Red Cross. Then she studied Social Work in US, and got her master’s degree in Sociology from Columbia University. She became a Sociology instructor at the Philippine Normal University and the University of the Philippines when she returned in the late 1920’s.

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She was trained in Girl Scouting in the US in 1939. When she came back, she mentored teachers to lead Girl Scout troops. She became the first National Executive of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines after President Quezon signed the Girl Scout Charter.

When the war broke out, she and her husband Antonio Escoda joined the Volunteer Social Aid Committee. Josefa gave food, water, and clothing to the prisoners in concentration camps in Los Banos and UST. She also helped the women students stranded by war. Then she listed the names of prisoners. Her husband was sentenced to death due to treachery, while Josefa, though imprisoned, was granted freedom. But she chose to die with her husband. Josefa and Antonio were two of the martyrs of the World War II who were tortured and executed in Fort Santiago in 1944.

Simeona Punsalan-Tapang

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Simeona Punsalan-Tapang, also known as “Kumander Guerrero,” was the war heroine and leader of Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (HUKBALAHAP), a guerilla movement in the Central Luzon during the Second World War. Her leadership was evident even before the war broke out, as she organized the Katipunang Pambansa ng mga Magsasaka sa Pilipinas.

The violence that she experienced when the Japanese captured her urged her to join the Apalit Squadron 104, an arm of the HUKBALAHAP. In several interviews, “Lola Mameng” (as many called her) recalled how her troops successfully defeated Japanese forces in many battles and encounter in Pampanga. She also remembered the great risks they had to undertake just to liberate the country from the Japanese forces. She joined the communist-led army Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan after the war.

According to her, even HUKBALAHAP’s leader Luis Taruc recognized her as “big-bodied woman with a man’s strength, fond of wearing a man’s clothes, adept at handling an automatic rifle, and would command on the firing line.” Lola Mameng passed away this June 30, 2015.

Lorena Barros

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Ma. Lorena Barros was born in 1948. She was the writer-activist who co-founded the Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan or MAKIBAKA during Martial Law. It is safe to assume that Lorena’s bravery was in blood, for one of her grandparents was a member of the Katipunan, and her mother also served the HUKBALAHAP in the Japanese Period.

As a child, Lorena excelled in different grounds including gymnastics and literature. As an Anthropology student of the University of the Philippines, Lorena got exposed to progressive ideas that enkindled her nationalist spirit. Most people even remember her as “an epitome and proponent of the women’s liberation movement” in the Philippines.

She encouraged and empowered women of her time, who were subject to military violence and rape during Martial Law, to fight. Then she and other feminists founded the MAKIBAKA. According to her, “The new woman, the new Filipina, is first and foremost a militant… She is a woman who has discovered the exalting realm of responsibility, a woman fully engaged in the making of history…No longer is she a woman-for-marriage, but more and more a woman-for-action.”

When progressive organizations were suppressed by President Marcos, Lorena was pushed to join the New People’s Army. It is believed that she died during an encounter. And just like other victims of Marcos’s tyranny, Lorena was tortured to death. She died on March 24, 1976.