Celebrating Women’s Month: 8 Inspiring Filipinas We All Should Know About

by Zia Kalong

DSC_0663″ | Photo via Flickr/Creative Commons by Joyce Costelo

Observed annually on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day is a global celebration of women’s economic, political, and social achievements. As we celebrate Women’s Role in history, we listed down 8 Filipina heroines whose names and stories everybody should remember not just today but for always.

The world knows the Philippines to be the home of beauty queens like Pia Wurtzbach (Miss Universe 2015) and Catriona Gray (Miss Universe 2018), world-class Broadway performers like Lea Salonga (Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, and the singing voices of Disney’s Princess Jasmine and Mulan) and Rachel Ann Go (Les Miserables and Hamilton), and even fashion moguls like Monique Lhuillier. But Filipino women are not only notable for their beauty; they have also shaped the course of Philippine history as fearsome warriors, freedom fighters, and unrelenting forces of positive change. For example, Kumander Liwayway, beauty queen/guerrilla commander known for marching into battle wearing bright red lipstick and neatly combed hair. Born Remedios Gomez-Paraiso, this commander fought against not only colonial powers but also useless social conventions and stereotypes, declaring, “One of the things I am fighting for in the Huk movement is the right to be myself.” If anyone had a problem with her, she challenged them to a duel. She proved to the men her feminity was no reflection of her skills.

Kumander Liwayway is but one of the countless Filipinas who have fearlessly, selflessly, and brilliantly served their country yet are barely discussed in classrooms or mentioned in our history. Sure, you’ve heard of the famous Gabriela Silang, the fierce Ilocaña general who became the first Filipina to lead an uprising against a foreign power. But did you know we have our very own Joan of Arc? This lesser-known heroine is one of the few Filipinos who participated in all three resistance movements against Spain, the United States, and Japan. And yet, very little has been said about her, and not many remember the role she played in our nation’s history.

Kumander Liwayway | Contributed Photo

Before becoming a formidable military leader, Teresa Magbanua was a schoolteacher. Her education was almost unheard of for women at that time. Instead of taking home courses, she studied education and earned her master’s degree, qualifying as a Maestra Titulada Superior.

After marriage, she spent most of her time sharpening her skills in horseback riding and marksmanship. Soon enough, she was shooting even better than her general uncle. According to her sister, when they expected women to be uncritical and submissive, Teresa was “always restless for action and afraid of no man.” So when the war broke out, Teresa, joining her two brothers, enlisted in the revolutionary army despite her family and husband’s protests.

“Nay Isa” led her battalion of sharpshooters and bolo men to victory at several critical battles in the fight against the Spanish colonizers. She was the only woman to command combat troops in the Visayas during the revolution, earning her the title Visayan Joan of Arc. And though she was already in her 80s by the time of Japanese occupation, there was no chance this freedom fighter would stand by. She sold her possessions and even her property to support the rebels and finance the movement. This teacher sure taught our colonizers a thing or two.

Teresa Magbanua | Photo credit: Illustration by Nicole Gervacio

Like Teresa, Nieves Fernandez was also a teacher turned warrior. She was the only female guerrilla commander in World War II. Known as the Silent Killer, she stealthily carried out ambushes in the jungles and took down Japanese troops all on her own for two and a half years. Armed with only makeshift grenades and her bolo knife, they credit Captain Fernandez for killing more than 200 Japanese soldiers. The formidable captain led her 110-strong rebel troops to such successful guerrillas that the Japanese put a P10,000 bounty on her head. Together with her guerrilla forces, Captain Fernandez liberated villages and prisoners of war, sabotaged Japanese supplies, executed hundreds of raids, and even freed dozens of comfort women held captive in rape camps.

The comfort women’s story is rarely ever talked about, even though hundreds of thousands of women were abducted, enslaved, and abused by the Imperial Japanese Army during the war. Japanese officials even denied the existence of comfort stations. For a while, it seemed the comfort women’s history would forever be buried in the dark. But all of that changed in 1992 when Maria Rosa Luna Henson or Lola Rosa became the first Filipina to speak up about her story as a comfort woman, breaking the half-century silence about the atrocities against women during the war. The following year, in 1993, the Japanese government finally acknowledged the heinous crimes.

Maria Rosa Luna Henson “Lola Rosa” | Contributed Photo

Waves of comfort women began to speak out throughout the 90s. As a feminist activist and writer Maya Angelou once said, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.” Lola Rosa’s courage to speak up was the same stuff that empowered Gabriela, Teresa, and Nieves to head into battle. Today, we continue to witness the same courage and resolve shake Philippine society, albeit manifesting itself in different, more modern forms. Once these freedom fighters were armed with shotguns and a bolo knife, we now have tenacious public servants fighting against the cancer of corruption plaguing the nation for decades. Instead of revolutionaries rising against colonial rule, we now have democracy watchdogs holding down the line of power.

“Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago for International Women’s Day celebration special seminar.” Photo via Flickr/Creative Commons by IRRI

Very few public servants served the way Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago did throughout her life. Many Filipinos know her as “one of the most intellectually brilliant leaders that our country has ever seen.” Not only was she revered for her mental prowess, but she was also deeply respected for her honesty – a rare gem of virtue in her field. Educated in Oxford University, Cambridge University, Harvard University, and Stanford University, her professional track record is even more impressive than her academic feats. She holds an extraordinary record of excellence in all three government branches – judicial, executive, and legislative. She is the most awarded public official in the country, has filed the highest number of bills, authored some of the most important laws, and kickstarted a now-historic national plunder investigation. She has been called the incorruptible lady, the dragon lady, and the Iron Lady of Asia and featured by prestigious international publications, such as Time, the New York Times, and the Herald-Tribune. Indeed there are very few, if any, political figures that can rival the incredible grit and devotion of the candid solon. (One of her most famous one-liners is, “I eat death threats for breakfast!”) And yet, beyond her brilliance, she nurtured an unparalleled love for her country.

Gina Lopez at the Philippine Consulate New York | Photo via Edwin Josue

Senator Santiago passed away in 2019, the same year “eco-warrior” and tireless activist Gina Lopez died. A staunch advocate for environmental protection and children’s rights, Gina was a “pillar of strength.” At age 18, she turned her back on a life of privilege as the daughter of a media magnate and served the poor in Portugal, India, and Africa. After 20 years of missionary work, she returned home and took the helm of the ABS-CBN Foundation. From launching rescue projects for children who are victims of domestic violence to rolling out feeding, outreach, and Bayanihan programs for the less fortunate, Gina devoted her life to numerous social causes. But at the heart of her social work was an unyielding devotion to environmental advocacy, believing that everyone would benefit from the proper management and care of the environment. Due to politics, she only had ten months as head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). But within that short time, she had led a mining crackdown in a country known for its nickel production, taking down 28 of the Philippines’ 41 mining companies and effectively crippling the country’s nickel operations. Undaunted by powerful interests up against her, the fearless crusader stated, “I’m going to do the right thing and let the dice fall where it may.”

Rappler’s CEO Maria Ressa | Photo by Troi Santos/PDM

In the same way, award-winning journalist Maria Ressa faced formidable opponents with a steadfast dedication to her convictions. Together with the independent news company she built, Maria went up against the powers that be by closely following and extensively reporting the President’s extrajudicial killing campaign, which has drawn international rebuke for its flagrant violations against human rights and due process. Her team also exposed state-sponsored mass disinformation and trolling online, new-age propaganda that incites hate mobs to pollute and dominate public opinion. For her work, the former CNN bureau chief has incurred the President’s wrath, resulting in a series of investigations, eight court cases, and two arrests. In a country that consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, Maria Ressa has become a symbol in the fight for a free press. Her case is considered a test of the country’s journalistic freedom.

From legendary generals, lethal combatants, war survivors, restless crusaders, and modern-day freedom fighters, Filipinas have time and again shown uncompromising courage in the face of oppression. Every day, countless others serve as unsung heroes of the Philippine society within the healthcare industry, in the offices, marching across the streets, and at home.

“The 2021 National Women’s Month Celebration serves as a tribute, a platform, and a call to action that highlights the extraordinary roles of ordinary Juanas in the society as trailblazers and harbingers of change.”

— Philippine Commission on Women

This Women’s Month, let us honor the women who have helped the nation achieve liberty and celebrate those who are today making history.

Want to learn more about the Philippines? Check out www.suyomano.com. Suyomano is a Filipino virtual platform focused on cultural learning experiences touching local languages, ancient scriptwriting, indigenous tribal cultures and medicine, Philippine mythology, traditional martial arts, and beyond. We believe that bringing forth the best Filipino cultural heritage will spark a global movement that will connect people worldwide through cultural understanding.

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Disclaimer: Philippine Daily Mirror does not own any of the images in this article and claims no credit for any of them. If you own the rights to any of the images and do not wish them to appear on Philippine Daily Mirror, please contact us and promptly remove them. We believe in providing proper attribution to the original author, artist, or photographer.

( Zia Kalong is a regular Philippine Daily Mirror columnist. She is a Filipina writer nurturing a deep love for cultures, stories, and the written word. Her mission in life is to find beauty in both the curious and the mundane, to share the story of the Filipino people, and to stay caught up in the wonder of the world.)

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