pop Philippine Heroines of the Revolution:
Maria Clara they were not

by Dr. Robert L. Yoder, FAPC


The place of women continues to evolve in our time. An advertisement suggests, "You've come a long way, Baby!" Where at one time, men considered a woman's place to be in the home, her place today could be in the House of Representatives or even as our President. President Corazon Aquino was an example in the Philippines. Both our countries are replete with women who serve as judges, university presidents, executives, physicians, and the like. While a "glass ceiling" exists for women in the business world, it seems to be breaking apart with the challenges of talented females.

It is even true in the American and Philippine armed forces. It is possible today for a woman to be a General or an Astronaut. However, the two armies do not assign women to combat roles. Sadly, stories of sexual intimidation and exploitation including the world's armies fill our papers.

As we mark the 1996 - 1998 centennial of the Philippine revolution, it might be interesting to note that women played a significant role in this quest. This responsibility came despite the fact that the place of women at the turn of the century was more ornamental than practical.

The "ideal" image, promoted by no less than Jose Rizal, is that of Maria Clara, a demure, self-effacing beauty whose place was on the pedestal of male honor. Rizal describes this "ideal" of the Philippine woman with words such as these: "an Oriental decoration," "her eyes. . . always downcast," "a pure soul." (chapter 5, Noli Me Tangere). During the first six years of American rule, the noted nationalist, Teodoro Kalaw, deplored the impact of new ideas disseminated with the advent of American education. As he witnessed their reading books in English and "chattering in a strange language" he feared that they were becoming "unconscious victims of modernity." For him it was their degradation. Lost was their "native simplicity." They now preferred to be called "girls" instead of dalagas (maidens). Soon they would abandon their duennas, "walking out alone. . . a handbag under the arm, just like bold little American misses."

Spanish attitudes were not greatly different from those of "Victorian" Americans (a term which paradoxically comes from an English queen!). Filipinos of the era overlooked the possible role model of an earlier Ilocono heroine, Maria Josefa Gabriela Silang. Silang took up the cause of her assassinated husband Diego Silang. She fought the Spanish forces in a revolt that was a major precursor to the revolt began under Bonifacio. Indeed, many of the early classic Philippine histories do not do justice to the efforts of women in the revolution.

Andres Bonifacio, great as he was, had a touch of "male chauvinism." He founded the Katipunan, the first successful revolutionary movement, as a society for men, only. The wives of the Katipuneros, however, began to grow suspicious regarding the late evening conclaves of their husbands and objected to the loss of family revenue. Because of these forceful familial objections, Bonifacio began to bring women into the revolutionary fold. Eventually the Katipunan's set of conduct (the Kartila) declared the equality of men and women.

While the revolutionary movement might have idealized women, their wives claimed a place of power which can be traced to pre-Spanish days. Ancient Filipina priestesses were looked upon as persons of power, knowledge, and prophecy. She was consulted in spiritual affairs and often decided upon the right time to plant or the necessity of war. Even at the turn of the century outlying areas turned to women spiritual leaders to provide the sacrament of extreme unction to those at death's door.

To be a member, a woman had to be a wife, sister or daughter of a Katipunero. There is a difference of opinion as to whether there was a woman's organization separate from the men's. Dr. Pio Valenzuela, a confidant of Bonifacio, and a Katipunero, wrote, "There was no Supreme Council for women members and consequently it cannot be mentioned who was its first presidenta." On the other hand the majority of scholarly opinion holds that there was, indeed, a separate body, organized toward the middle of 1893, with the same method of admission as those for men. Perhaps, Dr. Valenzuela had a touch of chauvinistic "memory loss." The women joined under the same initiation rites as their husbands except that they did not have to sign the blood compact. Early Katepuneros included Jose Rizal's sisters, Josefa and Trinidad.

Bonifacio and his wife Gregoria married according to a secrete ritual of the Katipunan. No doubt other revolutionaries married with the same ceremony. At risk to their lives, the women helped to guard the secret documents of the society. In periods of danger, Gregoria, wife of the Supremo, sought to hide important documents from the soldiers. Sometimes she sought shelter in the homes of friends. Knowing that this exposed them to danger she also often rode in a carriage all day returning home only when she felt it was safe. In her memoirs Gregoria related that she learned marksmanship and riding horses. In the rebel camps she learned the survival skills of guerrillas such as what wild foods would be safe to eat and prepare and the administration of first aid.

When the Katipunan was holding session, the women often feigned a party like atmosphere with singing and dancing so that the civil guards believed that only a harmless social party was underway. Often women served as spies and they helped in the recruitment of new members into the organization.

Most women played a supportive role. Melchora Aquino is an exemplary model. At an advanced age, Melchora volunteered to help the Katipunan. The Katipunan gave her the code name, Tandang Sora (Tandang in Filipino is a term of respect which refers to her aged condition). History knows her primarily by this secret name. Her contributions were largely material in nature. She provided temporary shelter for the Katipuneros as well as food and other material.

Eventually her collaboration became known to the Spanish authorities. She attempted to flee to Novaliches but the civil guard, who captured her, took her for questioning in Bilibid Prison. Eventually, Spanish authorities exiled Melchora to Guam even though she was eighty-four years old.

In 1903 she returned to the Philippines, now under the American governance. She lived for the next sixteen years in the small village of her childhood and died at her daughter's home at 107 years of age.

Patrocinia Gamboa served in another way. Popularly known as the "Heroine of Jaro," Patrocinia hailed from Iloilo. Born to an ilustrado, or moneyed family, her heart burned with a longing of freedom from Spain. She secretly read the writings of Jose Rizal, Lopez Jaena (a province mate), and other revolutionary propagandists. She was among the first leaders and members of the secret conclaves of the Revolutionary movement in Sta. Barbara.

Because of her gender and because of her tie to wealth, Spaniards did not suspect her of revolutionary sympathies. This proved to be an asset as she acted as an intelligence agent and secretly raised funds for the revolution. When hostilities broke out, she risked her life in battle as a Red Cross nurse attending to the comfort of the wounded and sick.

History mixes her story of heroism with comedy. November 17, 1898, was the inauguration date for the Revolutionary government of the Visayas. Naturally, such an occasion called for a flag. The women of Jaro prepared a replica of the flag made by Marcela Agoncillo in Hong Kong. Now the problem lay in its delivery to the Santa Barbara headquarters of General Martin Delgado. Between the two towns were Spanish guards shooting anyone suspected as being in league with the revolutionary forces. They thoroughly inspected civilians passing along the roads.

Patrocinia and a young lieutenant volunteered for the task. Patrocinia wrapped the national flag around her waist concealing it with her other garments. The two took off as a husband and wife delivering hay in a carriage. A saber, a gift of General Aguinaldo to General Delgado, lay concealed under that hay.

The carriage neared a roadblock and the two faced the danger. How could they circumvent the attention of the guards? Patrocinia came up with in ingenious idea. She staged a husband and wife quarrel with herself as a domineering wife berating an unfortunate, weak husband. As she shouted and cursed the subdued man, she also pinched, bit and boxed him. They acted their comic parts so convincingly that the guards, overwhelmed with laughter, let them pass by.

They delivered the flag on time for the inaugural ceremonies. Near the pole stood Patrocinia, beaming with pride that she could perform yet another service for the country that struggled to come to be.

We can not enumerate adequately the emotional suffering and physical deprivation of Philippine women during Revolutionary times. We know principally about persons of note or those married to the principles. Gregoria de Jesus, wife of Bonifacio, struggled to bring about the Katipunan only to see the organization her husband founded turn on him, and secretly execute him after a unjust military trial.

Josephine Bracken, common law wife of Jose Rizal, underwent the emotional upheavals of a Caucasian foreigner, often misunderstood by Rizals' own family, who thought she might be a spy for the Spanish. History does not often recount her flight with bruised and blooded feet after Rizal's death. The revolutionary movement brought her through dense jungle growth to a safe area where she boarded a boat to safety in Hong Kong.

We witness the toughness of a great woman in the life of Hilaria (del Rosario) Aguinaldo. Not only is she the first of the "first ladies" of the Philippines, but the founder of the Philippine Red Cross. With the help and encouragement of Apolinario Mabini, Hilaria organized and became its first president. In its first five months it had thirteen chapters. She and others helped to organize and distribute the needed food and medicines to wounded Philippine soldiers.

On October 5, 1899, Mrs. Aguinaldo spoke to the soldiers assembled in Tarlac:

... Were it not a shocking thing for us to wear trousers and to carry rifles ... we [the women] members of the Philippine Red Cross -- would aid you in the struggle and die by your side, for what would our lives amount to if we should still have to live in slavery? Though I am a weak woman, I can assure you that my prayer is [for] all the Filipino people...

While it might be a "shocking thing" to participate actively in warfare, some women took to the field of battle and their lives are stories of tremendous courage.

Trinidad Tecson, "Mother of Biak-na-bato" is one such heroine. Already active in the Masonic movement, Tecson joined the Katipunan in 1895 at forty-seven years of age. She did the "manly" thing in signing her name with her own blood (something the women rarely did). On the battlefield she wore the Katipunero outfit and fought side by side with the men, enduring their hardships. Wounded at times, she returned to do battle as soon as she recovered. mong her exploits was the capture of munitions from the civil guard at the Caloocan, Rizal courthouse. In another exploit she was among the reconnoiters who captured firearms from the jail in San Isidro. Soldiers captured her and interrogated her for five days. They were, however, unable to discover where she hid the guns. Among her greatest exploits of valor was the defense to the entrance to the fort at Biak-na-bato. She, her husband, Julian Alcantara, and two servants held a superior force at bay and finally repelled the attack. Once, while securing provisions, she evaded capture by pretending death quietly crawling on the grass until she could hide in the dense foliage.

Eventually Trinidad organized other women to nurse the wounded and sick soldiers of the Filipino army. Her work spread to the Ilocos region and the Southern provinces. After the war, the American Red Cross recognized her for her nursing work. She died at eighty in 1928.

Another military heroine was Valeriana Elises y Palma, the wife of General Pantaleon Garcia. History notes her participation by her husband's side on the battle field. She demonstrated her courage under fire and her dedication to the ideals of the revolution.

A third female military figure is "Generala" Agueda Kahabagan. Dressed in white and armed with a rifle and bolo, history records her bravery in frequent combat against the Spanish and American forces. Apparently General Miguel Malvar commissioned Agueda to lead a formidable detachment of forces armed with rifles and machetes.

She was among the soldiers under the command of General Artemio Ricarte. Of note is their attack on the Spanish San Pablo garrison in October, 1897. Having survived the battles against Spain, she joined again in battle against the American Forces. Along with General Pio del Pilar, she fought against the Americans in the Southern Tagalog region. It was probably General del Pilar who recommended that she be granted the title of "General." The March 1899, roster of generals included Agueda as the only female General in the armed forces of the Katipunan. Records show her appointment as General on January 4, 1899. After the war, her name seems lost in the memory of many Filipinos. Let us remember her as a heroine, the "Tagalog Joan of Arc."

Let us also recall a fourth figure. This heroine came from the Visayas: Teresa Magbanua. In her childhood, Teresa was what we would call a "tom boy." She enjoyed climbing the trees, swimming in the Jaluar river, and riding horses and water buffalo. When her brothers got into fights with other children, she fought along with them. She preferred the company of boys more than girls. This concerned her parents who sent her off to a local finishing school and then to two colleges in Manila. At one of these schools in Manila she was the classmate of Dona Aurora Aragon, later the first lady of President Manuel Quezon of the Commonwealth.

Returning home to her hometown of Pototan she began teaching. She was firm but fair and acquired the respect of her community. She then transferred to the town of Sara where she met a wealthy landowner. After her marriage she transferred her energy from the schoolhouse to the plantation where she helped to manage the farm. She also had more opportunity to ride horses and practice her marksmanship.

When the Revolution began in Iloilo, Teresa's brothers, Pascual and Elias, joined the Katipunan forces. Eventually Elias became a Major in the revolutionary army, although he was only a teenager. Pascual became a Brigadier General in that army, a noted revolutionary in his own right. Although her husband objected, Teresa's love of country and desire of liberty led her to join in the revolution as well. She enlisted under General Perfecto Poblador, an uncle. According to her sister, Paz Magbanua Penaranda, the conversation went something like this:

"General, I have come to offer my services for our cause."

"Aye, woman," replied General Poblador, "what can you do?"

"I can fight."

"Fight? Why, you are a woman."

"What of it? Cannot a woman fight for her country just as well as a man?"

"Maybe, but..."

"Now General, you know that I can ride and shoot better than you. Give me men to command and I will show you how a woman can fight for her country."

In battle, she commanded a group of men so patriotic as to verge on the fanatical. Under her command they would attack any enemy group, regardless of the odds, if she gave the order. She also fought against American forces in Jaro in 1899. Her followers and local inhabitants called her "General" even though there is no record of her being so "officially" designated. Eventually it became obvious that the fight against superior American forces was futile. She disbanded her men and returned home.

Her greatest loss during these revolutionary times were the deaths of her two brothers. It was made more tragic that they were killed by other Filipinos. Elias died at 19 from the bullet of a Filipino guide working with the American forces. Even more tragic was the death of her brother Pascual. Bandits murdered him. Some believe those bandits were in league with personal enemies, jealous of his successes. They threw his body into the river, never to be recovered.

When Japan attacked the Philippines, Teresa sold all her property to help finance the guerrilla forces. She migrated to Mindanao and died in 1947 in Zamboanga.

Either in a support role or on the field of battle, Philippine revolutionary women responded with dedication and conviction to the cause of patriotism and an independent state. While we celebrate the role of women everywhere, these centennial years are a cause to commemorate the role women played which led to the founding of the Philippine Republic.

The End.

See also by the same author:
"Graciano López Jaena" and "Mabini: Wounded Hero"

E-mail to the author: r.yoder@prodigy.net

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created: July 16, 1998
updated: September 1, 1999
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger