Filipina Feminists, Firebrands and Freedom Fighters

Type the word “Filipina” into Google and you’ll be inundated by a bounty of sleazy websites hocking mail- order brides, sex tours, and a host of other salacious services allegedly proffered by the “exotic” and “submissive” women of the Philippine Islands.

But the country’s unsavory reputation as a one-stop sex shop for lecherous American and European men belies a robust, militant women’s movement and a centuries-old precedent of gender equality.

With that in mind, two women legislators from the GABRIELA Women’s Party are pushing for the creation of a national museum honoring “the heroism, martyrdom and achievements of Filipinas in society.”

Reps. Luzviminda Ilagan and Emerenciana De Jesus are hoping to recognize the achievements of notable women in Philippine history such as Gabriela Silang, a 17th-century revolutionary who led 2,000 Filipinos in battle against the Spanish army, as well as recognizing historic feminist organizations such the Association of Ilonga Feminists, which began fighting for suffrage in 1912.

The museum would be the first of its kind, and an important step in recognizing the oft-forgotten contributions and struggles of women in Philippine society. The nation certainly has no shortage of feminist firebrands and freedom fighters, and today Filipinas continue to fortify the front lines of the country’s most pivotal social justice movements.

A few fun facts about Filipina feminist history:

  • Prior to Spanish colonization in the 1500s, women practiced pre-marital sex, divorce, abortion and actively participated in trade.
  • The first Filipina “feminist” organization was established in 1901: Asocacion Feminista Filipina.
  • Filipinas became the first women in Asia to obtain suffrage, in 1937.
  • Because of the Philippines’ colonial legacy, Filipina feminism is inherently nationalistic—advocating for the rights of women while fighting for liberation and autonomy of the Filipino people as a whole.
  • GABRIELA Philippines (named after Gabriela Silang) is the largest network of women’s rights organizations in the country. Its U.S.-based sister organization, GABRIELA USA boasts active, vibrant chapters in New York, Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

ABOVE: During GABRIELA’s 2010 satirical fashion show, a political protest of government corruption, an activist walks the runway representing the rampant extrajudicial killing of journalists in the Philippines.


Catherine is an assistant features editor at Hyphen magazine and a first year student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She interned at Ms. in the spring of 2010, and has since reported on the gendered impact of immigration enforcement in Arizona, the rights of health care workers in the Philippines and indigenous women's struggle against Big Oil in Canada. She has a B.A. in English and a minor in Women & Gender Studies from Arizona State University.