Pinay in power: The new Babaylan

- Advertisement -

Before the Philippines gained its name as a nation, and before the centuries of colonization, females wielded as much—if not more—power in the communities of our archipelago as the males did.

Why, back in the pre-colonial days, the men walked two steps behind their women, who could own land, conduct business, and, yes, take positions of political power just like the males could.

In fact, amid all the machismo in the Philippines, you have a country where military and police officers often refer to their wives as “si kumander (she who is my commander)” and where matriarchs wield considerable power over their clans still.

Read the article titled “The Fall of the Babaylan” penned by Mario Alvaro Limos for, and you will find that the babaylan—wise woman, healer, mystic and priestess—was the second most powerful person in any community, after the ruler, or datu.

“[T]he babaylans specialized in harnessing the unlimited powers of nature, which they used for both good and ill intentions,” Limos wrote in his Esquire piece. “[A]s women, babaylans were more likely to be powerful ritual specialists with the power to influence the weather, and tap the various spirits in nature. Babaylans were held in such high esteem because of their ability to negate the dark magic of the datus and heal the sick or the wounded. Among the powers of the babaylan was to heal the sick, ensure a safe pregnancy and childbirth, and lead rituals with offerings to the various divinities.”

Such a woman had to gain her power by dint of skill and hard work. She had to know her herbs, make remedies, antidotes, and potions from the various parts of medicinal plants indigenous to the islands—both to tend to the ailing members of her community and to serve as the datu’s backup in times of conflict. If the lore of many parts of the Philippine archipelago is to be believed, these powerful women could even call lightning strikes down on an unfortunate enemy. Babaylans were the intercessors between the living tao, spirits, and the deities of old.

That changed with the Christianization, by conversion or threat of death, brought by the Spaniards along with their galleons, soldiers and friars. Limos wrote that “the babaylans found themselves at the frontline of the battle against the ‘God’ part. The Spanish friars pursued the relentless destruction of all the heathens’ rituals and paraphernalia.” The colonizing forces “broke the anito and other ritual instruments” dishonoring them by dragging these sacred relics through the villages they conquered and making young boys poop on them. “This effectively dishonored and depowered the babaylans, while defiling the ancient religion of the Filipinos.”

This set the already good tone of gender equality in our islands back to the “me Tarzan, you Jane” stage of gender politics, and our women have yet to re-attain this level of power in Philippine society—glammed up as it is in high-tech gizmos transmitting the global #MeToo movement that is the next wave of the centuries women the world over have fought for their rights: Suffrage, Women’s Lib, LGBTQ rights, Marriage Equality under SOGIE, breaking the glass ceiling so they get equal pay for doing the same jobs men do.


Filipino women first gained the right to vote and to run for public office on April 30, 1937—and they’d been fighting for the right to vote since 1898, at just about the same time as the Philippine Revolution—in which Filipino men and women were vital participants, in combat and behind the battle-fronts as logistics and medical support volunteers—ejected the Spanish colonial government from the archipelago.

The Treaty of Paris, however, made that victory moot. The Philippines was sold to the United States and, before the men and women of the Katipunan had time to draw a sigh, they found themselves fighting in the Philippine-American War, and being “benevolently” assimilated until the Republic of the Philippines was granted independence under the Tydings-McDuffie Law of 1934. The Commonwealth of the Philippines was inaugurated on Nov. 15, 1935, with Manuel L. Quezon elected President in a vicious electoral battle between Quezon and former Katipunan General and First Philippine Republic President Emilio Aguinaldo.

The women suffragists’ 39-year struggle to give Pinays the vote did more than win these women the right to participate in the elections by casting their ballots for the candidates of their choice: The right to vote came with the right to seek political office and walk in the halls of power.

The general elections of Dec. 14, 1937 became the first exercise of suffrage in the Philippines “in which Filipino women were allowed to vote and run for public office. Subsequent elections saw many Filipino women winning in various local positions across the nation,” according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) report by Fernando Cabigao Jr. headlined “Women: The right to vote & serve.”

That year, a woman named Carmen Planas ran for councilor of the City of Manila, a seat she won then, and won again in 1941.

After Planas, nurse and, later, physician Elisa Ochoa ran for a seat in the National Assembly as a representative of her home province of Agusan. She was the first Filipina elected to Congress, where she sat as Agusan’s representative until 1946.

Less than a month after winning her congressional seat, Ochoa’s term was interrupted by the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, and the National Assembly could not convene until it was reorganized under the control of the Japanese in 1943. Despite this, Ochoa tried to perform her official duties. She was active in humanitarian efforts during World War II. She resumed her legislative seat after the restoration of the Commonwealth government under President Sergio Osmeña.

According to the Senate website,, Pangasinan native and social worker Geronima Pecson became the first woman to be elected senator in the Philippines in 1947, during the Second Congress of the republic.

Pecson was a well-known suffragette who, according to the Senate website, “went about her work minus the attendant fanfare. Her outstanding accomplishments were substantiated by the numerous awards she received from civic, religious and educational institutions. She once said, ‘I would project my work rather than myself.’”

She’d headed the Senate Committees on Education and the committee on Health and Public Welfare, as well as the Joint Congressional Committee on Education. Pecson “was also a member of the Commission on Appointments and of the Senate Electoral Tribunal. She was the prime mover of various notable laws, such as the Free and Compulsary Education Act of 1953; the Vocational Educaion Act; the law permitting the establishment of training facilities for instructors in specific national school of arts and trades; and the law transforming the school of forestry of the University of the Philippines into a college,” according to the Senate website.

Prior to her entry into the legislature, Pecson “worked as a private secretary to President Jose P. Laurel. In 1946, she served as an Assistant Executive Secretary of President Manuel A. Roxas. A year later, she joined the senatorial elections, and made political history by garnering the third largest number of votes. She then became the first woman senator.” She was “the recipient of distinguished awards, among which were the Press Association’s Legion of Honor Award from the President of the Philippines, Pro Patria Presidential Award, 1964 Outstanding Award for excellent service in Philippine education, Presidential medals and citations for ‘educational statesmanship through legislation’ and for ‘being the first Filipino and first woman elected to the executive board of UNESCO.’”

The Philippines has since seen many women run successfully for political office, from the post of Barangay Captain (village chief) all the way through both chambers of Congress, various gubernatorial posts across the country, and, yes, as President of the Republic of the Philippines.


Corazon Cojuangco Aquino was more than a “simple housewife.” She was the wife of slain opposition Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. and a daughter of a rich landlord family in Tarlac. Her demure demeanor did not detract from the defiance of her opposition to Marcos, against whom she ran for the presidency in the 1985 snap elections. Widespread poll fraud during this election triggered the walkout of National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) volunteers and spurred escalating political unrest that culminated in the three-day Edsa People Power Revolution of 1986 and the ouster of Marcos after 20 years of dictatorship.

Once Aquino was sworn in, the Philippines had its first woman president before most of the world did—including the United States, which, up to this writing, has yet to elect a woman president.

Iceland’s Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was the first woman to be democratically elected President of any nation in the world, and she served as the fourth President of Iceland from Aug. 1, 1980 to 1996.

To date, the Philippines was two female Presidents: Aquino and economics professor and former Senator Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal.

Macapagal-Arroyo had elected Vice President when Joseph “Erap” Ejercito Estrada won his Presidency by a landslide. When Estrada was ousted by popular revolt in 2001, Macapagal-Arroyo assumed the Presidency, then ran (and won) in the presidential race of 2004. Macapagal-Arroyo holds the distinction of being the first woman elected Vice President in the Philippines. The incumbent Vice President, Leni Robredo, is the second woman to be elected to that post.


Manila-born Senator Pacita Madrigal Gonzales served in the Fourth Congress (1958-1961). Prior to her election to the Senate, Madrigal worked as a Red Cross volunteer in New York, where she was staying when World War II broke out on Dec. 8, 1941. She also worked as an apprentice at the Walter Reed Hospital. The Senate website said Gonzales married Manila Gas Corp. vice president and general manager Herman Wans and established a ballet school. She’d become interested in politics in 1952, “joined the League of Women Voters and represented it in the Triennial Congress of International Allience of Women, Naples, Italy. She went next to Geneva [Switzerland] and Paris [France] as counselor of the Philippine delegation to the UNESCO Seventh General Conference.”

Gonzales organized the Women’s Magsaysay for President Movement that helped elect Ramon Magsaysay to the presidency and, in 1954 was appointed Social Welfare Administrator. She organized the Samahang Manang Pacita, an organization in which Filipinas worked for community development. Gonzales ran for the Senate and won her legislative seat under the conservative banner of the Nacionalista Party. She chaired the Senate Committees on Social Justice, Community Development and Welfare and was a member of other Senate committees as well. When she was widowed, she wd lawyer Gonzalo Gonzales in 1956.

The Fifth Congress saw only one woman senator: Beauty queen, journalist and politician Maria Kalaw Katigbak, who served there from 1961 to 1967. It was under her advocacy that Senate Bill 652 was passed into the law reverting the start of the schoolyear in the Philippines to June and overturning the change then Education Secretary Alejandro Roces had made to open the schoolyear in September.

Katigbak also authored Senate Bill No. 84, which is now Republic Act 3765, or the Truth in Lending Act of 1963 that protects consumers buying good on installment plans and using credit cards. We have her to thank for RA 621 that created the UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines, and RA 4165 creating the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in 1964. She handled the Senate committees on Education, Commerce, and Industry.

By 1965, Katigbak gained another female colleague in the Upper Chamber: Her sister-in-law Eva Estrada Kalaw.

Senator Eva Estrada Kalaw was the first woman senator to be re-elected to the Senate, where she served from 1965 to 1972. Kalaw, who passed away in 2017, was one of the most vocal opponents of then President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos. She was the prime mover in the legislature for laws standardizing salaries for public school personnel, the Magna Carta for Private Schools, the Magna Carta for Students, and an Act to institute a Charter for Barrio High Schools. She one of the Liberal Party candidates injured during the Plaza Miranda bombing on Aug. 21, 1971.

Manila native Helena Z. Benitez was elected to the Senate during the Seventh Congress (1970-1973), where she authored and co-authored laws on education, manpower and youth development, family, housing and the environment. She is now the chairperson of the Philippine Women’s University Board of Trustees.

The Eighth Congress (1987-1992) saw two women in the Senate: Santanina Rasul, who was the first Muslim woman elected to the Senate, and diplomat Leticia Ramos Shahani. The Ninth Congress (1992-1995) saw three women in the Senate: Rasul, Anna Dominique “Nikki” Coseteng, and economist and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Coseteng and Arroyo were re-elected into the Senate of the 10th Congress, and lawyer and former Bureau of Immigration chief Miriam Defensor Santiago was elected Senator as well.

The 11th Congress saw the election of Ninoy Aquino’s sister, Teresa Aquino-Oreta and broadcaster Loren Legarda, and the re-election of Coseteng and Defensor-Santiago. Oreta was re-elected to the Senate during the 12th Congress (2001-2004), and former First Lady Luisa Ejercito Estrada ran for and won a Senate seat, too, despite the ouster of her husband, Joseph “Erap” Ejercito Estrada by people power uprising in the wake of the Jose Pidal scandal.

The 13th Congress saw Mrs. Estrada’s re-election to the Senate, and the election of Jamby Madrigal and lawyer Pia Cayetano, the daughter of Senator Renato Cayetano to the Upper Chamber.

Madrigal, Cayetano, Legarda and Defensor-Santiago served as Senators in the 14th Congress as well, and this was the Congress that actually saw more than three women Senators serving concurrently in it–a number that dropped back to three by the 15th Congress, with Legarda, Defensor-Santiago and Cayetano among the senators.

The 16th Congress saw that number of female senators rise to five with the election of Binay, Cayetano, Defensor-Santiago, Legarda and Grace Poe, the daughter of movie icon and former presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr.

The Republic of the Philippines is now on its 17th Congress, and six of the 24 senators incumbent in the Upper Chamber are women: Binay, Leila de Lima, Risa Hontiveros, Legarda, Poe and Cynthia Villar.

As is to be expected, an increase in the number of women in the legislature resulted in the passage of more laws protecting and upholding the rights and welfare of women in the Philippines.


A study titled “Women’s Political Representation in the Philippines”—conducted by Sara Souad Lundgren and Vaida Petrosiute of the University of Borås in Sweden that was published in 2017— found that Filipino women are “as competent as men in the political field, but it is easier for women to [enter] politics if they are a part of a political clan.”

The researchers also found that “these women, who replace their family members, usually pursue those [family] members’ decision, but do not act according to their will.”

“The government in the Philippines does not have strong gender biases and the ability to be a politician is not grounded on gender, but it has always been more difficult for women to go [into] politics than men,” the researchers found. “All the politicians agree that education helps women come [into] politics and women with higher education attainment increase their chances to participate.”

While the researchers said the legislators who were their study respondents in the Philippines “perceive the present situation as positive,” Lundgren and Petrosuite found that their respondents also “believe it can and should be improved. They are also in agreement that women as capable to be political representatives and serve the citizens as well as men. In fact, women have a lot of experiences to contribute with, which benefit the citizens. The more women there are in politics, the more they will fight for women’s rights”—like the right to accessible and affordable maternal care, access to contraception and family planning services, the right to protection from violence against women and children, and extended maternity and paternity leaves, to name a few.

The study also took note of the correlation between political dynasties and the term limits (nine years) placed on politicians in the legislature: “If a father, brother or a husband decides to allow their daughter, sister or wife to replace him, but education, economic resources and strong personality also benefits for women [sic] to come in the political world.”

The Swedish researchers also noted that the Philippines “has very family-oriented politics, which makes it easier for women to participate in politics. There are many areas in the Philippines that are dominated by particular clans… It is a benefit for a woman to come from a political family, but she still must work hard to be able to remain in politics. The economic resources are one of the greatest obstacles for women who want to join politics in the Philippines.”

With more women in elective posts in the legislative and executive departments, as well as in the judiciary, many laws and government policies that are pro-women have been put in effect. Many government programs seeking to improve the lot of women in Philippine society and include them in decision-making and national growth have been created.

But there is still a great need to bring this pro-woman momentum down to the grassroots where women are still disadvantaged in terms of educational and employment opportunities, as well as the protection of laws.

The maternal mortality rate was pegged at 114 deaths per 100,000 live births, as of 2017, according to the Department of Health (DOH)—just a shade more than 10% of births result in the mother dying. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) recorded 1,700,618 live births in the same year. This means that nearly 160,000 women died of complications arising from childbirth in 2017 alone. While the Magna Carta for Women is now in effect and its passage is steadily empowering women across the board slowly, there is still a great gap between women who belong to rich and influential families and poor women—an economic and opportunity gap that can be closed by putting women who are capable of creating the needed changes in positions of economic and political power.

Limos wrote this in his Esquire article: “The babaylans did not give up without a fight, however. When they were forced by the Spaniards to abandon their ritual practices, some babaylans used Catholic images and rituals as their own anitos or diwatas.”

He added that these powerful women were eventually branded as witches and maleficars called “mangkukulam” or hex-casters. He posited in his article that the fall of the babaylans of the pre-colonial Philippine archipelago “represents the drastic changes that overwhelmed pre-colonial Filipino society,” and how these women are “reminders of how Filipinos regarded women in high esteem,” and that the Philippines “consistently ranks high on the Global Gender Gap Report, perhaps… because of our collective memory of women as powerful equals of men.”

Now, do the Pinays in power remember this, too? Because they need to reach back through the mists of time to regain the level of power women once had to help push this country—with its men and women—forward to a safer, stronger and more inclusive future.

After all, with great power comes a huge workload—and, in this digital age where everything happens so much faster, it must also be backed up by a huge and effective memory of history. G



More Stories