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Women power in the Senate

Time is gone when the Philippine Senate was the exclusive bastion of powerful male politicians. This was particularly true before the Second World War when no woman was ever elected to the Senate even after the Filipino women were granted the right of suffrage through a plebiscite conducted on April 30, 1937. This was a historic moment, which allowed our women to vote and be voted upon into public office. In the local elections in 1938, two women were elected to public office—Carmen Planas as a councilor of the Municipal Board of Manila and Cristina Aguinaldo-Suntay, daughter of General Emilio Aguinaldo, as a member of the Provincial Board of Cavite.

They were the first women to win an elective position in our country. They belonged to the Young Philippines Party led by Wenceslao Q. Vinzons, the brilliant student leader from the University of the Philippines who led the opposition against President Manuel L. Quezon. Planas was the election topnotcher and was popularly known as “Manila’s Darling.”  A lovely Filipino-Chinese mestiza and fiery student activist during the Commonwealth years, Planas was only 23 years old when she was elected the first woman councilor of Manila. One time while she was rushing out of the session hall after a long meeting, a reporter asked her, “Are you rushing for a date?” Without losing a beat, Planas replied, “Yes, I’m dating the people of Manila.” So she was forever endeared to the Manilans and became “Manila’s Sweetheart.”

The first woman senator of the Philippines was Geronima Tomelden Pecson of Lingayen, Pangasinan. She won a Senate seat in the senatorial election of 1947 after serving as the assistant executive secretary of President Manuel A. Roxas. She landed in third place out of the 8 winning senatorial candidates led by Lorenzo Tañada, a fellow member of the Liberal Party (LP). Only Camilo Osias was elected from the Nacionalista Party (NP). Pecson was a product of the University of the Philippines where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Before the war, she was a leading suffragette who actively campaigned for women’s right to vote. The right to vote carried with it the right to be voted upon and Pecson was fortunate to be elected to the highest elective post aspired by a woman until that time. She was considered as a “super social worker” whose extensive humanitarian works earned her the respect of her grateful countrymen. During her Senate stint, she served as chairperson of three committees: the Senate Committee on Education, Committee on Health and Public Welfare and the Joint Congressional Committee on Education. Apart from that, she was a member of the powerful Commission on Appointments and of the Senate Electoral Tribunal. Unfortunately, she lost in her reelection bid following Ramon Magsaysay’s juggernaut win in the presidential election of 1953 where all the LP bets lost. The NP led by Magsaysay was on top of the world while the LP under President Elpidio Quirino was at its nadir. Pecson placed No. 9 and got the highest number of votes among the losing candidates. In the following midterm senatorial elections, Pacita Madrigal Gonzales, also known as Manang Pacita, of the NP was elected as the No. 1 senator. A daughter of a financial magnate and industrialist, former Senator Vicente Madrigal, Manang Pacita headed the Women for President Magsaysay Movement, which gathered massive support in favor of the presidential challenger. Upon Magsaysay’s election to the presidency, Manang Pacita was named as the Social Welfare administrator. She studied in Sorbonne University in Paris and later enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas where she took up business administration and graduated magna cum laude. Like Pecson, Manang Pacita was the lone woman member in the Senate during her entire term, and she also lost in her reelection bid. More than four decades later, her niece, Jamby Madrigal also served as senator for one term from 2004 to 2010. Manang Pacita was followed in the Senate by Maria Kalaw Katigbak who won a Senate seat in 1961. She was also a lone wolf in the Senate until she was joined by Tecla San Andres Ziga in 1963 and by her sister-in-law, Eva Estrada-Kalaw, in 1965, but she lost in her re-election bid in 1967.

The 6th Congress saw more female senators than in the previous years. Magnolia Antonino and Helena Benitez were elected in the 1971 senatorial election, together with reelectionist Kalaw. The female reelection jinx was broken by Kalaw who was reelected in 1971 and became the first-ever female senator to win two consecutive terms.

Since 1947 when the first female senator was elected, there have been 23 Filipino women who have served in the Senate. They are: Pecson, Madrigal-Gonzalez, Katigbak, Magnolia Antonino, Kalaw, Ziga, Benitez, Santanina Rasul, Leticia Ramos-Shahani, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Anna Coseteng, Loren Legarda, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Tessie Aquino Oreta, Loi Estrada, Jamby Madrigal, Pia Cayetano, Nancy Binay, Grace Poe, Cynthia Villar, Leila de Lima, Risa Hontiveros, and Imee Marcos.

Loren Legarda has the longest stint in the Senate among our female senators. She has been elected four times to the Upper Chamber —in 1998, 2007, 2013 and 2022.  Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Pia Cayetano were elected three times. Pia Cayetano, at the age of 38, is the youngest woman to be elected senator. Legarda is the only woman to top the senatorial race twice and the only woman who served as the Senate Majority Leader. Among the women who were elected to the Senate, Manang Pacita, GMA, Poe and Villar had also topped their Senate races. However, among all senators, only the late Senator Jovito Salonga was elected No. 1 senator three times. Ziga did not top the senatorial contest but she is the only female senator to place no.1 in the bar examination. She joined the illustrious group of all-male bar topnotchers elected to the Senate consisting of Manuel Roxas, Lorenzo Sumulong, Emmanuel Pelaez, Ferdinand Marcos, Jovito Salonga, Jose W. Diokno and Koko Pimentel III.

Women power finally manifested in the post-Edsa Senate. When elections resumed in 1987, two women —Shahani and Rasul—were elected to the Senate. Thereafter, from the 9th Congress (1992-1995), not less than three women occupied seats in the Senate. The most number was recorded in the 18th Congress (2019 to 2022) and the present 19th Congress (2022 to 2025) where we elected seven women senators each. In the present Senate, four (Villar, Poe, Binay, and Hontiveros) have been reelected, two (Pia Cayetano and Legarda) are returnees, and one (Imee Marcos) is the only first termer but she belongs to a renowned political family. Practically, the same names have prominently figured in Senate politics. After serving two consecutive terms, they may vanish for a while and then reclaim their Senate seat, unless they finally retire or occupy another office. We need new talents and fresh faces from the women sector that can enliven and dignify women’s participation in our highest legislative body. We need the chutzpah of Miriam and Eva, the diligence of Loren and Pia, the hard work of Cynthia and Leticia, the intelligence of Tecla and Gloria, the determination of Imee and Nancy, and the courage of Leila and Risa. All past and present lady senators have their strengths and virtues and they had their moments of glory while serving their constituents. But what is most important is that anyone who serves in the Senate, whether a man or a woman, should possess a political integrity who will serve our people’s interest above all else.

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