When the Spaniards came into the Philippines, they brought with them their patriarchal values about women which eventually diffused into Philippine culture. The women during the Spanish period were tied to the house and their roles were confined exclusively to housekeeping and child rearing. On the other hand, there was the chivalrous idea that men should be the provider of the family and protector of the women. Women were also taught to be compliant to elders and always submissive to males. They were oriented to remain incorruptible until marriage and to focus on building skills that would make them good daughters, housewives, mothers and servants of God. Women were even barred from participating in political undertakings because it was considered a man’s work. Filipinos were familiarized to a religious and patriarchal system of education which emphasized the domestic value that women were the property of men. This infiltration of Spanish culture into Philippine norms and behavior is an evidence of feudal social relations.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, a group of young women in Malolos, Bulacan participated in a peaceful movement for educational reforms. This remarkable event showed the aptitude of these women for political and social reforms. The authorities came up with educational policies that were discriminatory against women who wanted to pursue higher education. The women of Malolos struggled to disprove the principle that women are destined to be homemakers and demonstrate that women are at par with men in other fields of endeavors.
The effort of the Women of Malolos is recognized as one of the most important events that contributed to the development of feminist movement in the country. This group of young women personally handed their letter of petition addressed to Governor-General Valeriano Weyler to allow them to put up a night school where they can study the Spanish language under Teodoro Sandiko. Their action received diverse reactions from the pro-friar sectors and the reformists because it was viewed as protest against the political power of the friars. The twenty young women, majority of whom were related to each other by blood or affinity, were members of the four major-Sangley clans of Malolos: the Tiongsons, the Tantocos, the Reyeses, and the Santoses. Although these women were raised by well-to-do families and enjoyed a life of luxury, they opted to be educated rather than to be contented with what society expected from them.
Prior to the education reform of 1863, education was left entirely in the hands of priests or curates of the parish. Since the responsibility of educating the natives belonged to the friars, its thrust was more of religious education. Students were taught to read the alphabet and syllables; and study sacred songs and music, and basic arithmetic. Education for females was not the same with males. Education was more of a privilege than a right, daughters of well-to-do families were taught reading, writing, arithmetic, religion and needlecraft, a benefit not enjoyed by daughters of Indios. Formal training beyond the primary grades was generally a male privilege. For the most part of the Spanish period, the majority of secondary and vocational schools as well as colleges were exclusively for males.
The Royal Decree of 1863 made primary instruction compulsory to all native and Chinese children between the ages of seven and twelve. It ordered that opening of a primary school for boys and another for girls for each town. One important aim of the decree was to teach Spanish to the populace. Although this move was to improve the poor state of education in the country, it failed due to the meddling of the friars in the state affairs. Lack of school buildings and teachers were also pointed as major hindrances for this program to be successful. There were only few teachers who knew Spanish but they received only modest salaries.
The Women of Malolos desired to learn the Spanish language because it was the language of politics and society. They found an ally in the person of Teodoro Sandiko who arrived in Malolos in 1888. Sandiko supported the aspirations of the women and offered to teach them the language but it would be done secretly. For the friars prohibited the teaching of Spanish to the natives and to the mestizos as it would lessen their influence. The government communicated directly with the friars who knew both the Spanish and the native language. To the friars, it would be better off the leave the natives and mestizos ignorant of the Spanish language so that their minds will not be penetrated by the liberal ideas since most books were written in Spanish. Gaining knowledge would make them crave for freedom and demand to human rights which were deemed a threat to Spanish rule and the power of the Church.
Sandiko by that time was secretly teaching Spanish language to adults but he wanted to make it legal. He requested to the provincial governor of Bulacan sometime to grant the opening of night schools without the expense of the government. However, it was disapproved because Felipe Garcia, the friar curate of Malolos prepared a report that Sandiko’s proposal would pose a threat to the government. Although their proposal was rejected, Sandiko and the Women of Malolos remained positive that their desire to put up a night school would be approved anytime soon.
After learning that the highest official of the land would visit Malolos on December 12, 1888, Sandico prepared a letter in Spanish, and requested the women to sign and present the letter to Weyler. Twenty of these women affixed their signatures to the letter. The women went to the church and presented the letter to the governor-general.
The request of the women did not get the approval of the governor-general because the parish priest Fray Garcia went up against it. Although disheartened, the women did not give up. With the support of the reformist Doroteo Cortes and the Maestra Guadalupe Reyes, the women continued to lobby for the school, traveling between Malolos and Manila to convince the governor-general to allow their request. Luckily, these young women triumphed in the end in February 1889 on the conditions that the women would finance their schooling, the teacher would be Guadalupe Reyes, and, the classes held in the daytime, not at night.
Although they did not get everything they asked for, the women proceeded to open their school at the house of one of their group, Rufina T. Reyes, first cousin of Elisea and Juana. The schooling however, was cut short when Sandico, was accused in late April 1889 by the Church authorities of spreading teachings against morality and of eating meat on days of abstinence during the Holy Week of 1889. On May 13, 1889, the Gobernadorcillo Castro and the Alferez Carlos Peñuelos closed down Sandico’s school of primary and secondary instruction. When Sandico left for Spain, the school where the Women of Malolos were attending had to close because of the pressure from the authorities. The school operated for only three months.
The establishment of a school out of the enduring efforts of the women to be educated in Spanish was commended by several newspapers. Graciano Lopez Jaena in the column Ecos de Ultramar, praised the women because of their courage to present themselves to the governor-general, an action considered bold that time.
Right after the article of Lopez Jaena was published in La Solidaridad, Marcelo H. del Pilar wrote from Barcelona to Jose Rizal in Madrid, on February 17, 1889, requesting Rizal to write them a letter in Tagalog commending the bravery of the women and with hopes that this valiant struggle against friar hegemony in the affairs of the Filipinos will enthuse all compatriots. Hence, Rizal sent del Pilar on February 22, 1889 the letter written in Tagalog for transmittal to the 20 young women of Malolos.
The message conveyed to the young women of Malolos centered on salient points such as the denunciation of the abuse of the friars in exercising their spiritual authority bestowed upon them by the church, traits Filipino mothers must have; duties and obligations of Filipino mothers to their children, functions and errands of a wife to her husband, and guidance to young women on their choice of a lifetime partner. Rizal also expressed his philosophy of freedom and independence that he believed was the key to the emancipation of humankind from slavery, and the necessity for education as the fundamental source of liberation. In the letter, Rizal enunciated his great desire for Filipino women to enjoy the privileges in education along with men. Moreover, he appealed to women to be heedful of their rights and not to be docile towards many injustices forced upon them. Men and women are born equal. God did not create men and women to be slaves, nor did he embellish them with reason only to be blinded by others.
Perhaps having experienced firsthand the warmth of his mother’s love, he defined in his letter the obligations and roles of the Filipino mothers to their children. For Rizal, the youth is a flower-bed that is to bear fruit and must accumulate wealth for its descendants. The mother must raise her children according to the image of God and orient the mind towards pleasant ideas. A mother must teach her children to prefer death with honor to life with dishonor. Mothers should inculcate the following values to their children: love of honor; sincere and firm character; clear mind; clear conduct; noble action; love for one’s fellowmen; and respect for God. Ever patriotic in his views, he warned that the country will never be free and flourishing as long as the children and the women remain ignorant. With this, the education of the children should not be limited to religious activities. He stressed obedience and reason as the highest virtues that one must possess.
The school of the Women of Malolos was closed down in May 1889 but their aspirations did not end. These women served their countrymen by supporting the cause of the Revolution against Spain. Some of them became members of the National Red Cross, while others became founding members of the Malolos Committee of the Asociacion Feminista de Filipinas in 1906, a national women’s organization aimed improving the welfare of women in all classes. It can be said that the women of Malolos were the forerunners of the feminist movement in the country for championing the cause of women’s right to education and equal rights regardless of gender.
Tiongson, Nicanor. The Women of Malolos. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Unibersity Press, 2004
Women’s Role in Philippine History: Selected Essays Second Edition. Quezon City: University Center for Women’s Studies University of the Philippines, 2001