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IMPULSES | The enduring spirit of Ilongga women

By Herman M. Lagon

We honor the incredible achievements of Ilongga women—some “unwritten, unsung”—from different periods of Philippine history this March in observance of International Women’s Day. These wonder women exemplify multifaceted kinds of gravitas in all their endeavors. We highlight the tenacity of Ilongga women, drawing on the extensive research of the University of the Philippines professors in the Visayas’s Rosario H. Asong, Tita S. Torio, and their colleagues.

Visayan folklore offers a unique take on human origins, emphasizing gender equality from the outset, unlike the Adam and Eve story. In this tale, the first woman (“bayi”) and the first man (“laki”) emerge together from a bamboo reed, indicating equal status from birth in a world free from gender prejudice. This narrative underscores the importance of both genders as complete and sovereign entities, with a special acknowledgment of the woman’s role as the giver of life. Through this, Ilonggo folklore positions women as equal partners in humanity’s story and celebrates their pivotal role in society, with a deeply ingrained respect for women in the cultural ethos.

Throughout history, cultural and colonial factors have impacted women’s societal roles. The Babaylan and Visayan folklore highlight women’s crucial role in pre-colonial religion, medicine, and society. Famous Babaylans such as Estrella Bangotbanwa—who had the power to call down rain—and Monica Gapon and Agustina Hiticon—who fought against colonial overlords—illustrate women’s significant spiritual and social roles in Babaylan society.

Spanish colonization brought with it Iberian ideas of femininity, which sadly kept women in subordinate positions. But this didn’t stop Ilongga women from significantly contributing to their communities. With its founding in 1876, the Colegio de Sta. Ana opened new vistas for education for the privileged ladies of Panay.

For Ilongga women, the activism of the new century was a watershed moment. The women’s suffrage movement in the Philippines was marked by Purita Villanueva and her comrades’ 1906 foundation of the Asociacion Feminista Ilonga (AFI). Achieving the right to vote for Filipino women in 1937 was a tremendous triumph in the fight for gender equality, and it was the result of their dogged persistence and the work of national organizations.

Ilongga ladies showed unmatched courage and determination during the American colonization and Japanese occupation. Symbols of women’s active engagement in resistance and battle, such as Teresa Magbanua, called the “Visayan Joan of Arc,” were displayed. In addition, women’s involvement in revolutionary and guerilla activities, such as Lucia Hisole and Capitana Francisca Cabañas, demonstrated women’s vital responsibilities in the fight for national independence. These legacies of bravery, brilliance, and empowerment were continued by the likes of Magdalena Jalandoni, one of the most prolific Filipino writers in the Hiligaynon language, Jovita Fuentes, National Artist for Music, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, the best president that we never had, and Rosa Henson, the first Filipina to make public her story as a comfort woman.

Our salute to them for, as Dr. Asong said, despite all odds, “they dared to defy tradition for a higher cause, pursued work beyond the homes, broke the culture of silence, and fought for our political rights.”

Ilongga women today are no different as they continue to shatter glass ceilings and make history in various industries. They have repeatedly proven they can succeed in every field—from literature and science to politics, governance, and sports. Zonta, Gabriela, Rotary Anns, Akbayan, and Soroptimists are just a few organizations fighting for gender equality and social justice.

Institutions like UP Iloilo have emerged as leaders in Iloilo’s educational scene, promoting gender studies and women’s empowerment and laying the groundwork for future generations of strong women. These changes show how far we have come to acknowledge and appreciate women’s contributions and work toward gender equality.

On this International Women’s Day, let us remember the Ilongga women whose contributions have influenced Iloilo and our entire country. Their bravery, perseverance, and achievements motivate us to do better and set new standards as we work for a more just and inclusive society.


Doc H fondly describes himself as a ‘student of and for life’ who, like many others, aspires to a life-giving and why-driven world that is grounded in social justice and the pursuit of happiness. His views herewith do not necessarily reflect those of the institutions he is employed or connected with.


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