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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

the feminist in rizal

Even when National Hero Jose Rizal lived and died before women’s suffrage became in vogue in the West and way before the second half of the 20th century saw the women’s liberation movement burst into the patriarchal world, he definitely knew the condition of the Filipina in his own historical location.
While Rizal wrote letters and articles prolifically, very seldom did his writings openly deal with concepts on the rights and status of women in the Philippine society of the 1800’s. These rather few literary works are therefore considered valuable by Filipinos.
Of Rizal’s beliefs on women’s independence and on inalienability of women’s rights, the most famous is the “Message to the Young Women of Malolos.” Upon the request by fellow Propagandista Marcelo H. del Pilar, he penned the epistle on February 1889 while residing in London in order to uplift the spirits of these young women. Rizal admitted to not knowing Malolos or anyone of the women save for Emilia Tiongson, whom Rizal met two years before. A bevy of twenty young women from Malolos town in Bulacan, daughters of the gentry, signified their intent to establish a school where Spanish language would be part of the curriculum. The lady daughters of the maginoos were as follows: Elisea Tantoco Reyes (1873-1969), Juana Tantoco Reyes (1874-1900), Leoncia Santos Reyes (1864-1948), Olympia San Agustin Reyes (1876-1910), Rufina T. Reyes (1869-1909), Eugenia Mendoza Tanchangco (1871-1969), Aurea Mendoza Tanchangco (1872-1958), Basilia Villariño Tantoco (1865-1925), Teresa Tiongson Tantoco (1867-1942), Maria Tiongson Tantoco (1869-1912), Anastacia Maclang Tiongson (1874-1940), Basilia Reyes Tiongson (ca 1860-ca 1900), Paz Reyes Tiongson (ca 1862- ca 1889), Aleja Reyes Tiongson (ca 1864-ca 1900), Mercedes Reyes Tiongson (1870-1928), Agapita Reyes Tiongson (1872-1937), Filomena Oliveros Tiongson (ca 1867-1934), Cecilia Oliveros Tiongson ( ca 1867-1934), Feliciana Oliveros Tiongson (1869-1938) and Alberta Santos Uitangcoy (1865-1953). It was on December 12, 1888 when these young women proposed to Governor-General Valeriano Weyler, later to be named “butcher of Cuba ,” for consent to open a “night school” where they might learn liberal arts including Spanish language through the supervision of Teodoro Sandiko.
However, the town’s parish priest, Fr. Felipe Garcia, opposed the petition and triumphed in aborting the idea by arranging for the governor’s disapproval. Nonetheless, the women persisted, defied the friar’s wrath and continued to push for their plan with the governor until such time their cause ultimately earned his permission.
The agitation for the Spanish school was a rarity in the Philippines during the period. When they succeeded in garnering the government permission to their plan, a condition was compromised that Senorita Guadalupe Reyes should be the one to teach them. The thing unheard of before in the Islands reached the faraway shores of Spain, where the Malolos women’s Bulakeno compatriot del Pilar would write Rizal from Barcelona on February 17, 1889, asking Rizal to transmit a letter in Tagalog—a noteworthy deviation from his customary Spanish writings—as a booster of the women’s morale.
Although in the thick of annotating Dr. Antonio de Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, he set aside his literary business and wrote his famous letter and sent it to del Pilar for transmittal in Malolos on February 22, 1889. Because the simple deed transgressed the wishes of a powerful friar, the act was taken as a scoop by Rizal’s fellow reformist Graciano Lopez-Jaena and the National Hero’s lengthy letter would be published too in the official newspaper of the Propaganda movement, edited especially by del Pilar.
The consent gained by the young women of Malolos was for Rizal a victory that likewise belonged to the Filipino women at-large. At most, their success was for the Filipinos in general.
Every so often, women are seen merely as wives, mothers, sisters or daughters. Although the women perform these sterling roles in their daily lives, the conventional historians have obliterated the women out of the picture. Despite the suspicion that the women of Malolos were just tools of the ilustrados immersed in the reform movement, specifically Marcelo del Pilar, their action was by all means rare and revolutionary for their time and class. The oppositional rhetoric of the women of Malolos was founded in the old culture of women’s resistance to colonial trappings. Eversince the Spanish conquered the archipelago for a third of a millennium, women had fomented uprisings across the Islands from the babaylan rebels circa 1700’s to the iluminati native nuns residing in beaterios to the bolo-equipped women rebels of the 1896 Philippine Revolution.
The singular deed of the young women of Malolos created a deep impact on women in all corners of the Philippines . For one, the Spaniards were made conscious of the previously underestimated resistance being one involving the entire society, not only from the Filipino men but also from the Filipino women. The reformists noticed this, hence the urging of del Pilar for Rizal to advise the young women to champion their cause being proper female citizens of the country. Even as Rizal had a notion of them possessing “a sweet disposition, beautiful habits, gentle manners, modesty, excessive goodness, humility or perhaps ignorance,” he anticipated them to be “like withered plants, sowed and grown in the darkness. Though they may bloom, their flowers are without fragrance; though they bear fruit, their fruit has no juice.” Rizal added: “However, now that news arrive here of what occurred in your own town of Malolos , I realized that I was wrong and my joy was beyond bounds.”
The women of Malolos were not portrayed as helpless and highly dependent beings. Even at the young age, the ladies looked as if they were already taking extra care of their lives, as might be gleaned when they took the risk of challenging the curacy’s authority.
Writing to the women in Tagalog, Rizal commenced his message with the turning point of how he reflected on the question of the Filipinos’ possession (or the lack thereof) of the virtue of bravery. Sadly speaking, invoking the moments of his life as a young person, he found but rare memories of those that fit his standard of courage. He lamented that the girls of his youth were mild-mannered and charming and immaculate, except that they were also completely submissive to the powers that be in the society, the friars for instance.
In the 19th century, the Filipino woman’s colonial status has determined their social role and standardized her function as wife, mother, spinster, worker or dependent as well as dedicated and zealous colonial inside her social circle and group. The Spaniards’ laws grounded the extent of her womanly behavior and roles. When a Filipino woman before so much as partake of activities and roles running against those implemented by colonial rule and male dominance, her take on unfamiliar functions and activities may be independent choice, mere luck or urgent necessity, but she would create social tension in the process. That is why in general, Rizal looked at the Filipino woman as docile and non-fighter rather than a branded social nuisance.
Nevertheless, what dauntless act the young women of Malolos showed told Rizal that he was mistaken and this caused him great happiness. According to Rizal, the cause of the women of Malolos was one that surpassed their own struggle. He referred to it as a fight for the common good whose triumph was sure to arrive. Their waged war for the public welfare had rendered a role model out of them for the rest of the Filipinas who “like (the Malolos women) desired to have their eyes opened and to be lifted from their prostration.”
For Rizal, women in Malolos must use their reason and open their eyes wide since they are the initiators to the influence of man’s consciousness. He had them bear in mind that it is better to leave this world with honor intact than to continue living in the shadow of dishonor. He reminded them too that no one has the privilege of being subjugated by any other. The parish priests can no longer insist that they themselves are accountable for their unfair order since God gifted humans with reason and free will to dichotomize the fair from the unfair.
Rizal asked the women to discern the difference between false and true piety, the latter being composite of “good conduct,” a clean conscience,” and upright thinking.” Over and above everything, Rizal urges them to seek not for the wealth of the world but of the mind and spirit via education and knowledge. He convinces the women to reflect, see an overview of the Philippines , and see how they can stand and reap success and knowledge. Not anymore will the Filipina mother exacerbate the plight of her children in colonial darkness.
He criticizes the subservient Filipino mothers for the bondage of their sons and daughters under the Spanish colonizers, false authority to whom mothers enslaved themselves and set their very being as examples for their children to follow. To stop this social disaster once and for all by transfiguring their sons from men of bondage to independent men, The Filipina women must themselves be free. It could happen through the liberation of the Filipinas’ mind.
Rizal exhorts his countrywomen to liberate their mind, to cease from “bow(ing) their heads to every unjust order” and seek(ing) solace in humble tears…All are born without chains, free, and no one can subject the will and spirit of another. Why would you submit to another your noble and free thought?”
Rizal asserts that Filipino mothers should imitate the Spartan women who educated their sons that men are “not born to live for themselves but for their country.” For as long as the Spartan men had this for a credo, Sparta would be never be conquered.
Teodora Alonso, Rizal’s mother, was on her own very much like the Spartan women. She inculcated in her children the love for learning and industry, convicted that lacking these, any woman or man would not be too different from a ship captain without compass. For Rizal’s mother, learning and hard work makes one a good Christian and helps one realize his God-given talent in order to reach out to his compatriots.
It was most likely Senora Teodora who influenced him immensely, from whom he inherited the values of “honor, firmness of character and noble action” and most of all, strength—virtues that Rizal hopes the women of Malolos would be able to teach their own children so that they, in turn, will confront life’s challenges courageously. Years after Rizal’s execution in 1896, his mother would reject the government’s lifetime pension offer to recompense officially the family’s show of patriotism. She would say that her family had not been patriotic for any monetary reward.
In Rizal’s novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Rizal unveils the Filipinas of his milieu. There existed Doña Victorinas and Consolacions whose aim in life was to mimic and even upstage first-class Spanish ladies in their impeccable clothing and speech. Likewise, there existed Sisas and Maria Claras who were too feeble to ward off the maltreatment and unfairness in the hands of men, just as what battered women of contemporary times suffer under the present cruel breed of men. However, there also existed Salome, Elias the reformist’s comrade and friend. Salome lived independently and was self-sufficient, and she loved Elias without any fear of mentioning her feelings for him, even going the length of offering him to be part of her life.
Rizal may have his share of discrepancies and gaps in his relationship with women from his sweetheart Josephine Bracken to other beloved women to his sisters, but it cannot be denied that Rizal had an impassioned involvement in the battle for the Filipino women’s rights. It cannot be denied that the “Message to the Young Women of Malolos” is a significant contribution by Rizal to the history of women and the feminist movement. For Rizal, the women’s fight belonged to the Filipinos’ greater revolution for social justice and transformation.


  1. Actually, Rizal wasn't a feminist. Though his views towards women may be a bit ahead for his time, he is still a product of 18th-19th century patriarchal society. The strength and importance of women for him is limited to their ability to give birth to sons who will fight for the nation. Men are still the main actors for Rizal, women only helpers living out subordinate roles. The valiance of these Women of Malolos is in fact incomparable to the revolts led by Magbanua, Silang, Oriang and the other katipuneras (whose role in the KKK revolution was not limited to hiding weaponry and important documents. Contrary to popular belief, they also participated in direct, hand-to-hand combat) and the other not-so famous women whose achievements in history have been undermined by the achievements of men.

  2. Nice webpage! :)