The Pre-Spanish Filipina: Finding Our Femaleness in Our Foremothers
By: Evelyn Miranda-Feliciano
Retrieved from Vol. 10 No. 3 (1994)

Pumuputi na ako!” says an advertisement. Although late, the company that manufactures this supposed beauty aid has been given a clean bill of health by our health department, we still feel uneasy. There is more to it than the product itself. The whole cultural assumption behind the advertisement is questionable. To be brown, kayumanggi or morena is not good enough. One has to be white, puti as in American white. And with the complexion, the implicit desire to dress, speak and behave just like her Western counterpart.

It used to be that the model for Filipino womanhood was Maria Clara, a fictional character through whom Jose Rizal wanted to portray with irony the “bastardization” of Filipinos under the Spanish regime. She was fair and beautiful, being the daughter of a priest and an already married woman. And her beauty is enhanced by her being meek prayerful and long-suffering. Pining for lost love, she retreated to a nunnery where a lusting priest deflowered her. She met the dishonor by jumping out of the window of her convent, killing herself.

Very few women of today would like to be a Maria Clara anymore. All that many wants is to be fair and beautiful like her. For a model, we look to the West in looks, attitudes, and values. This orientation results in what sociologists call the “marginal” person. She stands at the edges of several cultures but is not entirely controlled by any. Despite her seeming endorsement of the new, she cannot quite extricate herself from the traditional ways and viewpoint. Thus, the “marginal” Filipina suffers from insecurity and moral instability because of her in-between position. In her more reflective moments, she asks: “Sino nga ba talaga ako?”

To hook our self-identity on a figment of creative imagination is frustrating. Main fictional characters are often idealized beings—good or bad ones. To look to Western models is equally disappointing. We will never be like them however much we rub ourselves of Block and White whitener or however much we eat Star margarine to make ourselves tall so we could play world-class basketball. For us, women, it may be more beautiful to examine where we came from. To discover our ancestral mothers before the Spanish infringement on our shores-and on our persons

True, there are not enough surviving pre-Spanish documents that directly tell us what Filipino women were like. But like slivers of light, enough to let us see our way, brief accounts from early traveler writers and Spanish priest-chroniclers could give us some ideas of the kind of womanhood we are descendants of. Some of these men writers spoke of our women depreciatingly, being ignorant of the native culture. Others wrote quite glowingly, especially the priests and political officials, depending on how they felt the Spanish Cortes would think of their own importance here in the Philippines. These reports should be taken with enough caution to make them useful for our purposes. Our hope is by appreciating the strengths of our foremothers, this will bolster our self-image as Filipinas. And by being aware of their weaknesses, we will be challenged to develop self-strengthening qualities for today’s world. And, to be able to say, “Ako’y Pilipina na hindi nakalutang. Nakaugat ako sa aking mga ninuno. Alam ko ang aking pinanggalingan. At alam ko rin kung saan ako lulugar ngayon at kung saan ako pupunta.”

Women in Leadership

Pre-Spanish society appears to be more embracing of female leadership in all spheres of life-politics, economics, education, religion, family. In 1347 or 1348, a Muslim traveler from Morocco by the name of Ibn Battuta traveled to ancient Pangasinan to see for himself a woman whose fame was legendary. Her Name was Princess Urduja, a kind of amazon-ruler. “The women,” he noted, “ride, shoot, and throw javelins well, and fight, in fact, just like men.”

Much earlier than this, in 674, was a story of Sima, a woman ruler famous for her honesty. During her reign (the exact place is not noted) finders were not keepers. Things dropped or left on the road were not picked up. An Arab prince heard of this trait and purposely came to test her. He dropped a bag of gold in her territory. No one took it, but the heir apparent stepped upon it and the queen ordered him killed. But she was prevailed upon by her ministers. So, the queen was alleged to have said: “Your fault lies in your feet, therefore it will be sufficient to cut them off.”1

And of course, we have ancestresses like Kalangitan, the sultana of Pasig, and the grandmother of Lakan-Dula. Panay had Maniwang-tiwang the wife of King Marikudo and Pinangpangan, wife of Datu Puti, both leaders in their own right.

Women participated in economic affairs quite aggressively. Fr. Gov. Pimento Ambos, Camarines wrote: “A notable character of the people here is the aggressiveness displayed by the females, their evident superiority over the males in business capacity. Whenever a family rises from the lower ranks of society to a position of comparative affluence and social importance, it is usually found to be due to the tact and energy, and close attention of the female member of the matrimonial partnership.”

Pigafetta, the earliest Spanish chronicler who accompanied Magellan in 1521, already noted this much earlier. He had the opportunity to go to Northeastern Mindanao where he met the queen whose quarters appeared separate from the king. “She was making a mat made of palm leaves while male and female slaves were attending to her.”2 The Visayan women “sew with needles of gold and were skillful seamstresses”, wrote Juan Martinez in 1571, companion to Legazpi.

In 1663, Fray Collins gave another glimpse of the economic activities of the Filipinos. He wrote that maritime people were great fishers with net, line and corral. The people inland were excellent farmers and hunters. On the women he had this to say:

The women also are shrewd in trading, especially of their weaving needle work and embroideries, which they make neatly, and there is scarcely one who cannot read and write sometimes the husband and wife go together on their trading, and whether for this or for any other thing, she must always go ahead; for it is not their custom to go together.” (Collin in Jocano, p.176).

The Cebuanas took charge of trading in their own localities, dealing with the Spanish settlers, while men were responsible for commerce in other islands.

In the religious field, opportunities to be catalones or babaylans were shared by men and women. Women were priestesses; Fray Francisco de Sta. Ines (1676) observed that there were even more priestesses than priests. They offered sacrifices, officiated at marriages, ministered to the sick, uttered prophecies like the oracles of ancient Greece. They were in great demand.3

This kind of leadership participation could only be enjoyed by women in a society where they are considered more or less equal with men and their persons regarded with respect. “They treat their women well and respect them,” wrote Miguel de Legaspi in 1565.

Fr. Chirino noted similarly: “In the relations of man and woman, woman and man, woman to woman, they are careful— even when they were quite equal, and too, among the middle class— to use after every important word, nothing but ‘my lord’, or ‘my lady’” …These terms and pronouns are used as agreeable and even affectionate, in the languages of much greater importance, like Hebrew, Greek, and Latin… In polite and affectionate intercourse, they are very extravagant, addressing letters to each other in terms of elaborate and delicate expressions of affection and neat turns of thought.” Yes, letter-writing was not exactly a novelty among early Filipinos. In this time and age when women, in general, are often portrayed as “beautiful but dumb”, the Filipino women were not in times past.

F. Landa Jocano, an anthropologist, traces this apparent egalitarian relationship between the sexes to the bilateral kinship system we have. This simply means that individuals trace their descent from both the side of the mother and father, and no distinction is made as to which of the two is dominant. Merging lineal and consanguineal (marital) relations into one means the conserving of meager resources and also that spouses are considered one person, thus making them equal.

A woman’s identity, for instance, did not make her a shadow of her husband despite the fact that she was to some extent under his authority. She retained her maiden name, an enviable distinction even in this modem age and times. Today, one surrenders her name to the point of effacement (only our first name stays with us), if not total erasure upon marriage.

Our foremothers also shared in their husband’s honors and entitlements. She could dispose freely of the property she had brought into the marriage. Her husband consulted her about his affairs and would only enter contracts with her knowledge and approval. When a wife committed adultery, Loarca noted that action is never taken against the woman, but against the man. Miguel de Legazpi, on the other hand, observed that the husband may repudiate the wife but not kill her. The right to kill was only conceivable in self-defense. In case of the husband’s death, the wife could take on his position or title if he had one.

The issue of family planning was not a matter of debate during those days. The men took the initiative. Of the Pintados, inhabitants of Panay, Loarca wrote that the “men are fond of their wives, for it is the men who give the dowry at marriage.” He noted the penis contraption described by Pigafetta earlier and added that the tin tube weighed more than half a pound and they used some twenty kinds of these “wheels” by means of which they had intercourse with their wives. (Could this be the precursor of the condom? Or how did he know the contraption was not removed?) He further noted that those who live in the mountains did not follow this custom but rather observed circumcision, “saying they do it for their health and cleanliness. When they marry they are not consumed whether their wives are virgins or not.” Loarca further observed that among the Visayan women, they considered too many children a disgrace for when the property is to be divided among all the children, they would be poor and it was better to have only one child and leave him wealthy. Abortion was even resorted to and there were women who were experts on this according to the Boxer Codex. Studies of still extant cultural communities today, as among the traditional Bontoc, Igorot, and the Kalinga women, show that this practice is still very much alive. In factor unlicensed backdoor hilots could have been descendants of these women.

Divorce could be initiated by either the wife or husband. If it happened, the property brought to the marriage by either spouse stayed with him/her, the conjugal property was divided. Among the Bontoc people, if the husband leaves his wife, the wife gets the house and if he has a child by her who died, he still has to give a rice field for that child to the mother. If the wife divorced the husband, she has to give her husband some property or something valuable.

Does this mean that ancient Filipino women were immoral? Not so, says Father Ordonez de Cevallos, in his book Viajes del Mundo in 1614. “The women,” he wrote, “were extremely chaste, and lewdness is never seen in them nor disloyalty to their master; on the contrary, they are very generally virgins, and those who are married know no husband but one; and despite this, God in his divine secrets, multiplies them greatly; and some towns are found to have 2,500 inhabitants and to have over 2,000 boys and girls, and yet none of these children is found to be illegitimate.” Of course, one has to contend with Loarca’s account in which he says, “The women are extremely lewd, the mothers encouraging the daughters to a life of unchastity.” On the other hand, the Pintados “love their wives so dearly, that in case of a quarrel they take sides with their wives’ relatives even against their own fathers and brothers.”

Taking altogether these disparate descriptions of Filipino women of the pre-Spanish era, I imagine our foremothers were comparatively secure women even if they moved in a world still dominated by men. That they were respected by society is an enduring quality which even the Americans in the 1900s particularly noted: “Respect for womanhood is a trait innate in the character of the people,” said one H.M. Wright. That respect comes from our own foremother’s own talents, breadth, and depth of influence which the community recognized and the men acknowledged as a matter of course. Definitely, her spheres of participation reached out much further than the traditional three German K’s for women: Kirche, Kuche, and Kinder (church, kitchen, and children). She had a measure of independence and certain rights which her other Asian sisters did not have in those days, making her quite distinct from them. She had a right to rule if she had leadership gifts, to be educated, to own property, to keep her own name, to inherit her husband’s title, to travel and trade by herself or with her husband, to plan her family, and to initiate divorce in certain cases. Certainly, like other rights for both men and women, these were sometimes abused. Let us remember as well that these were not universal rights for all women. The aliping namamahay and the aliping saguiguilid might not enjoy many of these. Nevertheless, the seeds were there. They should be causes for our rejoicing.

What do all these show us? As Filipino women of today, we are not bereft of a legacy that is rich and far-reaching. We have foremothers who knew intuitively in their hearts they were the created half after the image of God. And we have forefathers who also knew deep in their hearts that to rule wisely and well, they would need women to share it with. It was a society which for all its primitiveness and “paganism” practices knew and valued the tao as both woman and man. And even if Bathala hid behind the clouds far in the heavens he was somehow interested in them—together. For as the legend goes, si Lalak (male) and si Kabay (female) came out from the same bamboo node together. Not one after another.

Altogether, to be a Filipina is to stand tall. And to be a Christian Filipina is to thank God that He whom our ancestresses only knew vaguely, we know in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was He who raised her up to stand side by side with man, erasing gender bias against her, giving her back her dignity and worth as a woman. As Paul declares, now that faith has come, we have all become children of God through faith in Christ Jesus and in Him “there is neither Jew nor Greek (Gentile), there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are alone in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:25-28). The color does not matter. No whitener is necessary. Brown is beautiful.


[1] Mendoza-Guazon, Ma Paz, The Development and Progress of the Filipino Women, Manila: Bureau of Printing, 1928

[2] Pigafetta in Jocano’s The Philippines at the Spanish Contact, p. 123

[3] In Alzona, Encarnacion, The Filipino Women: Her Social Economic and Political Status, 1565-1937, Rev. Ed., Manila: Benipayo Press, 1934

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