One Hundred Years of Philippine Women’s Leadership

Originally authored on January 26, 2019

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world!”

Compared to other parts of Southeast Asia, women in the Philippine society have always enjoyed a greater share of equality which predated the coming of the Spaniards. Based on the context of Filipino culture, standards, and mindset, the concept of gender equality already existed.

Women before could become village chiefs in the absence of a male heir. They could achieve status as medicine women or high-priestesses (Babaylan) and astrologers. Whether some Filipino men are willing to admit it or not, women wield considerable authority, the housewife in particular.


Image may contain: 1 person, text that says "Francisca Tirona Benitez Epitomized the ideal woman she believed every Filipina should aspire to be: one who has successfully combined the art of homemaking and the pursuit of a career and still be of service to the community."

In June 9, 1919, through the vision of seven far-sighted pioneering Filipino women educators and civic rights leaders, Clara Aragon, Concepcion Aragon, Francisca Tirona Benitez, Paz Marquez Benitez, Carolina Ocampo Palma, Mercedes Rivera, and Socorro Marquez Zaballero, the Philippine Women’s College was founded with the assistance of the prominent lawyer Jose Abad Santos who drafted its constitution and by-laws.

Riding high in the national consciousness of women’s rights and empowerment, the college aimed to prepare women for life service and leadership. In 1932, thirteen years after opening, the college won university status, henceforth known as Philippine Women’s University and considered the first university in Asia founded by Asians.

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Most institutions offering higher education at that time were exclusive schools operated by Roman Catholic Church. When PWU opened, established families from all over the country who could afford higher education sent their daughters to PWU. They pioneered in introducing programs aligned with its mission: Home Economics, Music, Fine Arts, Social Work, Nutrition, Pharmacy, and Business.

In 1938, a course in Social Civic Training was incorporated into the curriculum. Academic programs were based on the founders’ objectives to train Filipinas in civic responsibility and enable them to take a more active part in nation building.


PWU operations was briefly halted during World War 2 when the administration temporarily converted it into a hospital to serve those affected by the war, especially the Battle of Manila in 1945. Phoenix-like, the university rose from the ashes. PWU blossomed as an educational institution and beyond.


In 1948, Doreen Barber Gamboa, a British national turned Filipino citizen and one of the pioneer teachers in PWU, was mandated by the university to set-up pre-school, elementary, and secondary education. She named it Jose Abad Santos Memorial School or JASMS, after the late supreme court justice who served as Chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees.

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She envisioned to organize a progressive education based on the idea of “learning to be free”. Initially, the method introduced was frowned upon due to its unorthodox approach. Parents thought their children would not learn anything, government bureaucracy was lukewarm of this change, teachers refused to move out of their comfort zone, and the Catholic Church considered her methods communistic, if not atheistic. However, Gamboa had the support of the management. As the population of the school grew, so did the popularity of the school with the parents who petitioned for the pre-school’s expansion into a bona fide grade school department.

In 1954, the Philippine American Life Insurance Company which had built the first housing development in Quezon City offered PWU an adjacent lot on the condition that it be used as school in adherence to Philippine Homesite and Housing Corporation (PHHC) requirement. PWU then built a school on Gamboa’s specifications and this became JASMS Highway.

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As the university fostered preservation of cultural and national heritage, Helena Benitez organized and developed the world-renowned Bayanihan Philippine Folk Dance Company in 1957. It was tasked to research on and conserve indigenous Philippine art forms in music, dance, costume, and folklore. A multi-awarded company both nationally and internationally, Bayanihan had awakened a new pride among Filipinos in their cultural heritage, added a new dimension to the country’s dance tradition and built reserve of international goodwill. In recognition, it was designated by legislation through Republic Act 8626 as the country’s National Folk Dance Company.


The financial quagmire was brought about by the miscalculation of another member of the family sitting as president in the 1990s. Unable to manage the bank loan to finance the redevelopment of JASMS and the purchase of a lot in Cavite for its possible relocation, the consequence was a mismatch between the sources of tuition income versus the uses of funds: salaries, maintenance, bank debt, and other expenses.

It was a slow and steady decline as the university accumulated debts with the bank’s threat to foreclose the PWU and JASMS properties. In its desire to save the institutions, in 2011, the Benitez clan entered a deal with Eusebio Tanco of STI Holdings to bail out P230 million bank loan as well as to provide additional funds to pay for salaries, retirement, facilities maintenance, and other operating expenses. Through professional and technical support, STI also helped to establish PWU’s accounting, financial, and human resources system.

In exchange for the bailout, the original agreement was for Tanco’s STI Holdings to get a 40 percent share after six months. However, the shares were not issued. PWU failed to honor the agreement which caused the ire of Tanco.

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Things came to a head in 2015 when STI Holdings went to court to order foreclosure of PWU properties, a move averted when PWU entered into a rehabilitation program to correct its internal issues including debt payment to STI Holdings. It also prompted the resumption of talks between the Benitezes and Tanco over the future of PWU.

An agreement was reached whereby, STI Holdings accepted to be paid in kind as settlement for the loan. They acquire the PWU property in Davao and the prime JASMS property in Quezon City. Thus, PWU remains under the Benitezes who still keep the Manila campus. Although there maybe more complications to be addressed, for now, what counts is the agreement put an end to the bitter war which put PWU on the brink of existence.


Running against time, PWU survived its worst challenge in history shortly before the homestretch to centennial celebration. The determination synonymous to “women” – lives on!

* – credits to the owner/s for the pictures

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