Postwar lady senators and their legacy of honor, courage and service

Throughout the 20th century, some female leaders came into national prominence, a number of them in politics and governance. They occupied key positions to which they were either appointed or elected.

Among them were the lady senators who received the mandate of the people. They took their deserved place in the halls of the Senate, authored bills, engaged their male counterparts in debates and stood up for their many causes, including education, women’s rights, family welfare, health, tourism, arts and culture.

As we count down to the delivery of President Bongbong Marcos’ State of the Nation Address, I hark back to the bygone era of Philippine politics when these ladies bravely stood woman to man side by side and before the likes of Ferdinand Marcos Sr., Arturo Tolentino, Lorenzo Tanada, Jovito Salonga and other feisty, brilliant and eloquent senators, proving that women could be equal to the task of nation-building.

In the mid-1940s, right after the Philippines became a full-fledged Republic, the first woman to be elected as a senator was Geronima T. Pecson of Pangasinan.



The silent worker

Even when she had attained prominence in politics, Geronima T. Pecson did not stray far from the values that she had always lived by as a public school teacher, her first job. Humility might have been her second name, this despite being close to the powers that be of her time. She was secretary to two presidents, Jose Laurel, whom she helped in saving the lives of Filipinos in the underground during the Japanese occupation, and Manuel Roxas, another ally in her heroic endeavor.

Before the war, she actively campaigned for women’s suffrage. Women’s vote thus catapulted her to the Senate, where she served from 1947 to 1953. As the first woman senator, she headed the Committee on Education and the Committee on Health and Public Welfare, as well as the Joint Congressional Committee on Education. Advocating for free education, she spearheaded efforts toward the establishment of technical and vocational training schools, as among the mandates of the Vocational Education Act that she authored. She elevated the School of Forestry of the University of the Philippines and the Philippine Normal School to full-fledged college status.

Just like when she was a humble school teacher in the 1910s, Pecson avoided fanfare and publicity, an attitude that earned her the nickname “The Silent Worker.”

She became the first woman member of the Executive Board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization or UNESCO in 1950.



The society girl who served the people

It might have seemed to many that the daughter of Don Vicente Madrigal, the industrialist and senator, would live a life of glamour and leisure. Known for being a top ballet dancer and a Manila Carnival beauty queen, Pacita Madrigal attended the Le Collège Féminin de Bouffemont, a finishing school in France, and Powers School in New York, which specializes in personality development. But if she was beautiful and refined, she was equally brainy. She received magna cum laude honors when she finished her business administration degree at the University of Sto. Tomas.

Pacita Madrigal Warns


“Manang Pacita,” as she was widely known, became active in politics when she supported the candidacy of the man of the masses, Ramon Magsaysay, through the organization that she founded and led, the Women for Magsaysay for President Movement (WMPM). Samahang Manang Pacita (Manang Pacita Movement), which she organized, focused on community development.

He would appoint her as the head of the Social Welfare Administration. In 1955, she topped the senatorial contest and served as the lone woman senator up to 1961. She chaired the Senate Committee on Social Justice, Community Development and Welfare.


From Manila carnival queen to senator

Coming from a distinguished family — her father, the scholar and writer Teodoro M. Kalaw, and her mother the Women Suffrage leader and Real Estate pioneer Pura Villanueva Kalaw — Maria Kalaw Katigbak distinguished herself throughout her lifetime in many endeavors.

Maria Kalaw Katigbak


Taking after her mother, Pura, who was the first Carnival Queen, she, too, was accorded the same honor 23 years later, even as she distinguished herself in the University of the Philippines where she majored in Philosophy and later pursued her master’s degree in social work. A Barbour Scholarship awardee, she finished her master’s degree in literature at the University of Michigan. She obtained her doctorate of philosophy in social science at the University of Santo Tomas with magna cum laude honors.

She ran for senator in 1961 and landed on the seventh spot. Her legislative accomplishments include Senate Bill 652 which restored the old school calendar to June, Senate Bill 84 which is now known as the “Truth in Lending Act of 1963” and Republic Act 4165, which created the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. She handled the Senate committees on education, commerce and industry. In 1965, she was joined in the Senate by her sister-in-law, Eva Estrada-Kalaw.

She served as the chairperson of UNESCO General Conference of the Philippines from 1962 to 1966. She was appointed by Ferdinand E. Marcos as chairperson of the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures, a position she held from 1981 to 1985.


First woman bar topnotcher  

The first woman to top the bar examination, Tecla San Andres Ziga finished her liberal arts and Bachelor of Laws at the University of the Philippines. She represented Albay’s first district in the House of Representatives from 1956 to 1961. She headed the Social Welfare Administration before being elected as senator in 1963.

Tecla San Andres Ziga


San Andres Ziga worked for the Department of Justice. She was elected to the House of Representatives, representing Albay’s 1st district, through a special election held on 8 November 1955, to serve the unfinished term of her late brother-in-law Lorenzo Ziga. She was re-elected in 1957 and served until 1961. She later became an administrator of the Philippine Social Welfare Administration.

Elected as a senator in 1963, she focused on the protection of women and children and the regulation of practice in dietetics.


Clubwoman, educator and sharpshooter

In the annals of the University of the Philippines sports and athletics, the only one who defeated the champion sharp shooter Teodoro Kalaw Jr. was the beautiful coed, Corps Sponsor and student leader Eva Estrada. The popular scion Teddy later courted and married the feisty lady who was elected senator in November 1965.

Eva Estrada Kalaw


After graduating from UP with an education degree, major in Home Economics, she taught at the Far Eastern University, National Teachers College and Centro Escolar University.

Already married, she became active in civic work. She was the first president of the Jaycerettes Organization. She founded and chaired Samahang Filipina and spearheaded projects of the League of Women Voters, Chamber of Home Industries of the Philippines, Special Child Study Center for Retarded Children, Rizal Red Cross, Anti-Tubercolosis Drive, Civic Assembly of Women’s Clubs and the Philippine Association of the University Women. She was cited as the Outstanding Volunteer Social Worker of the Year.

As a senator, she authored laws on education, including the salary standardization for public school personnel, the Magna Carta for Private Schools, Magna Carta for Students, chartering of Barrio High Schools and the inclusion of the presidents of student councils in the Board of Regents of state colleges and universities. She chaired the Senate Committee on Games, Amusement and Tourism, and the Committee on National Minorities.

As senator, she introduced a total of 41 bills, including ones for salary increases of public school teachers (RA 5158); the creation of Local School Boards (RA 5447) and of the Barrio High School Charter/Magna Carta for Private Schools (RA 6054); the Educational Financing Act (RA 6728) and the inclusion of the presidents of student councils in the Board of Regents of all state colleges and universities.During her term, she was the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Games, Amusements and Tourism, as well as the Senate Committee on National Minorities.

She became a full-time oppositionist after the Plaza Miranda bombing and was imprisoned at Fort Bonifacio on charges of her participation in coup attempts. She was allowed to bring her own piano to her cell where she played Filipino classical music to the delight of the soldiers who were guarding her.

President Joseph Estrada appointed her as a managing director and resident representative of the Philippines at the Manila Economic and Cultural Office, the country’s de facto embassy in Taipei, Taiwan, during his presidential term.


Cultural administrator and Bayanihan founder

Belonging to the family that co-founded the Philippine Women’s University, Helena Tirona Zoila Benitez had a distinguished career as a cultural administrator before she joined the senatorial race in 1967. An alumna of the Philippine Women’s University, she also studied at George Washington University.



The founder of the world-famous Bayanihan Dance Company, she authored bills that sought to promote Filipino national culture, including Republic Act 5871 which established commissions devoted to preserving cultural artifacts.

She later served in the Batasang Pambansa from 1978 to 1986. She chaired the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 1969. She served as president of the UN Environment Program in 1975.


Home economist and business executive

Magnolia Welborn Antonino was a home economics teacher and supervisor in the Philippine public school system. Her husband, Senator Gaudencio Antonino, perished in a helicopter crash, which compelled Magnolia, then a congresswoman from Nueva Ecija, to run for the senate.

Magnolia Welborn Antonino


At the Senate, she authored pro-people laws, including Republic Act 6124 which provided for the fixing of the maximum selling prices of essential articles and commodities, and creating the Price Control Council; the prohibition of explosives and flammables, corrosive or poisonous substances in passenger aircraft; and revising the charter of the National Power Corporation.

She was an active club woman and officer of civic organizations including Inner Wheel Club of Manila, Young Women’s Christian Association, Manila Girl Scouts Council and the Philippine Band of Mercy.

Her business involvements included serving as manager, treasurer, director of various companies including the Western Mindanao Lumber Company, GA Antonino Inc., Polytechnic College of the Philippines and the Philippine Commercial and Industrial Bank.