04/30 – The Philippine Women’s Suffrage Referendum

Filipino president Manuel L. Quezon, a proponent of women’s rights, depicted in a 1937 editorial cartoon. (Flickr)

On this day in 1937, women in the Philippines won the right to vote after a national referendum. A full 90% of participants supported women’s suffrage, a surprise result in a country that still (in many areas) embraced traditional societal roles for women. Many anti-suffrage commentators feared that women voting would ruin the traditional family unit and result in a collapse of the social order. Nevertheless, 444,725 out of 492,032 referendum participants voted “yes” and the country became one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to gain universal suffrage as president Manuel L. Quezon – a radical reformer who transformed the pre-war Philippines – signed the suffrage bill into law.

Pura Villanueva Kalaw (centre – born Purificacion Garcia Villanueva) pictured in the early 1900s. Pura, a prominent journalist and beauty pageant winner, founded the Association Feminista Ilonga and helped kickstart her country’s suffrage movement. (RadioCut)

Although the election of Quezon in 1935 helped pave the way for suffrage, the movement began much earlier. Starting in 1906, Filipina women like Pura Villanueva Kalaw founded feminist clubs like the Association Feminista Ilonga and the Manila Women’s club. In the early 1910s, many middle and upper-class women flocked to the cause – partially a result of the success of suffragettes in Europe and North America – and began pressuring the Philippines’ government to act. After Thai women gained the right to vote in 1932, the broader Southeast Asian suffrage movement gained more traction; soon after, the Philippines adopted a new constitution that made suffrage a legal possibility and the 1937 referendum followed soon after.

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