5 Filipino heroines who changed Philippine history

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Our female heroes shouldn’t be treated as footnotes or afterthoughts in history. Illustration by LAZIR CALUYA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When asked to give at least three names of Philippine heroes, who are the first people that come to mind?

Of course Jose Rizal is a given as the national hero. And then there’s Andres Bonifacio, Emilio Aguinaldo, and Emilio Jacinto. Perhaps even throw in Antonio Luna thanks to successful historical film “Heneral Luna” (2015).

The Philippines does not have an official list of national heroes. While there has been an attempt to come up with one, legislators deferred finalizing a list to avoid a deluge of proclamations and debates “involving historical controversies about heroes.” Still, textbooks and flashcards don’t hesitate to ingrain their names in our minds. It’s interesting how these historical figures all breed the same familiarity as superheroes, with students already knowing their names and achievements by heart by the time they reach high school.

Thinking about the personalities, you can’t help but notice a pattern: they’re mostly men who fit into the typical hero mold of machismo and valor. While history books often devote entire chapters to the adventures and achievements of male heroes, our female heroines are often bunched into one section, treated as footnotes or afterthoughts despite also fighting for the nation’s freedom.

In time for Independence Day, CNN Philippines Life lists five brave Filipino heroines whose actions deserve to be remembered. These women are more than just tokens for female representation. Remember their names and their achievements, so that the next time someone asks, you’ll be ready.

Illustration by LAZIR CALUYA

Gabriela Silang (1731-1763)

Gabriela Silang is perhaps the most well-known among all the Filipino heroines, but she is almost always mentioned in tandem with her husband, Diego. Since their achievements are usually written about together, many forget that she had her own fair share of heroic acts as “the first Filipina to lead an uprising against a foreign power.” Silang was a fearless Ilocaña warrior who assumed her husband’s role as commander of rebel troops after his assassination in 1763. She rallied fighting forces (including the native Itneg people) to carry on the war against Spain in their home province of Ilocos, launching guerrilla attacks against Spanish garrisons — attacks that caused Spanish soldiers to fear her name.

For her final battles at the liberation of Vigan, she led over 2,000 men to go against an army of over 6,000 Spanish soldiers backed by a powerful artillery. The battle proved unsuccessful for the General, so she and 80 remaining troops retreated to unexplored regions of Abra, where they were eventually captured. The Spanish made her witness the public executions of her men before publicly hanging the General herself in September 1763. Despite the loss, Gabriela Silang is still recognized for her immense courage in fighting for the independence of Ilocos.

Trivia: Gabriela Silang was widowed twice in her lifetime. At 20, she was forced to marry a wealthy old man who passed away after three years. It was after his death that she met Diego Silang, who was a mail carrier at the time.

Illustration by LAZIR CALUYA

Tandang Sora (1812-1919)

More than just a road in Quezon City, Tandang Sora, whose real name is Melchora Aquino, was fondly called the Mother of the Revolution. She was a single mother who managed the farm left by her deceased husband while raising her six children. Tandang Sora earned her nickname after taking care of Andres Bonifacio and other Katipuneros in 1896, risking her life as she provided them with food and nursed the wounded. Her bravery was best displayed after she was arrested by Spanish authorities, who subjected her to grueling interrogations in hopes that she would reveal the location of the Katipunan hideout. She refused to give in and was deported to Guam under the decree of Governor General Ramon Blanco.

Trivia: Tandang Sora was the first Filipina to be featured on the Philippine peso. Her portrait graced the ₱100 bill from the English series from 1951 to 1966.

Illustration by LAZIR CALUYA

Teresa Magbanua (1868-1947)

Known as the Visayan Joan of Arc, Teresa Magbanua was originally a teacher who received a degree in education from a school in Manila. She married a wealthy businessman who owned large plots of land, which she helped cultivate. During this time, she developed her skills in horseback riding and marksmanship.

Upon learning that her brothers joined the uprising against the Spaniards, she persuaded her uncle, General Perfecto Poblador, to let her join the Katipunan’s women’s chapter in Panay as an experienced horse rider and marksman. The General agreed, making Magbanua the first and only woman to lead troops in the Visayas during the revolution. Her patriotic spirit helped her successfully lead a group of bolo troops during the Battle of Barrio Yoting and the Battle of Sapong Hills, which were instrumental to the liberation of IloIlo City. Later on, she joined the guerrilla forces in fighting against the Americans in Jaro, IloIlo. She continued to fight for the country’s independence until the Japanese occupation, when she sold all her belongings to help fund the guerilla movement.

Trivia: Magbanua is one of the few who fought for the Philippines against all of the country’s main aggressors: Spain, the United States, and Japan.

Illustration by LAZIR CALUYA

Josefa Llanes Escoda (1898-1945)

Pictured as a smiling face clad in a Filipiniana outfit, Escoda is one of the two women to appear on the current series of Philippine peso notes. This honor does not go without merit, as she was a certified social worker, suffragette, civic leader, and war heroine. As the eldest of seven children, she had to help her mother take care of her siblings after the death of her father in 1918, all while studying to obtain a high school teacher’s certificate from the University of the Philippines.

Escoda went to the United States several times to further help with her social work. After graduating, she trained in social welfare at the New York School of Social Work. During that stay, she also represented the Philippines in speaking engagements in the International House and the Women’s International League for Peace. Her second visit to the U.S., which was meant for Boy Scout training, she used to train young women teachers from the public and private sector to become Girl Scout leaders.

When World War II broke out, Escoda’s involvement in aiding prisoners of war and stranded women and children led to her arrest, torture, and eventual execution at the hands of the Japanese.

Trivia: As an active member of the suffrage movement of the Philippines, Josefa Llanes Escoda was quoted as saying that “The modern woman is no longer the wife that clings; she now helps the husband. The women’s demand for independence is motivated by their desire to help their husbands in governmental affairs which always required the moderation and wisdom of women.”

Illustration by LAZIR CALUYA

Magdalena Leones (1921-2016)

Having passed away only last year, Cpl. Magdalena Leones remains to be one of the lesser-known World War II veterans, even though she is the only Asian woman to have been awarded the Silver Star in World War II by the United States. Born in the mountains of Kalinga, Leones was the daughter of an evangelical missionary. Since she refused to surrender after the Fall of Bataan, she was imprisoned for five months. During this time, she taught herself how to speak Niponggo, a skill she utilized to help save the lives of other Filipinos captured by the Japanese.

After encountering Colonel Russel Volckman of the United States Armed Forces in the Philippines-North Luzon (USAFIP-NL), she agreed to serve as a special agent. Using her church connections and her Niponggo-speaking skills, she was able to carry “important intelligence data, vital radio parts, and medical supplies” through Japanese-held territory. Though she knew that capture could result in torture and execution, she powered through and continued to serve her country, earning her the monicker of “the lioness of Filipino guerilla agents.”

Trivia: Magdalena Leones was caught several times, but was able to escape each time due to her wits and sweet talk.


These names are only some of the many notable Filipinas whose achievements deserve to be credited. If you want to read about other brave women, here are some resources worth checking out:

“Women of Distinction: Biographical Essays on Outstanding Filipino Women of the Past and the Present” by Jovita Varias-De Guzman

“Women in the Philippine Revolution” by Rafaelita Soriano

“Working Women of Manila in the 19th Century” by Ma. Luisa Camagay

“Our Founding Mothers: Lest We Forget” by Quennie Ann J. Palafox