Rare candid photo of Senator Geronima Pecson.
Culture Spotlight

The first Filipina senator was a silent worker: “I would project my work, rather than myself”

It might have been the combination of having worked under Presidents Laurel and Roxas, both brilliant legislators, and her desire to champion education, health, and social welfare agendas that inspired Geronima Pecson to dream for a senate seat.
Isidra Reyes | Mar 15 2019

“An unbiased judge or jury would hand down a verdict based on overwhelming evidence that the greatest blessing of the Philippines is the Filipino woman. Nor would judgment to this effect come about because of masculine gallantry. It would rather stem from the Filipino Woman’s acknowledged social and political quality with men and her innate ability and sense of responsibility.  As has been aptly remarked, the Filipino woman is the best man in the country.

George Arthur Malcom, founder and first Dean of the University of the Philippines College of Law, expressed his deep admiration for the Filipino woman in his book, First Malayan Republic (1952). He must have been greatly inspired by the gentle strength of the Filipina who strove to unshackle herself from centuries of docile servility to men by empowering herself through education and self-determination—two things previously denied her.

Portrait of Senator Geronima Tomelden Pecson, the first woman senator in the Philippines elected in 1947. Photo taken by Kahirup Manila Studio. Source: Presidential Museum & Library Flickr Account

One such Filipina possessed of this kind of personal narrative is Geronima Pecson, the Philippines’ first woman senator, the “silent worker” and “super social worker” who once quipped: “I would project my work, rather than myself.”

 

The roots of Imay

Geronima Josefa Tomelden Pecson was born on 19 December 1896 in Barrio Libsong, Lingayen, Pangasinan, the second of seven children of Victor Lavarias Tomelden, a Census Inspector,  and Pacita “Paz” Sison Palisoc, one of the first Filipina teachers trained by the Americans. Geronima had four sisters: Lourdes, Rizalina, Carmela, and Loretto, and two brothers, Benjamin and Arturo. Nicknamed “Imay,” the young Geronima received her early education in public schools in her hometown, graduating from Lingayen High School in 1916.  She then entered the the University of the Philippines, where she obtained her High School Teacher’s Certificate (HSTC) and Bachelor of Arts and B.S. Education  degrees. 

Portrait of Paz Palisoc Tomelden, Senator Geronima Pecson's mother. She was one of the first Filipina teachers trained by the Americans. Source: Michael Tomelden

Imay began her career as a classroom teacher at the Manila High School and Ermita Elementary School in 1919. After seven years, she became teacher and later Principal of the Soler Intermediate School and the Santa Clara Primary School, later known as Gomez Elementary School. In 1934, she began teaching at the Far Eastern College (later Far Eastern University) and the Centro Escolar University and became professor in the College of Liberal Arts, College of Education, and the Graduate School of the University of Manila. She would later on join the faculty of the Zamboanga Normal School as instructor when her husband, also a teacher, was assigned there. 

Potenciano "Poten" Pecson, lawyer, educator, Representative, CFI judge, Court of Appeals Justice, and husband of Senator Geronima Pecson. Source: Cornejo's Commonwealth Directory of the Philippines (1939).

Imay married Potenciano Pecson of Agno, Pangasinan, when she was 23. He graduated from the University of the Philippines College of Law with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1924—four years after their wedding—and a Master of Laws in 1936. Potenciano taught at the Manila High School, the Pangasinan High School, and the Far Eastern College as instructor. He was later elected as Representative from the First District of Pangasinan (1928-1931) and re-elected twice, serving two further terms from 1931 to 1934 and 1934 to 1935.  He was thereafter appointed Assistant Solicitor General (1936-1938) and as Judge-at-Large of the Courts of First Instance of Cagayan and Zamboanga and as Judge of the Courts of First Instance of Bulacan and Manila. He was appointed Justice of the Court of Appeals by President Elpidio Quirino in 1953.  They had two children, Urduja and Corazon. 

Senator Geronima Pecson, despite her very busy schedule, always made time to be with her family. Photo taken by Manila Modern Studio. Source: Michael Tomelden
Geronima's two daughters, Corazon and Urduja. Source: Michael Tomelden

 

The private Imay

According to her grandnephew, Michael Tomelden, despite her very busy schedule, Geronima was a loving mother to her two daughters.  “Sunday lunches were held at her Gilmore Ave. home or at the home of her sister, Rizalina, Dean of Students at Philippine Normal College,” Tomelden told us via FB Messenger.  During Pistay Inatay, or the Day of the Dead, the family comes home to honor their patriarch and matriarch, Don Victor Tomelden and Doña Pacita who were buried at the beach in Baybay Lopez.  Lent was also spent at the family beach property in Lingayen. “Boodle fights was what I remember most,” Imay’s grandnephew continued. “Visits to Our Lady of Manaoag, our clan’s patron, was de rigueur.  Then back to Manila for Easter Hunt at Gilmore.”

Senator Geronima Pecson with her brother, Arturo. Source: Michael Tomelden

After resigning from government service in 1934, Geronima Pecson became active in women’s groups. She became involved in social work as co-founder, board member, Treasurer, and First Vice-President of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs of the Philippines (NFWCP) and as a suffragette who strove for Filipino women’s right to vote — which was granted on April 30, 1937, after 447,725 people voted in favor of it in a special plebiscite.  

Officers and members of the National Federation of Women's Clubs celebrate their 43rd Anniversary in 1948. Among those present were Doña Concha Rodriguez, Mrs. Florence Cadwallader, Mrs. Salud Unson, Mrs. Mariquit Javellana Lopez, and Senator Geronima Pecson. Source: A Legacy of Hope and Triumph

The first Philippine feminist movement

According to its official history entitled, A Legacy of Hope & Triumph (2010), the NFWCP traces its roots to the Asociacion Feminista Filipino, the first Philippine feminist movement founded in June 1905 by a group of progressive-thinking Filipinas led by Concepcion Felix Calderon, Trinidad Rizal. Clemencia Lopez, Maria Arevalo, Bonifacia Delgado de Barretto, Sofia Reyes (later de Veyra), Paz Natividad vda. de Zulueta, Teresa Solis, Maria F. de Villamor, and Agueda and Jacoba Paterno.  The group evolved into the Society for the Advancement of Women, then later as the Manila Woman’s Club—which expanded its membership to include both Filipino and American women. It finally became the NFWCP, founded in February 1921, during a convention attended by delegates from 300 women’s clubs nationwide. 

Senator Geronima Pecson (seated leftmost front) with Concepcion Felix Calderon, Sofia Reyes de Veyra, and other ladies who played significant roles in the foundation of the National Federation of Womens' Clubs of the Philippines (NFWCP). Source: A Legacy of Hope & Triumph
The Manila Woman's Club and its many achievements. Founded in 1912, the club evolved from the Society for the Advancement of Women and is the parent organization of the National Federation of Women's Clubs of the Philippines, founded in 1921. Source: A Legacy of Hope & Triumph

NFWCP has achieved much in terms of education, health care, women’s and children’s welfare, women’s suffrage, consumer protection, and women empowerment.  Led by such distinguished women such as Pura Villanueva Kalaw, Rosario M. Delgado, Rosa Sevilla Alvero, Sofia de Veyra, Josefa Llanes Escoda, Concepcion Henares, Trinidad Fernandez Legarda, Pilar Hidalgo Lim, Natividad Almeda Lopez, Julia Vargas Ortigas, and Geronima Pecson, NFWCP was able to realize significant achievements for the betterment of the Filipino.  It organized the first puericulture center in 1907.  It was the first to set up day care nurseries and soup kitchens in 1913.  It pioneered in the establishment of nursery and kindergarten schools in 1913.  It successfully worked for the improvement of conditions of women prisoners in 1920, leading to the establishment of the Correctional Institute for Women in Mandaluyong. It established a Home for the Aged in 1929. It worked for the appointment of women police officers and wardens in 1930. It successfully organized and coalesced all women’s groups and led a nationwide campaign for the passage into law of women’s right to suffrage. It initiated the organization of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines (GSP) in 1940 and produced among its ranks GSP founder and World War II heroine, Josefa Llanes Escoda; the first elected Congresswoman, Rep. Elisa Ochoa of Agusan, elected in 1940; the first woman Ambassador, Trinidad Fernandez Legarda; and the first Filipina Senator, Geronima Josefa Tomelden Pecson, elected in 1947.

A 1937 editorial cartoon showing President Manuel L. Quezon's support for the Woman Suffrage Movement. Geronima Pecson and her fellow NFWCP members were suffragettes who worked for the granting of the Filipino women's right to vote. Source: Presidential Museum & Library Flickr Page
NHI Historical Marker in honor of the Asociacion Feminista Filipina (Philippine Feminist Association), the first woman's club in the Philippines from which evolved the NFWCP. It was founded on 30 June 1905 at the initiative of Concepcion "Concha" Felix Calderon.

 

What inspired her to run

Before her election as Senator in the 1947 elections, Geronima Pecson served as President Jose P. Laurel’s personal secretary.  She also worked in the underground movement under General Manuel A. Roxas during the Japanese Occupation. General Roxas then served as chief adviser of President Laurel but was secretly sympathetic to the guerilla movement. When Roxas became president in 1946, Imay served as his Assistant Executive Secretary.  Her husband’s experience as Representative and her own experiences working for Presidents Laurel and Roxas, both legal luminaries and brilliant legislators, must have inspired Imay to run for the Senate to put her in a better position to pursue her education, health, and social welfare agendas through legislation.

Two of Senator Geronima Pecson's mentors were President Jose P. Laurel and President Manuel A. Roxas, both of whom were brilliant legislators. She was President Laurel's private secretary while she was President Manuel A. Roxas' Assistant Executive Secretary.
Senators Geronima Pecson (seated), Claro M. Recto, Vicente Puyat, and Carlos P. Garcia were chosen as "The Most Useful Senators of 1954." Source: Philippines Free Press, 1957 courtesy of Lito Ligon

Thereafter, she ran for Senator in the 1947 Philippine Senate Election held on November 11, 1947. She was the lone female candidate among 22 contenders. She placed a close third among the eight who were elected, receiving a total of 1,559,511 votes or 47.8% of the total votes for senator. Other candidates who were elected as senators who served six-year terms from December 30, 1947 until December 30, 1953 were Senators Lorenzo Tañada (48.1%), Vicente Madrigal (47.19%), Emiliano Tria Tirona (47.6%), Fernando H. Lopez (47.3%), Camilo Osias (46.3%), Pablo Angeles David (45.6%), and Carlos Tan (45.3%), all Liberal Party (LP) members, except for Osias of the Nacionalista Party.  Trailing behind them were seasoned politicians, Primitivo Lovina, Eulogio Rodriguez, Sr., Felixberto Serrano, and Jose Ma. Veloso, all of whom lost the elections that year.

Senator Geronima Pecson (with back facing) at the temporary Senate Session Hall at the Manila City Hall, circa 1947-1948. With her in the photo were Senators Lorenzo Tañada, Carlos P. Garcia, Pablo David, and Vicente Madrigal, circa 1947-1948. Source: Presidential Museum & Library

During her term, Senator Geronima Pecson headed three committees close to her heart: the Senate Committee on Education, the Senate Committee on Health and Public Welfare, and the Joint Congressional Committee on Education. Apart from being a member of the Commission on Appointments and of the Senate Electoral Tribunal, Senator Pecson was the prime mover of the following notable laws: the Free and Compulsory Education Act of 1953; the Vocational Education Act;  the law permitting the establishment of training facilities for instructors in specific national schools of arts and trades; the law establishing the Roxas Memorial Agricultural School; the Municipal Libraries Act; the laws creating the Home Financing Commission and a fisheries school in Albay; and the law that upgraded the University of the Philippines School of Forestry in Los Baños, Laguna into the College of Forestry.

 

Losing the elections

She ran for a second term in the Senate in the elections of 10 November 1953 but unfortunately lost, placing 9th in a field of twenty and garnering a total of 1,349,163 votes or 31.2%. The other woman candidate, Concepcion R. Lim de Planas, mother of Carmen, Adela, and Charito Planas, trailed in the twentieth place, garnering only 4,439 votes or 0.1% of the votes. Topping the Senate elections that year were Fernando H. Lopez, Lorenzo Tanada, Eulogio Rodriguez, Sr., Emmanuel Pelaez, Edmundo Cea, Mariano Jesus Cuenco, Alejo R. Mabanag, and Ruperto Kangleon.   

Senator Geronima Pecson with friends of NFWCP in a formal gathering. Source: A Legacy of Hope & Triumph

Though she only served one term in the Philippine Senate, Senator Geronima Pecson paved the way for the election of more women senators.  To date, there are a total of twenty two female senators elected from 1947-2016:  Pecson (1947-1954), Pacita Paterno Madrigal Warns (1955-1961), Maria Kalaw Katigbak (1961-1967), Eva Estrada Kalaw (1965-1972), Tecla San Andres Ziga ((1963-1969), Magnolia Welborn Antonino (1967-1972), Helena Zoila Tirona Benitez (1967-1972), Leticia Ramos Shahani (1987-1998), Santanina Tillah Rasul (1987-1995), Anna Dominique “Nikki” Coseteng (1992-2001), Miriam Defensor Santiago (1995-2001, 2004-2016), Gloria Macaraeg Macapagal-Arroyo (1992-1998), Lorna Regina “Loren” Bautista Legarda (1998-2004, 2007-2019), Tessie Aquino Oreta (1998-2004), Luisa “Loi” Pimentel Ejercito (2001-2007), Maria Ana Consuelo “Jamby” Abad Santos Madrigal (2004-2010), Pia Schramm Cayetano (2004-2010, 2010-2016), Nancy Sombillo Binay (2013-2019), Grace Sonora Poe (2013-2019), Cynthia Aguilar Villar (2013-2019), Risa Navarro Hontiveros (2016-present), and Leila Magistrado de Lima (2016-present).  Six are currently serving as Senators with two remaining in office and three vying for re-election.

Senator Geronima Pecson welcomed by Filipino Woman Club of San Francisco, 1948.

As Board Member of the Philippine Tuberculosis Society, one  of  Geronima Pecson’s most significant contributions was the improvement of the plight of Filipino teachers afflicted with tuberculosis with the establishment of the Teachers’ Pavilion in the Quezon Institute.  As a former teacher herself, she had firsthand knowledge of the difficulties they faced and knew that the nature of their job made them prone to tuberculosis.  At the pavilion, she hoped that ailing teachers would be accorded proper care and treatment.

In the 1950s-1960s, she represented the Philippines in various international conferences of the UNESCO and the International Red Cross and the first Filipina member of UNESCO’s Executive Board.  She was also a member of the board of trustees of  a number of schools and universities, among which were Centro Escolar University, the Philippine Normal College, the Philippine College of Commerce (the precursor of the University of the East), and St. John’s Academy and a member of the Board of Regents of the University of the Philippines. In her latter years, she was a consultant of the Ministry of Education & Culture.

After a life dedicated to the service of the Filipino people, former Senator Geronima Pecson passed away on 31 July 1989 at the age of 92. Commemorative plaques were installed in her honor by the National Historical Institute in 1994 at the site of her former home along Gilmore Ave., New Manila and in her hometown, Lingayen, Pangasinan.

Bust and historical marker in honor of Senator Geronima Pecson at the Libsong Elementary School in her hometown, Lingayen, Pangasinan.
NHI Historical Marker in honor of the late Senator Geronima Tomelden Pecson (1896-1989) installed at the location of her former home in Gilmore Street, New Manila, Quezon City. Source: Roel Balingit, Philippine Historical Markers

For her exemplary service as educator, social worker, and legislator, Senator Geronima Pecson was awarded Most Distinguished Alumna, University of the Philippines College of Education in 1972; Most Distinguished Alumna, University of the Philippines in 1976;  Spain’s Gran Cruz de Alfonso El Sabio, Grade of Commander in the Field of culture; the Press Association’s Legion of Honor from the President of the Philippines “for outstanding service during World War II; and recipient of the Rizal Pro-Patria presidential award in 1961 “for exceptional assistance to the cause of Philippine progress.”

 

Special thanks to Ms. Mary Jane C. Ortega, NFWC Foundation, Inc.  President for her kind permission to use photos from the book, A Legacy of Hope & Triumph, published by NFWC Foundation, Inc. under the leadership of its former President, Julita C. Benedicto; Ms. Kitchie Benedicto, Ms. Bibeth Orteza Siguion-Reyna, Lito Ligon, and most especially, Michael Tomelden, for generously sharing photos and memories of his late grandaunt.