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Culture Spotlight

The Last Good Senator: Eva Estrada Kalaw

The Martial Law-era lawmaker broke barriers in office, achievements that are notable not only for her gender, but for the way she chose what’s right over political affiliations. The Plaza Miranda survivor remains a prime example of what it means to be a ballsy public servant.
Felipe F. Salvosa II | May 08 2019

5 days before we head to the polls to vote for our senatorial bets, do we really know what we want out of the personalities we will elect? What does it really mean to earn a seat in our senate halls? In this series of ANCX essays, some of our distinguished writers reflect on the careers of past and present senators who have made the most impact, and created a significant difference.  

Filipino voters used to elect do-gooders to the Senate. One of them was Eva Estrada Kalaw, a strong-willed civic leader twice jailed for opposing the Marcos regime.

Kalaw, a UP-educated daughter of Tarlac sugar central owners, was the lone female candidate for senator of the Nacionalista Party in 1965. Back then, the candidate for the single slot reserved for women was handpicked by the president or whoever was the party standard bearer. Kalaw, however, had to win her nomination through a convention, courting the votes of the overwhelmingly male party leadership.

 

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Kalaw banked on her popularity and the political connections she had made in the course of her charity and civic work, such as with the Community Chest and the Red Cross. With the support of her husband, businessman Teodoro Kalaw Jr. (son of the Teodoro Kalaw Sr., a congressman and director of the National Library), she built a women’s political organization, the Samahang Filipina, which helped her clinch the party nomination.

In her memoirs (A Political Journey), she described her very first electoral victory as nothing short of “phenomenal.” Kalaw was not the first woman to make it to the Philippine Senate (Geronima Pecson earned the distinction nearly two decades earlier, in 1947), but she was the first to do so sans a presidential endorsement, and with the backing of a nationwide women’s grassroots movement. She ranked fifth in the 1965 Senate race, winning more than 3 million votes or 42 percent of the ballots cast.

Kalaw was the token female candidate of the Nacionalistas; but at the Senate, she was not to be bullied around by the old boys’ club, which gave her only minor committees. In 1967, it was the old boys’ turn to court her vote. Sen. Gil Puyat wanted to wrest the Senate presidency from Arturo Tolentino, an independent, and consolidate the Nacionalista Party’s control of the chamber. In a Senate coup instigated by Puyat with the help of the Liberals, Kalaw cast the deciding 13th vote, and in exchange got the education and other powerful committees.

Sen. Eva Kalaw. Photograph from www.gov.ph

The laws she had authored remain consequential. Kalaw, having been a social worker, elevated the Social Welfare Administration from a mere bureau under the Office of the President to a Cabinet-level portfolio, the Department of Social Welfare and Development. She also standardized the pay of public school teachers, and placed student council and faculty representatives in the governing boards of state universities and colleges to make their decisions transparent and inclusive. A nationalist, inspired and drawn into politics by no less than the great Claro M. Recto, Kalaw cut the number of required units of Spanish in college.

 

Courage and conviction

Kalaw won as senator in 1965 under the victorious Nacionalista ticket of Ferdinand Marcos, who unseated the unpopular President Diosdado Macapagal. She soon found herself in opposition to Marcos and her own party, defining her political career in the process.

In 1966, President Marcos wanted to send troops to the Vietnam War, and asked Congress to appropriate a hefty P35 million for the armed contingent. Lawmakers were divided into “hawks” and “doves,” or those who favored sending soldiers to South Vietnam and those who did not. Kalaw wanted to send doctors, nurses, and engineers instead. “I am not a dove nor am I a hawk. I am a Kalaw, a truly Filipino bird,” she declared during the Vietnam bill debate.

Kalaw rejected Marcos’ personal appeal for her to vote in favor of the Vietnam bill. From then on Marcos saw to it that all Kalaw-authored bills languished in the legislative mill. But she earned the admiration of her colleagues, among them Sen. Jose Diokno, who was said to have remarked: “Iyan ang babaeng may bayag.” (That’s a woman with balls.)

In 1971, Kalaw earned another distinction: the first female senator to win reelection. She did so even after being dropped by the increasingly authoritarian Marcos from the Nacionalista Party’s senatorial slate. The opposition Liberal Party however invited her to be a guest candidate. On August 21, 1972, the Liberal Party proclamation rally at Plaza Miranda in Quiapo, Manila was bombed (by the communists, as party leaders would later find out). Kalaw was among the scores of people injured. After being discharged from the hospital, she returned to the campaign trail, albeit in crutches. Gaining the sympathy vote, the Liberals crushed the Nacionalistas.

A year later, Marcos declared Martial Law and padlocked the Senate. Kalaw openly fought the dictatorship and was jailed along with other opposition leaders, including her cousin, Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. She was jailed a second time for an anti-Marcos speech.

Upon Kalaw’s death in 2017 at the age of 96, senators past and present extolled her as a model of courage against presidential abuse of power. Said ex-senator Rene Saguisag: “We need the likes of Senator Eva today...But unfortunately, what we see now or hear are echoes, not voices. She was a voice in her time."

 

Felipe F. Salvosa II heads the journalism program of the University of Santo Tomas. He was reporter and editor for BusinessWorld and a researcher for the Financial Times. He recently left as managing editor of The Manila Times over disagreements on a published story about the Duterte Ouster Matrix.