10 Iconic Filipinas who made history
This is a two-part series on 10 Filipinas who made history. Part 1 is available here: 10 Filipinas who made history that you should know about (Part 1)
Encarnacion Alzona (March 23, 1895 – March 13, 2001)
Both the first Filipina historian and the first Filipina to get a doctoral degree, Encarnacion Alzona went from studying history to being a part of it, in part two of our list of 10 Filipinas who made history.
Born in Biñan, Laguna and raised in Tayabas, Alzona recognized that education was the key to challenging gender inequality. In 1919, she took advantage of the U.S government’s Pensionado program when it finally opened its doors to middle-upper class Filipinas. She eventually became the first Filipina to obtain a Ph.D from Columbia University.
Alzona went on to teach education at the University of the Philippines for over twenty years and became the chairperson of the department of history.
Throughout her career, Alzona consistently advocated for women’s rights. By 1928, she was president of the Philippine Association of University Women – an organization dedicated to the Filipino women’s suffrage movement.
Alzona further used her membership in the National Federation of Women’s Clubs (NFWC) to lobby for Filipinas’ right to participate in public affairs.
Alzona’s efforts were recognized by the Philippines’ National Academy of Science and Technology, given the highest distinction as National Scientist in 1985.
Maria Ylagan Orosa (November 29, 1892 – February 13, 1945)
Maria Ylagan Orosa not only invented the beloved banana ketchup – found today in the sweet sauce, “Jufran”, distributed worldwide – but she also saved lives.
Born in Taal, Batangas, Orosa was a war heroine, pioneer in food technology, and the first Filipino nutritionist. Her life goal was to help make Filipinos self-sufficient through food and nutritional needs. By 1920, Orosa became the first Filipino person to be appointed assistant state chemist of Washington.
Orosa recognized the need to reduce dependence on imported products. Using native ingredients from the islands while highlighting the nation’s wealth of natural resources, she invented over 700 recipes in her lifetime.
During WWII, she saved thousands of Filipino and American lives by smuggling vitally nutritious food into Japanese internment camps – such as Soyalac, a drink made from soybeans, and Darak, rice cookies that helped fight beriberi disease as it was rich with vitamin B-1.
Orosa also created the process of canning food for guerrilla forces, invented the widely known “Palayok-Oven” for Filipina housewives without electricity. She was the first person to produce, freeze and export mangoes to the U.S. during an era when freezing food was uncommon.
Josefa Llanes Escoda (September 20, 1898 – January 6, 1945)
Josefa Llanes Escoda sacrificed her life carrying out dangerous work during WWII.
Born in Dingras, Illocos Norte, Escoda was a social worker, suffragist, feminist, and civic leader that dedicated her life to social justice and amplifying the voices of women.
As a social worker for the Philippine chapter of the American Red Cross, she founded the Girls Scouts of the Philippines during the early 1940s and served as the president of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs.
With her husband, Escoda smuggled food, medicine, clothes, and secret messages to Filipino and American prisoners of Japanese internment camps. She continued to do so even after her husband’s arrest, until she was caught and imprisoned in 1944. This war heroine tragically endured abuse and torture during captivity and is presumed to have been executed and buried in an unmarked grave.
Escoda has not been forgotten. The nation honours sacrifice, and Escoda is one of the two women featured on the Philippine peso. Her accomplishments in social work and legacy in the social and political progression of Filipino women live on.
Fe del Mundo (November 27, 1911 – August 6, 2011)
Fe del Mundo lost four of eight of her siblings during childhood, which influenced her to pursue a career in medicine and pediatrics to help impoverished people in the Philippines.
She didn’t just succeed in her goals, but thrived in them. She became the first Filipina president of the Philippine Pediatric Society, a consultant of the World Health Organization, and earning multiple national and global awards.
This Manila-born Filipina revolutionized Philippine medicine in many ways. Mundo is credited for major breakthroughs in immunization, treatment of jaundice, and methods such as the BRAT diet that can prevent dehydration and diarrhea.
Mundo is also widely recognized for the invention of the bamboo incubator, made for rural communities lacking electricity.
During WWII, the mayor of Manila appointed Mundo to lead a children’s hospital, which eventually became a medical center during the Battle of Manila.
By 1957, she had founded the Children’s Medical Hospital – the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines.
Magdalena Leones (August 19, 1920 – June 16, 2016)
Last, but not least, is the “Lioness of Filipina Agents”.
Born in the mountains of Lubuagan, Kalinga, Magdalena Leones went from being a 22-year-old teacher studying to become a nun, to serving as an intelligence officer for the United States Armed Forces in the Philippines-North Luzon.
Leones was the only Asian woman to be awarded the U.S. military’s prestigious Silver Star Medal.
After the Fall of Bataan, Leones refused to surrender to the Japanese and was imprisoned for five months. During captivity, she taught herself the Japanese language, Niponggo. This Filipina spy transported important intelligence data, vital radio parts, and medical supplies through enemy-held territory – risking torture and execution. Leones was also known for her ability to memorize multiple names of enemy ships, their captains and cargo.
Corporal Magdalena Leones is one of the lesser-known WWII veterans, despite being such a brilliant, brave, and iconic Filipina war hero.
Learn about other iconic Filipinas in history
During times of war, colonization, revolutions, and gendered oppression, Filipinas have overcome adversity to accomplish a diversity of historical achievements for the social, economic, and political development of the nation.
The women in this list are just to name a few.
There are an abundance of iconic Filipinas with unique triumphs – past and present – that deserve our recognition and praise. Time after time, their resilience, hard work, and care for their nation have proven why they are equally important to society.
We see this today in Filipino-American journalist, Maria Ressa, who in 2021 became the first Filipino person to win a Nobel Prize; and weightlifter, Hidilyn Diaz, who in 2021 is the first Filipino to win an Olympic gold medal for the Philippines.
With many more stories not featured, I encourage readers to learn more about historically significant Filipinas, as you might find inspiration in them to rise above your circumstances as many of those women did, or make a difference in your community.
Featured photo: Wisconsin Philippines Image Collection
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