Roe vs Wade, women’s rights and the Culion women of 1937


The looming U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down what everybody thought was “settled law”, Roe vs Wade, has galvanized women in the country to do whatever is possible to prevent the law from being kicked down the bin of history.

The impassioned plea to protect women’s rights reminds me of the plight of Filipino women before WWII who had to move heaven and earth to secure their right of suffrage. Back in the early decades of the 20th century, only literate Filipino men 21 years old and over could vote. The 1935 Philippine Constitution set a high bar for women to earn their right to vote: 300,000 literate women would vote “yes” in a plebiscite.

Section 1. Suffrage may be exercised by male citizens of the Philippines not otherwise disqualified by law, who are twenty-one years of age or over and are able to read and write, and who shall have resided in the Philippines for one year and in the municipality wherein they propose to vote for at least six months preceding the election. The National Assembly shall extend the right of suffrage to women, if in a plebiscite which shall beheld for that purpose within two years after the adoption of this Constitution, not less than three hundred thousand women possessing the necessary qualifications shall vote affirmatively on the question.

Article V, 1935 Constitution

Three years ago, I read an article from a pre-WWII Philippine Magazine that chronicled the mobilization efforts in a leper colony called Culion, in Palawan, Philippines. Eloise Stirling Hirt, who wrote the article, came down to Culion and helped local suffragists organize and campaign for women’s right to vote. Earlier she went around the Philippines with women’s rights stalwart Josefa Llanes Escoda ramping up support for women’s rights in the plebiscite of 1937. On Culion, she witnessed at a townhall meeting how fired up the women were. She wrote, “The leper women were as inflammable as guncotton.”

“The leper women were as inflammable as guncotton.”

Eloise Stirling Hirt, Philippine Magazine, 1937.

It was around March when she made the visit to Culion, barely six weeks before the consequential plebiscite of 1937. The Culion women all wanted to vote but they had to clear the literacy bar before they could proceed.

Hirt witnessed how volunteers went house to house, bed to bed, to register women. It was all hands on deck as they taught older women to read and write.

Back in the day, and I remember this full well from conversations with my grandmothers, women were not encouraged to go far with their studies.

A total of 952 women registered. On April 30, 1937, 918 Culion women voted “yes” and five chose to vote “no”. In total, 492,000 Filipino women across the nation voted affirmatively in the plebiscite that secured the right of suffrage.

It was amazing how, despite odds against them, women were a juggernaut that not even a very high bar set in the constitution could stop them from claiming their right. This brings me back to the present-day fight to keep Roe vs Wade. Truly, there is strength in numbers and women all over the country can look up to these Culion women. If and when the Supreme Court strikes down Roe vs Wade, the women have one recourse left: vote in the mid-term elections like our dear lives depend on it.

Religion and Roe

I personally see that there is a compromise. Catholics and evangelicals see abortion as tantamount to ending an innocent life. Abortion has pitted the North vs South, liberals vs Conservatives, etc. It should not polarize the country when there ‘s a way to make it palatable to everyone.

This is just my opinion. Again, it does not have to be a zero-sum game where winner takes it all. All we need is compromise. How about in the next attempt at codifying the law, add a proviso that Roe does not apply to those whose religions or personal convictions forbid it? And a provision that those under 18 need parental consent before a procedure.

People should be able to find comfort that in a democracy, they get to practice their constitutionally protected freedoms. Some politicians who in the age of social media use absurd, conspiracy ideas and impose purity test, go for zero-sum games, with the victory over the opposing side the be-all and end-all of their political career. The last decade has been highlighted by acrimonious battle of agenda.

As far as I remember, we have religious freedom but we do not have a state religion. In a democracy, we respect the religious beliefs of the others and we don’t impose our beliefs on them, and vice versa.

A house divided cannot stand. If the nation will continue to remain split between two opposing parties and perspectives, how can the nation deal with a common threat from outside its borders. There has to be a common ground and people should find a way to reach a compromise.

I am rambling here but I only want the nation to move forward and champion the greatest good for the greatest number.

Rather than tinker with Roe vs Wade, I think given the long list of mass shooting incidents, it is high time to deal with gun ownership. It is controversial but in order to avert any future mass killings, someone with the political will must initiate action and deal with this. Roe vs Wade does not pose any serious threat to the average person; it’s gun ownership that needs to be examined more closely with the interest of the vast majority in mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.