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  President Benigno Aquino III with new Supreme Court Associate Justice Maria Lourdes Aranal Sereno, August 16, 2010. Sereno may eventually become the first female chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court.
  Associate Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye (centre) with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (right) and retiring California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald M. George (left) Gov. Schwarzenegger announced her nomination as California Supreme Court Chief Justice last July.

The 17th of September is a date that should be marked every year as a proud day for Filipinas. On that date in 1937, the National Assembly (the old congress) passed Republic Act No. 4112 granting women the right of suffrage. Seven brave and persistent women namely; Concepcion Felix de Calderon, Rosa Sevilla de Alvero, Constancia Poblete, Pura Villanueva Kalaw, Maria Paz Mendoza Guanzon, Pilar Hidalgo Lim and Josefa Llanes Escoda, worked tirelessly and led their respective groups during the 1934 Constitutional Convention in lobbying for women’s right to vote and to be voted for.

The plebiscite of 1937

Article V of the 1935 Constitution allowed women the right of suffrage on the condition that 300,000 qualified women would affirm this right in a plebiscite held for that purpose. The Plebiscite of April 30, 1937, resulted in a landslide victory for the “yes” votes. Emily Sanchez-Salcedo, a lawyer, educator, author and a Fulbright scholar at Indiana University-Bloomington, mentioned in her book, The Filipina and the Law, that “the most important victory for women in the realm of political law, on the other hand, was the right to vote and be voted for secured by them in 1937.” Ten years after that milestone, Geronima Pecson, a native of Pangasinan, placed third in the 1947 national elections and became the first woman senator of the Philippines.

Filipinas in the field of law

The year 1937 was also particularly significant for Tecla San Andres-Ziga. During that year she topped the Civil Service Examinations for Lawyers, earning her a spot at the Department of Justice where she was employed for many years. Prior to that, she became the first woman to top the Philippine Bar Examinations in 1930. She later became a Congresswoman and Senator of the Republic. Although unverified, Maria Francisco de Villacena is said to have been the first Filipina lawyer.

A woman of many firsts

Nine years before Bertha Wilson became the first woman Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in 1982, Cecilia Muñoz-Palma, already made history as the first woman to be appointed Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines in 1973. This came at the time when the country was at the height of martial rule. She made many adverse decisions against the Marcos regime, earning the ire of her appointing authority. Years before that, she became the first female prosecutor of Quezon City and also the first female district judge in the Philippines. When the Marcos dictatorship collapsed in 1986, she was tasked by Corazon Aquino, the first woman president of the Republic of the Philippines, to head the Constitutional Commission that drafted the present Philippine Constitution.

Continuing the tradition

On June 30, 2010, Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales of the Supreme Court of the Philippines became the first female Justice to swear into office a new President of the Republic of the Philippines. Two months after being sworn into office by Carpio-Morales, President Benigno Aquino III made his first appointment to the Supreme Court  – and guess what – he appointed Associate Justice Ma. Lourdes Aranal Sereno, a woman highly touted to become the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines. In one Internet article, the feisty Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago praised President Aquino for appointing Justice Sereno, “Sereno’s appointment is a triumph of superior intellect over shabby politics. I admire President Aquino for his impartiality and preference for intellectual merit,” said the senator, adding, “She is brilliant. It is fortuitous that she was appointed very young. She will earn the necessary seniority and eventually become the first female chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court.”

Filipina jurists on the international scene

If confirmed by voters in November, Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye of the Third District Court of Appeal of California will be the first Filipina-American to lead the largest court system in the United States. The daughter of Filipino farm labourers who worked the fields in Hawaii, she was nominated by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to be Califonia’s next Chief Justice. He made the announcement at the Capitol Dome on July 22, 2010. Six days later, President Barack Obama appointed as Associate Justice of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia another Filipina-American, Ma. Elizabeth Raffinan. Emily Sanchez-Salcedo posed a question in her book, “What then are the distinctive marks of a truly empowered Filipina?” You just read my answer.


  • The Filipina and the Law, Emily Sanchez-Salcedo, J.D., LL.M.

JB Casares has degrees in Political Science and Law from the Philippines. He graduated with honours and an Academic Excellence Award from Herzing College under its Legal Assistant Program. He is presently employed as a Wills and Estate Paralegal at Inkster Christie Hughes, LLP

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