Stories of Filipina Suffrage: Remembering Marginal Histories in Colonial Contexts

Stories of Filipina Suffrage: Remembering Marginal Histories in Colonial Contexts

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 2 Winter 2020

Author(s): Katie Bramlett

Katie Bramlett is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland where she teaches classes in writing, feminist memory studies, and Asian American literature. Her research works at the intersection of Asian American rhetoric, public memory, and transnational feminism. She is currently an administrative assistant within UMD’s Academic Writing Program. Her work has appeared in College English.

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As this Peitho conversation makes clear, the Nineteenth Amendment heralded new political possibilities mainly for white women. One group that we often do not consider is suffrage history of Asian American communities, especially Filipinas. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States took imperial control in the Philippines. Yet, instead of giving Filipino citizens rights to participate in United States politics, the new rule placed Filipinos in a political limbo. Beginning in 1901, Filipinos in the United States and abroad were considered as neither foreign alien nor American citizen, but simply as ambiguous U.S. “nationals” who held no U.S. political rights (Baldoz 74). Filipinos were granted the right to vote in elections in the Philippines in 1907; yet women were not granted the same right until 1937 (Carandang and Tiongson 81). As U.S. nationals, though, Filipinos—both men and women– could not become U.S. citizens or vote in American politics. The history of voting rights for Filipino Americans reveals inconsistent and prejudicial policies perpetuated by the U.S. government concerning American colonial subjects. Yet, Filipino American history is often glossed over, forgotten, or erased. As we reflect on ways to mark the suffrage centennial, we should consider this history and the women who continued fighting for voting rights even after the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment.

To embody feminist ideals and emphasize the historical contributions of all women who fought for equal rights and suffrage beyond 1920, it seems we need to expand our thinking to include colonial histories and to center attention on women who have more transnational identifications. Terese Guinsatao Monberg argues that our recovery of feminist rhetorics is guided by Western ideological assumptions about whose activities count as feminist and may “prevent many Asian/American women from being heard” (84). According to Haivan Hoang, Asian American rhetorical memory is a “rejoinder to the persistent forgetfulness that displaces Asian Americans from commonplace understandings of what is American” (63). Memorials created by and about Asian Americans can reshape our historical narratives to be more inclusive of diverse voices. Such community memory projects are noteworthy outlets for investigation, especially as we reframe our centennial discussions to be more inclusive of multiply marginalized women like Filipinas.

“The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” is an innovative project that works on addressing this memorial concern and is a model we should pay attention to at this centennial moment. It is an exhibit dedicated to establishing the presence of Filipina suffragists in Washington, D.C. and making clear the relationship between American history and women’s voting rights in the Philippines. This exhibit was created in 2016 by Titchie and Erwin Tiongson, a husband and wife research team who are not archivists or professional historians. Rather, they are what we might see as everyday public memory activists. “The Washington Home” is part of a group the Tiongsons founded in 2012 called Philippines on the Potomac, which is dedicated to the research and recovery of Philippine history. “The Washington Home” is a traveling exhibit and has been displayed in various libraries, museums, and archives, including the University of Maryland, Philippines Embassy, and Fairfax Museum and Visitor’s Center. The Tiongsons also travel with the exhibit and lecture about their research, the exhibit, and Filipina suffrage history in the United States. Until this exhibit came to be, these women and their presence in the United States had all but been forgotten.

“The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” exhibit features large panels filled with black and white photos, scanned newspaper articles, and other historical information about Filipinas in the United States during the twentieth century.

Fig. 1. “The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” exhibit.

As seen in Fig. 1, the exhibit is made of six large, olive green panels that display an abundance of pictures, historical overviews, and newspaper articles about Filipinas in the United States during the twentieth century. Although the title and exhibit make it clear that a major theme for the exhibit is Filipina suffrage history in the United States, the exhibit does not focus on suffrage activities alone. The variety of materials on display may even seem out of place when considering typical notions of suffrage that centers around voting rights. While all the women featured in the exhibit were active in civic life of some sort, including membership in charitable organizations, advocates for women’s literacy rights, and politicians in their own right, the materials displayed paint them not only as activists, but also as mothers, socialites, sisters, and wives. The result is that the exhibit evokes the genre of a scrapbook, one that recovers a comprehensive picture of the daily activities and identities of Filipina activists in twentieth century United States. Amy Mecklenburg-Faenger maintains that scrapbooks have historically allowed for women to construct their own histories and identities to act as a counter to dominant historical narratives that dismissed or erased their contributions (142). In the same way, the Tiongsons created a public display that contextualizes and recovers the lives of women who had been forgotten. The exhibit’s vision of what belongs within suffrage history is expansive and challenges viewers to think broadly about connections between suffrage and other forms of women’s activism within the Filipina community.

My contribution to the centennial cluster considers “The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” and the methods this community memory project employs to (re)frame suffrage history to consider the everyday experiences of Filipinas that were multiply marginalized. Additionally and importantly, “The Washington Home” also acts as a model of how everyday archivists move from archival research to a public memory project in ways that call viewers to recast their understandings of suffrage history. This memorial offers a much-needed intervention in our centennial celebrations, as it speaks to methods community members might employ when curating marginal histories in the face of archival scarcity and during this moment when more prominent figures like Susan B. Anthony might be highlighted.

I assert that the archival elements on display in “The Washington Home” work together to transform an eclectic collection of archival material into something like a public scrapbook that preserves a history that has been virtually forgotten and, even more, reconsiders what rights rhetorics and public memory might entail for women whose culture, nationality, and gender prevented them from gaining rights in both the Philippines and in the United States. I argue that “The Washington Home” exhibit uses archival material and diverse stories of Filipinas’ lives to expand the suffrage moment and its memory beyond just voting rights. Instead, the exhibit advocates for viewing suffrage moments that multiply marginalized women engaged to fight not only for the right to vote but also for the right to viewed as human. During the early 1900s, not only was the Philippine nation was under imperial control; but individuals of Filipino descent on American soil also experienced harsh prejudices and violence. For example, as Samantha Heinrich writes, a newspaper report on the 1904 World Fair discussed an exhibit of Filipino natives and maligned them as “‘dog-eaters’, ‘savages’ and/or ‘barbarians,’ while simultaneously gathering support for the continued presence of the United States in the Philippines” (Heinrich 26). This example is representative of a national discourse that Filipinas were attempting to combat as they also fought for their right to vote. Thus, the exhibit recalls a history when Filipinas were seen as less than human and had to negotiate widespread misunderstandings of their culture and identities.

Archival Scarcity: Rethinking the Scene of the Archive

“The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” was inspired by one serendipitous trip to the Library of Congress when Titchie and Erwin Tiongson unearthed a photograph (see Fig. 2). The photo was taken in 1922 and its description in the Library of Congress holdings was simple: “Philippine women received by the first lady.” The photograph features twenty-two Filipinas on the White House lawn with First Lady Harding, but, as the description of the photo indicates, there was little information about who the women were or what they were doing at the White House. Deeply interested in learning more about the image, the Tiongsons discovered that the Filipinas were the family members of a Filipino delegation that was visiting the United States (Carandang and Tiongson 76). The delegation was known as the Philippine Independence Mission of 1922 that advocated for Philippine freedom from U.S. imperial control (Onorato 559). While the Filipino delegation members and their meeting with President Harding are well documented, the lives and activities of their Filipina counterparts during this same time is not as easily accessible. Unable to let go of the mystery of exactly who these women were and their role in Filipino history, Titchie and Erwin set out to prove it was not “just one more vintage photograph—pretty, yet unremarkable” but instead this was a photo of “some of the most extraordinary women of their time,” who would help to rewrite suffrage laws in the Philippines (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). Titchie and Erwin eventually learned the names of most of the twenty-two women in the photo; however, historical records often included limited information about these women or their lives in the United States.

Black and white photo of a group of Filipina women on the White House lawn with First Lady Harding.

Fig. 2. Twenty-two unidentified Filipina women are greeted by First Lady Harding on the White House lawn.

In the face of archival scarcity, the creators of “The Washington Home” reimagined what could be considered as sources for their research and expanded their research methods to discover more about who the women were. Cheryl Glenn and Jessica Enoch assert the capacity of “smaller collections or accidental discoveries” to “expand our notions of what counts as a primary resource, as an archive” (328). Titchie and Erwin spent months reading biographies and newspapers, contacting community members who had family oral histories and photographs of Filipinas in the twentieth century, and visiting archives that had collections dedicated to Filipino history, like the University of Maryland’s Hornbake library. Through such actions, Titichie and Erwin “reth[ought] the scene of the archive” and collected archival materials from sources not typically taken advantage of by scholars (327). These community resources and smaller archives created a valuable outlet in which the Tiongsons could follow the traces of the women’s histories and collect a multitude of evidence about their lives in the United States.

By rethinking the scene of the archive, Titchie and Erwin culled enough material to create a scrapbook-like memorial where audiences can view the majority of the documents they discovered. This includes a collection of photos, cookbooks, newspaper clippings, and seemingly disconnected stories about Filipinas living in the United States in the early twentieth century. With the help of Monica Bascon, a graphic designer, Tichie and Erwin transformed their collection of eclectic archival documents into a narrative of Filipina activism, which reclaims Washington, D.C. as a rich site for Asian American culture and history.

Remembering Filipina Suffrage: Sophia de Veyra and the Negotiation of Multiple Identities

A prime way the exhibit encourages viewers to expand their knowledge of suffrage history is focusing on basic information about Filipina suffrage history and highlighting Filipina suffragist Sofia de Veyra as a key figure in women’s rights narratives. One of the first panels viewers of the exhibit encounter is entitled “The Women of the 1922 Independence Mission.” The White House lawn photograph of the Filipinas with First Lady Harding is at the top and the bottom of this panel. The middle section of the panel features a historical overview that gives a background of who the women are in the photograph and a brief history of Filipina suffrage. The central figure in the photograph facing Mrs. Harding is Sofia de Veyra (see in Fig. 2). The first two lines of the historical overview establish de Veyra as a key figure in the exhibit: “On June 19,1922, U.S. First Lady Florence Harding hosted the wives, daughters, and sisters of the delegates of the Philippine Independence Mission. The group was led by Sofia de Veyra, the wife of the Resident Commissioner Jaime de Veyra” (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). The caption goes on to make clear that, fifteen years after this photograph was taken in 1937, de Veyra and other women in the photo, like Ines Villa Gonzalez and Aurora Quezon, would “be instrumental in the passing of the September 1937 Election Law that allowed Filipina women to vote and run for office” (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). This information is important because it firmly situates the exhibit in context with women who played a key role in Filipina suffrage. Further, by focusing on de Veyra as a leader of the movement, it places her in similar positions of power like other suffragist leaders who may be better known to the viewer.

This understanding of Sofia de Veyra’s activism is strengthened by the first panel’s inclusion of Carrie Chapman Catt and her work with Filipina suffrage. The first panel displays a picture of Catt and the historical overview that follows explains that she visited the Philippines in 1912 to help establish and grow suffrage movements. During her trip she met with de Veyra and, despite Catt’s doubts about the success of her visit, the meeting directly inspired the founding of the Women’s Club of Manila (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). By invoking Catt and highlighting her connection with Filipina suffragists and her investment in their rights, the exhibit expands visions of the suffrage movement beyond the U.S. These women were U.S. nationals who worked with prominent American suffragists, and thus the exhibit intervenes in the typical omission of this fact. The scrapbook-like style of the exhibit reinforces this association. According to Danille Elise Christensen “scrapbooks can also be experienced as exhibits that makers use to position themselves actively within symbolic discourses and regimes of value” (Christensen 44). The photograph of Catt and the historical overview rhetorically creates an association between the women in the White House photograph, especially de Veyra, and American suffrage. As the text points out, the photo was taken two years after women in the U.S. were granted the right to vote in 1920. Filipinas (whether they were Filipino American or living in the Philippines) were still barred from the franchise. By bringing Catt into Filipina suffrage memory, the exhibit creates an unfinished narrative of suffrage, one which de Veyra would take up the responsibility to gain Filipinas the right to vote. 

The exhibit continues to highlight de Veyra as a key figure in Filipina suffrage history and as an active civic force challenging American racist perceptions of Filipinos. De Veyra is the only Filipina to have an entire panel dedicated to her, and it highlights her activities in D.C. including her time as a Red Cross volunteer and as a wife and mother. Her biographical overview uses a personal history that showcases her as a refined, elite individual—a narrative that works in direct contrast to the negative perceptions of Filipina in American culture. As noted, Filipinos were commonly labeled as savages. The savagery labeled upon Filipino bodies coalesced into a movement colloquially called “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” Such a phrase was something that became commonplace in the mid-1900s. American Studies scholar Antonio Tiongson reflects on the prominence of “Positively No Filipinos Allowed” signs and the social and political realities Filipinos during this time and especially in his site of study, California:

Displayed prominently on doors of hotels and other business establishments throughout California in the 1920s and 1930s, [The sign “Positively No Filipinos Allowed”] was a sign Filipinos frequently encountered in their day-to-day lives symptomatic of their racialization—as nationals and aliens through state-sanctioned practices and policies, and as cheap labor by capital interests and imperative—that resulted in their disenfranchisement and disempowerment. As a consequence, Filipinos were denied not only public accommodation but also access to rights and entitlements, including citizenship, the franchise, and property ownership. (1)

Understanding these realities contextualizes how Filipinas had to negotiate prejudice and legal ambiguities as U.S. nationals. The exhibit creates a new narrative of Filipinas at this time through the collage of newspaper articles and photos that focus on de Veyra’s life as a refined wife and mother in addition to her activism.

The exhibit’s panels work together to show how civic engagement of Filipinas in D.C. took the form of embodying an elite persona, and we can read this persona as a targeted rhetorical strategy these women used to address the prejudices they faced. By featuring more traditionally “feminine” roles the Filipinas embodied, like that of mother and caretaker, the exhibit displays the multiple modes of activism the women employed to gain rights. Refined clothing and other feminine outlets of expression such as composing cookbooks can be useful outlets for cultivating elite identities to advocate for equal rights. Carol Mattingly notes the sophisticated way women have used clothing to “capitalize on the intense attention given their appearance in order to undermine criticism and to re-direct audience to their words” (36). Newspaper articles and photos featuring well-dressed Filipinas on the steps of the White House and at D.C. social events offer a more nuanced version of their suffrage activities and show how they physically presented themselves even in the face of signs like “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” This history necessitates that we extend our understandings of how women engaged and navigated the suffrage moment. As Filipinas faced different kinds of prejudice, their intersectional concerns called for a variety of activist endeavors, not all of which centered on voting rights.

Sofia de Veyra’s panel directly shows how she navigated these elements to inspire changing U.S. opinions about colonial rule in the Philippines and the rights of Filipinas. The biography states that she acted as the Philippine’s cultural ambassador and that she traveled throughout the United States to give lectures on Filipino culture. Her presentations often focused on the arts and material culture and that she played an active role in reshaping the American imaginary concerning Filipinas and the ability of the Filipino people to govern themselves (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). The exhibit cites The Boston Globe’s assessment of her: “Those who have doubts about the ability of the Filipinos to govern themselves should have heard the illustrated lecture by Mme. De Veyra” (as qtd. in Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson). This argument is furthered by the display of additional newspaper articles about de Veyra entitled “The New Women of the Philippine Islands” from the New York Times (1932) and “Foremost Filipino Women” from the Philippine Republic (1924). de Veyra is also mentioned multiple times throughout the exhibit panels, and she is depicted as a team player, leader, and friend who worked for over thirty years on suffragist and civic activities in the U.S. and the Philippines. Viewers can thus trace de Veyra’s influence throughout the exhibit, seeing how the other women featured in the panels are connected across time and pursuits. The last panel, titled “In the Footsteps of the Leaders of the Philippine Suffrage Movement,” especially emphasizes this connectedness by focusing on the women who became President of the Philippines, Corazon Aquino (1986) and Gloria Arroyo (2001), and consequently visited Washington, D.C. during the 1990s. By first establishing de Veyra as a leader on the first panel and then showing her connections to various outlets of Filipina civic activities, the final panel suggests that that due to the activism of their pioneer foremothers, especially de Veyra, Aquino and Arroyo were elected into the highest level of office.

Scrapbooking History—Recasting Suffrage Memory 

Overall, the exhibit panels present an eclectic, scrapbook display of materials used to leverage an argument about Filipina suffrage in the face of archival scarcity. While Sofia de Veyra’s suffrage activism is well documented, many of the other women in the exhibit might not be labeled as suffragists and much of the material about them and their achievements is not directly about suffrage. For example, the exhibit displays cookbooks written by or featuring recipes by de Veyra, photos of Filipinas with their families, and pictures of the D.C. homes where they lived and worked. By including these elements, audience members can witness the various activities Filipinas took on in order to counter the harsh stereotypes they faced in their everyday life and to argue for their equal status. To connect these everyday life elements with suffrage, “The Washington Home” calls viewers to leverage critical imagination. In Feminist Rhetorical Practices, Jacqueline Jones Royster and Gesa E. Kirsch see critical imagination as thinking “between, above, around, and beyond” gathered evidence to speculate on “what might likely be true based on what we have in hand” (71). Using critical imagination, viewers are asked to make connections between the figures and stories displayed and to think about their connections to women’s rights and suffrage especially given their Filipino identity.

Although the Tiongsons’ research uncovered a variety of documents, the exhibit makes it clear that the story is unfinished. For example, the bottom half of the first panel is the White House lawn photo. Seventeen of twenty-two the participants are labeled with a number that corresponds with their individual snapshots, leaving five women unidentified. The labels let the viewers know the names of the women in the photo and a few of the women are featured in later exhibit panels, but for some, all that could be remembered is their name and for five women, the archive bore no results. According to Titchie, simply discovering who the women were was particularly difficult as many of the women had married before or after the photo was taken and recovering their names took significant work. Seeing this portion of the exhibit, viewers simultaneously learn who the women are but also witness the realities of archival scarcity and the need for critical imagination. The unlabeled women emphasize the unfinished story and ask the viewer to critically imagine their connection to prominent figures like de Veyra, suffrage, and First Lady Harding.

Displayed at three different points in the exhibit, the White House lawn photo suggests the social prominence of the Filipinas, especially as they relate to American politics. In a scrapbook display, a photo can “act as both icon (literally representing a real-world referent) and index (evoking a range of related forms and feelings)” (Christensen 84). The photograph acts as an index showing that the Filipinas had access to powerful figures in American history. It records twenty-two Filipinas on the White House lawn, including four of the most important suffragists in Filipina history: Sofia de Veyra, Pura Villanueva Kalaw, Aurora Quezon, and Ines Villa Gonzalez. The photo also then becomes symbolic for the Filipina suffrage movement, asking viewers to critically imagine that the photo is a Filipina suffrage delegation, even though what the women discussed with Mrs. Harding remains unknown. The exhibit is clear that the meeting itself is still a mystery, but we can see that viewers are asked to use their critical imaginations as they think about what might have been a topic of discussion. As the exhibit makes clear, its work is to “honor these women, their predecessors, and their modern-day successors. . . [M]ark[ing] their ties to the city[,]. . . we remember a group of women’s graceful and fleeting moment on the South Lawn” (Tiongson and Carandang-Tiongson).


“The Washington Home of Filipina Suffrage” displays the forgotten histories of Filipina suffragists in Washington, D.C. The Filipinas were in the nation’s capital in the midst of anti-Filipino sentiment. The women were physically present when businesses across the country were denying Filipinos entrance. Filipinas were fighting not only for voting rights but also the racism that targeted Filipinos. Titchie and Erwin’s memorial project thus reads suffrage broadly as activities around civics, citizenship, and activism and considers how Filipinas negotiated stigmas like being labeled “savages” and being denied rights by U.S. imperial rule. Filipinas recast themselves as feminine human beings who were worthy of rights, and they paved the way for women after them to become presidents and active participants in politics.

When faced with these prejudices, how did Filipinas advocate for rights in a country where they were considered less-than human? How did they do this in a way that was also mindful of their cultural and social values? To truly understand the answers to these questions more research must be done; however, the exhibit and its collection of the archival artifacts suggest what Filipina civic participation entailed during the suffrage moment in the U.S.—they were writing cookbooks and comportment manuals, they were wives, mothers, and daughters, they worked with Carrie Chapman Catt, they rewrote suffrage laws in the Philippines, and they attended tea with First Ladies. By ending in the near past (the 1990s), the exhibit also connects almost a century worth of activism to the achievements of modern Filipina politicians and argues for a consideration of how these actions animate one another. Public memory scholars engage memory texts as they “travel and circulate through networks and across geographical, temporal and other borders” (Nugent 96). At this centennial moment then, it is important to consider how memorials create narratives about the ways multiply marginalized women negotiated and connected to the suffrage movement. The “Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement” exhibit especially helps us understand and think about suffrage in a more global and transnational light as it attempts not only to educate viewers about Filipina suffrage but also to (re)claim D.C. for Filipina histories that have been erased.

Works Cited

  • Balce, Nerissa S. “Filipino Bodies, Lynching, and the Language of Empire.” From Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse. Edited by Antonio Tiongson, et al. Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Baldoz, Rick. The Third Asiatic Invasion: Migration and Empire in Filipino America, 1898-1946. NYU Press, 2011.
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  • Carandang-Tiongson, Theresa (Titchie). Personal Interview. 25 October 2019.
  • Carandang-Tiongson, Teresa, G. and Erwin R. Tiongson. “About POPDC,” 2013.
  • Christensen, Danille Elise. “(Not) Going Public: Mediating Reception and Managing Visibility in Contemporary Scrapbook Performance.” Material Vernaculars: Objects, Images, and Their Social Worlds. Edited by Jason Baird Jackson, Indiana University Press, 2016, pp. 40-104.
  • Guinsatao Monberg, Terese. “Listening for Legacies.” Or, How I Began to Hear Dorothy Laigo Cordova, the Pinay Behind the Podium Known as FANHS.” Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric, edited by LuMing Mao and Morris Young, Utah State UP, 2008, pp. 83-105.
  • Heinrich, Samantha. “The ‘Savage’ Filipino Natives and Their Dog-Eating Habits.” Western Illinois Historical Review, vol. 8, 2017, pp. 25-41.
  • Hoang, Haivan. “Literacy, Race, and An American Ethos.” Writing Against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric. Pittsburgh, Pa., University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.
  • Mabalon, Dawn Bohulano. Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California. Duke University Press, 2013.
  • Mattingly, Carol. Appropriate[Ing] Dress : Women’s Rhetorical Style in Nineteenth-Century America. Southern Illinois University Press, 2002.
  • Mecklenburg-Faenger, Amy. “Material Histories: The Scrapbooks of Progressive-Era Women’s Organizations, 1875–1930.” Women and Things, 1750-1950, Edited by Beth Fowkes Tobin and Maureen Daly Goggin, Ashgate, 2009, pp. 141-154.
  • Nugent, Maria. “On Buses: Still Photographs, Travelling Memories and Transnational Histories of Civil Rights Activism in Australia and North America,” Australian Humanities Review, vol. 59, 2016, pp. 96-113.
  • Onorato, Michael P. “The Jones Act and the Establishment of a Filipino Government, 1916-1921.” Philippine Studies, vol. 14, no. 3, 1966, pp. 448-459.
  • Philippine Women Received by First Lady. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.
  • Tiongson, Antonio. “Introduction.” From Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse. Edited by Antonio Tiongson, et al. Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Tiongson, Erwin and Teresa Carandang-Tiongson. The Washington Home of the Philippine Suffrage Movement. 2016, Traveling Exhibit.
  • Washington Exhibit Honors Filipina Suffrage.” June 2016, Embassy of the Philippines