Feminist Clemencia Lopez of Balayan, the First Filipina to Visit the White House
In the year 1902, a 26-year old Batangueña from the town of Balayan in Batangas became the first Filipina to ever set foot in the White House. Her name was Clemencia Lopez, daughter of Natalio Lopez by the former Maria Costelo1. The Lopez family was among Batangas’ most prominent, owning as it did vast tracts of land planted to sugar and rice. The family was also into shipping2.
Clemencia’s older brother Sixto was an active figure in the movement for Philippine independence, first during the twilight years of Spanish colonial rule and subsequently during the early years of the American era. He was a friend and supporter of Jose Rizal; served in the revolutionary committee set up by Emilio Aguinaldo; and would also become secretary to Taal’s Felipe Agoncillo, the Filipino diplomat who tried in vain to argue the case of Filipino independence before the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 18983.
In 1901, Sixto had travelled to the United States to plead a case for Philippine independence before the American public. Upon his return to the Philippines, American authorities would only allow him to disembark on the condition that he swore an oath of allegiance to the United States. He refused and sailed on to Hong Kong to join up with other exiled Filipino revolutionaries.
According to a paper written by Laura R. Prieto, while Sixto was in Hong Kong, American authorities seized his family’s properties and sent to prison three of his brothers in a clear case of harassment to force him into submission.
Clemencia had visited Sixto in Hong Kong late in 1901 with her sister Mariquita ostensibly to keep him informed of family affairs. It was while she was visiting that a decision was made for her to travel to the United States “to lobby for her brothers’ release.” The bold decision was made without asking for their mother’s permission.
Clemencia sailed to America via Europe in the company of the American anti-imperialism advocate Fiske Warren, a friend of her brother Sixto. In her paper, Prieto noted that she “was a young, unmarried woman traveling with no relative or other appropriate chaperone” and that this was “an unusual, even unprecedented, voyage for a young Filipina woman of her generation.”
In Boston, where Clemencia was hosted by the Warren family, she was able to meet prominent leaders of America’s anti-imperialism movement, which was critical of the United States’ colonial policies not just in the Philippines but also in other territories like Guam, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
In an online article, Lyca Benitez-Brown wrote that Clemencia enrolled in Boston’s Wellesley College to learn English. While the latter was educated, spoken languages before this were presumably her native Tagalog and Spanish, the language of instruction in the schools during the previous colonial era.
Initially, the timing of Clemencia’s arrival in Boston seemed propitious because a United States Senate committee had just started hearing testimonies about alleged war crimes being committed by soldiers of the United States Army in the Philippines. It was hoped that she would be summoned as a witness, and thus gain the platform with which to air the case of her imprisoned brothers.
|Captured from Laura R. Prieto's paper "A Delicate Subject: Clemencia López, Civilized Womanhood, and the Politics of Anti-Imperialism"|
In the end, however, the pro-imperialist bloc within the committee ensured that no Filipinos would be called to or appear in the hearings and even blocked a motion to send a fact-finding mission to the Philippines. Her petition in behalf of her imprisoned brothers, however, were submitted to the committee by the Texas Senator Charles Allen Culberson.
Beatrice Beltran, in an article on the Philippine Tatler, wrote that “Clemencia was the first Filipina to step into the White House and hold an audience with the president of the United States4.” This might well have been so. However, any meeting between her and Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, was only “brief” according to Prieto.
Whatever communication there might have been from the American President, Prieto went on, was by way of a response to her written petition saying he did not think “anything can properly done.”
Disappointing this might have been to Clemencia, and especially for all the troubles she went to just to plead on behalf of her brothers, all was not lost. She brought not just the case of her brothers but also of Filipino independence to the American public by way of the press, which she had apparently captivated.
“With the press,” Prieto wrote, “she took on the roles of spokesperson for her people and exemplar of her culture… Lopez captured the attention of American audiences by presenting herself as racially and culturally different from them.”
Back home in Batangas, American General J. Franklin Bell’s use of concentration camps eventually brought Filipino resistance to its knees, particularly with the surrender of General Miguel Malvar and his troops. With the Americans considering the Philippines already “pacified,” Clemencia’s brothers Cipriano, Lorenzo and Manuel were no longer considered dangerous to keep in prison and quietly released from custody.
While in the United States continuing her crusade in numerous speaking engagements championing Philippine independence, Clemencia intermingled with “a different type of womanhood than she had known in the Philippines.” She was exposed to women who were involved in politics and reform, in contrast to the Maria Clara image that was expected of Filipinas in the era she grew up in.
It was, thus, no surprise that upon her return to the Philippines in 1905, she “became one of the founding members of the Philippine Feminist Association, which was dedicated to the promotion of social welfare and the encouragement of the participation of women in public affairs5.”
Notes and references:1 “Sixto Lopez,” Wikipedia.
2 Along with other details of this article, from “Clemencia Lopez, Independista,” by Lyca Benitez-Brown, published March 2013, online at Positively Filipino.
3 Along with other details in this article, from “A Delicate Subject: Clemencia López, Civilized Womanhood, and the Politics of Anti-Imperialism,” by Laura R. Prieto, published 2013 in the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.
4 “I Am… Woman: Historic Filipinas,” by Beatrice Celdran, August 2014, online at Philippine Tatler.
5 “Clemencia Lopez, the extraordinary woman of courage,” by Frannie Jacinto, April 2013, online at the Philippine Star.