On July 4, 1912—American Independence Day—the Manila Hotel swung open its doors for the first time. Just over a week later, two leading feminists, Aletta Henriëtte Jacobs from the Netherlands and Carrie Chapman Catt from the U.S., were among its first visitors.
A bad omen heralded their arrival. The two women were at the tail end of a nearly year-long world tour: South Africa first, then Syria, Egypt, Ceylon, India, Burma, Singapore, Java, and finally, the Philippines, via a steamship from Hong Kong. But when they rounded the coast of Mariveles, a doctor informed them that Hong Kong had been hit by an outbreak of smallpox, and that all passengers would need to be quarantined for five days in Bataan.
Jacobs was a doctor herself, and knew all about infectious diseases. Moreover, she’d been about to step into her bath, and was indignant at the interruption. Gathering her kimono about her, “I introduced myself as his colleague, told him that [Carrie and I] had been vaccinated and revaccinated, that we had passed through Hong Kong just as a transit port, etcera, etcera,” as she related in her letters.
She didn’t even need to fume. The doctor, a Scandinavian-American, smoothly told them that he had already received word of their arrival. In true all-caps VIP treatment—the first of a lot more during their stay—all of their fellow passengers disembarked in Mariveles, while the two sailed on to Manila.
The Golden Age of Manila
The Manila Hotel was a key part of a brand-new vision of Manila, a lustrous gleam in the eye of architect Daniel Burnham, who envisioned the colonial capital as a “unified city equal to the greatest of the Western world,” but with the “unparalleled and priceless addition of a tropical setting.”
The Burnham plan would not suffer the limping, ancient city that the Spaniards had left behind. The stagnant, mosquito-filled moat around Intramuros was filled in and turned into a garden. Diagonal streets were laid down, radiating out from the city center so that, as Burnham put in in 1905, “a person may pass from any given point to any other point along a reasonably direct line.” Parks, civic buildings, and Venetian-style fountains were built all across the city. And in Manila’s first-ever large-scale reclamation project, thousands of tons of sand and earth were shoveled up from the bottom of the sea by a dredging machine and dumped into the coast of Luneta—creating a commanding new shoreline that would be the first thing visitors saw when they sailed into Manila.
It was on this thrusting spur of land that the Manila Hotel was built. And it was this gleaming American vision of Manila that Jacobs toured for five weeks, diligently writing down her observations.
“It was amazing how quickly the Americans have transformed this colonial city into a Western American one,” she noted. Jacobs had just come from the Netherlands Indies, or what we now call Indonesia; she was eager to compare notes. What she observed in the Philippines made her, by turns, curious, delighted, appalled, amused, and skeptical.
The Storied Halls of Manila Hotel
But first, the hotel. “It is a real American hotel,” Jacobs wrote, “with all the luxury and comfort proper to such institutions.” Jacobs and Catt booked separate rooms. When they went down for lunch (served by the Swiss chef H.E. Meyer), the acting governor-general himself, Newton Gilbert, was already there to greet them, “offer[ing] his assistance in everything [they] might want to see or know.” Journalists were also waiting at the lobby to interview them. By Monday, there was a long article about them on the front page of the Manila Times.
Jacobs found the hotel enormous. There were four floors of rooms, serviced from the lobby by two elevators, one on each side of the building. The rooms—or at least the rooms Catt and Jacobs were given—were large, well-ventilated, and filled with the latest conveniences: a telephone, hot and cold running water, iced drinking water in a nickel jar. On the ground floor were the dining rooms, a barber, a salon, reading rooms, and, if your company was slightly more boisterous, conversation rooms.
The airiness of the place came with one disadvantage. At one point during their stay, a strong storm rolled in, the powerful winds blowing flat anyone unlucky enough to get caught out on the street. The winds blew with such force that Jacobs found it “difficult to stay standing even in the corridors of the hotel.” During another rainy spell, she witnessed guests being evacuated from the side of the hotel where the rains were coming in.
When the weather was good, you could go up to the top of the flat rooftop deck, which was split into two gardens. An orchestra played there every afternoon as guests sat down for tea and merienda. Much later, when he became a permanent resident of the hotel, General Douglas MacArthur would grow fond of the hotel’s maruya fritters, and asked them to be served alongside deep-fried lapu-lapu.
On cool nights, American officers would troop to the roof gardens and dance until midnight. “[N]owhere on earth is there so much dancing as in Asia,” Jacobs breathlessly observed. Ladies carried around fans that matched their outfits, and almost never put them down. When a couple danced—the gentleman demurely placing his left hand over her wrist—the lady would, every now and then, fan her partner as they swayed beneath the lights.
The First Morning
As a recognized leader of the international suffragette movement, Catt was already a celebrity among the elite circles in Manila. The pair’s appointment books were quickly filled, and they had to turn down invitations, especially from the Americans. “We wanted to have contact with the natives,” Jacobs decided. They weren’t just on a sightseeing tour; they also wanted to visit civic institutions, learn as much as they could about the colony, and get in touch with local feminists.
To help them get around, they were loaned a car, as well as a fashionable two-horse carriage called a Victoria. On their first full morning in the city, Catt and Jacobs took the carriage to a nearby open market. Jacobs noted the large numbers of Filipino women at the palengke, and zeroed in immediately on their clothes. “How strange, unhygienic, and uncomfortable the dress those women wear!” she wrote, shaking her head at the long skirts that dragged onto the ground unless they were secured by a waistband elastic or held up by the hand.
Overall, though, she liked what she saw. All food was secured under wire netting, while safety inspectors—”male and female,” she observed with satisfaction—constantly roamed the area. There were also many public faucets where you could wash your hands or your personal items. And of course, she saw balut, though she didn’t seem to have tasted a sample. “How favorably this market contrasts with the Javanese passar!” she thought. The Dutch authorities, it seemed, could learn a lot from the American administration.
Jacobs wrote down all her observations in letters that she sent back to the Netherlands, which were published in De Telegraaf. In her home country, she had already made a name for herself as the country’s first female licensed doctor, who had no problem staring down the stubborn resistance of the establishment, where even the simple act of applying for membership at Amsterdam’s Leesmuseum (a male-only establishment at the time, and a necessary one to keep up with foreign medical journals), resulted in anonymous, threatening letters sent to her home.
Jacobs noted the large numbers of Filipino women at the palengke, and zeroed in immediately on their clothes. “How strange, unhygienic, and uncomfortable the dress those women wear!” she wrote, shaking her head at the long skirts that dragged onto the ground unless they were secured by a waistband elastic or held up by the hand.
Her practice naturally took on a pro-woman bent. She worked actively with prostitutes, providing them a newly-invented contraceptive called a diaphragm (the design of which she added improvements of her own). She set up a free clinic for low-income women and campaigned for the more humane treatment of female employees.
In July 1899, as Filipino guerrillas waged a bloody war against their American occupiers, Jacobs had attended the International Women’s Congress in London. From then on, she became more active in the feminist movement, especially in the fight for voting rights. By 1903, she had given up her medical practice, and soon became head of the Dutch women’s suffrage movement. She eventually met Catt, the president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, and in 1906, they traveled together to tour the Austro-Hungarian empire to see what they could do to aid the women’s movement there...a sort of dry run for the same worldwide journey they would take six years later.
For these two reformers, the Americans rolled out the red carpet, eager to show off how their policies were winning the “confidence, respect, and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines,” as William McKinley put it in his 1898 proclamation of “benevolent assimilation.” Their empire was barely in its teens, but they would show everyone—the Spanish, the Dutch, the British, the Germans, the French, all those creaky European colonial powers—how it was done.
Education or Oppression?
In the mornings, Jacobs and Catt toured Manila like visiting state dignitaries. At every school, hospital, factory, prison, convent, or government building they dropped by, the American-run Manila Times encouraged them to “report to the chiefs concerned all lacunae and mistakes wherever [they] encountered them.”
Only the smart, well-dressed elite, in other words—the ones who asked them out to afternoon tea, or accompanied them to boating tours, or tossed them blank invitation cards to social clubs for them to fill up as they pleased—could appreciate the American rule.
An excursion to a sabungan turned Jacobs' stomach, and they left after watching two fights, disgusted that the Americans allowed cockfighting to continue. At the old Bilibid—where Macario Sakay had been executed by hanging just five years earlier—Jacobs and Chapman watched inmates march under the hot sun while a brass band played, and later bit into bread cooked at the prison bakery. At a schoolhouse, they sat in a class of six-year-olds who were making ice cream and fruit pudding for the first time—more proof, Jacobs thought, of “the brazen nerve [...] with which they suddenly applied the American educational system to this Oriental people.”
Wherever they went, the two women were accompanied by high-ranking officials or members of Manila’s elite. Even Governor-General Gilbert occasionally asked about their well-being. When Jacobs had a question about the colonial government, no less than Sergio Osmeña, head of the Philippine Assembly, personally met her to go over its basic workings. He explained too, how they were waging their own legislative campaign for self-rule and eventual independence.
Jacobs was no fool, and despite the bureaucrats peering over her shoulder, was canny enough to peek behind the curtain of the official facade. “Whoever thinks that the Americans, after all the good that they have achieved here, are loved and that the Filipinos feel happy to have shifted from Spanish to American control, is quite wrong,” she wrote. She observed, quite rightly, that for all their high-minded talk, “the United States will never voluntarily give [Filipinos] their freedom[…] it will try to take away all autonomy from them and turn them into little Americans.”
At a schoolhouse, they sat in a class of six-year-olds who were making ice cream and fruit pudding for the first time—more proof, Jacobs thought, of “the brazen nerve [...] with which they suddenly applied the American educational system to this Oriental people.”
Which is not to say that she saw the American presence as a purely oppressive one. She was particularly impressed with the way the educational and prison systems were run. When she heard about the Ihawig prison colony in Palawan, where inmates were given the opportunity to own their own small farms, Jacobs wrote, “Much can be learned from it not only by judges and penal specialists but also by psychologists.”
In fact, right after her interview with Osmeña, Jacobs did think that while “educated Filipinos are aware of all the good things achieved here by the United States,” the “numerous, underdeveloped masses regard them only as intruders.” Only the smart, well-dressed elite, in other words—the ones who asked them out to afternoon tea, or accompanied them to boating tours, or tossed them blank invitation cards to social clubs for them to fill up as they pleased—could appreciate the American rule. The rest, she wrote, would come around, but it would “take a long time before a relationship of mutual understanding between the Americans and Filipinos is established.”
"...the beautiful Filipino girls are very coquettish, but do not flirt—an activity for which their large, beautiful black eyes would be exquisitely suitable.”
Afternoons and evenings were devoted to forming their own relationships of mutual understanding. Various clubs or families would invite them to tea, or to watch open-air concerts with the Manila orchestra. Two days were devoted to a rowing trip to Pagsanjan Falls. They even attended the inauguration of the Club Nacionalista, where they arrived fashionably late at 10:30 pm. There, Jacobs and Catt chatted briefly with Librada Avelino, the founder of what would become the Centro Escolar University (at the time, still called the Centro Escolar de Señoritas). They also listened to a lengthy speech in Spanish delivered by eighteen-year-old Paz Marquez Benitez, that year’s Carnival Queen. Benitez would later write “Dead Stars”, the first major Philippine short story in English.
In general, Jacobs found Filipino women to be better company than the Spanish ladies who made their acquaintance. “In mental development, they are no match for their Filipino sisters,” she tut-tutted. “I still add,” she said in another letter, “that the beautiful Filipino girls are very coquettish, but do not flirt—an activity for which their large, beautiful black eyes would be exquisitely suitable.”
Together with other tourists at the hotel, the two ladies also spent some late nights going to dance halls in the outskirts of the city, where American soldiers would two-step with local girls. On the return trip from one of these excursions, the driver of the big hotel car took a side road through a village, where the ride broke down and began sinking into the soft mud. Jacobs, Catt, and the other ladies disembarked, while the three male guests tried to help the driver lift the rear wheels up from the sludge. But it was useless, and they were stranded in the countryside at midnight, the rain still falling down hard and the mud already up to their knees.
Finally, some Filipinos arranged for two vegetable wagons to take them back to the hotel. They held up giant palm leaves to protect themselves from the rain, but the mud was so thick that the male guests had to occasionally get down and walk to lighten the wagons’ weight. Still, they stuck close, for “they did not dare to leave us alone with these men in the middle of the night.” They finally arrived back at Manila Hotel at two in the morning.
Beginnings of Women Empowerment
And what of Catt and Jacobs’ main mission of advancing the cause of women in the Philippines?
In the commentary included in Colonial Manila 1909-1912: Three Dutch Travel Accounts (a book that collects Jacobs’ translated letters), Otto Van Den Muijzenberg noted that Jacobs’ feminist position, as well as her role as an “icon of female emancipation”, had been criticized by several academic assessments. In her letters from Africa, the Middle East, or the other places she visited, historians had pointed out her tendency to keep silent, for example, on the rights of natives, or to actively stereotype based on race. However forward-thinking her views may have been at the time, she was still very much a colonizer visiting colonized lands.
It is to Jacobs’ credit, Van Den Muijzenberg argued, that at least judging from her letters about her Philippine trip, she was able to (mostly) transcend her own Orientalist, one-percenter point of view—especially in her opinion of women in the Philippines.
“The Filipinos are part of the Malay race,” she began one of her letters. “I start with this fact because we saw everywhere that the woman occupies a very high position among the Malays.”
Jacobs recognized from the start the strong tradition of woman empowerment that existed even before the Spaniards arrived. “The Filipinos are part of the Malay race,” she began one of her letters. “I start with this fact because we saw everywhere that the woman occupies a very high position among the Malays.” In the economic, social, and cultural weave of Philippine society, she continued, women were essential; they were clerks, doctors, factory workers, art and philosophy students. They farmed the land, ran buy-and-sell businesses, served on school boards. Moreover, in many occupations, “they received the same salary as boys.”
In fact the only place where Filipino women did not stand on equal footing as Filipino men was inside the political sphere. “We should [...] not be surprised that the word ‘male’ occurs continually where the conditions for eligibility to an elected office are listed,” Jacobs wrote. Since 1905, bills had been introduced three times to give women the vote, but were withdrawn time and again before they even hit the deliberation floor, because of either indifference or a fear of “difficulties” with the American government.
Catt and Jacobs took it upon themselves to help jumpstart the feminist movement in the Philippines. Meeting with several key leaders, “I succeeded in effecting a ‘Society for the Advancement of Women’,” Catt wrote later, “with eight officers, half American and half Filipino.”
Two of their Filipino officers, Concepcion Felix Calderon and Clemencita Lopez, had already founded the Asosacion Feminista Filipina in 1905, “the first woman’s club in the Philippines dedicated to the promotion of social welfare and the encouragement of the participation of women in public affairs,” as a commemorative plaque from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines puts it. Meanwhile, a member of their advisory board, Pura Villanueva Kalaw (wife of scholar Teodoro Kalaw), was the founder of the Asosacion Feminista Ilonga.
So while the meeting they convened could be seen as merely building upon the work of earlier feminists, in a society that had long been agitating for progressive ideals, the brief, five-week visit of Jacobs and Catt—”generally acknowledged as the trigger for the founding of the [Society]”, as Van Den Muijzenberg wrote—became an important inspiration for many local women leaders. Perhaps, in both Jacobs and Catt, the Filipino women saw that their struggle for equal rights was part of a great, restless wave that was sweeping the entire world...and they would be a part of its triumph. Years later, these leaders, including Concepcion Felix and Paz Mendoza Guanzon (a doctor who, like Jacobs, founded her own suffragette society) would tour the country, holding rallies and marches to drum up support, until finally, in 1937, the Philippines finally granted women the right to vote.
It's been more than a hundred years since the visit of Catt and Jacobs. And at a time when women’s voices are still being silenced, perhaps their light, to take a phrase from Paz Marquez Benitez’s “Dead Stars,” is still in their appointed place in the heavens... but only now beginning to reach us.
Otto Van Den Muijzenberg's 'Colonial Manila 1909-1912: Three Dutch Travel Accounts is available at Ateneo de Manila University Press.
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Hines, Thomas S. Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner (2nd Ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. pp. 203-204
Jacobs, Aletta Henriëtte. Memories: My Life As An International Leader in Health, Suffrage, and Peace. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1996. p. 39
Patawaran, A.A. “An Affair to Remember.” Manila Bulletin, 5 March 2017
Rappaport, Helen. Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, Vol. 1. ABC-CLIO, 2001. p. 224
Smith, K.N. “Why Aletta Jacobs was a Trailbazer For Women In STEM Fields.” Forbes.com, 10 August 2017
Van Den Muijzenberg, Otto. Colonial Manila 1909-1912: Three Dutch Travel Accounts. Manila: Ateneo de Manila Press, 2016.