Have you ever thought how life would be in the early 19th century and seen the situation of the Philippines in the pre-World War II era? What would you do if you witnessed the hard life and injustice imposed on the people during this time, including the discrimination against women? Well, one young woman from the obscure town of Capiz, now Roxas City, chose to do what no other Filipina did: she studied law and organized a rally against the degradation of women in the form of prostitution. She showed the Philippines that a woman could do what men could do, and it includes topping the Bar exam. This woman was Josefa Abiertas.

“This is the tale of two loves. It is the story of Josefa Abiertas, the
first Filipino lady lawyer and bar topnotcher, an outstanding moral crusader and social reformer - A Christian who vibrantly lived her faith.” Thus, former Vice Governor of Iloilo Demy Sonza begins his biography on Josefa Abiertas, the first ever-Filipino lady lawyer and one of the first graduates of the Baptist Home School, which is now Filamer Christian College. FCC has declared August 16 as Atty. Josefa Abiertas Day to recall the woman who made a big change in the Philippines at the turn of the century.

Few know Josefa Abiertas, others a little and some none at all. For those who do not know her, Josefa was born in 1894 and orphaned eight years later together with her younger brother, then went to live with their grandmother. With the help of the very missionaries who founded the Baptist Home School and the Capiz Emmanuel Hospital, she was able to attend the newly opened Baptist Home School in 1904.

Josefa experienced financial problems during her secondary years at Capiz High School but because of her determination and strong faith in God, she was able to graduate as valedictorian of the newly organized fourth year in high school. She worked at the Capiz treasurer’s office on afternoons to finance her school fees and because of her good performance at work, they granted her transfer to the Insular Treasurer’s Office in Manila, where she took up law at the Philippine Law School. In Manila, she discovered the rampancy of prostitution and drunkenness, and planned a campaign against these evils.

Her times as a moral crusader were hard but she succeeded in the end as the
city drove out the cabarets that sadly continued business outside the city limits. Josefa also fought for the injustice and discrimination on women influenced by the Spaniards. Demy Sonza writes:

“Corollary to her campaign against prostitution was her attack on the old belief, implanted in the Filipino popular mind by the Spaniards, which claimed that though the women must be chaste and faithful to their husbands, the men may be as sexually promiscuous as they pleased. Josefa Abiertas would never tolerate the so-called double-standard morality. To her, what was wrong for women was also wrong for men.”

In addition to being the first woman lawyer, Josefa was also a champion orator and in her pieces, she encouraged the Filipino women to take an active role in public affairs. She quoted in her prize-winning oration, “The Filipino
Woman’s Best Gift to Her Country”:

“As a daughter of the Philippines, as a part of the Filipino people,
a Filipino woman can never be justified in being a mere spectator to the drama of life that is played within the four corners of her country. What affects her country affects her own self. Therefore, let her come out on the stage of Philippine affairs and let her play the part of a heroine, for it is only I doing so that she can be considered as bringing her best gifts to the altar of the land she loves.”
Josefa also encouraged educated women to voice their thoughts regarding their country and not remain neutral about the recent events and issues of their time. They had as much right to express an opinion as the men have. She also asked the women to help the less fortunate and educate their children to be helpful assets to the country. “One of the best gifts that a Filipino woman can give her country,” Josefa proclaimed, “is her untiring and unremitting effort to help mitigate the deplorable condition of her less fortunate countrymen who are to be the bright prospects of the coming generation.” Josefa then went on to top the Bar exam and become the first Filipino lady lawyer.

But few prominent persons who influenced the human world receive a glorious end. Josefa contracted tuberculosis during the first two years of her law career and two years from her graduation at the Philippine Law School. She died at the young age of twenty-eight. Though Josefa did not marry and never gained praise for her noble acts, she left behind a legacy of righteousness and faith.

Who would have thought that an orphan girl befriended by the very people who founded Filamer Christian College would excel to become the first ever lady lawyer of the Philippines, and also the first woman to top the Bar exam? Josefa is a great example of determination in reaching your goals to help your fellow countrymen and not mainly for the privileges of such a profession. Josefa, though an underprivileged and orphaned girl who could barely send herself to school, had a strong faith in the Lord, brought about by the kindly missionaries who came to her aid and had her attend the Baptist Home School.

Josefa is an asset to the school who fought for women’s rights a century ago. She gave Filamer great pride but sadly few know her. That is one of the reasons why CEC and FCC named August 15 and 16, Atty. Josefa Abiertas Day, to give justice to the lady who was not afraid to speak her mind and worked hard to make a change for the better. Josefa Abiertas was an exceptional woman who deserved an exceptional form of remembrance. We wish more Josefa Abiertas Days to come!

Reference : “A Tale of Two Loves” by Mr. Demy P. Sonza