Clemencia Lopez, Independista

Clemencia Lopez, one of the founding members of the Philippine Feminist Association, is the first Filipina to step into the White House.

She was 26 when she met the U.S. President, which would be an accomplishment even today. But in 1902, when Clemencia Lopez became the first Filipina ever to set foot in the White House, she made history. She went to meet President Theodore Roosevelt to plead with him to let her brothers come home from banishment on an island in the Philippines at a time when the United States forcibly instituted a policy of “benevolent assimilation” towards a people they regarded as savages, or if they were feeling kindly, as their “little brown brothers.”

Clemencia Lopez was from the landed gentry of Batangas province whose wealth derived from sugar, rice and shipping. Her family had supported the Philippine Revolution against Spain. Her brother Sixto Lopez was a close friend of Jose Rizal’s and was entrusted to surreptitiously distribute the earliest copies of the national hero’s second novel, El Filibusterismo, during the waning days of Spanish rule.  

When the United States bought the Philippines from Spain in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, thwarting the Philippine Revolution, Sixto Lopez continued to campaign for Philippine independence and refused to pledge allegiance to the Americans. The American military government in the Philippines waged a brutal scorched earth policy to force the Filipinos to surrender.

Scorched Earth

In Batangas, where troops under Gen. J. Franklin Bell perpetuated untold atrocities, the Lopez family’s properties were confiscated, their workers subjected to water torture and the Lopezes were dislodged from their home by U.S. military officials.  Clemencia, whose plan to pursue studies in Paris was impeded by the reversal of the family’s fortunes, went to Hong Kong in 1901 to try and persuade her older brother, Sixto, to soften his stance against the Americans. The family and their workers in Batangas needed to gain some relief from the harsh treatment meted out by American authorities.  On December 15, 1901 their younger brothers Cipriano, Lorenzo and Manuel were arrested and imprisoned on trumped up charges and banished to Talim Island.  Clemencia decided to set sail for America to plead for her exiled brothers and her country.

Among Anti-Imperialists

In 1902 she landed in Boston and met with Fiske Warren, who was active in the Anti-Imperialist movement along with Mark Twain and other outspoken critics of American colonial policies in the Philippines, Guam, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Fiske Warren was a friend of Sixto’s and belonged to a prominent Boston family. Their sponsorship of Clemencia opened doors in Boston society, and she completely charmed them as can be gleaned from a Boston newspaper account headlined, “Pretty Filipino Woman’s Plea for her People’s Freedom.”  

Clemencia enrolled in Wellesley College to learn English and later remembered spending some of her happiest times there. In March 1902 she testified in Washington D.C. before the U.S. Senate Investigating Committee of the Philippines and had the historic meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt. She spoke before the New England Women’s Suffragette Association on May 29, 1902 and said:

“I believe that we are both striving for much the same object--you for the right to take part in national life; we for the right to have a national life to take part in. Mentally, socially, and in almost all the relations of life, our women are regarded as the equals of our men. This equality of women in the Philippines is not a new thing. It was not introduced from Europe. In the name of the Philippine women, I pray the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association do what it can to remedy all this misery and misfortune in my unhappy country. You can do much to bring about the cessation of these horrors and cruelties, which are today taking place in the Philippines, and to insist upon a more human course. You ought to understand that we are only contending for the liberty of our country, just as you once fought for the same liberty for yours.”  

Clemencia enrolled in Wellesley College to learn English and later testified in Washington D.C., and had the historic meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt.

Virtually Unknown 

Clemencia returned to the Philippines in 1904, and 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 affairs.

Why is Clemencia Lopez so little known in the Philippines?  Her family surmises that it was because she lived during dangerous times (nearly a quarter of the Philippines’ population was killed during the American period of “pacification”); it was also a period when Filipino historians were discouraged from writing about individuals whose actions were construed as anti-American. 

Manuel Quezon III, in a lecture about Clemencia at the National Museum in 2011, said, “Her speech before the New England Women’s Suffragette Association was very conciliatory, very dignified, very patriotic, but also in one respect, a radical speech…. Women ended up playing a major role in our independence movement not just during the Revolution or the Philippine-American war but thereafter.”  

The Lopez Family of Balayan Foundation is working to help bring Clemencia’s story to light.  On February 8, 2013 they hosted the unveiling of a marker from The National Historical Commission of the Philippines, honoring Clemencia Lopez. 

The event also marked the opening of an exhibit entitled “War and Dissent: The Philippines and the U.S. 1898-1915,” which features letters from the Lopez siblings, detailing their experiences under American rule. The exhibit is on loan from The Presidio in San Francisco and can be viewed by visitors to Casa Grande, the old Lopez home in Balayan, Batangas, only a two-hour drive from Metro Manila.   

Clemencia Lopez died in 1963 a virtual unknown in Philippine history. To her family (including this writer, whose mother was a niece of Clemencia), she was the elegant “”Tita Memeng” who, unfortunately, never spoke about her achievements. A movie project based on her life is in the works so that her story can find its rightful place in our collective memory.  

Lydia Benitez-Brown

Lydia Benitez-Brown

Lyca Benitez-Brown spends her retirement shuttling between projects in the U.S., the Philippines and Europe. Her latest documentary was Bessie Badilla's "Dance of My Life" which was shown at Cinemalaya in 2012 and at several film festivals in NYC, Chicago, Honolulu, Thessaloniki (Greece) and Singapore.