The Thoroughly Modern Sofia de Veyra

Sofia Reyes de Veyra (Source: US Library of Congress)

September 7, 1917 (Washington, D.C.)–Texas Congressman James Luther Slayden and his wife, Ellen, prepared to have dinner with Philippine Resident Commissioner Jaime C. de Veyra and his wife, Sofia Reyes de Veyra, and Mrs. Slayden was somewhat anxious about meeting her.

“I had rather dreaded her,” she wrote in her diary, noting that this was Sofia de Veyra’s “very first excursion from the islands.” As someone who traveled around the world extensively and wrote about her trips in leadings magazines of that period, Mrs. Slayden had arguably some reason to be apprehensive. Sofia de Veyra had only a few years of grammar school education and Mr. de Veyra himself “spoke so little English.” The De Veyras had arrived in Washington from the Philippines a few months earlier, just as President Woodrow Wilson urged Congress to declare war on Germany.

Ellen Slayden could not have known then, of course, that Sofia de Veyra, in fact, spoke three languages fluently, served as founding officer of clubs serving the needs of women and children (Asociacion Feminista and its offshoot, Gota de Leche, an organization that provided milk for malnourished babies and trained their mothers in proper nutrition), and helped establish the first nursing school in the Philippines. 

She was unusually self-motivated. Several years before, armed with only few years of formal education, Sofia became one of the first Filipinos who taught English in Savaria, Negros Occidental. She had learned English earlier from the Thomasites, who boarded with her family; in exchange, she taught them Spanish. She later became the Dormitory Dean at the Rizal Institute in Bacolod. Sofia had led a prolific, tireless life in the Philippines; she was about to do the same during her six-year stay in Washington. 

As the city prepared for war, Sofia immediately joined the Congressional Red Cross Unit and Community Center Unit near her Woodley Park home, as described by Frank Pyle, writing for the Ladies Home Journal. Despite competing demands on her time as mother to four children (Jesus, Manuel, Lourdes and Mary), wife to the Resident Commissioner, and her husband’s part-time private secretary, she devoted close to a thousand hours to the war and knitted socks and sweaters for the army, according to Pyle. For her unstinting dedication, she was given special recognition, including a Red Cross medal and a certificate signed by President Wilson.

A staunch advocate of women’s rights, her speeches and pronouncements often made headlines. In an article on an American Red Cross event, the Washington Post quoted Sofia: ‘The women over there [the Philippines] can do most everything a man can do.’

As her country’s cultural ambassador, Sofia held “illustrated lectures,” using stereograms, before clubs and groups that wanted to learn more about the Philippines and its people (“Philippine Women of the Past and Present” and “Here and There in the Philippines” were the titles of some of her lectures). Pyle thought that she was sought after because of “her charming manner as an impromptu speaker” and “gave in perfect English a concise account of the work” of different women’s clubs in Manila.  She wore the traditional terno to these lectures, “the beautiful gown of the Philippines made of delicate pineapple fabric, hand-woven and hand-embroidered,” wrote the Ballston Spa Daily Journal

The Washington Post observed that her audience delighted in the “display of hand-wrought silver, jewelry, fabrics and paintings and other specimens of Filipino handiwork” following a lecture at the Arts Club of Washington.  Sofia hosted a “made-in-the-Philippines” banquet at the University of Missouri. It featured Filipino music played by Filipino students, a meal (including lechon) prepared by Filipino cooks and an exhibit of various Philippine handicrafts made of Manila hemp, Philippine soft woods, rattan and mother-of-pearl shells. The Boston Globe declared, “Those who have doubts about the ability of the Filipinos to govern themselves should have heard the illustrated lecture by Mme. de Veyra in the Public Library yesterday afternoon on ‘Yesterday and Today in the Philippines,’ and they would have most of their doubts dissipated.”

A staunch advocate of women’s rights, her speeches and pronouncements often made headlines. In an article on an American Red Cross event, the Washington Post quoted Sofia: “The women over there [the Philippines] can do most everything a man can do.”  At the Pan Am Conference of Women in Baltimore to which she was a delegate, she emphasized the Filipino wife’s role as equal partner: “No man transacts business in the Philippines without consulting his wife and every day he hands over his earnings to her and she gives him an allowance.” In the Evening Missourian Banquet Supplement, she wrote, “Professional opportunities today are as good for women as for men in the Philippines … The ever broadening education of the Filipino woman is correspondingly broadening her activities in life.” 

She won many admirers in the process. Writing about Mr. de Veyra, former Governor General of the Philippines Francis Burton Harrison said, “His charming wife is a great asset to him, with her facility for making and keeping friends among the American Congressional ladies.”  Her popularity with the congressional ladies exempted her from the strict membership rules of the exclusive Congressional Woman’s Club, which made her a non-resident member. A student who saw her wearing a terno at the University of Missouri was inspired to create a new line of Filipino dolls. Her courage was infectious, providing a role model for Filipino women everywhere. In a New York Times Magazine article, “The New Women of the Philippine Islands,” one of the “new women” said, “The example Mrs. de Veyra set for us during those years, did more than anything else to bring us out of our homes. When we began to read in the newspapers of her addressing great public meetings we suddenly felt courageous. …” 

Mrs. De Veyra (front, second from right) with US First Lady Florence Harding (Source: US Library of Congress)

She was indefatigable. While living in the U.S., Sofia mastered Gregg’s shorthand and received a certificate from a correspondence course in cooking, dressmaking and other household arts from the Women’s Institute of Domestic Arts and Sciences in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She quickly put these newly acquired credentials to good use upon returning to the Philippines and became Dean of the Domestic Science Department of the Centro Escolar University. She co-wrote and published Everyday Cookery for the Home, together with Ma. Paz Zamora Mascuñana, associate editor of Women’s Home Journal.  Doreen Fernandez, the writer and food historian, remarked that the book “reflects the new ‘scientific’ consciousness brought about by American education. It speaks of health and nutrition, cooking methods and materials, waste and advantage and of culinary science.”

Carrying on the advocacy for women’s rights in the Philippines, Sofia organized, headed and actively participated in the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Manila Women’s Club and the Catholic Women’s League. In 1930 she was one of two women who addressed the First Independence Congress. She told her audience, “In life, woman is man's partner, sharing with him the joys and sorrows, helping him to solve life's problems. Why can she not also take part in shaping the destiny of the nation?” Seven years later, President Manuel Quezon signed the amended Election Law, extending voting rights to everyone, as Sofia de Veyra stood proudly nearby along with other leaders of the suffrage movement.

Along with her advocacy work on behalf of women, Sofia reached out to ostracized members of society, establishing a refuge for the mentally ill and unwed mothers. As a member of the Anti-Leprosy Society, she visited the leper’s colony at Culion Island and secured a grant from American philanthropist Eversley Childs. For the Anti-Tuberculosis Society, she started a lottery to help raise funds. The government retained her services as a member of the Board of Pardons and the Board of Review of Motion Pictures. Recognizing her organizational skills and access to a vast social network, the Quezons asked her to serve as Social Secretary. More than a decade later, when Sofia was in her seventies, she reprised that role at the request of the widowed President Elpidio Quirino, as his daughter Vicky was then too young to assume the social responsibilities of First Lady.  

Only after the death of two people particularly close to her did Sofia finally show signs of slowing down, according to Rosario Avila de Veyra, her daughter-in-law. Sofia's good friend Mrs. Quezon was killed in an ambush in 1949 and her nephew Archbishop Gabriel Reyes died in 1952. Emotionally and physically weakened, she spent the latter part of 1952 at the University of Santo Tomas hospital. She died peacefully on January 1, 1953 at the age of 76.  President Quirino led the accolades, describing her as the “Maria Clara of the present day Philippines.” Newspapers, schools, community and political leaders extolled her character and celebrated her numerous achievements. Father John Hurley, SJ (the former Superior of the Philippine Jesuits) wrote, “The most effective things she did were unknown to the general public. She had a deep, genuine and abiding love for the Church and for the country. And her services to both can never be properly recorded. She was one of the finest women that I ever met.” 

And the dinner with the Slaydens on September 17, 1917, Ellen Slayden was completely smitten. Sofia “was prettily dressed and her English was impeccable, and she talked with knowledge and vivacity on politics, especially, as well as books, Spanish and English, religion, the woman’s movement and domestic science. She told a quick and good story and showed a keen and humorous sense of the prejudice she met here because of her race. She was not resentful, but evidently means to safeguard her dignity.” Ellen Slayden had just met one of the most extraordinary individuals of her time. 

“Mrs. de Veyra opened my provincial eyes,” she wrote.


Notes on Key Sources

Rosario Avila de Veyra, the daughter-in-law of Sofia Reyes de Veyra, wrote “Faith, Work and Success: An Appraisal of the Life of Mrs. Sofia Reyes de Veyra,” an MA Thesis submitted to the University of San Carlos in 1959.  The author is grateful to Ruel Hector R. Tiongson for helping acquire a copy of this thesis. Mrs. Slayden's diary was published as Washington Wife: Journal of Ellen Maury Slayden from 1897 to 1919 (New York: Harper & Row: 1963). All other sources are as cited in the article.

Titchie Carandang-Tiongson

Titchie Carandang-Tiongson

Titchie Carandang-Tiongson is a freelance writer. Her articles have been published in Northern Virginia Magazine, Working Mom and Smart Parenting. She and her husband Erwin are working on a Filipino street map of Washington, D.C. documenting landmarks of Philippine American history and culture.