Maria Corazon Cojuangco Aquino was a political leader and activist who was the eleventh and first female president of the Philippines, serving from 1986 to 1992 - she was also the first female president in all of Asia. Born in 1933, Corazon was the most prominent figure in the 1986 People Power Revolution within the Philippines, which restored democratic rule to the country, ending the 20-year dictatorship of her opposition Ferdinand Marcos, establishing the current Fifth Philippine republic. She came to be known colloquially as the ‘Mother of Democracy’ in Asia for her work.
Corazon was born into a rich and politically active family in the Tarlac province of the Philippines. She was the sixth of eight children, two of whom passed away when they were young. Her siblings were Pedro, Josephine, Teresita, Jose Jr., and Maria Paz. She was valedictorian of her elementary school, and her high school years were spread across several different schools as her parents moved to the United States – she ended up graduating from high school at the Notre Dame Convent School. She attended university in America also, majoring in French with a minor in Mathematics at St. Vincent College in New York City in 1954. After graduating, she returned to the Philippines and began to study law at Far Eastern University, but whilst there she met Benigno Aquino Jr., and discontinued her education to marry him – they were married in October 1954. Now married, Corazon gave birth to five children – Maria, Aurora, Benigno III, Victoria, and Kristina. She was fluent in six languages – her native languages of Tagalog and Kapampangan, but also Japanese, English, French and Spanish.
Corazon’s husband Benigno, now a member of the Philippine’s Liberal Party, rose to become the youngest governor in the country in 1961, and then the youngest senator ever elected to the Philippine Senate in 1967.For most of her husband's political career, Aquino remained a housewife who raised their children and hosted her spouse's political allies who would visit their bungalow in Quezon City. She did not join her husband on stage in his political rallies, as she preferred to listen from within the audience. Unknown to the general public at the time, Corazon used some of her prized and considerable inheritance to fund her husband’s candidacy.
Her husband began to emerge as the leading opposition to the current President Ferdinand Marcos, and started to be seen as a potential candidate who could succeed Marcos in the 1973 elections. Marcos was barred from running for a third term by the current Constitution, but declared martial law in September of 1972, beginning a 14-year period of essentially a one-man political office. This period involved various human rights abuses against his opposition, and anyone who got in his way, including activists and journalists, and unfortunately, Corazon’s husband, his biggest critic. Benigno was one of the first to be arrested after the law set in, and was sentenced to death and incarcerated. Benigno, determined for justice in his country, decided to run in the 1978 Batasang Pambansa elections from within his prison cell as party leader of the newly created LABAN party – Laban meaning ‘fight’ in Filipino. He failed to win.
In 1980, after 8 years in prison, Benigno had a heart attack – and Marcos’ wife, Imelda, permitted him and his family to leave for exile in the United States so he could seek medical care, due to intervention from the then current US President Jimmy Carter. The family lived in Boston for three years, and Corazon felt it was the happiest days of her life at that time.
However, that happiness swiftly ended when Benigno returned home alone to the Philippines - and was immediately assassinated at Manila International Airport. He was shot in the head on the tarmac whilst being transferred into a vehicle waiting to take him to prison. The airport is now named the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in his honour, as his nickname was ‘Ninoy’. Corazon came back to the Philippines a few days later to lead her husband’s funeral which more than 2 million people took part in.
Benigno’s assassination is credited with uniting the opposition to Marcos’ government – taking it from a small, isolated movement into a national
crusade. It also is what pushed the now-widowed Corazon into the political spotlight in the wake of her husband’s murder. When Marcos unexpectedly called for snap presidential elections to be held in 1986, the now well-known and politically active Corazon became the unified opposition's candidate. During the run-up to the elections, Marcos attempted to affect Corazon’s reputation by drawing on clearly misogynistic beliefs – he stated that she was "just a woman" whose place was in the bedroom, not in politics. Of course, Corazon went on to prove him wrong.
At first she was officially reported to have lost the election to Marcos, but she and her supporters challenged the results, and high officials in the Philippine military soon publicly renounced Marcos’s continued rule and proclaimed Aquino the Philippines’ rightful president. On February 25, 1986, both she and Marcos were inaugurated as president by their respective supporters, but that same day Marcos fled the country. She was named Time magazine’s woman of the year in 1986 when she was elected.
Corazon’s achievements as a woman, a woman of colour, and as someone who traditionally should have no place in politics as a housewife, are remarkable. I hope you will agree that the story of her road to President seems almost too interesting and impressive to be true. Corazon passed away in 2009 – long live her memory.