It’s a hot day in Manila. 30 degrees. The tropical sun beats down despite the overcast. Around one in the afternoon an airplane lands on the tarmac. It comes to a stop. Soldiers enter it. A man in a white suit descends the service staircase escorted by soldiers. Shots ring out and two men die.
It is August 21, 1983, and the dead man in the white suit is Benigno Aquino Jr. He had returned to the Philippines to contest an election against the dictator Marcos. But this is not a story about Mr Aquino.
Maria Corazon “Cory” Cojuangco Sumulong was born on the 25th of January 1933 and this story is about her.
Hers was a wealthy, cosmopolitan Tarlac family. She excelled in her studies and in 1953 graduated in New York with a major in French. She returned to the Philippines to study law, but her path crossed that of “Ninoy” and she left her studies in 1954 to become Ms. Aquino. She used her inheritance to fund her husband’s political candidacy, but for herself she sought the quieter, less prominent life of a housewife. Many women’s lives have followed such a path.
But when Ferdinand Marcos’ assassins made her a widow, they also ended her housewife years.
The popular opposition against Marcos’ brutal kleptocracy swirled, swelled, and acclaimed her as their leader. She turned them down. They insisted. She turned them down again. Millions of signatures were delivered to her and after hours of prayer and meditation she relented, becoming the leader of a popular and peaceful democratic resistance movement against the bloodiest dictator in Philippine history.
The people of the Philippines chose her to carry on her husband’s torch, but also because they knew she was capable of carrying the burden of the Filipino fight for democracy. Marcos, panicked at the rising resistance, called a snap election for the 7th of February 1986 to add a veneer of legitimacy to his dictatorship.
Amid massive fraud and violence, Marcos had the parliament declare him the winner. Millions of disbelieving and fed-up protesters rallied peacefully behind Cory and on the 25th of February Corazon Aquino was inaugurated as the first female president in Asia. Marcos fled the country the same day.
Think about it. After decades of authoritarian rule, her husband shot, the pressure rampant, this great woman persisted. She led a peaceful protest movement, without bloodshed, against the dictator. They boycotted companies close to Marcos and inspired the Philippine people to follow with their hearts. In the end, Marcos had to resign and no blood flowed.
If you look around, many leading women are the daughters and wives of a great somebody, but Corazon was not just the first female president. She proved her capability to lead, but also her capability to earn people’s hearts.
And their hearts were well placed, for she successfully brought democracy to the Philippines after decades of coups and military rule. She ruled the Philippines until 1992, and died on the 1st of August 2009. Maria Corazon Aquino’s obituaries emphasized her mixed achievements. But we can be clear: she is badass.
Corazon Aquino is a reminder and an inspiration.
A reminder that elections, democracy, and due process are important because and when they reflect what is in people’s hearts. She showed that it’s never about bloodlines, and the democratic way to become a leader is by earning people’s hearts.
An inspiration who shows that it is never too late to become a leader, that inside every ordinary woman is the potential to change the world for the better, to fight for democracy and peace.