Development or Subjugation? American Colonialism through Governance, Education, Gender, and Public Health Reforms in the Philippines

Jomer Malonosan
10 min readJun 21, 2022
Image from: Wikimedia Commons

The ascent to power of the United States of America and the rapid decline of Spain ushered a new era in global politics. New forms of social, political, and economic trends emerged through the influence of US civilization[1]. However, these developments in history do not only entail significant changes at a global scale. In consequence, these historical forces have also shaped the histories of other countries particularly the respective colonies of Spain and the US. Hence, along with other colonies, Philippine national history was profoundly affected by the ramifications of American colonialism and imperialism.

To better understand the inextricably intertwined histories of the US and the Philippines, it is imperative to position them in the context of development and subjugation. On one side of the narrative, US imperialism can be understood in terms of the numerous reforms that it has implemented in the Philippines such as public administration and governance, pedagogy, and public health and sanitation programs[2]. Under this perspective, the American colonial project was justified by the “benevolent” and “civilizing” intentions of the US to bring progress in a “barbaric” and “backwards” country such as the Philippines[3]. On the other hand, the reforms administered by the US can also be understood through the lens of subjugation. Under the pretext of development, the reforms of the US colonial regime were subtle instruments to pacify the natives of the Philippines[4]. To further elaborate on these approaches, this essay will shed light on the dilemma of development and subjugation through the themes of governance, education and gender, and public health during the American colonial era.

Governance

The area of governance is a core colonial project of the US in the Philippines. Upon the arrival of US forces, the former political system under the rule of Spain was swiftly supplanted by the liberal democratic model of governance[5]. In order for the US to effectively and efficiently execute its plans for the Philippines, it established a centralized body that would be responsible to govern the islands and create pertinent bureaucratic institutions for its development. Hence, the Philippine Commission was born to administer US reforms and programs in the colony that lasted from 1900 to 1913[6]. Under the leadership of an American Governor-General, it functioned as an executive branch that had jurisdiction over provincial and municipal levels of government. Key areas such as civil service, audit, and education were one of the many functions of this body[7].

Aside from centralizing power under American rule, the Philippine Commission was a stepping stone of the country for self-governance. Gradually, it underwent the process of Filipinization where key government posts ranging from the bureaucracy, judiciary, and legislative branch were composed of native citizens in the country[8]. For example, to ensure that the bureaucracy remained efficient, competitive, and hierarchical, the Philippine Commission passed the Civil Service Act that appointed Filipinos in public service through meritocratic examinations. The competitive civil service examinations made sure that there was a clear delineation of politics from public administration[9]. In addition, certain legislations were also passed to incrementally allow Filipinos to have government positions. The Cooper Act, Jones Law, and Reorganization Act of 1916 were one of the few many which provided Filipinos the opportunity to occupy seats in the bicameral legislature in both the lower house (Assembly) and the upper house (Senate) and eventually have a transitional Commonwealth government[10].

A final key issue in the area of governance is citizenship. Despite being under direct American colonial rule, Filipinos occupied an ambivalent status; they were neither citizens nor aliens[11]. On one hand, the US did not want to relegate Filipinos as subjects as it would entail inequality and contradict their democratic ideals. The Americans wanted to conceal their imperialistic intentions under the pretext of “benevolent assimilation”. Nonetheless, the US did not also want to admit Filipinos as citizens as it would entail certain privileges and consequences. Many US nationalists opposed the admission of Filipinos as US citizens because they were threatened by the possibility of migration. Many Americans were resentful of migrants who could potentially compete with them in getting jobs. Therefore, they did not want Filipinos to have citizenship as it would undermine their economic interests. In order to reconcile this contradiction, Filipinos were considered as US nationals instead[12]. These non-citizen nationals had privileges such as passports and opportunity to work in the US. Furthermore, it was proof of the contradictions that beset imperialism and democracy in the US.

Education and Gender

Education is an enduring colonial legacy of the US to the Philippines. In contrast to the former Spanish colonizers, the Americans wanted to educate the natives, especially of the English language. However, these seemingly benevolent intentions are not merely out of American generosity and altruism towards the Philippines. Education was a colonial instrument to pacify the natives[13]. In the public schools established by the Americans, lessons on US history and democracy were taught to “civilize” the Filipinos and instill a sense of admiration for their colonizers. For the Americans, education was integral to fully colonize the Filipinos not just by expanding their economic and political power over the country, but by colonizing their minds as well14.

Despite its colonial underpinnings, these developments in education ushered a new era for the status of women in Philippine society. The institutionalization of education in the country through the public school system allowed women to access education[15]. Moreover, women were also allowed to be admitted in tertiary degree programs that used to be exclusively available to men. The emergence of academic institutions for women such as Instituto de Mujeres and Centro Escolar de Senoritas were one of the few milestones for the progress of women in the country[16].

Due to the heightened educational status of women, they started to have a sense of awareness of the numerous inequalities that rendered them subordinate to men. Hence, educated women instigated the movement for women’s suffrage[17]. Progressive feminist organizations such as the Asosacion Feminista Filipina (AFF) were established by pioneering women such as Concepcion Felix Rodriguez[18]. Movements for suffrage rights also emerged outside of Manila from educated women of Iloilo such as Pura Villanueva-Kalaw and Sofia Reyes De Veyra[19].

Nonetheless, it is important to note the limitations of these developments in women’s rights during the American colonial period. Despite the expansion of rights and opportunities for women, it was significantly reserved for women of the elite class only[20]. Women who hailed from the lower class of society retained their subordinate position and were expected to remain in the domestic sphere. Moreover, colonial education for women significantly focused on domesticity and familialism[21]. These gendered educational curricula further reinforced gender norms and roles of women in the Philippines.

Public Health and Sanitation

Before the Americans arrived, the Spanish administrators lacked a comprehensive public health program for the country[22]. Consequently, Americans observed the unsanitary conditions of urban centers such as Manila and public markets, the lack of water supply, and the improper disposal of human waste. Due to these conditions, they immediately addressed these public health concerns through the establishment of the Bureau of Government Laboratories that initiated actions to have a steady supply of water for the natives, promote educational and publicity projects that concerned hygiene, and construct public toilets[23].

After the establishment of institutions for public health and sanitation, numerous legislation were passed to ensure the systematic coordination and implementation of these programs. The Vaccination Law (Act №309) and Pure Food and Drug Law (Act №1655) were one of the many legislative actions that fully institutionalized mass vaccination and standardized food and drug production in the country[24]. Moreover, laws on vaccination saved countless Filipino lives from the onslaught of epidemics and pandemics such as cholera and influenza that spread through transnational contact. Meanwhile, standardized food and drug quality also ensured that the diet and consumption of Filipinos were safe to combat diseases due to unsanitary food production.

Nonetheless, these public health initiatives were not immune to the colonial ideology that permeated the different forms of US intervention in the country. Due to racial prejudice, the Americans perceived the brown bodies of Filipinos to be “unsanitary” and “unkempt” due to the purported backwardness of the natives[25]. Thus, public health interventions were justified in the name of cleansing the dirty bodies of the natives that were infested with disease and parasites[26].

Conclusion

Development and subjugation are two sides of the same coin. US colonialism was inherently exploitative and racist but was justified by notions of development in terms of governance, education, gender equality, and public health. For governance, Filipinos were perceived to be like “juveniles” who were incapable of self-governance. Hence, US control was necessary to ensure that Filipinos can gradually govern themselves. Meanwhile, education was a key aspect in instilling colonial mentality among the Filipinos. Public school curricula exalted American virtues and values over the purported primitive and backward culture of the Philippines. These developments in education may have paved the way for the improvement of the status of women in Philippines society but it was limited to the elite class only. Finally, public health concerns further validated the presence of Americans in Philippine soil due to sanitary concerns. Filipino bodies were perceived to be dirty and harbored different diseases. Therefore, Americans must regulate and control the natives through vaccination and hygiene education. For all these reasons, it is important to look at reforms during the American colonial period with a critical lens that contextualizes development and subjugation.

This paper was written in partial fulfillment of History 112 (Colonial History II) course at the University of the Philippines — Visayas

1 Go, Julian, and Anne L. Foster. The American Colonial State in the Philippines: Global Perspectives. Anvil, 2005.

2 Kramer, Paul A. Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, & the Philippines. Readhowyouwant.com Ltd, 2011.

3 McFerson, Hazel M. Mixed Blessing: The Impact of the American Colonial Experience on Politics and Society in the Philippines. Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2011.

4 Clymer, Kenton J., and Stuart Creighton Miller. “Not so Benevolent Assimilation: The Philippine-American War.” Reviews in American History 11, no. 4 (1983): 547. https://doi.org/10.2307/2702307.

5 Abinales, Patricio N., and Donna J. Amoroso. State and Society in the Philippines. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017.

6 Lansang, Jose A. “The Philippine-American Experiment: A Filipino View.” Pacific Affairs 25, no. 3 (1952): 226. https://doi.org/10.2307/2752800.

7 Owen, Norman G. Compadre Colonialism; Studies on the Philippines under American Rule. Ann Arbor: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1971.

8 Robertson, James Alexander. “The Philippines since the Inauguration of the Philippine Assembly.” The American Historical Review 22, no. 4 (1917): 811. https://doi.org/10.2307/1836242.

9 Hodder, Rupert. “Political Interference in the Philippine Civil Service.” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 27, no. 5 (2009): 766–82. https://doi.org/10.1068/c0843b.

10 Mojares, Resil B. “THE FORMATION OF FILIPINO NATIONALITY UNDER U.S. COLONIAL RULE.” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 34, no. 1 (2006): 11– 32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29792581.

11 Aguilar, Filomeno. “The Riddle of the Alien-Citizen: Filipino Migrants as US Nationals and the Anomalies of Citizenship, 1900s-1930s.” The SHAFR Guide Online, 2010. https://doi.org/10.1163/2468-1733_shafr_sim270020307.

12 Cabranes, José A., and Jose A. Cabranes. “Citizenship and the American Empire: Notes on the Legislative History of the United States Citizenship of Puerto Ricans.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 127, no. 2 (1978): 391. https://doi.org/10.2307/3311702.

13 Constantino, Renato. “The Mis-Education of the Filipino.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 1, no. 1 (1970): 20–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/00472337085390031.

14 Ibid.

15 Et al., Tran Xuan. “‘Women Education in the Colonial Context: The Case of the Philippines.’” Psychology and Education Journal 58, no. 1 (2021): 5213–21. https://doi.org/10.17762/pae.v58i1.2076.

16 Alcala, Angel C. “Higher Education in the Philippines.” Philippine Studies 47, no. 1 (1999): 114–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42634303.

17 Dorothy Friesen. “The Women’s Movement in the Philippines.” NWSA Journal 1, no. 4 (1989): 676–88. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4315962.

18 Choy, Catherine Ceniza. “Transpacific Femininities: The Making of the Modern Filipina.” Journal of American Ethnic History 33, no. 3 (2014): 86–88. https://doi.org/10.5406/jamerethnhist.33.3.0086.

19 Ibid.

20 Roces, Mina. Women’s Movements and the Filipina, 1986–2008. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2012.

21 Ibid

22 Anderson, Warwick. “Going through the Motions: American Public Health and Colonial ‘Mimicry.’” American Literary History 14, no. 4 (2002): 686–719. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3568021.

23 Anderson, Warwick. “Excremental Colonialism: Public Health and the Poetics of Pollution.” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 3 (1995): 640–69. https://doi.org/10.1086/448767.

24 Anderson, W. “Immunization and Hygiene in the Colonial Philippines.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 62, no. 1 (2006): 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1093/jhmas/jrl014.

25 Anderson, Warwick. “Colonial Pathologies,” 2006. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780822388081.

26 Ibid.

Bibliography

Abinales, Patricio N., and Donna J. Amoroso. State and Society in the Philippines. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017.

Aguilar, Filomeno. “The Riddle of the Alien-Citizen: Filipino Migrants as US Nationals and the Anomalies of Citizenship, 1900s-1930s.” The SHAFR Guide Online, 2010. https://doi.org/10.1163/2468-1733_shafr_sim270020307.

Alcala, Angel C. “Higher Education in the Philippines.” Philippine Studies 47, no. 1 (1999): 114–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42634303

Anderson, Warwick. “Going through the Motions: American Public Health and Colonial ‘Mimicry.’” American Literary History 14, no. 4 (2002): 686–719. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3568021

Anderson, W. “Immunization and Hygiene in the Colonial Philippines.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 62, no. 1 (2006): 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1093/jhmas/jrl014.

Anderson, Warwick. “Colonial Pathologies,” 2006. https://doi.org/10.1515/9780822388081.

Anderson, Warwick. “Excremental Colonialism: Public Health and the Poetics of Pollution.” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 3 (1995): 640–69. https://doi.org/10.1086/448767.

Cabranes, José A., and Jose A. Cabranes. “Citizenship and the American Empire: Notes on the Legislative History of the United States Citizenship of Puerto Ricans.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 127, no. 2 (1978): 391. https://doi.org/10.2307/3311702.

Choy, Catherine Ceniza. “Transpacific Femininities: The Making of the Modern Filipina.” Journal of American Ethnic History 33, no. 3 (2014): 86–88. https://doi.org/10.5406/jamerethnhist.33.3.0086.

Clymer, Kenton J., and Stuart Creighton Miller. “Not so Benevolent Assimilation: The Philippine-American War.” Reviews in American History 11, no. 4 (1983): 547. https://doi.org/10.2307/2702307.

Constantino, Renato. “The Mis-Education of the Filipino.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 1, no. 1 (1970): 20–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/00472337085390031.

Dorothy Friesen. “The Women’s Movement in the Philippines.” NWSA Journal 1, no. 4 (1989): 676–88. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4315962

Et al., Tran Xuan. “‘Women Education in the Colonial Context: The Case of the Philippines.’” Psychology and Education Journal 58, no. 1 (2021): 5213–21. https://doi.org/10.17762/pae.v58i1.2076.

Go, Julian, and Anne L. Foster. The American Colonial State in the Philippines: Global Perspectives. Anvil, 2005.

Hodder, Rupert. “Political Interference in the Philippine Civil Service.” Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy 27, no. 5 (2009): 766–82. https://doi.org/10.1068/c0843b.

Kramer, Paul A. Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States, & the Philippines. Readhowyouwant.com Ltd, 2011.

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McFerson, Hazel M. Mixed Blessing: The Impact of the American Colonial Experience on Politics and Society in the Philippines. Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2011.

Mojares, Resil B. “THE FORMATION OF FILIPINO NATIONALITY UNDER U.S. COLONIAL RULE.” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 34, no. 1 (2006): 11– 32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29792581.

Owen, Norman G. Compadre Colonialism; Studies on the Philippines under American Rule. Ann Arbor: Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Michigan, 1971.

Robertson, James Alexander. “The Philippines since the Inauguration of the Philippine Assembly.” The American Historical Review 22, no. 4 (1917): 811. https://doi.org/10.2307/1836242.

Roces, Mina. Women’s Movements and the Filipina, 1986–2008. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2012.

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