1st woman judge rich in milk of kindnessBy Ana Leah Sarabia
Philippine Daily Inquirer
As a young girl from a well-to-do Laguna family, Natividad Almeda-Lopez would invite ragged and poor strangers into her home, appealing to her parents for food, clothes, and even jobs, for her “guests.”
“The first woman judge, the first woman justice of the Court of Appeals, one of the foremost leaders in the feminist movement, she was a consistent exponent of social justice in the interpretation of law,” wrote the National Historical Institute in its citation.
Almeda-Lopez’s charitable works and trailblazing career as a lawyer, judge and women’s rights advocate are kept alive by La Proteccion de la Infancia, which marked her 120th birth anniversary on Sept. 8.
Although she had a privileged upbringing, schooled in music and the arts and the sporting skills of shooting, fencing and horseback riding—unusual occupations for girls of her era—Almeda-Lopez grew up with a strong sense of justice and compassion.
It did not come as a surprise to her family that she signed up at 15 to become a member of the La Proteccion de la Infancia Inc., the country’s first charity organization incorporated in 1907 which was to gain widespread support for its Gota de Leche program, dedicated to ending starvation, malnutrition and infant mortality in the aftermath of the Philippine-American War.
Almeda-Lopez was born in 1892, the eldest of six daughters of Manuel Gomez Almeda of Biñan, Laguna, a pharmacist who became a colonel in the Philippine Revolution against Spain, and Severina Martinez Lerma of Santa Rosa, Laguna.
Severina was the eldest daughter of Jose Lerma, the talented Chinese contractor who made his fortune building the many churches, schools and other structures of the Catholic Church. Lerma (from Li-mah) was referred to as the “mayor” of the Chinese part of Manila, known as “Kapitan Ting” in his Tondo neighborhood.
The landed Gomez family were cousins of the Mercados, the family of national hero, Jose Rizal.
One of Almeda-Lopez’s earliest memories was being carried on the shoulders of her father to witness the “procession” that took Rizal to his place of execution at the Luneta.
The young Almeda-Lopez may have envisioned herself working as a doctor to treat the hundreds of women and children weakened by beriberi as the American forces slaughtered carabaos and burned farms.
But her dream of studying medicine was shattered when the family lost its money after a postwar court decision froze the Lerma-Almeda assets.
She was forced to get a job to help her father support the family, while still holding on to her dream of a professional career. She enrolled in the only course available to her after office hours—law.
Being the only woman in the entire school, she—and even her father—endured ridicule and open discrimination by her classmates and some teachers. “What kind of man would allow his daughter to study in a school full of men?” they would ask. And when lessons covered the “sensitive” subjects such as the abuse of women, she was asked to step out of the classroom.
She eventually gained the admiration of her classmates, and was elected secretary of her class. She completed her Licentiate in Jurisprudence from the Escuela de Derecho de Manila in 1913, and passed the bar the same year. But being underaged, she had to wait another year officially joining the Roll of Attorneys on Sept. 7, 1914.
Almeda-Lopez made history as the first female attorney to publicly defend a woman in court. She won an acquittal for her client who was accused of harming a man “in defense of her honor.”
She was a courageous and eloquent spokesperson for women’s rights even at a young age, presenting her case wherever there was an audience: in the media through her writings, in public forums, and in the legislature, then known as the Philippine Assembly.
She was 26 when she delivered a speech before the Philippine Assembly on Nov. 12, 1918, asserting that men and women should have equal rights.
“The sexual differences that distinguish and separate us from men are not enough to justify the irritating inequality of our rights. Men and women make up the totality of the human race, and our humanity is the essence of all our rights.
“Gender can influence individual preferences and emotive inclinations, but it does not change the qualities of the individual. And for this reason, neither should it change the rights of the individual. Given the fundamental laws and derivatives before the private and juridical order, both sexes should be equal,” she said.
The Bureau of Justice hired Almeda-Lopez in 1919 and she worked her way to the position of assistant attorney at the Attorney General’s Office, despite opposition from colleagues, politicians and even former classmates to her being a woman in the law profession.
Gender discrimination was most rampant in government service, according to Maribel Ongpin in the book, “Filipina Firsts: A Salute to 100 Women Pioneers.”
“While she [Almeda-Lopez] spent decades in the city courts of Manila, Manuel Moran, Claro Recto and her other classmates had reached judicial posts,” wrote Ongpin.
Ongpin quoted Almeda-Lopez as saying of that period that “recognition for work well done, and for memoranda and briefs well written, was always reluctantly given, and promotion was slow compared to the men.”
When at the age of 30, Almeda-Lopez married Domingo Lopez, former governor of Tayabas and Marinduque, and a widower with four children, she defied convention and lived independently of her husband. She kept her job as assistant attorney general in Manila, while he remained in Lucena to practice law.
She also retained her surname, affixing her husband’s name, an unusual decision for the time.
For three years, she was designated Acting City Judge of the City Court of Manila, until President Manuel Quezon appointed her permanently to the post in 1934.
After serving on the board of La Proteccion for 20 years, Almeda-Lopez was elected president of the charity in 1936.
As if having a full-time job and running a charitable organization was not enough, she joined other women suffragists in the nationwide campaign for a “yes” vote in the plebiscite required by Congress, which culminated in Filipino women finally winning the right to vote in 1937.
Always in a hurry, Almeda-Lopez also obtained her master’s degree in law from the University of Santo Tomas in 1937, and her doctorate in civil law from the same university in 1938.
After serving for 10 years as executive judge of the City Court of Manila, she was appointed presiding judge when the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court was opened in 1956. A year away from retirement, she was elevated to the Court of Appeals in 1961, the highest position that she attained and the shortest term that she served in the judiciary.
“Natividad Almeda-Lopez’s success paved the way for other women to be appointed to high judicial positions. Cecilia Munoz-Palma, Corazon Juliano-Agrava, and Lourdes Paredes-San Diego, among others, profited from her trailblazing,” wrote Ongpin.
Almost 50 years after Almeda-Lopez’s retirement in 1962, the first female Chief Justice, Ma. Lourdes Sereno, was appointed by President Aquino.
Outside her official position as a member of the judiciary, Almeda-Lopez worked tirelessly for charities and civic groups. She also founded the Manila Children’s and Lying-in Hospital. By the time of her death in 1977, Almeda-Lopez had committed 70 years of her life to La Proteccion de la Infancia, 40 years as its president.
To the end, she remained true to her calling of public service and never forgot to give more in law to those who had less in life. With a report from Erika Sauler
(Editor’s Note: The author is the eldest granddaughter of the late Justice Natividad Almeda-Lopez.)