Pura Villanueva-Kalaw was born on August 27, 1886 in Arevalo, Iloilo to Emilio Villanueva, a highly educated man from Molo, and Emilia Garcia, a very beautiful Spanish lady from Palencia, Spain.
At first, she attended the Santa Ana College in Molo, but following the Spanish tradition of limited schooling for girls, her formal education henceforth consisted of a six-month stay at Santa Catalina College in Manila on her 15th year.
Her beauty and charm first attracted Manila’s high society when she was proclaimed “the best dressed lady” during the costume ball sponsored by Sociedad Artistica, an organization of Spaniards and well-to-do Filipinos. The crowning glory of her womanhood came in 1908 when, at the age of 22, she was proclaimed “First Carnival Queen” of the Philippines, a beauty title that was the forerunner of today’s “Miss Philippines.”
Pura Villanueva’s first love was writing, and it was as a writer that she first made a name for herself. In fact, before she figured prominently in any beauty contest, she had already won major literary prizes. In 1907, she garnered first prize in an essay contest in Iloilo.
This was followed by first and second prizes in other contests. As a journalist, she contributed weekly articles to El Tiempo in Iloilo. She also served as that paper’s “Woman’s Page” editor. She was also a contributor to metropolitan periodicals. Her writings were not limited to articles and short essays, which mostly dwelt on feminine rights. She also authored books and pamphlets.
Among her published works were: Osmeña From Newspaperman to President, How the Filipino Got the Vote, Outstanding Filipino Women, Anthology of Filipino Women Writers, The Consumer Cooperatives in the Philippines, The Filipino Cookbook, The Filipino Flag, and Condimentos Indigenas.
It was, however, as champion of feminism that Pura Villanueva made her indelible mark in Philippine history. As early as 1906, when she was 20 years old, she already felt the sublime and self-imposed mission of working for the rights of Filipino women. That year, she organized the Asociacion Feminista Ilongga, one of whose purposes was to enfranchise the Filipina. Its credo, as formulated by Pura was, “What a man can do, a woman can do as well.”
The suffrage movement brought her to Manila. There, she encouraged Assemblyman Filemon Sotto of Cebu to Present the first bill on woman suffrage before the first Philippine Assembly in 1907. The bill failed to pass, but she was not disheartened. In 1912, two world-famous feminists, Dr. Aletta Jacobs of the Netherlands and Mrs. Marie Chapman Catt of the United States visited the Philippines and bolstered the local feminist movement.
During the meeting attended by leading figures in the movement, the Society for the Advancement of Women was organized. Its name was later changed to Women’s Club of Manila. Despite the strong opposition in the Assembly, the fight for women’s right went on.
In 1918, Gov. Gen. Francis Burton Harrison recommended women’s suffrage in his message to the 4th Philippine Legislature. On October 28 of that year, the first major conference on the subject was held at the Manila Hotel. In 1919, the Senate, under its president, Manuel Quezon, passed the suffrage bill authored by Senator Pedro M. Sison.
The bill failed to pass in the House of Representatives, however. In 1921 and 1923, Gov. Gen. Leonard Wood urged the passage of the suffrage bill, but to no avail. In 1921, the numerous women’s clubs throughout the country banded together into the National Federation of Women’s Clubs. This national organization published its official mouthpiece, Women’s Outlook, with Trinidad F. Legarda as editor of the English section, and Pura Villanueva as editor of the Spanish section.
The campaign for the enfranchisement of Filipino women continued until the Legislature passed the suffrage bill in 1933. The bill became Commonwealth Act No. 34. The following year, however, this law was repealed by the Constitutional Convention. The Convention called for a plebiscite to be held within two years from the adoption of the Constitution, where at least 300,000 women were required to vote in favor of enfranchisement for that right to be granted to them.
In 1936, the Women’s Club organized an all-out drive aimed at bringing women voters to the polling place on plebiscite day. Pura Villanueva-Kalaw was chosen to head this drive. On April 30, 1937, 492,725 women trooped to the polls where an overwhelming majority of them, 447,725, voted for women’s suffrage.
For these, Villanueva received the Presidential Medal as champion woman suffragist from Pres. Elpidio Quirino, Outstanding Woman of 1950 from National Federation of Women's Clubs in the Philippines, Number One Feminist of the Philippines.
Pura continued on with her social activities. Friendship had grown between her and El Renacimiento editor Teodoro Kalaw of Batangas after their first meeting at a 1907 event at the Centro Escolar de Senoritas. Pura had been an invited lecturer there, and Teodoro found himself smitten by the Ilongga beauty. But the Manila Carnival had intervened before anything could happen. However, his courtship resumed and two years after, on 6 May 1910, Pura Villanueva and Teodoro Kalaw were wed in simple rites at the Molo Church.
After their wedding, the two moved to Lipa, hometown of Teodoro, and finally to Manila, where they settled to raise their fine family: Maria (herself, a Carnival Queen in 1931 and a future Senator), Teodoro Jr., Purita, and Evelina.
The brainy beauty and champion of women’s rights became the better half and inspiration of Teodoro M. Kalaw, an illustrious nationalist, scholar, historian, author and statesman, whom she married in Iloilo on May 6, 1910. They had four children, who have also distinguished themselves in their chosen fields: former Senator Maria Kalaw-Katigbak; Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, an artist and member of the Commission on Culture, and Evelina Kalaw-Pines, a singer.
Pura turned out to be a supportive wife to Teodoro in his multi-facetted career as a journalist and as a government executive (Secretary of Interior, Director of National Library, Chairman of the Commission on Philippine Independence.) With her real estate investments, she also established a successful business on her own. Pura’s advocacies too, are legendary. She engaged in many socio-civic activities, founded a school, became a woman’s suffrage champion and earned a Presidential Award of Merit from Pres. Elpidio Quirino in 1951.
Pura Villanueva-Kalaw was an active worker, civic leader, philanthropist, and successful businesswoman at the time of her death on March 21, 1954, a victim of heart attack. She was then 67.