The Harpy Hall of Fame is dedicated to those women who worked on behalf of advancing women’s rights, contributed to reshaping gender roles, or were just generally awesome and badass. These remarkable women left legacies that continue to resonate today.
Maria Josefa Gabriela Silang was born in 1731 in Canlogan, Philippines to parents of mixed Spanish and indigenous ancestry. She was raised by her father, who was a farmer in the Philippines’ near-feudal society (her mother died or left the family not long after her birth).
As a young woman, Gabriela’s beauty attracted the attention of a wealthy landowner, and her father encouraged the old man’s attentions in order to secure a better life for his daughter. The landowner first adopted Gabriela, and then, when she was 20, married her. Whatever her feelings about the marriage might have been, her older husband did not live long, leaving Gabriela a wealthy and independent widow before her 30th birthday.
In 1757, she married for a second time, to a dashing young Ilokano mail carrier named Diego Silang. As a mail carrier, Diego Silang travelled frequently between the provinces and the capital of Manila, ideal cover for a revolutionary conspiring to free his people from Spanish rule.
In the fall of 1762 the Seven Years War between the British and the Spanish reached the Phillipines. The British captured Manila in October, shattering Spain’s military might and inspiring the oppressed Filipinos to take up arms against Spanish rule throughout the islands. In Ilocandia, Diego and Gabriela Silang collaborated with the British and on December 14, 1762, Diego Silang proclaimed the independence of his people, routing the Spanish forces at the battle of Cabugao. But the Spanish were determined to crush the rebellion, and Spanish officials in Manila–some say with the help of the Catholic clergy–paid one of Diego Silang’s co-revolutionaries to assassinate him in 1763.
After the death of her husband, Gabriela Silang and her husband’s army retreated on horseback to the mountains of Abra to establish a revolutionary government in exile. There she recruited fighters, including indigenous Itneg archers, and prepared to re-take the province by guerilla warfare. Her fighters’ stealth attacks on Spanish garrisons were so successful that the people of Ilocos took to calling Gabriela “la generala” .
In August, 1763, Gabriela Silang was able to muster a fighting force of 2,000 men armed with assorted weapons – Spanish muskets captured from the enemy, bamboo spears, bows and arrows, swords and axes–and led them in a direct attack on Vigan, the Ilocan capital her husband had liberated. Gabriela, on horseback, led the charge, earning her the nickname “the Joan of Arc of Ilocos.” The Spanish authorities were well-prepared, with an army of 6,000 infantry and artillery. They inflicted heavy losses on Gabriela’s army, but she was undaunted and the next day launched a second attack, personally fighting on the front lines. But, outnumbered and outarmed, her men could not crack the Spanish army’s grip on the city, and were forced to flee into the mountains. Gabriela and many of her lieutenants survived the battle but were later tracked down and captured.
The lieutenants of Gabriela’s army were hung one by one in towns along the coast as a warning to the revolutionary communities there. La generala herself was brought to Vigan, where she was hanged in the public plaza on September 20, 1763. She reportedly died with great dignity, impressing even her captors.
In the centuries after her death, Gabriela Silang achieved almost cult status among Filipinos as a heroic anti-imperialist and the pride of the native and mestizo people. She remains an especially important symbol of women’s liberation in the heavily Catholic Philippines. The national organization that advocates women’s issues is named General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action, or GABRIELA. Its electoral wing, the Gabriela Women’s Party, currently has two representatives in the Philippine Congress.