JOSEFA LLANES ESCODA
Florence Nightingale of the Philippines
Great civic leader, social worker, suffragette and war heroine, Josefa Llanes Escoda or
Pepa, as she was affectionately called, was born on September 20, 1898 in Dingras, Ilocos Norte.
She was the eldest child of Gabriel Llanes, a music teacher and Mercedes Madamba, a sweet and
loving woman who instilled in the minds of her children the true Christian idea of service. Her only
brother was Florencio, and her five sisters were Luisa, Elvira, Rosario, Purita and Eufrosina.
As a child, Pepa was gay, naturally active and precocious. In her school days, she never let
a day pass without reading her books and studying her lessons. At the time Josefa was in the grade
school, a strong typhoon hit her hometown. Although the town folks had been forewarned of the
impending calamity, Josefa insisted on going to school that day. Her mother stopped her, but she
stubbornly said, “ I’ll not let the weather keep me away from school,” that’s how important
schooling was to Josefa.
She finished her elementary grades as valedictorian. From Dingras, she went to Laoag
where she obtained her secondary certificate. After graduation from high school at the age of 16,
she persuaded her parents to allow her to study in Manila at the Philippine Normal School (now
Philippine Normal University), where she became popular for her energy, firmness and
determination. Two years after, she graduated with honors.
In 1918, her father died during the influenza epidemic, which swept the Philippines and
killed thousands of Filipinos. Knowing how difficult it would be for her mother to take care of the
six children, Josefa took them to Manila. She studied in the evening for a high school teacher’s
certificate (HSTC), which she acquired in 1922 from the University of the Philippines. For a short
while, she taught at the Jose Rizal College, University of Manila, Far Eastern University, and
Philippine Women’s University.
Immediately after graduation from U.P., she gave up teaching and joined the American
Red Cross (Philippine Chapter) as a social worker. Before long, the American Red Cross granted
her a scholarship to the United States where she enrolled at the New York School of Social Work to
undergo intensive training in social welfare. For her satisfactory work, the school awarded her the
social worker’s certificate in 1925.
In the United States, Josefa’s hard work, intelligence and model behavior earned praise for
her and for her country. She showed her leadership anew when she joined a group of foreign
students who supported wholeheartedly an International House project in New York. During her
free time in the International House, she accepted speaking engagements. She spoke with
eloquence. On her lecture tours to many states, it was her practice to wear Filipina dresses to
arouse interest in the Philippines.
Pepa represented the Philippines at the Women’s International League for Peace in 1925.
Here she met Antonio Escoda, a good looking and capable reporter from the Philippine Press
Bureau whom she married later. Their marriage was blessed with two children, Maria Teresa and
Antonio Jr. In the same year, Columbia University conferred on her a master’s degree in social
Upon her return to the Philippines in 1926, she resumed her teaching duties as a lecturer
in sociology at the University of the Philippines and at the University of Santo Tomas. She entered
government service by working at the Tuberculosis Commission of the Bureau of Health, where she
helped in the campaign. At the Bureau, she was the editor of the Health Messenger. She also
served in the Textbook Board, the Board of Censors for Moving Pictures, and the labor Board. In
the Philippine Anti-Leprosy Society she served as its executive secretary from 1908-1932. She was
also with the Boy Scouts of the Philippines.
Mrs. Escoda was an active member of the suffrage movement in the Philippines. Being best
prepared in the tremendous job of binding together the clubwomen of the Philippines she was
elected secretary of the General Council of Women which was created to coordinate the activities of
the women suffrage workers. As a suffragette, she believed that “The modern woman is no longer
the wife that clings; she now helps the husband. The women’s demand for independence is
motivated by their desire to help their husbands in governmental affairs which always required the
moderation and wisdom of women.”
All the labor and efforts of the organized women and the help of so many men were
crowned with success on December 7, 1933 when Act 4112 was approved granting the right to vote
to Filipino women and making them eligible to all public offices.
Through the initiative of the Boy Scouts of the Philippines officials and the approval of Dr.
Jose Fabella, then Commissioner of Health and Public Welfare, Mrs. Escoda was sent to the United
States for Girl Scout training. On her return to the Philippines in 1937, she founded the Girl Scout
of the Philippines. Despite all the initial obstacles which Mrs. Escoda had to meet, her efforts were
rewarded on May 26, 1940 when Pres. Manuel Quezon approved Commonwealth Act No.542
creating GSP as a national organization.
Mrs. Escoda was also a moving spirit behind the National Federation of Women’s Clubs
during its formative stage. She was the first elected treasurer of the federation, and was later
promoted to executive-secretary, a position she held for nine consecutive years. In 1941, the
succeeded Mrs. Pilar Hidalgo Lim as the federation’s national president, a position he held until
her death. Josefa also became one of the editors of Manila Daily Bulletin together with her
In the field of social work, Mrs. Escoda’s devotion, responsibility and unquestionable
leadership were shown in her great accomplishment. She founded the Boy’s Town for the underprivileged
boys of Manila. She initiated a successful campaign which called for the provision of
lunch and rest rooms for women workers and the installation of other facilities for their
convenience. She worked hard for the establishment of free nursery classes in Manila where
children were served free soup and a glass of milk. She worked for the improvement of health and
sanitation in rural areas, the modernization of the prison and penal system, the suppression of
vices and the extension of the benefits of adult education to the rural folks.
Her innate courage and deep devotion to duty was put to a supreme test when World War
II broke out. She and her husband associated themselves with the Volunteer Social Aid Committee
of VSAC and enlisted aid for the prisoners of war. She witnessed the horrifying Death March, for
she was one of those who distributed multi-vitamin tablets to the prisoners. This intensified her
eagerness to keep the prisoners supplied with food, medicine and clothing. She took great risks, in
listing the names of the prisoners in Camp O’Donnel and in helping the American internees at the
University of Santo Tomas and Los Baños. In Manila, she housed the stranded women and
students who were unable to go back to their respective provinces following the outbreak of the
In June 1944, her husband was arrested and imprisoned at Fort Santiago and two months
later, on August 27, she was also arrested and thrown into the dark walls of Cell No. 16 in the same
fort. However, she could have left the prison had she wanted to, for she was offered freedom in
December, 1944, but her loyalty to her husband was so strong she preferred to die with him in
prison. Antonio Escoda was court-martialed for the crime of treason and sentenced to death on
November 24, 1944.
Though suffering from inhuman torture inflicted by the enemies, Mrs. Escoda remained
serene and composed. She was last seen on January 29, 1945. She was then apparently taken and
held in one of the Far Eastern University buildings occupied by the Japanese. It was presumed that
she was executed. It was assumed that her body lies in a common grave in the North Cemetery or
Chinese Cemetery together worth others who was executed.
In recognition of her outstanding achievements and dedicated service to humanity, she
was named Distinguished Alumna in the field of social service, and a diploma of honor in
recognition of her signal achievements was conferred on her posthumously in 1951 by the
Philippine Normal College. The American Red Cross posthumously awarded silver medal, the
biggest honor given by the organization. In May 1948, the U.S. Army and Navy awarded Josefa and
her husband posthumously the Medal of Freedom with gold leaf, for her services to the Filipino
prisoners of World War II. The Armed Forces of the Philippines awarded her the Philippine Legion
of Honor Medal.
Josefa Llanes Escoda, the “Florence Nightingale of the Philippines,” died a heroine. A
street and a building have been named after her and a monument has been dedicated to her
Ancheta, Herminia M. and Michaela Beltran-Gonzales, Filipino Women in Nation Building,
Phoenix Publishing House Inc., Quezon City, 1984.
Quirino, Carlos. Who’s Who in Philippine History. Manila : Tahanan Books, 1995.
Varias,-de Guzman, Jovita, Ed. Women of Distinction : Biographical Essay on
Outstanding Filipino Women of the Past and the Present. Philippines : Bukang
Villaroel, Hector K. Eminent Filipinos. Quezon City : Textbook Publishers,