By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City – For her ‘sister and friend’ Robin Morgan, the late Sen. Leticia Ramos-Shahani was “stunningly beautiful but could be lethal when needed.” Morgan shared fond memories of Shahani, including that of teaching her to dance the tinikling, which was to hop in between two bamboo poles and to think of the patriarchy so that her foot won’t be caught by the clapping poles. Such was a figurative anecdote, for being a woman diplomat in the 1970s was a tough job in a definitely male-dominated UN.
Weeks since her demise, the Filipino community and friends of the late senator continue to honor her life by reminiscing her long luminous accomplishments as a trailblazer for women’s rights on the world stage and a seasoned diplomat.
Awarded American writer, feminist, and political activist Morgan was profuse and personal in remembering the senator who passed on March 20, 2017 due to colon cancer. Morgan, founder of the Sisterhood Is Global Institute and co-founder of the Women’s Media Center, is Shahani’s buddy at the auspices of the UN since the 1970s where she planted the seeds of institutionalizing the recognition of women’s rights and justice globally.
At the Kalayaan Hall of the Philippine Consulate here on April 11, Morgan said that “Shahani wasn’t scared to be called a feminist.” The two women worked their way to organize the first world conference on the status of women in Mexico in 1975. Morgan recalled that Shahani “did not one but two conferences that year with sheer guts because there was very little budget at the UN. There was to be the drug summit and the women’s conference that year.”
Morgan goes on to tell that she and Shahani decided to see Frank Thomas, the CEO of the Ford Foundation, to seek the possibility of financial support for the international conference. At the end of the meeting, Thomas coughed up $175,000 from his discretionary funds for the women’s summit. “Outside his office, we collapsed in giggles after that,” Morgan recalled.
That meeting made history. The international women’s conference in Mexico dubbed as the 1975 International Women’s Year was the precursor to women’s rights campaigns worldwide. The following year, the UN declared 1976-1985 as the International Decade of Women in Nairobi. Hence, in this era, governments were sought to develop policies and programs for gender equality and women’s participation in development and peace.
Shahani, known by colleagues such as Margaret Snyder as astute and dedicated, pioneered in coming up with the procedure to look for missing information that would link between poverty and economic policies. Snyder, founder of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), said that Shahani was committed to achieving social justice for everyone. Thanks to the relentless, careful efforts of the late senator, the concept of Women and Development came to fruition.
Michaela Walsh, a finance expert, recalled how Shahani would tap into her expertise and say, “I know nothing about money but women should know about money and have access to finance.” Walsh is the founding president of the Women’s World Banking which is an active organization providing financial access to women worldwide.
Shahani was the only woman who held so far the highest position of Secretary General of the UN to the Nairobi conference.
Shahani would have wanted to stay on in foreign service, said Philippine permanent representative to the UN Amb. Teodoro Locsin Jr. who remembered her to have boldly voted to recognize Palestine as a sovereign and independent state, not to be cowed by the relationship of US and the Philippines. “Mind and morals go hand in hand. That’s Letty’s way,” he said.
Locsin said Shahani would have preferred to be a diplomat. But Pres. Corazon Aquino personally asked her to join her government, hence she ran in for the Senate in 1987.
Locsin remembered how serious Shahani was in presiding meetings. “We couldn’t laugh and joke around when Manang Letty was presiding. She would say, it is not funny. So we would be serious for the next three hours.”
The younger sister of Philippine Pres. Fidel Ramos, Shahani was the first woman to have served as Senate president pro-tempore.
She was born on September 30, 1929 in Lingayen, Pangasinan. Her family was made up of public servants and teachers. Her father Narciso Ramos served as Foreign Affairs secretary while her mother, Angela Valdez, was a teacher.
Shahani finished her elementary and high school education at the University of the Philippines. She went to Wellesley College in Boston for her Bachelor of Arts in English and finished her Master’s degree in Comparative Literature at the Columbia University in New York. With highest honors, she finished her Doctor of Philosophy in Comparative Literature at the University of Paris.
At the end of the memorial, Consul General Tess Dizon de Vega read to the audience the eulogy of the late senator’s daughter Lila, who said that although they hardly had time to be with her as they were growing up, the last years of her life were finally spent joyfully together. (Featured photo is Soprano Katrina Saporsantos during the memorial for Sen. Shahani)