Sui Generis

The First Lady

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
The First Lady

Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, takes oath beside his wife Louise Araneta-Marcos during the inauguration ceremony at the National Museum in Manila, Philippines, June 30, 2022. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez


It’s been ages since we last had a visible, high-profile first lady, and that was Imelda Marcos. She inhabited our universe for two decades. We watched and grimaced as she unspooled her lavishness before us and the rest of the world. 

Imelda was a co-president: She was a member of the Cabinet, formed her own power circle and had unlimited access to taxpayers’ money. 

When she and her family fled to Hawaii in 1986, it was then that the enormity of the robbery hit us as we learned about the crates of jewelry she took with her. By that time, she already had a collection of millions of dollars worth of paintings stashed in the US. (This is separate from the plunder by her husband, the late dictator, although there were instances of conjugal stealing.)

So it was with joy and relief that the country finally got rid of the Marcoses. Personally, I seem to have become allergic to having a first lady since I grew up with the intrusive presence of Imelda.

There was no first lady for the first six years after the fall of the Marcoses. The late president Corazon Aquino was the first female president of the Philippines; she was also a widow so there was no first gentleman hovering around.

In fact, we did not have a first lady for 21 years since Imelda. Yes, that long.

Another woman, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, spent nine years as president. This time, there was Mike Arroyo, the first gentleman, who was a frequent subject of controversy.

Then came Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, a bachelor. He did not bring any partner to Malacañang—so that was six years of single blessedness, a leader just by his lonesome.

The first first lady we encountered after Imelda was Amelita “Ming” Ramos, wife of President Fidel Ramos (1992 to 1998). To our delight, she was definitely eons away from Imelda’s habits. Ming kept away from the spotlight and continued to work at the International School where she was registrar.

Dr. Loi Ejercito came after, during the short-lived presidency of Joseph “Erap” Estrada (1998-2001). She was the official first lady who graced a few occasions with her quiet presence.

Honeylet Avanceña was our most recent first lady but she was mostly absent from the public eye. It was not President Duterte’s style to bring his partner to events and functions. She stayed in the background and continued to live in Davao during Duterte’s presidency. It’s like we never had a First Lady in the past six years. Not that it mattered.

So it looks like we’re no longer used to having one.

Here comes Liza Araneta Marcos

Just when I was thinking that first ladies are a thing of the past, Liza Araneta Marcos enters the scene. So far, except for the inauguration of her husband, she has not been in the news.

How will she be as first lady? What role will she play?

What happened on June 30, Day One of the Marcos presidency, may give us a clue. PTV, a state-owned media, posted photos on Facebook of Liza Marcos joining a courtesy call of Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan.

Here’s the post:

I asked two sources who are familiar with Philippine diplomacy if this was usual. Both said no. “Very unusual. The spouse of the president has no role in official agreements of the president except for ceremonial ones,” one said.

The other source, who got reminded of Imelda, said. “The DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs] protocol people wouldn’t have countenanced it. This must have been a top-down thing.”

It was only the next day, July 1, when Marcos appointed Enrique Manalo as foreign secretary.

‘Gov’t can’t afford me’

We’ve had some glimpse of Liza Marcos during the campaign. When asked in a rare interview if she would be a “politically involved” first lady, she replied: “Maybe, well, I’ll cross the bridge when I get there but, if ever, teaching would be good. I’m a lawyer but to enter government? No, they can’t afford me.”

On the campaign trail, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. once described his wife as someone who gets things done. Whenever Liza is tasked with something, “consider it done,” he said in a YouTube interview. He gave a portrait of his wife as someone who takes control of situations, difficult or otherwise.

Liza, however, was rarely visible during her husband’s campaign. She has said that she is a very private person.

Let’s see how things unfold – and be vigilant. It’s still early days: Six long years lie ahead of us.

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.