Lida Calvert Obenchain, The Philippine War (June 1899)

In April 1898, the U.S. Congress declared war on Spain, initiating a four month conflict that saw U.S. forces quickly overwhelm Spanish military forces in the Philippines and Cuba. In December, U.S. and Spanish officials formally ended the war by agreeing to a treaty that required Spain to cede Cuba, the Philippine islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States and left the future political status of these lands in the hands of the U.S. Congress. The quick, decisive victory over Spain, which Ambassador John Hay summarized as a “splendid little war” cost the United States relatively little in terms of national treasure (approximately $250 million) as well as lives (345 killed in action).

Although Filipinos initially celebrated the end of Spanish rule, they quickly became disenchanted when it became clear that the United States neither supported Philippine independence nor intended to relinquish control of the islands. Filipino nationalists rejected U.S. President William McKinley’s call for Filipinos to accept U.S. authority and policy of “Benevolent Assimilation,” and instead proclaimed the existence of an independent Philippine Republic led by the nationalist leader Emilio Aguinaldo. Tensions mounted until February 1899, when a skirmish between U.S. and Filipino forces in Manila sparked an insurrection against American rule that lasted until July 1902, with sporadic resistance continuing until 1913. From 1899-1902, the Philippine-American War took the lives of over 4000 American soldiers, 20,000 Filipino soldiers, and over 200,000 Filipino civilians.

In the late nineteenth century, proponents of U.S. overseas expansion began to articulate and disseminate arguments in support of an expansionist foreign policy. Although these efforts reaped considerable support and enthusiasm for the expansionist program by the start of the Spanish-American War, so too did the 1890s witness the emergence of a significant, active opposition movement. The “anti-imperialists” were a diverse group that included politicians from both major political parties, academics, business and labor leaders, activists, and writers. Far from a unified group, anti-imperialists voiced a number of constitutional, strategic, economic, racial, and moral objections to imperialist policies. Branded by their opponents as unpatriotic, the influence of the anti-imperialists arguably waned after the 1900 presidential election. Nevertheless, anti-imperialists continued to critique imperialist policies for the duration of the war in the Philippines.

Like many other groups in American society, the women’s suffrage movement divided into pro and anti-imperialist camps. In this June 1899 contribution to Woman’s Journal, Kentucky suffragist Lida Calvert Obenchain (1856-1935) drew upon U.S. policies in the Philippines to illustrate the condition of women in the United States.

Teaching Obenchain’s “The Philippine War”:

I have found Obenchain’s essay to be extremely useful in helping students understand the connections between domestic and foreign policy. In my experience, students tend to view domestic and foreign policy as operating independently of one another, and few consider how race and gender relate to topics such as war and diplomacy.

To provide some background context, I cover the Gilded Age, Spanish-American War, and the Philippine War before assigning the Obenchain essay. Assigned readings to this point include original documents such as Albert Beveridge’s 1898 “The March of the Flag,” so students are familiar with the imperialist rationale before they read Obenchain.

I begin by asking students why they think Obenchain wrote the article in the first place in order to get them to identify the main arguments. This often takes some time, and fielding a number of responses and writing them on the board helps to focus the conversation and establish the main points. Once the class has established the basic comparisons between colonized Filipinos and disenfranchised American women, we shift our focus from what Obenchain’s argument is to how she goes about making the argument. A good starting point is to ask your class whether or not they found Obenchain persuasive, and why? Their responses usually lead to interesting discussions about the tone that Obenchain adopts toward her readers. During this phase of the discussion, I usually call attention to the author’s references to terms such as “self-government” and “taxation without representation” and ask students why the author chose these particular phrases. Considering these questions helps students grasp the importance of examining terms and language when analyzing primary documents.

After discussion of the aforementioned issues has run its course, I conclude the discussion by reviewing the major points and ideas just discussed and clarifying or elaborating on a few points as appropriate. I then devote a few minutes to note the strengths and limitations of primary source documents by explaining that drawing conclusions from a single document can often mislead. Here, it’s important to point out that Obenchain’s views were not representative of white, middle-class suffragettes, many of whom viewed the Filipinos as a racially inferior people with whom Americans had little, if anything, in common.

In sum, this document helps me establish race as an important theme of the course. Many weeks later, when our attention focuses on the 1960s, students read Black Power critiques that compare the Jim Crow system to European colonialism. It is interesting and gratifying when many students compare Eldridge Cleaver’s arguments to the points that Obenchain argued many years earlier.

–M. Loayza, Minnesota State University, Mankato


Beisner, Robert L. Twelve Against Empire: The Anti-Imperialists, 1898-1900. New York: McGraw Hill, 1968.

Brands, H.W. Bound to Empire: The United States and the Philippines. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Hoganson, Kristin L. “‘As Badly off as the Filipinos’: U.S. Women’s Suffragists and the Imperial Issue at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Summer 2001), 9-33.


Lida Calvert Obenchain, The Philippine War (June 1899)