During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Corazon Aquino was content with her role as the shy housewife behind her husband, the opposition senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino. Even when the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos drove their family into exile in the United States in 1980, Cory Aquino quietly accepted her lot and concentrated on raising her family.
However, when Ferdinand Marcos's army assassinated Ninoy at Manila International Airport in 1983, Corazon Aquino came out from her late husband's shadow, and marched at the head of a movement that would topple the dictator.
Maria Corazon Sumulong Conjuangco was born on January 25, 1933 in Paniqui, Tarlac, which is in central Luzon, the Philippines, north of Manila. Her parents were Jose Chichioco Cojuangco and Demetria "Metring" Sumulong, and the family were of mixed Chinese, Filipino, and Spanish descent. The family surname is a Spanish version of the Chinese name "Koo Kuan Goo."
The Cojuangcos owned a sugar plantation covering 15,000 acres, and were among the wealthiest families in the province. Cory was the couple's sixth child of eight.
As a young girl, Corazon Aquino was studious and shy. She also showed a devout commitment to the Catholic Church from an early age. Corazon went to expensive private schools in Manila through age 13, when her parents sent her to the United States for high school.
Corazon went first to Philadelphia's Ravenhill Academy and then the Notre Dame Convent School in New York, graduating in 1949. As an undergraduate at the College of Mount St. Vincent in New York City, Corazon Aquino majored in French. She also was fluent in Tagalog, Kapampangan, and English.
After her 1953 graduation from college, Corazon moved back to Manila to attend law school at the Far Eastern University. There, she met a young man from one of the Philippines' other wealthy families, a fellow student named Benigno Aquino, Jr.
Marriage and Life as a Housewife:
Corazon Aquino left law school after just one year to marry Ninoy Aquino, a journalist with political aspirations. Ninoy soon became the youngest governor ever elected in the Philippines, and then was elected as the youngest member of the Senate ever in 1967. Corazon concentrated on raising their five children: Maria Elena (b. 1955), Aurora Corazon (1957), Benigno III "Noynoy" (1960), Victoria Elisa (1961), and Kristina Bernadette (1971).
As Ninoy's career progressed, Corazon served as a gracious hostess and supported him. However, she was too shy to join him on stage during his campaign speeches, preferring to stand at the back of the crowd and watch. In the early 1970s, money was tight, so Corazon moved the family to a smaller home and even sold part of the land she had inherited in order to fund his campaign.
Ninoy had become an outspoken critic of Ferdinand Marcos's regime, and was expected to win the 1973 presidential elections, since Marcos was term-limited and could not run according to the Constitution. However, Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972 and abolished the Constitution, refusing to relinquish power. Ninoy was arrested and sentenced to death, leaving Corazon to raise the children alone for the next seven years.
In 1978, Ferdinand Marcos decided to hold parliamentary elections, the first since his imposition of martial law, in order to add a veneer of democracy to his rule. He fully expected to win, but the public overwhelmingly supported the opposition, led in absentia by the jailed Ninoy Aquino.
Corazon did not approve of Ninoy's decision to campaign for parliament from prison, but she dutifully delivered campaign speeches for him. This was a key turning-point in her life, moving the shy housewife into the political spotlight for the first time. Marcos rigged the election results, however, claiming over 70% of the parliamentary seats in a clearly fraudulent result.
Meanwhile, Ninoy's health was suffering from his long imprisonment. US President Jimmy Carter personally intervened, asking Marcos to allow the Aquino family to go into medical exile in the States. In 1980, the regime allowed the family to move to Boston.
Corazon spent some of the best years of her life there, reunited with Ninoy, surrounded by her family, and out of the scrum of politics. Ninoy, on the other hand, felt obligated to renew his challenge to the Marcos dictatorship once he had recovered his health. He began to plan a return to the Philippines.
Corazon and the kids stayed in America while Ninoy took a circuitous route back to Manila. Marcos knew he was coming, though, and had Ninoy assassinated as he got off the plane on August 21, 1983. Corazon Aquino was a widow at the age of 50.
Corazon in Politics:
Literally millions of Filipinos poured into the streets of Manila for Ninoy's funeral. Corazon led the procession with quiet grief and dignity, and went on to lead protests and political demonstrations as well. Her calm strength under horrific conditions made her the center of anti-Marcos politics in the Philippines - a movement known as "People Power."
Concerned by the massive street demonstrations against his regime that continued for years, and perhaps deluded into believing that he had more public support than he actually did, Ferdinand Marcos called new presidential elections in February of 1986. His opponent was Corazon Aquino.
Aging and ill, Marcos did not take the challenge from Corazon Aquino very seriously. He noted that she was "just a woman," and said that her proper place was in the bedroom.
Despite massive turnout by Corazon's "People Power" supporters, the Marcos-allied parliament declared him the winner. Protestors poured into the Manila streets once more, and top military leaders defected to Corazon's camp. Finally, after four chaotic days, Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda were forced to flee into exile in the United States.
On February 25, 1986, as a result of the "People Power Revolution," Corazon Aquino became the first female president of the Philippines. She restored democracy to the country, promulgating a new constitution, and serving until 1992.
President Aquino's tenure was not entirely smooth, however. She pledged agrarian reform and land redistribution, but her background as a member of the landed classes made this a difficult promise to keep. Corazon Aquino also convinced the US to withdraw its military from remaining bases in the Philippines - with help from Mt. Pinatubo, which erupted in June of 1991 and buried several military installations.
Marcos supporters in the Philippines staged half a dozen coup attempts against Corazon Aquino during her term in office, but she survived them all in her low-key yet stubborn political style. Although her own allies urged her to run for a second term in 1992, she adamantly refused. (The new 1987 Constitution forbade second terms, but her supporters argued that she was elected before the constitution came in to effect, so it did not apply to her.)
Corazon Aquino supported her Defense Secretary, Fidel Ramos, in his candidacy to replace her as president. Ramos won the 1992 presidential election in a crowded field, although he was far short of a majority of the vote.
In retirement, former President Aquino frequently spoke out on political and social issues. She was particularly vocal in opposing later presidents' attempts to amend the constitution to allow themselves extra terms in office. She also worked to reduce violence and homelessness in the Philippines.
In 2007, Corazon Aquino publicly campaigned for her son Noynoy when he ran for the Senate. In March of 2008, Aquino announced that she had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Despite aggressive treatment, she passed away on August 1, 2009, at the age of 76. She did not get to see her son Noynoy elected president; he took power on June 30, 2010.