“Leticia Ramos-Shahani is a name every feminist should know,” Jennifer Jett wrote for The New York Times.
Ramos-Shahani, a Philippine diplomat and lawmaker, was a pioneer in the international women’s movement. At a time when few women had a place in statecraft, she became one of the highest-ranking women at the United Nations. In her native Philippines, she made labor and rape laws fairer to women and integrated gender into all kinds of policymaking.
In the 1970s, she led the drafting of a convention on the elimination of discrimination against women, also known as the international women’s bill of rights, and defied Cold War tensions by enlisting the Soviet Union as a cosponsor to get it off the ground.
Beyond that, she played a role in four international conferences over 20 years that put women’s rights on the global agenda.
Her varied roles as a champion for women’s rights overshadowed her advocacy for arts and culture. She was also a well known culture vanguard.
When Ramos-Shahani left the UN to join President Cory Aquino’s Cabinet in 1987, she helped draft Executive Order No. 118, which created the Presidential Commission on Culture and Arts. Five years later, in 1992, this was enacted into law– Republic Act 7356, creating the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). She authored the law, along with Senators Edgardo Angara and Heherson Alvarez and Congressman Carlos Padilla.
Select pieces from the former senator’s art collection are part of Leon Gallery’s Kingly Treasures Auction on December 3. The treasure trove gives the viewer a glimpse into the life of one of the most accomplished Filipinas who traveled the world as a global leader and patriot, who cared deeply for her home country.
This HR Ocampo color study used to hang in the Bel-Air home of Ramos-Shahani’s parents.
Leticia Ramos was the second of three children in a politically prominent family. She was born on 30 September 1929, in Lingayen, Pangasinan. Her father, Narciso Ramos, was a lawmaker and diplomat who served as foreign secretary in the 1960s under Ferdinand Marcos, Ramos-Shahani’s second cousin. Her mother, Angela Valdez, was a high school teacher
Throughout her life, Leticia enriched her days with all forms of art. Even while in grade school (during the Japanese Occupation), her best friend was a pianist named Ofelia “Fely” Zafra, and they wrote many letters to each other about classical music, which the future diplomat had also studied.
In Bucharest, she befriended daughter Lila’s ballet teacher, who had been a part of the Romanian corps de ballet. When she taught in University of the Philippines after her M.A., she became very good friends with Virginia “Virgie” Moreno, with whom she had many conversations about poetry, theater, film and the visual arts. Like her, she taught literature and what was then called the Humanities/Art Appreciation.
Lila recalled how they often went to Virgie’s Café Orfeo in Ermita, where many of her artist friends would converge, “Mom always loved art, music, dance and philosophy (including what used to be called Eastern philosophy, something my Dad spent many years teaching), in addition to literature.”
Shahani’s education and career took her to the United States, where she received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Wellesley College in 1951.
While in college, Leticia Ramos struck a friendship with Venancio Igarta, one of the many Filipino artists she would befriend in her lifetime.
Igarta would send her letters and sketches. In one letter he talked about the end of the era of the Abstract Expressionists. In another he talked about his artwork having been included in a national tour of American art.
Igarta was among few Filipino artists of his generation to have their works exhibited at American galleries and institutions.
Leticia then went to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland for her M.A. in Middle English but didn’t finish and transferred instead to Columbia University to complete her M.A. in comparative literature in 1953. She earned a PhD in comparative literature at the University of Paris in 1962 and joined the United Nations in New York two years later.
Her PhD at Sorbonne was on Indian writers in English (her future husband, the Indian writer and professor Ranjee Shahani, was one of her interviewees). Literature has always been a great love among the Shahanis, a passion Inherited by her daughter Lila and son Chanda.
She had met her husband when she was 22 but didn’t marry him until 10 years later, after she had finished her studies and started working.
“If a woman wants to achieve in her career, she has to delay marriage,” Shahani told The New York Times in 1985.
After her husband died suddenly in 1968, Shahani left her job at the United Nations and moved back to the Philippines with her three young children: Ranjit, Chanda, and Lila. But the family’s time together was limited by Ramos-Shahani’s work.
“It was hard, but it was also very inspiring to see her succeed in a man’s world,” Lila said of her mother.
From 1969 to 1975, Shahani was the Philippines’ representative to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, where she became chairwoman.
During those years, she was also the founder and later the chairwoman of the National Commission on the Role of Filipino Women, a government agency now called the Philippine Commission on Women.
In 1975, she went to Romania as the Philippines’ first ambassador to any Communist country, and the first female ambassador Romania had ever received. She was concurrently accredited as ambassador to Hungary and East Germany, and later served as ambassador to Australia.
Among the art works in her collection are two nude sketches by Romulo Olazo (dated 1976) and Cesar Legaspi (dated 1977. Both artists dedicated their work to the diplomat.
Lila (now based in the United States) reminisced on how her mother smiled mischievously when she asked her about some of the paintings, casually adding that they were personal gifts from some of the artists, the Olazos and Legaspi included.
Lila recalls that period in her mother’s career, when artists, politicians and businessmen were enamored with the widowed ambassador,
“I was only nine years old but I remember those years vividly. She was in her mid-40s and clearly in her prime. During those years (and well before that), a number of people — scholars, artists (writers, opera singers and two French recipients of the Legion of Honor who attempted to follow her for decades without much success), businessmen, and one or two European and Indian aristocrats – had crushes on my Mom.”
“But Mom was super ‘pihikan’ in large part because she was only ever attracted to scholars and artists but my Lolo (Narciso) and Lola (Angela) were determined that she ‘marry well’, by which they meant that she should choose someone with power and money. But, in a nutshell, she found most of the politicians and financiers she met through them to be intellectually boring. She was also looking for someone who had a strong moral compass and a deeply spiritual side. Did I ever meet them? No, but I did meet a number of other artists and suitors,” Lila adds.
As the first Philippine ambassador to the former East Bloc and the only woman in the Romanian diplomatic corps (who also had no spouse), Ramos-Shahani had to put the Philippines’ best foot forward among our new Communist “allies”, while Marcos and Ceausescu were stepping up trade relations between both countries.
“So she contacted old friends, I think, to ask for help in decorating our Bucharest home, which had once been an aristocrat’s villa (and where the whole Philippine Embassy staff lived for a while during the massive 1977 earthquake in Romania),” Lila said.
Lila remembers Ang Kiukok’s “Seated Figure,” a powerful black and white watercolor hanging in the study room in Bucharest. She says, “it was a perfect spot since the room was done up in shades of gray.”
The ambassador not only got lots of advice from her mother – who was also the veteran wife of a diplomat who had lived in Washington, D.C., New Delhi, Buenos Aires and Taipei – but also silverware and china.
Ramos-Shahani had so much entertaining to do in Romania and Australia; at the UN Center in Vienna, she was the highest ranking woman at the UN. According to Lila, her mother never really enjoyed decorating as much as she loved collecting and contemplating art, so a lot of those tasks were eventually delegated to her.
Lila recalls her long talks with her mom in the latter’s post-retirement years when she was writing her memoirs not so much about art pieces but her relationships with family, friends, suitors, etc. Ramos-Shahani would share her latest pages over a glass of wine with daughter Lila whenever she got home from work at the DFA (where she was UNESCO Philippines Secretary General and assistant secretary) in the evenings.
Lila shares that their attic is also filled with “hundreds and hundreds of letters from, between and for Mom, Dad, FVR, Auntie Glory (their sister), Lolo and Lola, Lolo Simeon Valdez, Ferdinand Marcos, various and sundry ‘manliligaws’ kids and grandkids, etc.”
“My father has his own section, which included (mostly rejection) letters for his manuscripts from T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Norman Mailer, etc, etc. He also had very interesting friends (Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, etc), so his correspondences are equally interesting” she added.
Lila reveals their attic is an embarrassment of riches, so along with her husband ,Vince (Rafael), they have been cataloging all the letters, some of which were discussed with her mom. She is now working on a book on the letters her mom and former President Fidel V. Ramos wrote to each other during their early years, studying their disagreements and deep convergences, and how both have in turn helped shape public policy in the Philippines.
Lila said she had gained a new appreciation of her mother’s work when she entered government herself.
“I learned from Mom that you have to be able to provide solutions to the problems you identify,” she said. “It’s not enough to just call out the problems and act as if that’s the end of your responsibility.”
Shahani remained vocal on public affairs to the end of her life, advocating for the Philippines in its territorial disputes with China and suggesting that then President Rodrigo Duterte take “a beginner’s course in diplomacy.”
Her varied career is reflected on her gravestone, which reads: “Patriot. Humanist. Feminist. Farmer. Beloved Mother.
Ramos-Shahani died on 17 March 2017 of colon cancer. She was 87.
Previews for The León Gallery Kingly Treasures Auction begin on Saturday, Nov 26 to Friday, Dec 2, from 9 am to 7 pm, at G/F Eurovilla I, V.A. Rufino corner Legazpi Streets, Legazpi Village, Makati City. The Kingly Treasures Auction happens on Saturday, December 3, beginning at 2PM.
(With excerpts from Jennifer Jett’s article from The New York Times and anecdotes and photos from the late senator’s daughter, Lila Ramos-Shahani )
For more information and to browse the rest of the auction lots, visit their website at