Cory Aquino, the woman who beat a dictator, dies

Philippines to honour adored homemaker who toppled the Ferdinand Marcos regime

Corazon Aquino, who was propelled by the assassination of her husband into a crusade that saw her defeat Ferdinand Marcos, the then president of the Philippines and one of the 20th century's most corrupt dictators, died yesterday. She was 76.

Later, as supporters scattered yellow confetti on the procession, her body was taken to a Manila school, where it will lie in state. Her funeral will take place on Wednesday at the capital's cathedral. She had been diagnosed with advanced colon cancer last year, and, for the past month, had been confined to a Manila hospital. Her old adversary, Imelda Marcos, even led prayers for Cory Aquino in the final weeks of her illness.

So ends the life of the woman whose 1986 uprising inspired eruptions of street democracy around the world – heady years that were a far cry from the privileged circumstances in which she was born. She attended a private school in Manila and earned a degree in French from a New York college. In 1954 she married Ninoy Aquino, the ambitious heir of another political family who was to rise from provincial governor to senator and, finally, opposition leader.

Marcos, elected president in 1965, was not inclined to tolerate challenges to his rule. In 1972, he declared martial law to avoid term limits, abolished Congress, and jailed Ninoy and thousands of opponents, journalists and activists without charge. Mrs Aquino became her husband's political stand-in, confidante, message carrier and spokeswoman. A military tribunal sentenced her husband to death for alleged links to communist rebels but, under pressure from the then US president, Jimmy Carter, Marcos allowed him to leave in May 1980 for heart surgery in America.

It was the start of a three-year exile. With her husband at Harvard, holding court with fellow exiles, academics, journalists and visitors from Manila, Mrs Aquino was the homemaker, raising their five children and serving tea. Then, in 1983, her husband decided to return home. While she and the children remained in Boston, he flew to Manila, where he was shot on leaving the plane. The government blamed a communist rebel, but subsequent investigations pointed to a soldier escorting him from the aircraft. Mrs Aquino heard the news in a phone call from a Japanese journalist.

Three days later, the newly widowed Mrs Aquino returned to the Philippines, and, a week later, led the largest funeral procession Manila had seen, with crowds estimated at two million. With public opposition mounting against Marcos, he called a snap election in November 1985. The opposition, including the Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime L Sin, urged Mrs Aquino to run. "What on earth do I know about being president?" she asked.

After the vote, on 7 February 1986, the National Assembly declared Marcos the winner, but journalists, foreign observers and church leaders alleged massive fraud. With the result in dispute, a group of military officers mutinied against Marcos two weeks later, and holed up with a small force in a military camp in Manila. Over the following three days, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos responded to a call by the Catholic Church to jam the broad highway in front of the camp to prevent an attack by Marcos forces.

On the third day, against the advice of her security detail, Mrs Aquino appeared at the rally alongside the mutineers. From a makeshift platform, she declared: "For the first time in the history of the world, a civilian population has been called to defend the military." The military chiefs pledged their loyalty to her, claiming that Marcos had won the election by fraud. President Ronald Reagan, a long-time supporter of Marcos, called on him to resign, and, on 25 February, he was flown with his family on a US plane to Hawaii, where Marcos died three years later. That day, Mrs Aquino was sworn in as the country's first female leader.

In office, she struggled to meet high public expectations. Her land redistribution programme fell short of ending economic domination by the landed elite, including her own family. She was often indecisive, her term punctuated by coup attempts. But, for all this, the bespectacled, smiling woman in her trademark yellow dress was beloved in the Philippines, where she was known as "Tita [Auntie] Cory".