MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ Although Filipino political institutions have usually been male-only clubs, Corazon Aquino's rise to the presidency highlights something that few Filipino men care to admit: they share the reins of power with women.

''In public, for appearances, the man is the boss, but deep in his heart, the man knows who is the real boss - his wife,'' said Filipino novelist Bienvenido Santos, characterizing the Philippines as a ''subtle matriarchy.''

''We have a matriarchy where the man does not lose face,'' Santos has said. ''In all major decisions, the man defers to his wife. She knows her position and does not abuse it because her survival depends on her saving her man's face.''

No one had predicted Mrs. Aquino's eventual rise to the presidency when her husband, opposition leader Benigno Aquino, was assassinated 30 months ago upon his return from voluntary exile in the United States.

President Aquino, who describes herself as a former housewife, stands in sharp contrast to Imelda Romualdez Marcos, wife of Ferdinand E. Marcos. Marcos was driven into exile Wednesday by a pro-Aquino revolt after 20 years in power.

Many Filipinos say they believe Mrs. Marcos' globe-trotting extravagance, grandiose projects and reputed lust for power played a major role in her husband's downfall.

Mrs. Marcos campaigned across the country for her husband before the Feb. 7 election singing and dancing, smiling and crying, pleading and shouting. She wore a bright red sash across her shoulders, pearls around her neck, and diamonds on her fingers.

''Filipinos want beauty,'' she once said. ''I have to look beautiful so that the poor Filipinos will have a star to look at from their slums.''

Mrs. Marcos was governor of metropolitan Manila, a minister in her husband's Cabinet, and it was widely assumed among Filipino officials and voters alike that she would make a play for power if her husband decided to step down.

She often ridiculed Mrs. Aquino during the election campaign, portraying her as brainless, and mocked her for not wearing makeup and not manicuring her nails.

Mrs. Aquino largely ignored the personal attacks and her short, unpretentious speeches contrasted with the general bombast of male politicians before her.

For generations, the Filipino husband has cast his wife in the role of a submissive spouse ''whose place is in the home.'' The notion persists as much in the cities as in the villages.

But writer Fe Mangahas, a feminist leader, says women have always played a strong role in Philippine society. She points out that long before Spain began its 300 years of colonial rule in the 15th century, Filipino women shared power with men as village leaders.

''Without the wife consenting, no treaties could be entered into and if the husband died, power often passed into the hands of wives,'' Ms. Mangahas has said.

Under Spanish colonial rule, women generals led armies in revolts against Spain.

One question now being asked as Mrs. Aquino begins her presidency is how she will handle the armed forces generals and 200,000-man army that Marcos built.

She gave an early indication by acting on her campaign promise of a general amnesty for political prisoners held in Marcos' jails, ordering Friday over the opposition of some military officers that all be freed.

She also showed firmness elsewhere.

Badgered by a favor-seeking man outside her office, she turned to him and said in a firm voice overheard by an American reporter: ''Can't we just wait? I want you to realize that I don't like to be pressured like this. I am the president, right?''