This series of articles depicts the achievements of Portuguese women who broke the glass ceiling in their fields and in society, paving the way for all that followed. It is also a constant reminder that the work is never done, and their legacy is not a granted asset — it is a torch passed on to the following generation, to be carried with the responsibility to continue their efforts, and conveyed to the next one.
Florbela D’Alma da Conceição Espanca was born in Vila Viçosa, on 8th December 1894, where she attended the local primary school and wrote her first poem, “Vida e Morte”, signing as “Flor d’Alma da Conceição”.
She went to study at Liceu de Évora, being one of the first Portuguese women to attend this degree of education at the time. During her studies, she read the authors that would later become her greatest influences, such as, Balzac, Dumas, Camilo Castelo Branco, Guerra Junqueiro and Garrett.
She lived between the cafés and salons of Lisbon and Évora, where she wrote for different newspapers and magazines. She would enroll in Law School in Universidade de Lisboa, one of fourteen women out of three-hundred and forty-seven students. In 1919, she published her first work, “Livro de Mágoas”, which sold out quickly. She was a pioneer in writing from the female perspective about love, pain and eroticism. She mastered poetry and prose, but found it very difficult to have someone publishing her works, and had to teach classes in order to survive.
She was only 36 years old when she died, but she left us a vast literary work — most of which would be published after her passing.
Mathilde Simone Rachel Pauline Bensaúde
Mathilde Bensaúde was a renowned mycologist, botanist and plant pathologist. Her father, the founder of Instituto Superior Técnico, exposed her to biology and agriculture through the family’s estate, and from an early age, Mathilde was trained in embryology, protozoology, histology and evolution.
She studied physics and natural sciences in Lausanne, and went on to study at the Sorbonne, until World War I outbreak and consequent return to Lisbon.
She was able to return to France to finish her doctorate, and her groundbreaking thesis, Recherches sur le cycle évolutif et la sexualité chez les Basidiomycètes, would change the way we view the mating behavior of higher fungi.
Mathilde Bensaúde continued to pursue her academic research, this time in the United States of America, where she worked with L.R. Jones and G.W. Keitt at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She studied parasites and identified new species, and her findings were published in American literature.
Being the Portuguese reference in plant pathology, her work with the Portuguese Minister of Agriculture was instrumental to prevent and control the diseases that affected food production and supply. Mathilde was also one of the founders of the Portugal Society of Biology.
Maria Helena Vieira da Silva
Vieira da Silva is one of Portugal’s greatest contemporary artists, and a leading member of Art Informel, the European abstract expressionism movement. She was born in 1908 in Lisbon, and started studying the Arts at the capital’s prominent ateliers, pursuing music, painting and drawing.
Influenced by Paul Cézanne, she became known for her complex and layered compositions, dense and fragmented forms, ambiguous scale, and shades acquiescing of cubism and abstract art, which granted a place among the most relevant artists of the Post-War period.
After becoming a French citizen, she was the first woman to ever receive the Grand Prix National des Arts in 1966, and named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor 13 years later.
Vieira da Silva has also contributed to the decorative arts, tapestry, ceramics and glass windows, and her work is currently part of private collections such as Coleção Berardo at Centro Cultural de Belém, Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea do Chiado, Fundação Árpád Szenes-Vieira da Silva in Portugal, and abroad in the Tate Museum, Guggenheim, MOMA and the Museum of Beaux Arts in Bilbao.
Ana de Castro Osório
Ana Osório was a writer and political activist, who published the first Portuguese feminist manifesto, “Às Mulheres Portuguesas”, reflecting on the role of women towards the republican cause. She was also the founder of children’s literature in Portugal.
She was born in 1872, and her family had a vast library that early became her inspiration and nurtured her interest in literature, and how education could shape the female role in society and women’s political consciousness. Ana founded the first female Portuguese association, Grupo Português de Estudos Feministas in 1907, and she did not stop leading important associations for the advance of feminism in Portuguese society. She also started the Crusade of Portuguese Women, headed the Associação de Propaganda Feminista together with Adelaide Cabete and Carolina Beatriz Ângelo, and joined forces again with Adelaide Cabete and Fausta Pinto de Gama to start the Liga Republicana das Mulheres Portuguesas, which contributed to the overthrown of the monarchy and proclaimed the first Portuguese Republic in 1910.
One year after the revolution, Ana Osório publishes “A Mulher no Casamento e no Divórcio”, and collaborated with the Minister of Justice Afonso Costa to write the divorce law.
In 1913, she integrated the Portuguese delegation at the Conference of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Budapest.
This excerpt Ana de Castro Osório’s words on “Às Mulheres Portuguesas” gives us a glimpse of the female role at that time, her vision for the future, and leaves room to reflect on the progress achieved and the work that is still to be done:
FEMINISMO: É ainda em Portugal uma paIavra de que os homens se riem ou se indignam, consoante o temperamento, e de que a maioria das proprias mulheres córam, coitadas, como de falta grave cometida por algumas colegas, mas de que ellas não são responsaveis, louvado Deus!…
E, no entanto, nada mais justo, nada mais rasoavel, do que este caminhar seguro, embora lento, do espirito feminino para a sua autonomia.
O homem português não está habituado a deparar no caminho da vida com as mulheres suas iguais pela ilustração, suas companheiras de trabalho, suas colegas na vida pública; por isso as desconhece, as despresa por vezes, as teme quasi sempre.
Mas siga a mulher o seu caminho, intemerata e digna, sem recear o isolamento como o ridiculo — que nem um nem outro atingem o verdadeiro mérito e a sã razão.
Tenha o coração alto e o espirito alevantado; não faça do amôr o ideal unico da existencia nem o seu unico fim. Pense no trabalho e no estudo, e deixe que as suas faculdades afectivas se desenvolvam livremente, ou se não desenvolvam mesmo, que isso deve ser indiferente á sociedade. Cuidados de amôr devem ser cuidados tão absolutamente pessoais e intimos, que não os assoalhar deveria ser a maior prova de pudôr.
— transcript of the first edition of Ás Mulheres Portuguesas in Biblioteca de Belém, Rede de Bibliotecas de Lisboa (cota: 316.346-055.2/OSO).