A República; in reality Ilda Pulga
A República; in reality Ilda Pulga

Portuguese women who made history

International Women’s Day on March 8 celebrated the social, cultural and political achievements of women around the world. 

As we reside in Portugal, it seems appropriate to remember some of the many remarkable women who have contributed to the history of this country.

Before 1900, women depended on aristocratic or royal connections, or even on sexual scandal, to achieve fame, but my survey of female achievers concentrates on brave women from the 20th century.

The Estado Novo and women

“We assert that the paid employment of married women, and even that of single women who are part of their family, even though they have no family responsibility, should not be encouraged. There was never a housewife who did not have much to do in the house.”

These words are attributed to the Dictator Oliveira Salazar in 1933, and they bear comparison with the views of Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler who declared that women should concentrate on the three Ks: Kinder, Kirche, Küche, or children, church and kitchen.

The histories described below indicate the great difficulties that many brave Portuguese women experienced under Salazar’s regime.

Regina Quintanilha
Regina Quintanilha

The first woman lawyer

The first woman lawyer in Portugal made her inaugural appearance in court on November 14, 1913 in a room filled with journalists and curious spectators, and her first day in court was reported in most Portuguese newspapers.

The occasion was more remarkable because it took place several years before equivalent instances elsewhere. As the profession of courtroom advocate opened to women later in England (1919) in Spain (1920) and in Germany (1922), Regina in Portugal was a European pioneer.

Regina da Glória Pinto Magalhães Quintanilha de Sousa Vasconcelos (1893–1967) was born in Bragança to parents who valued culture and intellectual stimulation. She was able to attend the Liceu Rodrigues Ferreira but not to participate in classes, since it was a boys’ school.

As a 17-year-old woman in 1910, she required a special authorisation by the university council in order to matriculate in the Law School at Coimbra. When she crossed the university threshold for the first time, she was greeted by the whole of the University establishment including the Rector and the professors, many academics throwing their gowns on the floor before her.

At Coimbra, Regina simultaneously studied literature, chemistry and physics.

Determined to practice as a lawyer, she refused offers of other types of employment, and became the first Portuguese female land registrar and the second Portuguese female notary.

She joined the National Council of Portuguese Women (CNMP) in 1919, and criticised the conservative laws and mindset which restricted the professions open to women.

While Regina did not advocate feminism, she believed that women should be allowed to take advantage of their innate talents. She said in 1943: “I entered university as the most natural thing in my life. No-one opposed me. Everyone received me as a friend. I met only roses.”

She went on to say that an educated and cultured mother could help her children to develop well, and that women should have equal intellectual standing with men.

Today, the meeting room Regina Quintanilha of the Conselho Geral da Ordem dos Advogados is named in her honour, and nowadays about 60% of the lawyers registered in this Order are women.

Champion of women’s rights

Maria Isabel Hahnemann Saavedra, born in 1902, became an atheist at the age of 14 and, six years later, married Carlos Lopes de Aboim Inglês, her fellow student from the Liceu Pedro Nunes.

After the birth of their fifth child, Carlos convinced her to complete her education at Lisbon University, where she took her degree in 1938.

With the support of her husband, she opened a Women’s College in the working-class district of Alcântara in Lisbon.

As both Head and teacher, Maria Isabel initiated a non-religious and progressive syllabus, and asserted the importance of primary education for children, and she also lectured in Psychology and Philosophy at Lisbon University.

After being widowed at age 40, she experienced financial difficulty in raising her family. Maria Isabel joined the Movimento da Unidade Democrática (MUD – a movement to promote democracy in Portugal) in 1945, and became the first woman on its central committee.

She supported the presidential campaign of Norton de Matos in 1949, and the PIDE (secret police) retaliated by closing her college, and also banned her from teaching anywhere in Portugal.

To support herself and her family, she opened a sewing business, gave private lessons and made translations. She was offered a teaching position in Brazil, but the Portuguese government then refused to issue her passport.

Salazar agreed this decision, saying: “She’s a woman, let her sew socks!” Detained twice more by PIDE, she was even assaulted by PIDE agents as she visited her communist son in Caxias prison.

Banned also from standing as an Opposition candidate for the National Assembly, Maria Inglês died in 1961, a victim of the Salazar dictatorship but a champion of women’s rights to the end.

Maria Isabel Aboim Inglês
Maria Isabel Aboim Inglês

The first woman doctor

Cesina Bermudes (1908–2001), growing up in an intellectual environment, received a liberal education based on the equality of the sexes.

Her playwright father was a champion athlete and President of Sport Lisboa e Benfica. Cesina became a swimming champion and a winner of the female section of the Volta a Lisboa cycle race. She was the only girl at her school and succeeded in qualifying in medicine at age 24 specialising in obstetrics. She took her doctoral qualification in 1947 with a mark of 95%.

A supporter of the presidential campaign of Norton de Matos, Cesina was arrested by the PIDE, who suspected her of helping in the secret printing of political pamphlets.

In Caxias prison, she exasperated the PIDE agents by continuously talking at them, an aptitude she had developed during night shifts in the emergency department of hospitals.

It appears that the agents became tired of hearing her. She later said that the three months she spent behind bars were the longest holiday of her life.

She later joined the PCP (Partido Comunista de Portugal), not because of its politics, but because it was the only organisation continuously to oppose Salazar.

She had reached the glass ceiling. For purely political reasons, she was dismissed from the Faculty of Medicine and forbidden to practise in public hospitals, and she turned to teaching paediatrics in schools. But she had a new aim – to reduce the pain and anxiety associated with childbirth, and to dissociate motherhood from the sin of sexuality.

Learning new methods in France in 1954 enabled her to prepare future mothers for a less painful birth process, which she saw as the triumph of knowledge and education over ignorance.

Compensating for the failure of the Estado Novo to provide healthcare for expectant mothers, she dedicated herself to this work, especially for those women who were persecuted by the political police.

In her later life, she continued to serve mothers in childbirth, often going blindfolded to their houses, even not knowing their names, in order not to compromise them. She assisted at her final birth when she was 89.

On a personal level, her own marriage was remarkable, since it lasted only three hours. As she was leaving for her honeymoon, she was accosted by a woman who asserted that she was the wife and mother of the children of the man Cesina had just married.

Alda Nogueira
Alda Nogueira

A determined opponent of the Estado Novo

Maria Alda Barbosa Nogueira (1923–1998) served a 10-year term in Caxias prison, the longest continuous sentence of any Portuguese woman detained for political reasons.

Born in Alcântara, Alda served as President of the Student Association for a number of years while at school.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), she joined the International Red Aid and collected warm clothing to be sent to republican fighters opposed to General Franco.

Joining the PCP in 1942, she graduated in Physical-Chemical Sciences at Lisbon University in 1946, after which she spent three years teaching at a school in Olhão, and at night classes for women.

In 1945, she joined the National Council of Portuguese Women (CNMP) and organised various branches in Faro, Olhão, Silves and Monchique, where she taught many illiterate female factory workers to read and write.

In 1947, the National Council staged in Lisbon an exhibition of ‘Books Written By Women’, where Alda spoke on “A woman and science”, after which the government closed down the CNMP altogether.

Alda worked on the presidential campaign of Norton de Matos in 1949, and joined MUD, the democratic movement. After many senior communists had been detained by the PIDE, the PCP asked her secretly to edit Avante!, the Party’s newspaper, although by doing so, she was unable to take up a scholarship with Irène Joliot-Curie in Paris. Elected to the central committee of the PCP in 1957, she helped organise strikes and protests in Lisbon.

Arrested by the PIDE in 1959, she was supported at the special secret police Tribunal by many friends, but was sentenced to the longest continuous time in gaol of any woman during the Estado Novo. Incarcerating her for eight years, the government then applied another “security measure” under which she could be imprisoned for another three years.

Altogether, she served 10 years in prison, from age 35. During this time, she was permitted monthly visits by her son (born in December 1953); these visits lasted for 20 minutes each – in total only four hours per year. Her son later said that Alda was imprisoned when he was a five-year-old infant and was released when he was 15.

After her release in December 1968, although she was tracked by PIDE agents, she managed to slip over the border a year later. She spent her five-year exile in the USSR, Romania and Belgium, from where she returned immediately after the Carnation Revolution.  Alda rejoined the Central Committee of the PCP, and was elected on the Party list to the Assembly of the Republic, where she served for 10 years, also becoming an active member of the Movimento Democrático das Mulheres.

A stone bust of Alda Nogueira was placed in the cloister of the Assembly of the Republic, where she is one of the two women honoured in this way by the National Assembly.

 The Symbolic Woman – A República

In the same way that France has honoured the bust of Marianne, the symbol of the Revolution since 1792, Portugal honours its own Republican symbol.

After the Republican Party won a majority in the Lisbon Câmara (City Hall) in 1908, the municipality commissioned the sculptor Simões Almeida to execute a bust similar to Marianne. He selected as his model Ilda Pulga, a humble seamstress.

Born in Arraiolos, she and her family had arrived in Lisbon in 1908, when she was just 16 years old. She attended his workshop every afternoon, accompanied by her mother as chaperon. When the Republic was proclaimed, the national government opened a competition for an official bust of the Republic.

After a rival bust was disqualified because it showed too much naked breast, Simões’s version won and, in 1916, A República was installed in the chamber of the National Assembly at São Bento.  During the dictatorship, copies of the bust were banished from public offices but were triumphantly restored in 1974.

Ilda Pulga herself died at age 101, still displaying flashes of the vivacity and beauty which had led Simões Almeida to select her as his model.

By Peter Booker
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Peter Booker co-founded with his wife Lynne the Algarve History Association.