"The rebel woman": Τhe early years of Greek Feminism | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU



"She was no longer the calm maid, sweet in nature, with a somehow absent minded expression. She was the rebel woman, the one who would not cede to others the right to define her future and life according to social requirements and traditions and superstitions that had become laws"
Kalliroe Parren, The Emancipated Woman, 1900[1]


He For She? A contemporary campaign out of the 19th century

He For She Logo He For She Logo

Looking back at the history of the feminist movement, there are dusty pages that never made it to the spotlight –except for academic research- perhaps because they weren't the pages that decisively changed the course of things; the early stages of the feminist movement in Greece could be considered among those. However, seeing how retrogressive expressions of feminism have been gaining strength during the past years, it makes sense to study the early history of the movement more closely, in order to understand how far we have advanced into the gender equality.

One recent example of such retrogressive feminism has been the United Nations campaign "HeForShe", which encourages men to fight women's oppression. Not that men do not have a place within the contemporary feminist movement; but delivering a gender equality campaign for men with a  text[2] that does not even mention the "f-word" somehow reminds us of the early stages of the movement, when women had to ask from men to cede some limited rights to them in a moderate and careful language. The logo of the UN campaign, with the male symbol (red arrow) completing the female one (red and black cross) shifts the focus on men even further. More worryingly, the campaign encourages men to see women as their mothers and daughters, in an emotional attempt to persuade them that women deserve their respect; in other words, women are being condescendingly presented in relation to men, not as equal citizens with equal rights. Whereas during the 19th century such a direction in feminist discourse was the only possible route -one which required undeniable courage to follow- such a feminist approach in the 21st century seems anachronistic at best, or worse, a paternalistic approach towards women fighting for equal rights, often suffering double and triple oppression due to gender, economic status, social class, sexual orientation, divergence from the male-female binary or their origin. Selecting actor Emma Watson as a campaign spokesperson –a privileged white, young, beautiful, rich, cisgender woman- does not bring the He For She campaign any closer to the multiplicity of contemporary feminism, but it rather takes us back to the early stages of the movement, when it was the domain of upper class women.

Within this context, the discourse on the early feminist movement in Greece enriches our knowledge and provides us with the theoretical tools needed to assess the current reality.


Work and education, not vote! The first demands

Καλλιρρόη Παρρέν Kallirroe Parren

During the first period of the feminist movement, spanning from late 19th century until the First World War, women did not attempt to abolish the prevalent stereotypes about the different "nature" and "destination" of the two sexes (women being emotional/men rational, women's activity limited to private space/ men's activity expanding to public space), but claimed the rights they considered "appropriate to their nature." During this period, Greek feminist positions centred on the slogan "equality in difference."[3]

The main body of feminist propaganda in Greece was the Journal of the Ladies of Kallirroe Parren, published between 1887 and 1907. The journal of the well-known journalist and writer represented a moderate feminism; their strategy was to legitimize their position in the eyes of men and then claim their rights in a subtle and discreet way. For this reason they were asking for "a somehow moderate liberty, a reasonable emancipation proportionate to female nature and female upbringing, which had been distorted and incomplete at the time, thus not adequately preparing the woman for the duties that she was destined to undertake";[4] they did not claim political rights, as they considered that "only after a century [...] the women would be in the position to take part in politics".[5] In other words, they were trying to downplay the fears of men that the feminist movement put the political and social establishment at stake, by asking limited rights and highlighting that full emancipation could be postponed for a distant future.

Women's claims during the first phase of the feminist movement were focused on the right to education and work. Feminists of the time could see that "the social system is based on two unequal wheels: in an educated, free man and an uneducated, unfree woman",[6] making clear that liberty depended on education. So they put pressure to be accepted into the education system on equal terms with men, looking forward to raising the educational level of women and to improve their career prospects. Expanding their professional potential was directly linked to emancipation, as a financially independent woman could be in charge of her personal life.


She For He? Nationalistic undertones and sacred motherhood

Women workers at the Aspiotis Factory, Corfu 1881 Women workers at the Aspiotis Factory, Corfu 1881

In order to spread the feminist propaganda, women presented their demands as beneficial to society. They claimed that their emancipation would uplift men intellectually and morally, an idea shared by the poet Kostis Palamas, who was positively dispositioned towards feminism:

"Hail! You woman! Athena, Mary, Helen, Eva,
This is your moment! Make your great wings stronger and lift yourself up
And as you are light and no more a slave
Head first towards the future holy land
And prepare a new life, weaver of a new joy
And then embrace, lift and bring the man there,
and create the primordial harmony, oh you love
you, beauty, you wisdom, persuasion and chastity!".[7]

In this poem the woman is presented as a symbol of beauty and purity, which would create a better world for men. As radical as Palamas' words might have sounded in early 20th century Greece, the stereotype of the woman-virgin-mother has survived until our days, as an oppressive reminder that their women's options are defined by their “sacred” destination to become the bearers of life. The "liberated woman" was presented as the "womb of a great, creative generation"[8], that would enhance the living conditions for future generations –with "womb" being the keyword for feminists seeking better education and equal rights for the sake of motherhood.

The timing is perfect for such an approach: The Greek-Turkish war of 1897 rekindled Greek nationalism and gave new impetus to Megali Idea (the Great Idea) that was the dominant ideology in Greek politics since the foundation of the Modern Greek State in 1830. Megali Idea expressed the ambition to expand the borders of Greece by claiming territories of the Ottoman Empire where there was a significant population of Greek origin. Women would play an important role in this process, as they would raise the children, the future of the nation. Thus, motherhood became ideologically charged, convincing even the most conservative voices to give women a more active social role. Moreover, as women's main professional role was teaching, they could be sent to work in schools within the irredenta, in order to teach Greek and thus solidify the nationalist claims. Assigning such a significant role to Greek women gave them confidence that for the first time they were becoming the subjects of history and as such they were entitled to political rights.

On the other hand, identifying with nationalist ideals weakened the force of the feminist movement. As conservative views prevailed, the feminist associations of the early 20th century were transformed into philanthropic institutions, alienated from their original feminist aims. A typical example of this is Lykeion ton Ellinidon, the Lyceum Club of Greek Women, which was founded by Parren in 1911 to "serve the progress of women"; however, it focused on the preservation of Greek culture and quickly became trapped in nationalist ideals, which ensured its survival during the political turmoil of the upcoming decades. Focusing solely on the role of women as mothers and carers did not help them break free from 19th century stereotypes; moreover, the assumption of prominent feminists like Parren that women were not mature enough to have equal political rights essentially constituted consent to their social marginalisation.


Obstacles on the way to the polls: Sabotage, excommunication, ridicule

Ελληνίδες Φεμινίστριες, 1928 Greek Feminists, 1928

Although the demands of the first phase of the feminist movement had faded until the beginning of World War I, giving way to nationalist ideals, the road to emancipation was largely open after the war, as higher education and labour had ceased to be a predominantly male privilege. This was mostly due to the fact that women were needed as cheap labour in the industry (paid much less than their male colleagues), also undertaking an active role during the war, as workers and nurses. Thus, when the feminist movement was revived with even greater intensity during the interwar period, demanding equal opportunities in education and work was not their sole demand; the voices claiming universal political rights began to get louder.

Women's organizations of the Interwar period were on the same page regarding those claims, but disagreed as to how they would reach them. Thus, the gap between women that embraced conservative or radical positions quickly turned into a definitive rupture. The conservative National Council of Greek Women believed that the right to vote should be given only to some women, who met certain social and educational criteria. In contrast, the Association for Women's Rights claimed suffrage for all women. Apart from those groups, there were also the women who identified with socialist ideas and fought for their propagation; for this group, the socialist reformation of society came first and female equality would be reached within this future reality.[9]

Despite the controversies, the feminists of the interwar period practiced a hands on approach, through remarkable writing activity, women's rights conferences that were open to a wider public and demonstrations. In 1934, the right to vote was ceded to a limited number of women in the municipal elections: only to the women that were over 30 years of age and could read and write -a requirement that only 3 out of 10 Greek women over 30 could meet. In addition, a number of obstacles prevented most of them from exercising their right: local authorities who would sabotage women's registration in the electoral lists, priests threatening them with excommunication, husbands forbidding them to get out of their home and a lack of interest from some of them. Women who were interested in voting were even mocked as "ugly women or women who don't want to have children" by Marika Kotopouli, one of the leading theatrical actors of the time who identified with the royalist camp (unamusingly, feminism is still declared as a pastime for women who are either ugly or deny their "life purpose" to become mothers in anti-feminist pages within social media). In the end, only a few hundreds went to the polls, to the satisfaction of anti-feminists and the fascists that were on the rise at the time. The coup of the 4th of August in 1936 was the final blow to the interwar struggle for women's vote. In the end, the catalyst that brought the change during the post-war period was not the Greek feminist movement, but the ratification of a United Nations decision, which obliged Greece to give full political rights to women. By Law 2159 of 1952 women were granted suffrage, but the implementation of the law was suspended until the next elections (1956).


Collective and personal struggles

Avra Theodoropoulou speaking in a Women Rights Conference, 1946 Avra Theodoropoulou, head of the Association for Women's Rights, speaking in a Women Rights Conference, 1946

The poor results of the early feminist struggles in Greece can be partially attributed to the fact that feminism failed to become a mass movement. From its appearance until mid-20th century it remained a middle and upper social class movement, with demands that expressed the interests of these classes. Women coming from the lower classes, who would greatly benefit from social equality, exhausted all their strength in the struggle for survival and had neither the necessary education for political manoeuvres nor the opportunity to create coalitions that would lobby for their rights.

Even women of higher social status, who had such opportunities, could not easily make their voices heard. It is significant to highlight that one of the main demands of feminists, the access to University education, was finally made possible through individual pressure and not through collective effort -for example, the painter Sophia Laskaridou had to personally convince King George, to give her permission to study at the School of Fine Arts.[10] This shows that early feminism in Greece never acquired the necessary power to impose its demands and the women who needed to find some way through an impasse had to carve their own path.



[1] K. Parren, The Emancipated Woman [I Chirafetimeni], Athens, 1900.

[2] See UN News Centre Website: “On the eve of International Women’s Day, the United Nations has launched the “He for She” campaign urging men to stand up for the rights of their mothers, sisters and daughters” http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=47301#.Vypn3EeaGAU

[3] E. Avdela, “Women, a social issue” [Ε. Αβδελά, «Οι γυναίκες, κοινωνικό ζήτημα», Χατζηιωσήφ Χ. (επιμέλεια), Ιστορία της Ελλάδας του 20ού αιώνα, Ο μεσοπόλεμος (τ.Β1), Αθήνα 2002 σ.338].

[4] K. Parren, “Why I don’t ask for vote” [Καλλιρρόη Παρρέν, «Διατί δεν ζητώ ψήφον», Εφημερίς των Κυριών, αρ.988, 1-6-1910, σ.1.]

[5] Op.cit.

[6] A. Gaitanou-Gianniou, “Is woman free?” [Α. Γαϊτάνου-Γιαννιού, «Είνε ελεύθερη η γυναίκα;», Ε. Σβορώνου., Μικρασιατικόν Ημερολόγιον του Έτους 1917, Σάμος 1917, σ.154.]

[7] K. Palamas, “Woman” [Κωστής Παλαμάς, «Η γυναίκα», Εφημερίς των Κυριών, αρ.794, 23-5-1904, σ.3.]

[8] A. Gaitanou-Gianniou, op.cit, p.160.

[9] E. Avdela; A. Psarra, Feminism in Interwar Greece, [Έφη Αβδελά, Αγγέλικα Ψαρά, Ο φεμινισμός στην Ελλάδα του Μεσοπολέμου, Μια ανθολογία, Αθήνα 1985, σσ.45-46.]

[10] Christina Grammatikopoulou, “Women, Art and Education in early 20th century Greece”, Interartive, August 2008, https://interartive.org/2009/08/women-art-education/