The idea of writing about the Remarkable Romanian Women came to me after reading Rachel Ignotofsky’s book: “Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World”. I discovered how hard it was for women to succeed in science and other domains despite their talent and competence, only because they were…well, women.
“Nothing causes more headaches than a woman in pants”. This is how the book starts. I knew that it was always difficult for women to have access to education and to be seen more than just wives and good mothers. But I never realized that change for women actually occurred so late. Marie Curie, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Barbara McClintock, Hypathia, Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Blackwell, Mary Agnes Chase and many, so many others, had to fight with prejudice, they had to work to finance their own education and research, publish under pen names and in the end, their remarkable results were appreciated or taken into consideration moreover under public pressure.
No matter how fascinating the book seemed to me, I was sad to notice that no Romanian names were mentioned. This leads us to the motivation for this article dedicated to Remarkable Romanian women. Brave, courageous, perseverant, talented, they contributed to the enrichment of culture, science, and life. Though not all of them were scientists, they broke prejudices, they stubbornly did not comply with the discriminatory rules of society and believed in their strength.
The list I made became longer and longer, so I decided to break the article into two parts and dedicate the proper space and time for these Remarkable Romanian women and their inspirational stories.
1. Sarmiza Bilcescu (1867 – 1935)
Europe’s first female lawyer and world’s first woman with a doctorate in Law
In the late 19th century, Sarmiza Bilcescu managed to break prejudice and became Europe’s first female lawyer and the world’s first female Doctor in Law. This happened during a time when the law was considered a career reserved exclusively to men.
She dedicated her life to helping disadvantaged social groups but she also campaigned intensely for women’s right to education, civil, social, or political rights equal to those of men.
Sarmiza Bilcescu was born in Bucharest in a family with great connections among noblemen.
She studied at home with a private teacher until she turned 7, then she continued her education at Saint Sava College in Bucharest. After obtaining her high-school diploma in 1884, she decided to study Literature at the Sorbonne University from Paris. Her family supported her unconditionally. However, she changed her plans and signed up to study at the Sorbonne School of Law, applying as a foreigner for a scholarship.
According to Radio Romania Cultural, being the first girl to attend law courses was unprecedented and Sarmiza attracted the admiration of her fellow male colleagues. However, the attitude of her professors was different. In fact, during one of the first courses, Sarmiza was simply kicked out by Professor Paul Sonday, who shouted: “No women!… Science is studied by men only!”.
After a few months, even the doorman denied her access to the college building. Despite all these obstacles, the Romanian woman did not give up being determined to break this taboo, and she constantly stated that a woman’s right to education could not be restricted. She declared: “In a country where even on the prison doors is written: “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, you cannot prevent a woman from being educated, just because she is a woman! “.
Strongly supported by her mother, who stood by her throughout her five years of college, she passed all her exams with excellent grades, obtaining, in 1887, a bachelor’s degree in law.
Three years later, in 1890, she entered history, becoming the world’s first woman Doctor of Laws from the Sorbonne University with her thesis “The legal condition of mother in Romanian and French law”, a document that promoted the idea of equality between women and men in marriage and in the rights of women over their children.
At 23 years old, she returned to Romania and applied to enter the bar. Considering her academic success, she was accepted and she became the first European female lawyer. However, she never practiced because she was shunned by clients still influenced by the patriarchal mentality.
She dedicated her life to the emancipation of women and disadvantaged social groups, charity and she founded many organizations to support the Romanian culture, the students and also the peasants.
2. Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu (1887 – 1973)
One of the world’s first female engineers
Elisa Leonida was born in Romania in an intellectual family with 11 children. All of them received the proper education and achieved professional performances in different fields.
Elisa went to school in her hometown and then in Bucharest. After graduating high school, she signed up to study at Polytechnic University in Bucharest but her application was rejected because she was a woman. She considered other technical universities in Romania, but she received the same answer everywhere.
In 1909, she traveled to Germany and she applied to the Royal Technical Academy from Berlin.
In Germany, too, there were prejudices about the role of women in society. The dean was hardly convinced to accept the application of Elisa, invoking as an argument the essential calling of women in life, namely the three K’s: Kirche, Kinder, Kuche, that is: Church, Children, Kitchen.
She also had to face discrimination and a hostile attitude of her professors. She finished her studies in 1912 when she got her engineering diploma in chemistry. She refused a job offered by BASF in Germany and decided to return to Romania. With difficulty, she got a position as an engineer at the Laboratory of the Geological Institute from Bucharest. During WWI, she went to the battlefront and participated in the humanitarian activities of the Red Cross. She even successfully administrated some war hospitals.
When the war ended, she resumed her work at the Geological Institute where she ran many study laboratories and elaborated original methods of chemical analysis and processes for the preparation of ores, analysis for drinking water, oil, gas, coal.
She also studied mineral waters in Romania and the composition of water for industrial consumption. Another study looked at the use of bentonite in wine filtration – bentonite is still used to clarify wine today.
Her studies were very important in the exploration and efficient use of the underground resources of Romania.
Besides her research works, Elisa Leonida carried out an important teaching activity, giving lectures and courses, and inspiring young chemists and workers from all over the country.
Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu was the first female member of the General Association of Romanian Engineers (AGIR) as well as a member of the International Association of University Women.
An award for women working in science and technology was established in her name, the Elisa Leonida-Zamfirescu Award.
3. Sofia Ionescu-Ogrezeanu (1920 – 2008)
One of the first female neurosurgeons in the world
Sofia Ionescu-Ogrezeanu was born in a small town in Northern Romania but studied in Bucharest. After graduation, she decided that she wanted to be a doctor so she applied in 1939 to the Medical School in Bucharest.
The year 1944 brought a decisive moment in Sofia Ionescu’s career who was working as a resident at a hospital in Bucharest. It happened that, as a result of the frequent bombing of Bucharest during the war, too many wounded people were brought at the same time and there were too few doctors who could save their lives.
In this context, an injured child, for whom surgery was of utmost urgency, was brought in at a time when no doctor was available. To everyone’s surprise, the young student offered to operate on him, an intervention that proved to be a lifesaver. Since then, she specialized in neurosurgery.
In the years that followed, she performed thousands of surgeries on the brain and spine, becoming at the same time the first female neurosurgeon in Romania and the first in South-Eastern Europe. It is also worth mentioning that at that point, neurosurgery was still at the beginning and not even men dared to perform brain surgeries.
Sofia Ionescu – Ogrezeanu dedicated her life to rescuing patients and performing scientific research in the field of neurosurgery.
A 2008 profile in Neurosurgery credits Diane Beck as the world’s first female neurosurgeon. But the claim has also been made for the Romanian Sofia Ionescu, although the author notes that Ionescu only finished medical school in 1945 when Beck was already working as a consultant in neurosurgery.
As a curiosity, in Sofia Ionescu’s 47 years of activity, she had only a few days off, and those caused by two pregnancies. Moreover, she operated the day before her first child was born.
Throughout her life, she received several distinctions from the most important medical organizations, including the “Red Cross” and the “World Health Organization”.
4. Queen Marie of Romania (1875 – 1938)
Indeed, Queen Marie of Romania was not Romanian by birth but she acted and lived like a real one.
Descended from both British and Russian royal families, she became in 1914 Queen of Romania.
Passionate and beautiful woman, talented diplomat, dedicated mother, a kind, sensitive, and gifted artist, Marie was ahead of her time and much loved by her subjects.
She was named the last romantic and the first modern woman in Europe.
And now, we talk about her as one of the Remarkable Romanian Women.
We have written a whole article about her life and achievements on our travel blog here: “Queen Marie of Romania. The story of a royal heart”.
5. Elisabeta Rizea (1912 – 2003)
The story of Elisabeta Rizea from Nucsoara village became known to the public only recently. Political prisoner and anti-communist activist, she was the embodiment of the courage not to kneel in face of oppression.
Daughter of a former member of the Peasant Party killed by the communists, Elisabeta, together with her husband, dedicated her life to supporting, no matter the sacrifices, the so-called anti-communist resistance.
They provided them food, clothes, and information to survive in the mountains and to stay hidden from the communist authorities.
Unfortunately, her husband was imprisoned and convicted to 15 years of forced labor.
Elisabeta Rizea was also arrested, investigated, and convicted to 6 years in prison. After she was released, though the risks were even higher, Elisabeta kept on helping the members of the anti-communist resistance. She was arrested for the second time and convicted to 25 years of forced labor and confiscation of property. After another 6 years, she was set free by pardon decree.
After the fall of the Communist Regime, Elisabeta Rizea spoke publicly at the Communist Memorial from Sighet and in different interviews about the resistance from Nucsoara and the repression imposed by the communist regime through security, militia and the new hierarchy in the village. Her speech was simple and full of verve and it made us realize that we were in the presence of the last descendant coming from a world which today it exists only in novels.
Elisabeta suffered a lot during the communist investigations and she described the brutal methods used by the militia to make her confess valuable information about the anti-communist resistance group.
In an interview, she described how during the investigation in prison, she was put on the table and her hair was caught by a hook on the ceiling. The table was pulled from under her feet, her hair remained on the hook and she fell to the ground. That’s how her hair was torn from her head.
She was offered freedom, money. It did not work. She remained devoted to her cause.
Women like Elisabeta Rizea were many, of course, most of all during those awful years. But her testimony will always remain a proof of individual dignity, all the more admired as anyone who imagined himself in her place would have a dilemma: What would I have done?
We end here the first part of Remarkable Romanian women and we promise to get back with more examples and interesting stories in a future article.