The women who changed the face of Belgium


The fact that our country is what it is today is thanks in part to its heroines. Nine of these women made a contribution by becoming real pioneers in their own fields. This list is far from exhaustive and does not contain all the women worthy of inclusion.

Having studied medicine in Switzerland and practised for a while in England, Isala Van Diest became the first female Belgian doctor in England in 1879 and in Belgium in 1884. In the 19th century, Marie-Anne Libert, the first Belgian botanist and mycologist, identified the cause of 'mildew' - diseases affecting many plant species - as well as the fungus that causes potato disease.

The education system saw the first secondary school for girls founded by Isabelle Gatti de Gamont in Brussels in 1864. No fewer than 18 liberally-inspired schools were founded under her name. In the legal sphere, Marie Popelin made a real name for herself as our country's first lawyer (1888), despite constantly being turned down by the Belgian bar to practise law.

In politics, Margerite de Riemacker-Legot was the first woman to rise through the ranks in our country, from attachée in the cabinet of Minister Henri Pauwels to member of the Belgian Chamber of Representatives; she was also a delegate to the United Nations, member of the European Parliament, Minister for Family and Housing and, lastly, the first Belgian Minister of State in 1965. 

In 1910, former cycling champion Hélène Dutrieu became the first Belgian pilot when she obtained her pilot's licence from the Belgian Aeroclub. Germaine Van Parijs, the first Belgian photojournalist, worked for the newspaper Le Soir, among others. She was elected best photographer in Belgium after the First World War and founded her own agency, Van Parijs Media in 1956.

In Defence, it was not until 1970 that jobs in the Belgian Army finally opened up to women, and in 1979 Danielle Levillez launched her military career as a pharmacist. She later became the first female Major General in the Belgian Army. Rosa Mercx was the first Belgian woman to forge a career in the very traditional and male-oriented beer industry. She went on to manage the Liefmans brewery and is still a key icon respected throughout the beer industry.

These women, and many others, played an active role in improving the status of women, as evidenced, for example, by the 60% of women in the first year of medical studies, or the - still very low - 7 to 8% of women in the Army. There is also a link between some of these women, with Van Diest and Popelin founding the Belgian League of Women's Rights together and appearing side by side on thousands of two-euro coins. Popelin also taught in one of Gatti de Gamont's schools.