Marie Popelin, a feminist icon
There are few legal cases that have shaken up Belgium as much as ‘the Popelin case’. Get to know the iron feminist Marie Popelin!
Marie Popelin was born in Schaerbeek in 1846 and initially studied to be a teacher. On completing her studies, she taught at Isabelle Gatti de Gamond's Cours d’instruction, the first secondary school for girls in Belgium. Her collaboration with Isabelle Gatti later turned out to have had a great influence on her.
At the age of 37, Popelin decided to change career and went to study law. This was quite the first, as no woman had ever been admitted to study law in Belgium before. She nevertheless managed to graduate summa cum laude from the Free University of Brussels (ULB) in 1888.
The law did not technically forbid women from practising as a lawyer, but in practice things were different. When Popelin applied to the bar in Brussels, her request was rejected. The judge argued that the nature and social role of women made it impossible for Popelin to practise her profession. This legal case became known as the ‘the Popelin case’ and had an enormous impact on the feminist movement in Belgium.
Outraged at this injustice, Marie Popelin began a new chapter. From now on, she would dedicate herself to equal rights between men and women. Supported by other noted feminists, such as Louis Frank and Isala Van Diest, she founded the Ligue du droit des femmes (League for Women's Rights). In the years that followed, Popelin travelled around the world to form partnerships with other feminist organisations, which culminated in the Conseil National des Femmes belges (National Council of Belgian Women), an organisation that brought together all the various feminist movements in Belgium. Marie Popelin died in 1913. Women were not admitted to the legal profession in Belgium until 1922.
Photo: Public Domain