9 Trailblazing Portuguese Women You Should Know

By Google Arts & Culture

History-makers and barrier breakers

Women in Portugal have long been defying the odds. Up until 1974 women's rights were restricted under the conservative Estado Novo regime: they weren't allowed to vote and they were seen as legally subservient to men. But that didn't stop women taking to the skies, succeeding academically, fighting for their rights, and paving the way for future generations.

Take a look at some of the queens, artists, scientists, and historical figures who made Portugal what it is today.

Maria Helena Vieira da Silva

Nothing says your talents are “out of this world” quite like having part of the moon named after you. This sums up Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, one of the most influential women painters in Portugal’s history, for whom NASA christened one of the moon’s craters in 2013 in recognition of her contribution to the artistic field. Influenced by post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, her abstractionist style often exhibited characteristics of cubism and incorporated the technique of impasto, where paint is laid on an area of the canvas in very thick layers. Among her many influences, she was inspired by the streets of her hometown of Lisbon, and the traditional tiles of Portugal. She received a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor from the French Government, France's National Arts Prize in 1966, and the painting prize at the Sao Paulo Bienal in Brazil in 1961 – still not as cool as part of the moon though.

Lourdes Sa Teixeira

It’s unclear what takes more bravery, flying a plane or rebelling against your parents – but Lourdes Sa Teixeira (1907-1984) did both. In the early 20th century, there were a lot of constraints on what was acceptable for women to do; becoming a pilot was seen as a male environment and therefore not suitable for a girl like Lourdes. However, she defied the odds, and the resistance from her family, who thought it an unsuitable career choice for a young girl from the upper-middle class bourgeoisie. Her interest, determination, and struggle against the odds meant inspired her instructor to dedicate all his resources to training her, and she went on to become the first female Portuguese aviator at the age of 21. Her courage resulted in a significant step forward in the promotion of equality between men and women.

Adelaide Cabete

Born to humble beginnings before qualifying as a doctor, Adelaide Cabete became one of the most important figures of Portuguese history for her work campaigning for women’s rights. The story goes that with unwavering ambition she taught herself to read and write and threw herself tirelessly into studying, even combining revision and chores by propping her anatomy textbook against the bucket while she washed her floors (while most of us would probably try to avoid doing either). Despite women being viewed as inferior compared to their male counterparts, Cabete became a qualified obstetrician – one of the few women to do so at the time – and a lecturer, raising awareness of the prevalence of high infant mortality rates in Portugal. She became one of the founders and the president of the National Council of Portuguese Women and fought to improve the lives of pregnant women, including for their right to have a month’s paid rest before childbirth, among many other things.

Maria II of Portugal

When most of us were 7 years old, our biggest problem was probably whether or not we had a cool enough lunchbox for the playground. For Dona Maria II, this was the least of her worries. When she was that age her father, the king Pedro IV, couldn’t decide which one of her rebellious brothers should be his legitimate heir, so he made her the Queen regnant of Portugal and the Algarve in 1826. In 1828 her uncle, who was also her fiance, led an uprising and seized power. Finally, after a messy civil war, Maria eventually took to the throne again from 1834 to 1853, this time left in peace to show what a good ruler she could be. She was known as “the Educator” for her work pursuing policies that aimed to improve the levels of education throughout Portugal and as “the Good Mother” for being a kind leader. Her reign also brought in a public health act intended to fight the spread of cholera throughout the country.

Portrait of Maria II of Portugal (1846) by Ferdinand KrumholzNational Palace of Ajuda

Amália Rodrigues

Known as the “Queen of Fado” and commonly hailed as the “voice of Portugal”, Amália Rodrigues was one of Portugal’s leading 20th-century stars. An actress and fadista, Rodrigues was revered for her mastery of fado, a Lisbon-based music genre that is commonly categorized as soulful but melancholy, often with lyrics about loss, the sea, or poverty. Rodrigues was a key figure in the revival of the traditional music genre and has sold over 30 million records across the world, making her the best-selling Portugese artist in history. Over a career of 50 years, she was the first Portugese artist to appear on American television, she performed at the prestigious Olympia in Paris for 10 seasons between 1956 and 1992, and received more than 40 decorations and honors from countries such as Portugal, Spain, France, Israel and Japan. Just imagine what she could have achieved if she’d had YouTube!

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Aurelia de Souza

Aurelia de Souza was born in 1866, at a time when Portuguese women were expected to be good wives and mothers, take care of all the cooking and cleaning in the household, and generally follow society’s rules. But instead of getting involved with domestic life, de Souza decided to paint it instead. She worked hard to make a name for herself as an artist; her subjects varied between daily scenes depicting the family life of women and children, landscapes (often inspired by her hometown of Porto), and herself, with her most famous artwork being her self-portrait painted in 1900. Throughout her life she pursued a career in the arts, exhibiting and selling her work in Portugal and Paris. Her talent was so great that was also invited to preside over the Porto Society of Fine Arts, which she declined, ultimately quitting to protest against the rise of membership fees and the lack of an exhibition room.

Self portrait Aurélia de Souza (1900) by Aurélia de SouzaNational Museum Soares dos Reis

Caroline Beatriz Angelo

Caroline Beatriz Angelo wasn’t going to let something like the law get in the way of her and democracy: in early 20th century Portugal women weren't allowed to vote, but Angelo found a way to vote anyway. In 1911 the law stated that the head-of-the-household was permitted to vote as long as they were over 21 and literate, guidelines meant to be inclusive of men, the traditional heads of the family. However as Angelo – a doctor, feminist, and suffragist – was a widow, and the mother to a daughter, she was technically head of the household so she went ahead and voted in the election of the Constituent National Assembly. Unfortunately her rebellious act meant that 2 years later a law was passed to specifically state that this only referred to men, but her actions helped highlight the gender inequality of the voting systems and kickstart future campaigns for suffrage.

Antónia Pusich

The author Antónia Pusich made an important impact on literature in Portugal, not just with her writing, but by the daring act of proudly using her own name on her work instead of a pseudonym to disguise the fact she was a woman, like other female writers did at the time. Born on the Island of São Nicolau, which used to be part of Portguese Cape Verde, Pusich became a poet, wrote for several periodicals, and campaigned for freedom of expression and education of women and the poor. She was also the first working mother to found her own journal, creating A assemblea literária, A Beneficência and A Cruzada. Pusich argued that women should be encouraged to learn reading and writing so that they could participate in the social and political life of the country, instead of merely being taught to paint, sew, and make music.

Branca Edmée Marques

Branca Edmée Marques spent her career working hard to make her name in a male-dominated industry. She was officially recognised as the first female Portuguese chemist at the age of 65, which was a bittersweet achievement as she’d already been qualified for the position for the previous 12 years. Born in 1899, she finished a degree in Physical and Chemical Sciences in 1926 and became a Fellow of the National Board of Education. After moving to Paris, she did research in nuclear physics, and obtained a doctorate under the guidance of Marie Curie, who liked her work so much that she gave her one of her most interesting research projects (on barium) to work on. Back in Portugal she founded and directed the Radiochemistry Laboratory, precursor to the Center for Studies of Radiochemistry of the Nuclear Energy Studies Commission. Throughout her career she lectured and published regularly and undertook research into peaceful applications of nuclear technology.

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