Uncover 15 Exceptional Romanian Women Who Made History

Diana Condrea
Diana Condrea
Diana is a tourism consultant, tour guide, travel writer and amateur photographer. You can find Diana on LinkedIn

Discover the stories of brave Romanian women from the 20th century. They inspired generations through their work, actions, and audacity.

In the end, history is made by people, women and men alike, and it’s more than wars, treaties, and politics. It’s about people who through courage and vision changed lives for decades or centuries that followed.

These Romanian women make us proud and humble.

HUMANITARIAN WORK

The Romanian women’s efforts in the two World Wars were tremendous, yet less known today. Women managed most war hospitals and almost all nurses were volunteer women of all ages and social ranks.

Princess Ileana (1909-1991)

The princess was the youngest daughter of Queen Maria. She led an extraordinary effort to help others during WW2 until the first days of 1948 when the communists forced her into exile.

The royal witnessed herself the violent realities of WW2, first in Austria and then in Romania. She moved back home in 1944 with her husband and six children in her house, Bran Castle. Soon after, the princess became a Red Cross nurse volunteer in Brasov and started to build a war hospital in Bran.

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Princess Ileana

Photo source: www.castelulbran.ro

Ileana bravely faced the Russian occupation, and she used her influence and resources to help anti-communist dissidents until she had to leave the country.

A few years after, in 1952, she published the heart-breaking memoirs of her last years in Romania I live Again. It’s an amazing book about tragedy and hope during and immediately after WW2.

OPPONENTS OF COMMUNISM

Gender had no importance for the communist regime’s quest for real and imaginary opponents that had to be imprisoned or silenced for good.

Elisabeta Rizea (1912-2003)

She was one of the few anti-communist fighters sentenced to hard years of prison that got to live the end of the regime. Elisabeta Rizea was one of the heroic women of Nucsoara, a small group who supplied food, clothes, and even weapons to the dissidents from the Arnautoiu Group.

A simple peasant, she endured the tortures of the communist interrogatories, and some scared her for life. Despite this, she never betrayed the opponents of the communist regime in 12 years of prison.

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Elisabeta Rizea

Photo source: www.marturisitorii.ro and https://ro.wikipedia.org

Find out more about the heroic women from Nucsoara on www.eroinenucsoara.ro

Monica Lovinescu (1923-2008)

The Romanian-born journalist was the voice of Romanian women against the communist regime. Monica Lovinescu lived in France after leaving Romania, in 1947, with one of the last trains to the free world.

The journalist never returned. She published many articles about the harsh realities of communism in Romania despite the risks. Best-known for her radio journalism work, Monica Lovinescu was one of the main Romanian voices of Radio Free Europe. This was the illegal source of real information for people living behind the Iron Curtain.

Monica-Lovinescu

Monica Lovinescu

Photos via www.adevarul.ro

The popularity of her radio shows made her an enemy of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who ordered her assassination. She survived the attack from 1977 and continued her radio show until 1992.

SCIENCES

Science was not a suitable career for women in the early 20th century. However, some women were relentless in following their dream.

Florica Bagdasar (1901-1978)

She was the first woman to become a minister in Romania (1946 to 1948). This happened in one of the most troubled periods in the country’s history, at the end of WW2.

As a Health Minister, Florica Bagdasar faced epidemic diseases and mass shortages of food and basic goods. The neuropsychiatrist with medical studies at Harvard managed the impossible. She obtained international donations and supplies from Sweden and the United States of America. All while the new communist government was completely isolating the country from the Western world.

Florica-Bagdasar

Florica BagdasarPhoto source: www.adevarul.ro

Her experience and dedication were not enough to save her from the absurd defaming campaigns of the Communist Party. In 1953, she was accused of cosmopolitism in the official party newspaper. This was almost as powerful as a court sentence. It was only her illness that saved her from imprisonment.

Sofia Ionescu-Ogrezeanu (1920-2008)

Sofia Ionescu-Ogrezeanu became the first woman neurosurgeon in South-East Europe after a surgery performed during WW2.

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Sofia Ionescu-Ogrezeanu

Photo source: www.adevarul.ro

That moment changed forever the life of the young woman who imagined a tranquil life as a doctor in her small hometown, Falticeni. She became instead one of the best doctors in her field and worked for 47 years as a neurosurgeon in Bucharest.

Ana Aslan (1897-1988)

The Romanian doctor promised people their youth back and gained international fame. Ana Aslan received, in 1952, from the WHO the award ‘Leon Bernard’ for her research in delaying the aging process.

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Ana Aslan

Photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

Her research showed the results of the substance procaine in slowing down the effects of old age. Based on it, she created two lines of products, Gerovital H3 and Aslavital. The secrete clients’ list included world-famous actors, politicians, and artists. Rumors existed that Kirk Douglas, Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dali, Charles de Gaule, J.F. Kennedy, and even dictators like Tito and Nikita Khrushchev were on the list.

Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu (1887-1973)

She was the first woman engineer in Europe. Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu obtained her diploma in Germany, in 1912.

The Romanian universities previously rejected her application because she was a woman. Even in Germany, she had to face the prejudice of kirche, kinder, kuche. The widespread mentality of the time portrayed women only in relation to the church, their children, and the kitchen.

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Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu

Photo source: www.adevarul.ro

Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu returned to Romania after graduation. She was the only woman in an industry dominated by men and was in charge of the Geological Institute of Romania until retirement.

AVIATION

These are the pioneers of Romanian women in aviation, a men’s world less than one hundred years ago. The list is long and includes also Elena Caragiani, Nadia Russo, Mariana Dragescu, and Virginia Thomas.

Smaranda Braescu (1897-1948)

Smaranda Braescu was the first Romanian woman who obtained a parachuting license. She managed the almost impossible in a time when women could vote only in a few countries in the world. 

The pioneer established the European (1931) and World (1932) record for the highest parachute jump. It’s no wonder the American press nicknamed her the ‘Queen of the Heights’. She was the first European woman to get her pilot license in the USA, soon after her world record. 

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Smaranda Braescu

Photo source: https://en.wikipedia.org

In fact, Smaranda obtained both her parachuting and pilot licenses abroad because of gender barriers in Romania. A few years later, she was the first woman pilot to cross the Mediterranean Sea, from Rope to Tripoli, with a single-engine airplane.

Smaranda Braescu was a pilot in the medical wing, the White Squadron, on the Eastern Front of WW2. She spent her last years of life hiding as she was just another name on the communists’ list of enemies that had to be imprisoned.

Marina Stirbey (1912-2001)

This lady is a legendary figure of Romanian women in aviation from the first part of the 20th century. The descendant of an old aristocratic family, Marina Stirbey had the education, courage, and money to live her dream.

She obtained her pilot license in 1935 and crossed, one year later, the Baltic Sea after flying alone from Bucharest to Stockholm.

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Marina Stirbey

Photo source: https://en.wikipedia.org

During WW2, she advocated for the existence of the medical air fleet and served as a pilot together with Smaranda Braescu and other brave women.

Still, after the war, the communists treated Marina Stirbey as an enemy of the state. She lived in poverty after the new regime confiscated her airplane and all her properties. Only in 1964, she was able to leave the country with the help of the Red Cross and Martha Bibescu, one of the fascinating women on our list.

ARCHITECTURE

Architecture and constructions were two more fields of work seen as part of the men’s world. Virginia Andreescu Haret was the pioneer.

Virginia Andreescu Haret (1894-1962)

The first woman architect in Romania graduated from the University of Architecture in 1919.

In a career that latest over 30 years, Virginia Haret designed the plans for over 130 buildings from Romania. Her works include villas, schools, churches, and public buildings, created in the Neo-Romanian, Art Deco, and modernist styles.

Virginia Andreescu Haret

Virginia Andreescu Haret

Photos source: https://ro.wikipedia.org

Virginia Haret was also an artist and a professor of architecture. She published drawings and paintings and encouraged young women to follow a career in architecture.

Discover the houses and monuments built by Virginia Haret on virginiaharet.blogspot.ro

SOCIAL SCIENCES

To practice law was almost impossible for women in Romania in the early 20th century. Things changed after Ella Negruzzi fought for her rights.

Ella Negruzzi (1876-1948)

The first woman lawyer in Romania and Eastern Europe worked and fought hard to have the right to practice. Born into a family dominated by high achieving men, Ella Negruzzi studied at the University of Iasi, the oldest in Romania.

She applied twice for the Bar exam, the first time in 1913, but she was refused because women were not allowed to practice law.

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Ella Negruzzi

Photo source: https://deieri-deazi.blogspot.ro

Ella Negruzzi was not defeated. She petitioned the Senat, she co-founded the Association for the Civil and Political Emancipation of Romanian Women. In 1919, she finally attended the Bar examination. One year later, Ella Negruzzi became the first Romanian woman with the right to practice law.

She combined her work as a lawyer with a tireless activity of educating women and promoting women’s rights. In 1929, she was among the six women ever elected as city council members in Bucharest. She remained until the end of her life dedicated to the cause of women’s emancipation.

CULTURE AND ART

Writers, artists, and actresses, these Romanian women faced prejudices but were also acclaimed for their talent.

Cecilia Cutescu Storck (1879-1969)

A vocal advocate for women’s rights, Cecilia Cutescu Storck is one of the most important Romanian painters of the 20th century. Educated in Germany and France, the artist returned in 1906 to Romania where she lived and worked for the rest of her life.

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Cecilia Cutescu Storck

Photo source: Muzeul Storck

Besides her public recognition as an artist, Cecilia Cutesc-Storck defeated another obstacle. She obtained a teaching position at the Belle Art Academy from Bucharest in 1916. This made her the first woman accepted as a university art professor in Europe. A strenuous process as she recalled it as women were not seen back then as capable for such an academic job.

Discover her art and her house. Visit the Frederic Storck and Cecilia Cutescu-Storck Museum.

Martha Bibescu (1889-1973)

She was a talented writer, member of the Royal Academy of French Language and Literature, praised for her literary work. Nicknamed the ‘Princess of Europe’, she was also a famous public figure, enjoying life and freedom, despite her marriage, to the fullest.

The aristocrat is better remembered today as the owner of the beautiful Mogosoaia Palace. She rebuilt it from ruins after receiving this excentric present from her adventurous husband. It soon became her favorite place and a party venue for politicians, kings and queens, princes, and artists.

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Martha Bibescu

Martha Bibescu left Romania during the early days of the communist regime. The writer remained an active presence at cultural events from across the continent even in exile. She never returned home. The authorities confiscated her properties, including her beloved Mogosoaia, and her daughter and son-in-law were imprisoned

Visit the Palace of Mogosoaia to discover more about the fascinating Martha Bibescu.

Elvira Popescu (1894-1993)

The French public adored Elvira Popescu and nicknamed her ‘Notre-Dame du Theatre’.  She was the most famous Romanian actress from the early 20th century.

 Eleven years after she made her debut at only 16, Elvira Popescu founded her own Bucharest theatre, ‘Teatrul Mic’. Her fame crossed the national borders, and her Paris career soon followed. The Romanian actress became overnight a European star after her first French theatre role in ‘The cousin from Warsaw’. The play that made her a celebrity had over 1,000 representations.

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Elvira Popescu

Elvira Popescu had an impressive theatre and film career in France where she lived for the rest of her life. She was the director of two theatres and won the prestigious Moliere and Legion of Honor awards.

Photo source: https://en.wikipedia.org

SPORTS

Even sports competitions were gender-biased for a long time. Strong women athletes changed the rules of the game and made history.

Nadia Comaneci

She is one of the famous living legends of sports. She was the first gymnast who received a 10 in the history of gymnastics, at the Montreal Olympics from 1976. Her perfect score took even the board by surprise that was not set to show two-digit numbers. The exercises were flawless, and she received seven times the fabulous 10.

The Romanian gymnast won nine Olympic medals and four world championships during her gymnast career. Her performance encouraged and inspired generations of young gymnasts from around the world.

These inspiring Romanian women made history and inspired many more to follow their dreams or beliefs despite society, dangers, or gender barriers.

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