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.
This is the case of at least 15 remarkable Romanian women who inspired generations to come through their braveness, work, beliefs, actions, and creations.
The women’s efforts in the two World Wars were tremendous, yet less known today. Most war hospitals were managed by women and almost all nurses were volunteer women of all ages and social ranks.
The youngest daughter of Queen Maria, Princess Ileana carried on the legacy of her beloved mother who coordinated the war hospital efforts in the First World War. Caught in the violent realities of the Second World War, Princess Ileana lived with her husband and six children in Bran – Bran Castle to be more precise – from 1944 until the first days of 1948 when the communists forced her to leave Romania.
Photo source: www.castelulbran.ro
The most popular of all the children of King Ferdinand and Queen Maria, Princess Ileana was a Red Cross nurse volunteer in Brasov and dedicated all her efforts to build a war hospital in Bran. She 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, an amazing book about tragedy and hope during and immediately after the Second World War.
Gender had no importance for the communist regime’s quest for real and imaginary opponents that had to be imprisoned or silenced for good.
One of the few anti-communist fighters sentenced to hard years of prison that got to live the end of the regime, Elisabeta Rizea is a symbol of courage and strength.
Born in a small village in Arges County, Elisabeta Rizea is one of the women heroes of Nucsoara, a fearless group who supplied food, clothes, and even weapons to the dissidents from the Arnautoiu Group. She endured the inhumane tortures of the communist interrogatories, but she never betrayed the opponents of the communist regime in the 12 years she was imprisoned.
Find out more about the women heroes from Nucsoara on www.eroinenucsoara.ro
Monica Lovinescu was the voice of Romanian women in the resistance against the communist regime. A talented writer and journalist, Monica Lovinescu lived in France from 1947 when she left Romania on a scholarship, with one of the last trains to the free world.
She spent the rest of her life in France where she published many articles about the harsh realities of communism in Romania. Best-known for her radio journalism work, Monica Lovinescu was one of the main Romanian voices of Radio Free Europe, the illegal source of real information for people living behind the Iron Curtain.
Photos via www.adevarul.ro
The popularity of her radio shows made her an enemy of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu who ordered her assassination in 1977. She survived the attack and continued working on her radio show until 1992.
Science was not a suitable career for women in the early 20th century, but some women were relentless in following their dream.
A neuropsychiatrist with medical studies at Harvard University, Florica Bagdasar was the first woman minister in Romania. This happened in one of the most troubled periods in the country’s history.
The Health Minister between 1946-1948, during a time of epidemic diseases, mass shortages of food and basic goods, Florica Bagdasar managed the impossible. She obtained international support, including from Sweden and the United States of America, while the newly installed communist government from Romania was completely isolating the country from the Western world.
Photo source: www.adevarul.ro
Her experience and dedication were not enough to save her from the absurd defaming campaigns of the Romanian Communist Party. In 1953, she was accused of cosmopolitism in the official party newspaper. This was almost as powerful as a court sentence, and it was only the illness that saved her from imprisonment. She was publicly rehabilitated years later.
After a difficult surgery performed on an injured child during the Second World War, Sofia Ionescu-Ogrezeanu became the first woman neurosurgeon in South-East Europe.
Photo source: www.adevarul.ro
That moment changer 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 promised youth and gained international fame. Specialized in gerontology, the Romanian doctor received, in 1952, from the World Health Organization the international award ‘Leon Bernard’ for her research in delaying the aging process.
Photo source: https://commons.wikimedia.org
Her research emphasized 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. Her clients’ list included world-famous actors, politicians, and artists. Very private about their identity, it was believed that among her patients were Kirk Douglas, Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dali, Charles de Gaule, J.F. Kennedy, and even dictators like Tito and Nikita Khrushchev.
The first woman engineer in Europe, Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu obtained her diploma in Germany, in 1912, after Romanian universities rejected her application simply because she was a woman. Even in Germany, she had to face the prejudice of kirche, kinder, kuche. It was the widespread mentality of the time that portrayed the role of women only in relation to the church, children, and the kitchen.
Photo source: www.adevarul.ro
The only woman in an industry dominated by men, Elisa Leonida Zamfirescu returned to Romania after graduation. She was in charge of the Geological Institute of Romania until retirement.
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 Virgina Thomas.
The first Romanian woman who obtained a parachuting license in a time when women could vote only in a few countries in the world, Smaranda Braescu was nicknamed by the Americans the ‘Queen of the Heights’. It’s no wonder since she established the European (1931) and World (1932) record for the highest parachute jump.
She was the first European woman to obtain her pilot license in the USA, soon after her world record. In fact, Smaranda Braescu obtained both her parachuting and pilot license abroad because of the 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.
Photo source: https://en.wikipedia.org
Smaranda Braescu was a pilot in the medical wing, the White Squadron, on the Eastern Front of the Second World War. She spent her last years of life in hiding as she was just another name on the communists’ list of opponents from the old world that had to be imprisoned.
Marina Stirbey 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 of becoming a pilot.
She obtained her license in 1935. Just one year later she crossed the Baltic Sea after flying alone from Bucharest to Stockholm. She was one of the main advocates for creating a medical air fleet and, like Smaranda Braescu, she was a pilot in the White Squadron during the Second World War.
Photo source: https://en.wikipedia.org
An enemy of the state for the communist regime, Marina Stirbey lived in poverty after the new regime confiscated her airplane and all her properties. She left Romania in 1964 with the help of the Red Cross and Martha Bibescu, one of the fascinating Romanian women presented here.
Architecture and constructions were two more fields of work seen as part of the men’s world. Virginia Andreescu Haret was the pioneer.
The first woman architect in Romania, Virginia Haret graduated from the University of Architecture in 1919, a premiere of the time.
In a career that latest over 30 years, she realized the plans for over 130 buildings from Romania, including splendid villas, schools, churches, and public buildings. She designed in the Neo-Romanian style that dominated the beginning of the 20th century, but she also promoted Art Deco and modernist styles.
Photos via https://ro.wikipedia.org
Virginia Haret was also an artist, with numerous published drawings and paintings, and a professor of architecture, encouraging young women to follow a career in architecture.
Discover the houses and monuments built by Virginia Haret on virginiaharet.blogspot.ro
Being allowed to practice the law was almost impossible for women in Romania at the beginning of the 20th century. Things changed radically after Ella Negruzzi fought for her rights.
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.
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 and, in 1919, she was allowed to attend 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 for educating women and promoting women’s rights. In 1929, Ella Negruzzi 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.
Writers, artists, and actresses, these women remain among the most representative personalities of the Romanian culture.
A vocal advocate for women’s rights, Cecilia Cutescu Storck is considered to be 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.
Photo source: Muzeul Storck
In 1916, she became the first woman university art professor in Europe after she obtained the teaching position at the Belle Art Academy from Bucharest. A strenuous process as she recalled it as women were not seen back then as capable for such an academic job.
Cecilia Cutescu-Storck won numerous international awards for her fascinating paintings. You can discover her creations visiting her house, now the Frederic Storck and Cecilia Cutescu-Storck Museum.
The most famous aristocrat from the Romanian women in our top, Martha Bibescu was a talented writer, member of the Royal Academy of French Language and Literature, awarded and praised for her literary work.
She rebuilt from ruins Mogosoaia Palace, a centuries-old monument, received as a gift from her adventurous husband, Prince George Bibescu. In between the World Wars, Mogosoaia Palace was one of the most exclusivist European aristocratic residences. Heads of states, kings and queens, princes, artists, and aristocrats were a constant presence at the parties organized here by Martha Bibescu, the ‘Princess of Europe’.
Martha Bibescu left Romania during the early days of the communist regime. Her properties, including her beloved palace from Mogosoaia, were confiscated, and her daughter and son in law were imprisoned. Martha Bibescu remained an active presence at cultural events from across the continent even in exile.
Visit the Palace of Mogosoaia to discover more about the fascinating life of Martha Bibescu.
Surnamed ‘Notre-Dame du Theatre’ by the French public who adored her, Elvira Popescu was the most famous Romanian actress in the first part of the 20th century.
She made her debut at only 16 on the stage of the National Theatre of Bucharest. Eleven years later, Elvira Popescu founded her own theatre, ‘Teatrul Mic’, and her fame crossed the national borders. Her first theatre role in Paris, in the play ‘The cousin from Warsaw’, had over 1,000 representations and the Romanian actress became a European star.
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
Even sports competitions were gender-biased for a long time. Strong women athletes changed the rules of the game and made history.
The first gymnast who received a 10 in the history of gymnastics, Nadia Comaneci is one of the famous living legends of sports. Her perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, when she was only 14, took even the board by surprise that was not set to show two-digit numbers. Her exercises were so flawless that she received seven times the biggest score in the history of this sport.
During her gymnast career, Nadia Comaneci won nine Olympic medals and four world championships. Her performance encouraged and inspired generations of young gymnasts from around the world.
Whether it was taking down gender barriers in studies and careers reserved only for men, breaking down records in sports, or fighting for democracy, these inspiring Romanian women made history. Our list remains open as there are many more names and stories to add.