Marie Popelin

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Marie Popelin
Black and white photograph of an elderly woman
Photograph portrait of Marie Popelin
Born (1846-09-17)17 September 1846
Schaerbeek, Belgium
Died 5 June 1913(1913-06-05) (aged 66)
Ixelles, Belgium
Occupation lawyer, educationalist
Known for First woman to receive a law doctorate in Belgium

Marie Popelin (17 September 1846 – 5 June 1913) was a Belgian feminist, lawyer and political campaigner. Popelin worked with Isabelle Gatti de Gamond in the development of women's education and, in 1888, became the first Belgian woman to receive a doctorate in law.


Marie Popelin was born in Schaerbeek near Brussels into a middle-class family. One of her brothers was a doctor, another an army officer—Marie Popelin was well educated by the standards of the time and place. Along with her sister Louise, she worked with feminist educator Isabelle Gatti de Gamond, teaching in Brussels from 1870 to 1875. Disagreements with Gatti led to the sisters moving to Mons to run a new school for girls there, established with Masonic assistance. In 1882, Marie Popelin returned to Brussels to head the middle school in nearby Laeken, but was removed from her post the following year.

Attempted legal career[edit]

At the age of 37, Popelin enrolled at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, studying law. Completing her studies as a Doctor of Laws in 1888, Popelin was the first woman to do so in Belgium. She applied for admission to the bar association which would allow her to plead cases in the Brussels courts.[1] This was refused, although no law or regulation explicitly prevented the admission of women to the bar. Her appeals to the Court of Appeal and the Court of Cassation were unsuccessful, but widely reported in the Belgian and foreign press. The "Popelin affair" (French: L'Affaire Popelin) demonstrated to the supporters of female education that simply providing young women with access to higher education was insufficient unless further, legal, changes were also made.[2] Jeanne Chauvin, who obtained a law degree in Paris in 1890, was at first discouraged by the case, but was persuaded by the Belgian Louis Frank to apply for admission to the bar, and was sworn in after the French law was changed in 1900.[3]

Political activities[edit]

Marie Popelin participated in two feminist conferences in Paris in 1889, and established the Belgian League for Women's Rights (Ligue belge du droit des femmes) in 1892 with the assistance of Isala Van Diest and Léonie La Fontaine.[1] Popelin was a friend of American feminist May Wright Sewall, who she had met in Paris in 1889, and with Sewall's encouragement, the Belgian section of the International Council of Women was established from 1893. Popelin's efforts to create an independent feminist movement, not linked to the Catholic, Liberal, or Socialist parties, were only a partial success, and the National Council of Belgian Women (Conseil National des Femmes Belges), created in 1905, received only limited support from the women's sections of the political parties.

In spite of this tepid initial reception, Popelin's many objectives were largely met before her death in 1913. The legislative reforms excluded two of Popelin's core demands: universal adult suffrage, and equal access to the liberal professions for women. Modern studies acknowledge Marie Popelin's central role in the creation of a Belgian feminist movement.


Popelin has been commemorated in numerous ways within Belgium. She featured on a Belgian postage stamp during the International Women's Year of 1975, and a road in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode was named after her in 2008. In 2011 Popelin, together with the first Belgian female doctor, Van Diest, were depicted on the Belgian two euro commemorative coin for the 1st centenary of the International Woman's Day.[4] In De Grootste Belg, a 2005 Flemish television poll to find the greatest Belgian of all time, Marie Popelin was ranked 42nd.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Schirmacher, Kathe (1921). The Modern Woman's Rights Movement: a Historical Survey. Macmillan. [page needed]
  2. ^ Smith, Bonnie G. (2008). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195148908. [page needed]
  3. ^ Mossman, Mary Jane. "The First Women Lawyers: Gender Equality and Professionalism in Law". Honouring Social Justice. University of Toronto Press. pp. 199–200. ISBN 978-1-4426-9235-0. 
  4. ^ "New 2-euro commemorative coin on display in the Museum (2011)". National Bank of Belgium Museum. Retrieved 26 May 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Albisetti, James C. (Summer 2000). "Portia Ante Portas: Women and the Legal Profession in Europe, ca. 1870-1925". Journal of Social History. 33 (4): 825–57. doi:10.1353/jsh.2000.0051. JSTOR 3789167. 
  • Gubin, Éliane; Piette, Valérie; Jacques, Catherine (January–March 1997). "Les féminismes belges et français de 1830 à 1914: Une approche comparée". Le Mouvement social (in French) (178): 36–68. JSTOR 3779562. 
  • Nandrin, Jean-Pierre (2006). "POPELIN, Marie (1846–1913)". In Gubin, Éliane; et al. Dictionnaire des femmes belges XIXe et XXe siècles (in French). Bruxelles: Racine. ISBN 2-87386-434-6. 
  • Aubenas, Jacqueline; Van Rokeghem, Suzanne; Vercheval-Vervoort, Jeanne (2006). Des femmes dans l'histoire en Belgique, depuis 1830 (in French). Brussels: Luc Piré. ISBN 2-87415-523-3.