Who was Marie Popelin, the Brussels woman honoured by Google today?

Who was Marie Popelin, the Brussels woman honoured by Google today?
Credit: screengrab Google/Émilie Timmermans

Marie Popelin, a Brussels lawyer and feminist pioneer, is pictured on Google’s homepage doodle today, in honour of her 174th birthday.

On 16 December 1846, Popelin was born in the Brussels municipality of Schaerbeek.

Initially, she pursued a career in education and went on to teach at Belgium’s first secondary school for girls, Education Course for Young Girls (Cours d’Education pour Jeunes Filles).

When she was 37, however, she had a change of heart and decided to study law instead. In 1888, Popelin was the first woman to attain a law degree in Belgium, and graduated summa cum laude from the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB).

However, despite her qualifications, she was denied admission to the bar on the basis of her gender, preventing her from practising law.

She challenged the decision in court, a controversial case that became known as the “Popelin Affair,” but without success.

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To supporters of female education at the time, the case demonstrated that simply providing young women with access to higher education was insufficient unless further, legal, changes were also made.

This prompted Popelin to co-found the ‘Ligue belge du droit des femmes’ (Belgian League for Women’s Rights) in 1892, Belgium’s first structured feminist organisation.

To explain the purpose of this feminist association, Popelin said that “a woman is something other than a wife and a mother, she can also have special skills that she must have the right to apply.”

Her fight to support women’s right took her across the world, and in 1905, she established the ‘Conseil National des Femmes Belges’ (National Council of Belgian Women), which unified feminist groups from in Belgium.

Thanks in no small part to Popelin’s tireless efforts, Belgium finally allowed women to practice law in 1922. Popelin, however, never saw this as she did on 5 June 1913, at 66 years old.

In Belgium, she has been commemorated in numerous ways, including her image being featured on a postage stamp during the International Women’s Year of 1975, and a street in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode named after her in 2008.

In 2011, together with the first Belgian female doctor, Isala Van Diest, Popelin was depicted on the Belgian €2 commemorative coin, for the first centenary of the International Woman’s Day.

Popelin’s image on today’s Google Doodle was also designed by a Belgian artist, Emilie Timmermans.

Maïthé Chini
The Brussels Times

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