Brilliant Portuguese Women who made History

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It’s International Women’s Day (Dia International da Mulher). Today Mother Tongue Notes is celebrating Portuguese women who’ve made a difference in various sectors of society from politics to science. Some are well known, others not so much.

The aim is to provide a point of reference for parents to discuss with their children of Portuguese heritage, so that boys and girls around the world can learn more about brilliant Portuguese women and, especially, that little girls can feel proud and inspired.

Portugal, a small country of just over 10 million people, had one of the longest dictatorships in Europe during the first half of the XX century. During this time, women’s rights were restricted. After the dictatorship fell in 1974, women received legal equality with Portuguese men including the right to vote and full equality in marriage. A generation later, many women were making full use of their new status. Where once they were teachers, secretaries or factory workers, they were now doctors, judges, lawyers and world respected scientists.


Juliana Dias da Costa (1657 – 1734) was the daughter of a Portuguese soldier. She had an exceptional ability for languages and played a diplomatic role in Portugal’s negotiations with various countries, a somewhat unusual role for a woman at that time.

Lourdes Pintasilgo (1930-2004) was the first prominent female politician post-revolution. In 1979 she was selected as Prime Minister. In her short tenure of 149 days, she managed to introduce improved social security conditions for all workers.

More recently, Catarina Martins (b. 1973), her deputy Joana Mortágua (b.1986), and Euro-deputy Marisa Matias (b.1976 )have taken the country by storm. They spearhead Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) which won 10% of the vote in the Portuguese general elections of 2015. Bloco de Esquerda is Portugal’s equivalent to Greece’s anti-austerity Syriza party and it plays a crucial role in the current leftwing alliance. These three young, strong, unconventional women are responsible for a remarkable turnaround in fortunes in macho political culture.

Maria Jose Morgado (b.1951) is a prominent fearless judge determined to fight corruption


Branca Edmée Marques (1899-1986) was an outstanding scientist worked under the famous scientist Madame Marie Curie. Her research work in nuclear physics for peaceful means was finally recognized by the Portuguese State at the age of 67.

Maria Manuel Mota (b.1971) is a scientist based in New York, working in the field of Malaria. Her first big discovery was in 1999.

The engineer Elvira Fortunato (b.1964) created the first paper-based chip which has many applications including screens, identification chips and medical. She has 16 patents, one with Samsung.

Renata Gomes (b. 1985) a Cardiovascular Regeneration Scientist based in the UK

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Sophia de Mello Breyner (1919-2004) started composing poetry at 16 years old. She first published in 1941. Later in life she also wrote children’s stories. In 1999 she was awarded the laureate Camões Prize for her outstanding contribution to Portuguese culture.

Florbela Espanca (1894-1930) wrote heartfelt poems and sonnets that expressed the state of a woman with very strong emotions, internally tortured and unsatisfied. She represented a section of educated Portuguese women of that period. Sadly, she was not published during her lifetime and recognition tragically late, after she ended her life.

Irene Lisboa (1892-1958) was a journalist, poet and writer. She was a strong advocate for emancipation and equality of women. She self-published as her political views were unaccepted by the authorities. Thirty-one years after her death she was awarded the “Ordem de Liberdade”.

Natália Correia (1923-1993) was a poet, novelist and writer. After the 1974 Revolution she became involved in politics and was elected as a deputy to parliament. Her strong personality kept her in the forefront of the news for many years.


Paula Rego (b. 1935) left Lisbon in 1954 to attend Art School in London. She married an Englishman, a fellow artist, and settled in the UK. However, her roots feature constantly in her work which is of a figurative style of painting. Her name is renowned in the art world and she’s one of the top four best living painters in England.

Vieira da Silva (1908-1992) studied in Lisbon and in 1928 moved to Paris to frequent the Academy La Grande Chaumiére. She married the famous painter Arpad Szénes in 1924. She held her first individual exhibition in Paris in 1933. This act forced her to forfeit her Portuguese nationality, which deeply saddened her. After the Revolution of 1974 she returned to Portugal.

Joana Vasconcelos (b. 1971) is an internationally acclaimed visual artist. Her large-scale installations deal with national identity and gender.

Luísa Holstein (1841-1909) was the first female sculptress of note and won awards for her works in Portugal and in the Paris Salon. She was also very active in political matters and was very charitable.

Josefa d’Óbidos (1630-1684) was one of the few women painters of the time and developed a very distinctive style, even when she depicted religious popular at the time.


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Maria João Pires (b. 1963) is a world-renowned pianist, recognized as a leading interpreter of Mozart.

Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999) was a popular singer of “Fado”, a distinct Portuguese style of lyric that is sung in a special manner and accompanied on a viola and Portuguese guitar. She became an internationally known star, touring in New York and at the Olympia in Paris.

Mariza (b. 1973) has been described as a “feminine Frank Sinatra”. The fado singer launched her award-winning debut álbum “Fado em Mim” in 2001 to international acclaim. The Spanish newspaper El País, said “you don’t go to listen, you go to feel”


Rosa Mota (b. 1958) was the first Portuguese sportswoman to win Olympic gold. She was also the first woman to win multiple Olympic marathon medals as well as being the only woman to be the reigning European, World, and Olympic champion at the same time. She distinguished by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races (AIMS) as the greatest female marathon runner of all time.

Vanessa Fernandes (b. 1985) is a former triathlon European and world champion, and a Olympic medalist. In duathlon, she was European and world champion and won the European Triathlon Championships five consecutive years.

Fernanda Ribeiro (b. 1969) is long distance runner. At the 1996 Summer Olympics she won the women’s 10000 m gold medal, establishing a new Olympic record of 31:01.63.


Carolina Beatriz Ângelo (1878 –1911) was a Portuguese physician and the first woman to vote in Portugal. She used a loophole in the law that issued the right to vote to literate head-of-households over 21. As a window, she managed to cast her vote in the 1911 elections, but the law makers acted swiftly to close that loophole and specify that the head-of-household should be male.

Lourdes Sa Teixeira (b. 1907) became the first woman pilot in 1928, aged 21, against the wishes of her family and society

Antónia Rodrigues (1580-1641) was a Portuguese soldier and heroine. Antónia dressed herself as a man, adopted the name of António Rodrigues and joined the crew of a ship headed to Portuguese territory in Morocco. After her arrival she enlisted in the local infantry and made herself noted for her campaigns against the moors. She was eventually discovered but was decorated for service by Filipe II.

Antónia Gertrudes Pusich (1805-1883), born in Cape Verde to a Portuguese mother, was a prominent portuguese feminist of the XIX century.  She was the first female Portuguese journalist publishing under her real (women used pseudonyms before that) and the first female newspaper founder.


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Everyday women

There have been so many unsung heroes, women who contributed to World War I efforts, to the 1974 revolution efforts and to so many other defining moments in history, without ever having been acknowledged.

Today we also celebrate and commend all the anonymous women who every single day give so much of themselves for others, often at a cost to their own health and well being. They are mums, wives, daughters, carers, professionals.

Lets hope that the children we are raising today grow up to see a truly equal society in their lifetime.


Who’s missing from this list? Add your suggestions in the comments below.

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