INTERVIEW Mihaela Miroiu, human rights activist: “Women were considered to be halfway between humans and non-human mammals”

Seen as inferior beings, women were deprived of many rights, including higher education. “Weekend Adevărul” discussed with Mihaela Miroiu, human rights activist and feminist theorist, about the way women were seen in the middle of the 19th century, the fight for women's emancipation, but also about the lack of fundamental rights. At the same time, I also discussed with her about the exceptional cases of women with university degrees of that period and the limitations they encountered even if they excelled in their fields.

Mihaela Miroiu is a feminist theorist and human rights activist. Photo: Inquam Photo

“Weekend Adevărul”: How much schooling did Romanian women do in general in the 19th century and in what form?

Mihaela Miroiu: First, we must remember that women were completely deprived of many rights: from political to civil. Women did not have the right to enter into contracts, to own property (if they inherited it, it was managed by their husband). We must also bear in mind the fact that in 1900, 92% of women in the Romanian Kingdom were illiterate, as were 72% of Romanian men. In the 19th century, access to education, especially secular education, was almost absent. There were very few schools that children from the countryside could access, girls even less, they were not even accepted in the primary classes.

However, a few women had also managed to gain access to higher education, especially towards the end of the century…

They had access especially if they left the country and studied in Paris, Berlin or elsewhere. Access to higher education in Romania was generally restricted, and for women it was almost non-existent. They also came with a higher education diploma obtained abroad, and even this diploma did not qualify them as university professors. This is also the case of Alice Voinescu, who had a doctorate degree in Philosophy, and yet she was not granted the right to teach at the Faculty of Philosophy, but was given Art History classes at the Conservatory, although she was very qualified for philosophy, even much better than those who were in the department. These cases of women with higher education and diplomas are absolutely remarkable, but they are only exceptions that had a much harder fate than men. This is also the case of Ella Negruzzi who eventually managed to study law at a very high level, but was not allowed to plead at the bar. So even if they were doing these studies, they were strongly encouraged to choose teaching careers. These obstacles were a constant, including for these exceptional cases. Men had a monopoly in these jobs. All over the world things have been very slow for women, they have always been last on the list, only in some countries things have been much faster, including in terms of political rights, as happened in Australia, New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries.

Prejudice without scientific foundation

What kind of prejudices were based on all these limitations imposed on women in that era?

The fundamental prejudice was that women do not have enough sense. Women's reason was considered to be underdeveloped compared to men's, but also to be undermined by feelings. In short, women were considered to be halfway between humans and non-human mammals. For example, Titu Maiorescu formulated it explicitly in a conference he held at the Romanian Athenaeum, in which he insinuated that women have smaller brains than men and it is very normal not to put some creatures with smaller brains lead those with bigger brains. The reply was given by Sofia Nădejde, based on scientific evidence, in an impeccable way, conveying to Titu Maiorescu that he is wrong and is simply following a prejudice that has no cover. But she could not speak at the Romanian Athenaeum in opposition to Maiorescu. There was rampant misogyny, especially among those who had power, influence, and were regarded as some sort of intellectual guru of the nation.

Maria Cuțarida-Crătunescu, the first female doctor in Romania

Maria Cuțarida-Crătunescu, the first female doctor in Romania

After all, what were they allowed to do? What could they be involved in?

To serve men in absolutely any way. It was believed that women were created to help their men, the legitimization of this belief also came in the religious sphere. In other types of philosophies, it was considered that the woman represents mostly the body and has to deal with the bodily things – cooking, washing – and the man is the head, he makes decisions and thinks about the intellectual ones. This was a multi-millenary tradition that is extremely difficult to get out of the head of some people, including nowadays. At the social level, the main involvement of women was admitted in charity work, so everything related to mercy and care: orphans, old people, people with problems, wounded by war. Even Queen Maria was called “Mother of the wounded”, she also organized all the infrastructure for the wounded on the Romanian fronts, bringing qualified nurses from Scotland, ambulances, but not only that. It's just that for a very long time she was somehow kept in history with this role, when in fact she played the most important diplomatic role in our history regarding the Union since 1918, being the main diplomatic founder.

The dawn of feminism

But were there women who fought to overcome these limitations?

After 1848 they began to make feminist organizations for the civil and political rights of women, which culminated in the work for the debates on the Constitution of 1923, when they argued substantially for universal suffrage. However, in that constitution the universal, but male, right was admitted. Later, in 1929, they were granted the right to vote and run for office in local elections, but still in a census-based manner. While women had to be educated to vote, men were not required to do so. Then their right to vote was accepted by the Constitution of Charles II, but since then the dictatorships began and they practically did not exercise it. The first time when women in Romania really exercised their right to vote was on May 20, 1990. So after a century and a half of struggle.

And when was the right to access higher education in Romania granted to them?

During the interwar period, a part of higher education was opened for women, respectively in certain types of universities: Letters, Philosophy or Social studies, even Medicine. Which is not to say that teaching positions have also opened up for women in higher education. They were limited. Today's statistics show that higher education is very feminized at the base, but masculinized at the top (with the exception of Minister Ligia Deca). We have a very slow propensity for proper change. The policy illustrates very well the disregard for women's ability to decide on public goods. For example, now in Parliament there are 17% women, while the ethnic groups are much better represented. In the eyes of policymakers, being a woman doesn't matter. Parliament should normally be made up of half women, half men, because that is the political representation of the citizens. Women are politically a minority, but demographically they are a slight majority. Real change requires more than the involvement of specific organizations. There is a need for most women to understand that there is serious gender injustice in various fields, situations, and join together to change this. Women's rights were not a gift, they were earned with great sacrifices on the part of our predecessors.