Pioneering Women from Luxembourg A portrait of eight extraordinary Luxembourgish women in honour of International Women's Day

International Women's Day is celebrated on 8th March in many countries around the world. It gives us a chance to revisit their past struggles and achievements and to inspire future generations of women. It is also an opportunity to get to know or rediscover eight female pioneers from Luxembourg who have made significant breakthroughs in a wide range of fields, from entrepreneurship and education to politics, gastronomy and the arts.

Barbe Peckels (1836-1906), the first step for female entrepreneurship

Barbe Peckels was one of the first female business owners and managers in Luxembourg. In 1852, with her husband, she purchased a house under construction in an area called "La Gaichel". Together they ran the farmhouse inn. At the time, hikers used to visit the inn to savour traditional regional cuisine and the specialties of Barbe Peckels, who was a gifted cook. She remained in charge of the family business until her death in 1906; her culinary spirit lives on to this day. As a matter of fact, this inn has been transformed over the years and at present, the Domaine de La Gaichel has two hotels and three restaurants.

Barbe Peckels' family visiting the exhibition "12 femmes pionnières de l'entrepreneuriat au Luxembourg" organised by Femmes Pionnières du Luxembourg asbl.
© Source: Femmes Pionnières du Luxembourg asbl

A little anecdote

Since its creation, the Domaine de La Gaichel has always been passed down from mother to daughter. The management of this family business is currently in its sixth female generation!

Anne Beffort (1880-1966), pioneer in education for girls

Anne Beffort's life revolved around education. Eager to continue her studies beyond upper primary school, she chose the only possible path at a time when there was no secondary school for girls; she attended a training school to become a teacher. But her thirst for knowledge was not quenched: after graduating with four teaching diplomas, she studied literature at the Münster and Paris universities. In 1909, she became the first Luxembourgish woman to gain a doctorate. Anne Beffort was also the first female French teacher of Luxembourg origin and the pioneer of the Lycée des Jeunes Filles de Luxembourg, which was inaugurated in the same year that she defended her thesis.

A little anecdote

Anne Beffort was an admirer of Victor Hugo and devoted numerous scientific studies to his work. On the 50th anniversary of the poet's death in 1935, she also actively encouraged the Luxembourg State to purchase the house in which Hugo had lived during his exile in Vianden, in order to create a literary museum. Her plea work even earned her the Legion of Honour, which was awarded by Robert Schuman in 1948. Victor Hugo's House has been completely renovated.

In 2010, Post Luxembourg issued a stamp in homage to Anne Beffort.
© Post Luxembourg, all rights reserved

Marguerite Thomas-Clément (1886-1979), the first female parliamentarian

The active and passive right to vote for women in Luxembourg was adopted in 1919. This turning point in the history of the democracy led to the arrival of the first female parliamentarian in Luxembourg: Marguerite Thomas-Clement, the only female member of parliament between 1919 and 1931.

As soon as she was elected on the social-democratic ticket of the Centre constituency, she introduced a draft bill in favour of civil and economic equality of both sexes; the bill did not pass. Nevertheless, she continued to raise various issues in parliament with the aim of improving women's working conditions and pay, as well as denouncing the shocking hygiene in the capital's maternity ward. Moreover, she did not shy away from defending prostitutes imprisoned in the women's prison for spreading contagious diseases. After becoming estranged from the Socialist Party, she was not re-elected in 1931.

The women's vote in Luxembourg

At the beginning of the 20th century, Luxembourg's political system was based on universal census suffrage. Hence, only men who paid a certain tax could vote or be elected to parliament. At this time, women were denied the right to vote. Although a petition for women's suffrage had been put forward by the Social Democrats in 1906, it was not until after the First World War that progress was finally made.

In Luxembourg, some activists distinguished themselves owing to their resolve and commitment, and paved the way for the recognition of women's rights. Marguerite Mongenast-Servais, Marguerite Hey-Fink and Jeanne Meyer-Heucké were the three pioneers who succeeded in collecting signatures to present the petition for active and passive voting rights for women to parliament; it was finally adopted on 8th May 1919.

Marguerite Thomas-Clément, Luxembourg's first female member of the Chamber of Deputies (1919-1931).
Source: National Library of Luxembourg. Published in 'Luxemburger Illustrierte' of 25 March 1925.

Katrin C. Martin (1901-1983), pioneer in the field of journalism

Katrin C. Martin was one of the first Luxembourgish women to work as a journalist. After completing her studies as a schoolteacher (1920-1922), she went to Paris where she became a social columnist and interviewed famous writers, such as the Noble Prize winner Anatole France. She obtained Italian nationality through marriage in 1927, and took extensive and exotic journeys across the globe. She spoke six languages and even worked as a journalist in Buenos Aires.

Toward the end of the 1930s, she returned to Luxembourg and became a writer for the Luxemburger Zeitung and subsequently the Escher Tageblatt. After penning an article denouncing National Socialism, the Nazi occupiers threatened her with expulsion to Italy. It is claimed that she wrote a book on the Occupation in Luxembourg, which has since disappeared. After 1945, she worked as a freelance journalist and writer. She published her works in the Cahiers Luxembourgeois and other publications. In 1948, she became the first female editor of the Revue, which she helped transform into a popular magazine. In 1951, she became director of the regional edition of the Belgian daily newspaper La Meuse.

A little anecdote

In Luxembourg, women's journalism was born in the 1920s and was initially nurtured by women who had often trained as teachers. This was due to the fact that until 1909, when the Lycée des Jeunes Filles de Luxembourg opened its doors, these higher education institutions were the only ones open to women.

Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen (1915-1999), women in government

Despite the first woman entering the Luxembourg parliament in 1919, it took almost 50 years before a woman became a government member in the Grand Duchy. In 1967, Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen became Secretary of State in charge of the portfolios of Family, Youth and National Education. Following a government crisis that led to early elections, she became Minister for Family, Youth and Social Solidarity, as well as Minister for Religion and Culture in 1969. She was the first woman to have a ministerial brief.

A little anecdote

After a press campaign in the socialist newspaper Tageblatt which accused her of 'behaviour contrary to moral standards', she resigned her mandate in 1972. The affair has long haunted political life in Luxembourg and has been the subject of numerous investigations, including Un monde misogyne et cruel (A misogynistic and cruel world), by the journalist Yolande Kieffer.

Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen, government minister in 1969.
© SIP, all rights reserved

Elsy Jacobs (1933-1998), braking barriers in women's cycling

1958 is a key year in the annals of women's cycling in Luxembourg. The cyclist, Elsy Jacobs won the first organised Women's Road World Championship in Reims in August. A few months later, she set a new women's hour world record on the track at the Vigorelli velodrome in Milan, covering 41.348km; a record that remained unbeaten for 14 years. Elsy Jacobs thrived in a competitive environment and, from 1958, she travelled all over Europe in search of victories. During the course of her career, she competed in about 1,200 races and had more than 300 victories to her name.

Since 2008, the Elsy Jacobs Grand Prix has taken place in Garnich, her village of birth. The 2021 Elsy Jacobs Race, which will take place on 1 May, includes up to four different circuits between 60km and 100km.

The Grand Duchess of cycling

The documentary Elsy Jacobs – Grouss-Herzogin vum Velosport, by Michel Tereba, revisits the achievements of the lady nicknamed the 'Grand Duchess of cycling' by her friends and competitors.

Léa Linster (1955-), an extraordinary Bocuse d'Or

Léa Linster is the culinary master of the Grand Duchy's haute cuisine. And for good reason! She is the only woman and the only Luxembourgish chef to have won the Bocuse d'Or (the international gastronomic competition), created by the French chef Paul Bocuse in 1987. This was a momentous year for Léa Linster: she obtained her master's degree in cuisine (once again, the first Luxembourgish woman to obtain such an accolade) and won her first Michelin star for her restaurant in Frisange. She won the Bocuse d'Or in 1989, thus confirming her status as a culinary great.

Recognised across the world, Léa Linster has written several books and even presented cooking shows on television. It's next to impossible to list all the awards she has received during her career! Although she has since passed the culinary baton to her son Louis Linster, her spirit is ever-present in the gourmet restaurant that showcases her name.

A little anecdote

Nowadays, the restaurant includes a main room, a winter garden and a bar; the surrounding park was completely replanted in a naturalistic style in 2010. However, back in the 1950s, the site housed a petrol station which was used as a bar, bowling alley and tobacconist's shop.

Léa Linster, Luxembourg's only Bocuse d'Or.
© Marc Theis, all rights reserved

Su-Mei Tse (1973-), Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale

Unsurprisingly, Luxembourg contemporary art and Su-Mei Tse go hand-in-hand. Her creations combine music, photography, sculpture, video and other art forms and, as such, it is impossible to compartmentalize her work as she regularly combines several artistic disciplines. Having trained as a classical cellist, she also studied textile and printing. She graduated from the Beaux-Arts in Paris in 2000. Her participation at the Venice Biennale in 2003 proved to be a turning point for her career and Luxembourg in the world of art, as she was awarded the Golden Lion for her exhibit Air conditioned, a truly unique exploit. Since then, she has gained international recognition: her work, which raises questions about time, memory, musicality and language, is exhibited across the globe.

A little anecdote

At the entrance of the Luxembourg pavilion at the 2003 Biennale, Su-Mei Tse installed an acoustic anechoic chamber, also called a 'echo-free chamber' as it does not reflect sounds. Some visitors cherished the peace and quiet and spent many hours in the chamber, even taking time to flick through the exhibition brochures. Others felt imprisoned by the silence. It was a truly intense experience!