To mark International Women's Day, celebrated on 8th March in several countries worldwide, we look at the profiles of eight extraordinary women in Luxembourg's history who are remembered in the country's public space. This is an opportunity to look back at their past struggles and achievements, and also to inspire future generations of women, those who will have streets named after them in Luxembourg in the years to come. This article explores the lives of Marie Heffenisch, Lily Unden, Annette Lacroix and Marie-Paule Peffer. A first article in the series focuses on the achievements of Marie-Thérèse Hartmann, Aline de Saint-Hubert, Lou Koster and Joséphine Jaans.
Marie Heffenisch (1902-1985), Medal of the Order of the Resistance
As a human rights activist, Marie Heffenisch was strongly involved in Luxembourg's resistance movements in the Second World War. After the death of her husband Sébastian Carmes in 1932, she moved to Dudelange and took over the Hengesch Hotel. In 1941, the local section of the Lëtzebuerger Fräiheetsbond was founded in the hotel, which also served as a hiding place for illegal newspapers and leaflets and sheltered seven men avoiding forced conscription to the German army. Marie was also in charge of forging papers.
The occupying forces discovered that the hotel was being used as a hiding place in 1944 and Marie Heffenisch was arrested and imprisoned in Luxembourg and Germany, then deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp. According to her fellow prisoners, she was unrecognisable in Ravensbrück: she gave her food rations to young girls, arguing that she was already old and that the youngest should survive the horrors of war.
Marie Heffenisch survived the ordeal and came back to Luxembourg in 1945 when the concentration camp was liberated. She was awarded the Medal of the Order of the Resistance. There are streets named after her in Colmar-Berg and Dudelange.
Did you know?
The Lëtzebuerger Fräiheetsbond, whose local Dudelange section was founded in the hotel run by Marie Heffenisch, was one of the founder members of the National Resistance Foundation.
If you are interested in learning more about the Luxembourg Resistance and war memory projects, here are two useful links:
- The website of the Committee for the Remembrance of the Second World War, where you can listen to the accounts of several resistance fighters.
- The National Museum of Resistance and Human Rights, in Esch-sur-Alzette.
Lily Unden (1908-1989), a painter and resistance poet
Lily Unden's life was shaped by the two World Wars and by her vocation as an artist. She was born in Longwy, where her father worked as a metallurgical engineer, but she was repatriated with her parents to Mülhenbach when the First World War broke out. After finishing secondary school, she studied Fine Arts in Brussels, Paris, Metz and Strasbourg, then began working as a painter. She was a member of the Cercle artistique luxembourgeois, where she regularly exhibited her paintings and drawings. During the Second World War, she was banned from pursuing her career because she refused to join the Nazi movement. She became a member of the Resistance and was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and interned in several prisons in Luxembourg and Germany, before finally being deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp.
After the liberation, she resumed her art training with courses at Columbia University School of the Arts in New York, then came back to Luxembourg to embark on a career as an art teacher at various schools.
She was a member of the Amicale des femmes concentrationnaires et prisonnières politiques and the National Council of the Resistance and remained an activist for the rest of her life. There are streets bearing her name in Differdange, Sanem, Steinfort and Weiler-la-Tour. In 2015, a home for refugees in Limpertsberg was named after her.
Did you know?
Lily Unden was mainly known as a painter, but she also wrote poetry. Her poems are dominated by her memories of the war and her painful experiences in the concentration camp. Here is an extract of her poem Fraternité:
J'ai oublié ta voix ta prière ton nom
Mais je sais que ta vie, ta vie dont tu fis don
À ta chère patrie et à l'humanité,
N'a pas été perdue et n'est pas effacée,
Qu'elle vit et revit dans la fraternité.
(I have forgotten your voice your prayer your name
But I know that your life, your life that you gave
To your beloved homeland and to humanity,
Has not been lost and is not erased,
That it lives and continues to live in fraternity.)
Les rues au féminin
In 2009, the National Council of Women of Luxembourg (Conseil national des femmes du Luxembourg-CNFL) launched the project 'Les rues au féminin' (streets named after women) to raise awareness among political leaders of the need to increase the visibility of deserving, active women in public spaces in Luxembourg.
The CNFL has also launched several initiatives in collaboration with local authorities and municipal gender equality bodies in Luxembourg. The aim of the 'Affichons l'égalité' (diplaying equality) initiative, organised in connection with International Women's Day, was to temporarily and symbolically rename streets with the names of women who left their mark on history. The 'Who is she?' initiative focused instead on streets already named after women, providing an image and a QR code to give people the opportunity to find out more about women celebrated in the public arena.
Annette Lacroix (1927-2013), the first woman in the Council of State
The life of Annette Lacroix (married name Schwall) was closely linked to the defence of women's rights. Although she came from a well-known and wealthy family, she chose to stand up for social justice from a young age. During the Nazi occupation, she refused to join the Hitler Youth and was expelled from secondary school. It was only after the war that she was able to resume her studies in Luxembourg and Paris and become a lawyer.
She was an advocate for the Luxembourg women's rights movement, and together with other female lawyers she drafted legislative proposals for women's emancipation. These texts on how marriage affected the respective rights and duties of spouses were submitted to the Chamber of Deputies by the only female member of parliament at the time, Astrid Lulling. The explanatory statement for one of these proposals reads: 'The aim of this legislative proposal is to speed up a reform that will give married Luxembourgish women equality before the law, as decreed by our Constitution but made impossible by the provisions of our Civil Code, which reduces married women to the status of children and weak-minded individuals.'
In 1975, she became the first woman to be appointed as a member of the Council of State. The Council of State was established in 1856 but it would take more than a hundred years for a woman to be given a seat in the institution: Annette Lacroix was member number 134. She remained a member for 24 years.
She never stopped fighting for gender equality, especially the question of equal pay, and she was involved in the Luxembourg Federation of University Women (Fédération luxembourgeoise des femmes universitaires) and the National Council of Women of Luxembourg (Conseil national des femmes du Luxembourg-CNFL). She was also determined to help people in need, and in 1988 she became a member of the Board of Directors of the Luxembourg Red Cross. Streets in Luxembourg City and Steinfort are named after her.
Did you know?
Annette Lacroix received the Anne Beffort Prize from the Luxembourg City Council in 2008.
Since 2003, this prize has been awarded to an individual, a non-profit association, a group or an institution working to promote equal opportunities between men and women.
The prize is named after the co-founder of the Lycée de Jeunes Filles in Luxembourg City and the first woman teacher in the country. Find out more about her in our article on pioneering women from Luxembourg.
Marie-Paule Peffer (1929-1999), breaking taboos around family planning
Marie-Paule Peffer (married name Molitor) is often described as a trailblazer. Her decision to study medicine was highly unusual for a woman at that time, but she was supported by her family. After completing her school certificate in Lausanne, she pursued studies in medicine in Switzerland, specialising in gynaecology.
From the beginning of her professional career, she was committed to modern sex education: she was a campaigner for access to contraception and for decriminalising abortion, issues that were taboo in Luxembourg society in the 1960s and 1970s. She was an excellent writer and put her talent to good use by writing statements and letters to the editors of newspapers, and also publishing articles in scientific journals. Her activism provoked strong reactions from conservative forces and also from the Medical Board, which campaigned against her plan to establish a Luxembourg Movement for Family Planning and Sex Education (Mouvement luxembourgeois pour le planning familial et l'éducation sexuelle) and initiated disciplinary proceedings against her. The movement was finally set up in 1965 and is subsidised by the government from 1972. Marie-Paule Peffer served as president of the movement from 1981 to 1992. When the abortion law was reformed in 1978, family planning centres were given a legal basis.
She was awarded several prizes throughout her career, including the Order of Merit of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in 1997. The towns of Bertrange, Differdange, Mamer, Sanem and Strassen have named streets after her.
Did you know?
Abortion: in Luxembourg, any pregnant woman can request a termination before the end of the 12th week of pregnancy or before the 14th week of amenorrhoea.
The new Abortion Act came into force in December 2014. It introduced major changes: abortion is no longer part of the Criminal Code; the notion of 'situation of distress' no longer figures in the law; and a second psychosocial consultation is no longer compulsory for women over the age of majority.
Further information can be found on the Ministry of Health website.
Several sources were used to write the biographies of the women presented in this article, especially the 'Les rues au féminin' project (National Council of Women of Luxembourg / Conseil national des femmes du Luxembourg), the Fraendag.lu project (CID Fraen an Gender) and the Dictionnaire des auteurs luxembourgeois (National Literature Centre / Centre national de la littérature).