Inspiring Women Who Played a Key Role in the EU

The following women were not part of the 1979 European elections but they played a key role in the founding of the EU and were inspiring EU pioneers.

Ursula Hirschmann

Ursula Hirschmann - France

Ursula Hirschmann

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Ursula Hirschmann (1913-1991). Born in Germany. Activist, anti-Fascist, feminist and founding European federalist.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Berlin, in 1932 Ursula Hirschmann joined the youth organisation of the Social Democratic Party in resistance to the advance of the Nazis. After meeting and then marrying Eugenio Colorni, a young Italian philosopher and socialist, while in exile in Paris during the mid-1930s, Hirschmann became active in the clandestine anti-fascist opposition in her native Italy. When Colorni was arrested and imprisoned on the island of Ventotene, she followed her husband there. There they met Ernesto Rossi and Altiero Spinelli, who, in 1941, co-authored the Ventotene Manifesto ‘for a free and united Europe’, widely regarded as the starting point for European federalism.

The Manifesto was a blueprint for a democratic European Union that could be created after the war. Hirschmann smuggled the manifesto to mainland Italy and helped to disseminate it. In August 1943 in Milan, she was one of the founders of the European Federalist Movement along with Spinelli, after his escape from Ventotene. In 1975, Hirschmann founded the Association Femmes pour l’Europe in Brussels.

Early years

Born in 1913, the young Ursula Hirschmann began her journey of political discovery and activism by attending events organised by both the Socialist and German Social Democratic Party in her home city of Berlin. In 1932, the young Jewish economics student’s path took a more radical turn, which saw her become involved with communist resistance groups. A year later, with the Nazi crackdown on opposition groups gaining pace, she and her brother Albert (who would become a prominent economist and political scientist in later life) moved to Paris. This was the beginning of a long exile for Hirschmann and a turning point in her conversion to the cause of European federalism.

While in Paris, she and Albert met Eugenio Colorni, a young Italian philosopher and socialist whom they had known in Berlin. Following him back to Italy, Hirschmann married Colorni in 1935. The couple became heavily involved in the anti-fascist movement in Italy. However, this radical activism led to Colorni’s arrest and exile to the island of Ventotene. Hirschmann gained permission from the authorities to follow Colorni to Ventotene, where they met other anti-fascist intellectuals such as Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi.

At the birth of European federalism

This meeting of minds eventually led to the 1941 Ventotene Manifesto, ‘for a free and united Europe’. Written secretly on cigarette papers, the Manifesto was both a political statement and a blueprint for a democratic federation of Europe. The Manifesto called for a break with Europe’s past to form a new political system through a restructuring of politics and extensive social reform.

After escaping from Ventotene, Ursula managed to bring the text of the Manifesto to the mainland and helped to draft and disseminate it. It was widely read by those fighting with the Italian resistance against the Nazis. Hirschmann arrived in Milan and, with Spinelli and other activists, founded the Movimento Federalista Europeo, the European Federalist Movement, in 1943, as Allied forces pushed into Italy from the south. It was in Milan that the first meeting for the constitution of the federalist movement was held in August of that year, leading to the approval of the six cornerstones of federalist thought that were conceived in Ventotene.

Eugenio Colorni was murdered by fascists in Rome in 1944. Hirschmann married Altiero Spinelli the following year. They fled to Switzerland where they worked together to internationalise the European Federalist Movement, which led to Hirschmann’s involvement in organising the first international federalist congress in Paris in 1945. The couple eventually settled in Rome

Hirschmann’s political commitment did not end after the Second World War. In 1975, she founded the Association Femmes pour l’Europe (Women for Europe) in Brussels, a movement that brought together women from both feminist and political circles and continues to promote gender equality. Ursula Hirschmann had three daughters, Silvia, Renata, and Eva, by her first husband Eugenio Colorni, and three daughters with Altiero Spinelli: Diana, Sara, and the Italian journalist and parliamentarian Barbara Spinelli. In December 1975, Hirschmann suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, from which she never fully recovered. She died in 1991 aged 77

Nicole Fontaine

Ursula Hirschmann - France

Nicole Fontaine

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Nicole Fontaine (1942-2018). Born in France. Politician and educator.

The European Parliament’s second female President was a persuasive politician and devoted champion of Europe who oversaw the adoption of the euro. Nicole Fontaine, who was President from 1999-2002, set about reforming the European Parliament’s working methods to bring it closer to European citizens. In her maiden speech to the European Council in Tampere, Finland, in October 1999, she underlined the importance of taking account of people’s day-to-day concerns. She argued for an ‘ambitious approach aimed at providing the Union with a charter of fundamental rights’. In December 2000 she signed the Charter of Fundamental Rights on behalf of the European Parliament. Fontaine was an educator as well as a politician. She was a professor at ESCP Europe, the world’s oldest business school, and was Jean Monnet Chair at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis.

Born on 16 January 1942 in Grainville-Ymauville, Normandy, Nicole Fontaine was the daughter of a doctor and the granddaughter of primary school teachers. She studied law and became a member of the bar of the department of Hauts-de-Seine, but education was to remain important to her. Fontaine was living in Paris’ Latin Quarter during the 1968 riots by students and workers. She had just finished at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Paris Institute of Political Studies) and was expecting her first child. Describing herself more as ‘an observer of events rather than a participator’, she later reflected that the protests of May 1968 had hastened inevitable change in French society. Fontaine began her career at the Secrétariat général de l’Enseignement catholique (Catholic Education Secretariat), responsible for relations between the private education sector and the public authorities. She subsequently played a major role in the legislative and statutory changes that shaped the legal framework in this area. She was a member of the Conseil Supérieur de l’Education Nationale (French National Education Council) from 1975 to 1981 and of the Conseil économique et social (Economic and Social Council) from 1980 to 1984. Fontaine rose to greater prominence during national debates on private education and was elected to the European Parliament in June 1984.

From the very start of her parliamentary career, Nicole Fontaine worked for a citizens’ Europe, focusing on projects concerning youth education and the mutual recognition of academic qualifications, as well as women’s rights and gender equality. She served twice as Vice-President, from 1989 to 1994 and from 1994 to 1999. She brokered agreements between the European Parliament and the Member States on key legislation, including two EU youth programmes (Socrates and Youth for Europe). Her diplomatic skills were widely recognised. In 1999, The Economist described her as ‘a consensus-seeker, coalition-builder, conciliator… nowhere more at home than in the byzantine corridors of Europe, canvassing cross-party support, flashing her smile, teasing out compromise’. Nicole Fontaine was elected President of the European Parliament on 20 July 1999. Her first test was the appointment of a new Commission led by Romano Prodi following the collapse of the Santer Commission in March 1999. She enjoyed good relations with both the new Commission and with Member States in the Council of Ministers. Working tirelessly for dialogue and peace, Fontaine famously brought together the Presidents of the Israeli and Palestinian parliaments for an historic handshake in Strasbourg in 2000. In April 2001 she invited Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the VicePresident of Afghanistan, to visit Strasbourg to speak about the situation in his country. She was particularly concerned about the plight of Afghan women. The following month she invited three women who had secretly escaped Kabul to the European Parliament to give their testimony. She described the meeting as among the ‘most moving moments’ of her Presidency. In 2002, Fontaine left the European Parliament to become France’s Minister for Industry in the government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Between 2004 and 2005, she headed the Scelles Foundation, which fights against sexual exploitation. She was re-elected to the European Parliament in 2004. Nicole Fontaine was also affiliate professor at ESCP Europe, and wrote a number of books on the work of the European Parliament.

Nicole Fontaine was immersed in the debate on how to improve the European Union right up to the last years of her life. Just before the UK referendum on EU membership in June 2016, she published Brexit, Une Chance? Repenser l’Europe (Brexit: An Opportunity? Rethinking Europe) with French journalist François Poulet-Mathis. The book is an objective look at the reasons behind public disaffection with the EU. Always a champion of Europe, Nicole Fontaine looked at how to turn it into an opportunity to address the needs of citizens and strengthen the European Union. Nicole Fontaine died on 17 May 2018 at the age of 76. Her devotion to European ideals was recognised during her lifetime by a number of awards, including the Robert Schuman Medal and the Commandeur dans l’Ordre National du Mérite (Commander of the National Order of Merit).

Melina Mecouri

Simone MARTIN MEP - France

Melina Mecouri

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Melina Mecouri (1920-1994). Born in Greece. Actor, politician and a champion of culture.

The Greek actor and politician Melina Mercouri brought a fire and passion to everything she did; from gracing stage and screen in the early part of her life, to fighting the fascist junta that took control of Greece in 1967 and campaigning for the protection and promotion of culture as a politician. Mercouri was a leading theatre actor in Greece before becoming an international film star with her award-winning performance in “Never on Sunday”. She became politicised by the 1967 coup d’état in Greece and spent the following years campaigning around the world for the removal of the colonels’ junta. After democracy was restored in 1974, Mercouri returned to her homeland to begin a political career. She became Greece’s longest serving Minister of Culture and in her role as a champion of Greek and European culture had many achievements, especially the creation of the European Capital of Culture initiative.

Born into a prominent Athenian family on 18 October 1920, Maria Amalia ‘Melina’ Mercouri seemed destined to go into politics like her father, United Democratic Left party Minister Stamatis Mercouris, and her grandfather, Spyros Mercouris, who had been mayor of Athens. This would prove to be the case but it took over four decades before she became actively involved in politics, playing a leading role in the struggle against the colonels’ junta that took control of Greece after a military coup in 1967. Before this political epiphany, Melina was one of Greece’s most celebrated actors. A year after graduating from drama school in 1944, she played Electra in the National Theatre of Greece’s production of Eugene O’ Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. Her breakthrough performance was as Blanche Dubois in the 1949 production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Soon after, Mercouri left for Paris where she lived and acted until she returned to Greece in 1955. During a period of her career where she appeared in classic plays including Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Anouilh’s L’Alouette, she joined the theatre actors’ trade union movement and her political journey began.

Mercouri’s film career took off in the late 1950s and she found international acclaim in the role of Ilia in the Oscar nominated Never on Sunday, winning the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1960. She reprised the role in the 1967 stage version on Broadway. It was during this theatre run in New York, on April 21, that a group of right-wing army officers, led by Brigadier General Stylianos Pattakos and Colonels George Papadopoulos and Nikolaos Makarezos, seized power in Greece in a coup d’état. Mercouri soon became one of the most prominent leaders of the expatriate movement to overthrow the junta and had her Greek citizenship revoked by Pattakos as a result. Her famous riposte to this was ”I was born a Greek and I’ll die a Greek. Pattakos was born a fascist and he’ll die a fascist”. Throughout the junta’s 7-year rule, Melina travelled extensively to campaign against the dictatorship, spreading awareness about the situation in Greece and calling for the isolation and removal of the colonels. This outspoken opposition led to an assassination attempt in Genoa, Italy, but Mercouri remained undeterred and continued campaigning against the junta until it fell in 1974.

After democracy was restored, Mercouri returned to Greece where she helped to form the Pan Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK), and became actively involved in the country’s women’s movement. She became a member of the party’s Central Committee and was elected to Parliament in 1977 with the highest number of votes in the whole of Greece. After this victory, she devoted all her energy to politics and culture. When her party won the 1981 elections, Mercouri was appointed Minister of Culture, a post she held for 8 years, during which time she brought the culture portfolio to the forefront of Greek politics. Her achievements as Minister of Culture transformed her country: from the integration of the archaeological sites of Athens into a traffic-free area, to introducing free access to museums and archaeological sites for Greek citizens as part of an overall education effort. She launched the campaign for the return of the Parthenon marbles on display in the British Museum and, unsurprisingly, she actively championed Greek theatre and cinema.

One of her greatest achievements was the establishment of the European Capitals of Culture, with Athens chosen as the first capital in 1985. This followed a meeting she organised with the Culture Ministers of the ten EU Member States during the first Greek presidency of the Council in 1983. Pointing out that although there was no reference to cultural issues in the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community (the forerunner of the EU), Mercouri encouraged the other ministers to join her in efforts to increase cultural awareness across Europe. This was the first of what would become regular meetings between Europe’s Ministers of Culture, which still continue.

Mercouri’s involvement and influence in Europe deepened in 1988 during the second Greek presidency of the Council when she began campaigning for dialogue and cooperation with the countries of eastern Europe at a time of great upheaval. As the Cold War ended and the Iron Curtain was destroyed, Mercouri was a leading instigator of the European Cultural Month initiative, which launched in 1990 and focussed on central and eastern European countries in particular.

Mercouri continued to act on stage in the early 1990s while remaining as a member of parliament. When PASOK returned to power in 1993, Mercouri returned to the Ministry of Culture, where she focused on establishing links between culture and education at all levels. Melina Mercouri died on 6 March 1994. She left behind her husband, the film director Jules Dassin, with whom she worked regularly throughout her acting career.

Marga Klompé

Simone MARTIN MEP - France

Marga Klompé

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Marga Klompé (1912-1986). Born in the Netherlands. A Scientist, politician and champion of the underprivileged.

Marga Klompé was a scientist and teacher who was active in the Dutch resistance during the Second World War. She became a member of the Dutch Parliament in 1948 and was one of the negotiators of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on Human Rights. In 1952 Klompé became the first female member of the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the European Parliament. There she contributed to the work that led to the Treaties of Rome. In 1956 she become the Netherlands’ first female government minister and one of her achievements was the introduction of the General Assistance Act which made social protection a right for everybody in the Netherlands.

Margaretha Albertina Maria ‘Marga’ Klompé, was born on 16 August 1912 in Arnhem, the Netherlands. She was the second of five children born to Johannes Klompé, who owned a stationery shop, and Ursula Verdang, a first generation German immigrant. When Klompé’s father became sick and lost his business in the 1930s, the family was plunged into poverty. This first-hand experience of poverty had a deep effect on Klompé. She went on to become a champion of the marginalised and underprivileged. A bright student, Klompé went to Utrecht University in 1929 where she gained a masters degree in 1937. She taught chemistry and physics at the Mater Dei High School for girls in Nijmegen between 1932 and 1949 and was awarded a PhD in mathematics and physics in 1941. The following year she began studying medicine but the Second World War stopped her from finishing the course. Klompé joined the Dutch underground resistance, where she became a leader, building a large network of women volunteers.

After the end of the war, Klompé moved into politics, an uncommon role for women at this time. A member of the Catholic People’s Party, she was sworn into the lower house of the Dutch Parliament, the House of Representatives, in August 1948. Klompé was a member of the Dutch delegation to the United Nations where she served on the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, which dealt with human rights and humanitarian issues, and was involved in negotiating the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Marga Klompé became the first female member of the European Coal and Steel Community’s Common Assembly, the forerunner of today’s European Parliament, which held its first session in 1952. Before direct elections took place in 1979, members were delegates of their national parliaments. In 1955, Klompé was appointed to a working party set up by the Assembly that focused on improving the implementation and extending the powers of the European Coal and Steel Community and on creating a single market that extended beyond the coal and steel sector. In 1956, Klompé left the Assembly to join the Dutch centre-left coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Willem Drees, as the Netherlands’ first female minister.

As Minister of Social Work, one of her greatest achievements was the General Assistance Act, which replaced the earlier poor law. The legislation, which came into force in 1965, made social protection a right for everyone. She sought to shift the focus away from charity and towards strengthening the provision of social protection by the state. Her legacy also includes the Elderly Homes Bill to address ageing in Dutch society and the Caravan Bill to support people with a nomadic lifestyle. She was Minister of Culture, Recreation and Social Work between 1966 and 1971 in the cabinet of Prime Minister Piet de Jong. In 1971, Klompé was given the title of Minister of State, an honour granted in the Netherlands to senior politicians of great merit at the end of their career. After leaving politics Klompé continued to campaign for international justice and social responsibility, including criticism of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Klompé had a strong Catholic faith. Pope Paul VI appointed her as chair of the Dutch National Commission for Justice and Peace and she was one of the founders of the union of Catholic female graduates and of the Catholic women’s volunteer service. Marga Klompé was respected and admired as a woman of great faith, humanity and personal conviction. The high esteem in which she was held is reflected by the many streets, schools and health facilities in the Netherlands that carry her name. Marga Klompé died on 28 October 1986 in The Hague.