Lets face it, if you had been born in a backwards village in the backwaters of Greece in the 19th century, you would have faced marriage in your teens to a man you had never met or met for a brief coffee that was twice your age. You would have been beaten if you did not follow his dictates. Your destiny for marriage partner, the decisive factor for your life, would depend on your dowry. Think about it– a big pine chest with a few linens and silver cups–would determine your future. You would live “kept in line” by the tyranny of the honor code: you could not walk outside the boundaries of your rigid gender role, not be seen walking by yourself or speaking to outside your immediate kin by fear that you would be spoiling your family’s reputation. You would probably be illiterate or have an elementary education, because women could not attend university like their brothers. You would be relegated to a life of raising children, shackled to the sink and stove. If this state of affairs resembles too closely a “Nightmare in Saudi Arabia” documentary, take a deep breath of relief that you as a Greek woman living in the Diaspora has more freedom than some of your counterparts back in the Old Country.
What you might not realize is that the freedoms Greek women enjoy only recently came about. The dowry system was banned in 1983, that’s in your lifetime. Greek women earned the right to vote in 1952, almost 40 years after the women in the US. Arranged marriage still happens in Greece and Cyprus, and even in the US (Callinicos’ classic text of growing up female in America American Aphrodite documented the practice in late 1970’s New Jersey).
In patriarchy oppressed Crete, where the “extreme” men have taboos of enganging in “female” domestic work such as cleaning up after their meal for fear of losing their masculinity, a forward-thinking woman rose up to champion the rights of women. You have never heard of her, Kalliroi Parren, but this is her story.
Kalliroi Siganou Parren (1859–1940) is remarkable as the founder of the Greek women’s rights movement, the first Greek female journalist with an international following, publisher of the first journal dedicated to women’s rights, political reformer and philanthropist.
Kalliroi Siganou-Parren was born in 1859 in Platanias, a village in the Amari Valley near Rethymnon, Crete. She was the first to introduce feminism to Greece, mainly through her weekly ‘Ladies Journal’ (Εφημερίδα των Κυριών) and therefore she can also be regarded as the first female journalist in Greece.
During the last half of the nineteenth century the Greek nation was trying to define itself as a modern European state but also as the bearer of ancient Greek customs, traditions and lore. The question of women’s rights and the role of women in society influenced this cultural process and was reflected in the arts and the cultural life of the time.
Kallirroi Siganou-Parren advanced her feminist ideas through her writing and her political work on this background of a state trying to find its cultural identity. At first her family lived in Rethymnon but due to events during one of the many Cretan uprisings against the Turkish occupation of Crete (1866-1869) the family was forced to flee Crete and settle in Athens. Here, in 1879 she graduated from ‘Arsakeion’ – a private institution that trained female teachers run by nuns.
For a while she worked as the headmistress of a girls school in Odessa until she met her husband, the Anglo-French journalist Jean Parren. The couple moved back to Athens and the journalistic milieu she met here inspired what she called her ‘mania for writing’. She was foremost occupied with women’s emancipation through education and work.
The ‘Ladies Journal’ that were soon to become an intellectual forum for scholarly women she founded in 1887. It became one of the most successful periodicals of the time and until 1917. In her articles Parren brought forward the first coherent ideas about a women’s liberation programme in Greece redefining traditional gender roles within the framework of the Greek nationalist ideology of the time. Moderate, as it may seem today, it provoked an outcry in those days.
Apart from journalism Parren also wrote translations, interviews, travel journals, biographies, novels and plays. In one of her most well-known works, the trilogy ‘The Book of Dawn’ (1899-1903) she described the emancipation of women as a process of self-discovery gradually releasing women from the restraints of social conventions leading towards equal relations between male and female roles in society. She describes her vision of women as educated and independent but also maternal-capable and the nationalist sentiments of the time is reflected in the idea that women should raise citizens that are willing to sacrifice everything for the security and social progress of their nation.
In 1896 she also founded the ‘Union for the Emancipation of Women’ and the ‘Union of Greek Women’. She educated women in reading and writing, founded hospitals and homes for widows and orphans. It was through her influence that women were permitted to study at the Universities in Greece and women doctors were appointed to women’s prisons. She also campaigned for a legislation to protect women in paid employment.
Because she was opposed to Greece participating in World War I she was exiled to the island of Hydra in 1917 and therefore had to close down her newspaper. But on her return the following year she immediately took up her work again. In between the two world wars she presided over the ‘Lykeion ton Ellidon’ (Lyceum of Greek Women) but other women’s organisations had been formed and gradually she became a representative of the more conservative position among the women’s liberation movements in Greece. Her organisation mainly engaged in philanthropic work.
She was awarded the Silver medal of the Athens Academy, the Silver Medal of the Red Cross and the Medal of the Municipality of Athens. Kalliroi Siganou-Parren never had any children. She lived with Jean Parren until her death in 1940. She is buried at the First Cemetery in Athens.
If it was not for her foresight, you and your sisters would not be the doctors, lawyers, corporate professionals that you are allowed to be today in addition to the mothers and grandmothers you have always taken as a given. A new wave of reformers must come up through the ranks especially in the wake of the Eurocrisis where women’s work has been devalued (I heard of a neighbor, a single mom, working for 12-hour shifts in a bakery in Athens for 400 euros a month) and many of the social services allocated to women and children have been cut.
Now more than ever we need to support women and the institutions that help them gain economic independence, counseling, professional networking, and the ability to live fulfilled lives. Please help support the Hellinida Foundation which supports Greek women through education, advocacy, and celebration.