Kaja Kallas
Kaja Kallas Copyright Raul Mee/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
Copyright Raul Mee/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

International Women's Day: Meet some of Europe's most inspirational female role models

By Natalia Oelsner
Share this article
Share this articleClose Button
Copy/paste the article video embed link below:Copy to clipboardCopied

We celebrate the women who are an inspiration in Europe today.


Sanna Marin | Finland

Marin, 34, is Finland's youngest prime minister and, for a while, was the world's most youthful country leader, before Austria's Sebastian Kurz returned to office.

She leads a coalition government that has five women in key positions, three under 34 years of age.

They are finance minister Katri Kulmuni, 32; interior minister Maria Ohisalo, 34; and education minister Li Andersson, 32.

Associated Press
Sanna MarinAssociated Press

Marin, who began her political career in 2012, is not Finland's first female prime minister: that was Anneli Jäätteenmäki in 2003.

"For me, human rights, equality, or equality of people have never been questions of opinion but the basis of my moral conception," Marin said. "I joined politics because I want to influence how society sees its citizens and their rights.

"Equality means to me that all people have the opportunity to live a good life, to have a decent livelihood and to have an influence and participation in society. The role of politics is to dismantle and change structures that discriminate against people."

Greta Thunberg | Sweden

Greta Thunberg needs no introduction.

The activist shot to prominence as a 15-year-old two years ago when she skipped school every day for three weeks to protest about climate change outside the Swedish parliament.

The concept of missing lessons to protest, under the banner Fridays for Future, spread around the world and inspired her generation to act.

Greta ThunbergAP

Thunberg achieved further fame when she backed her words with action by sailing to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York.

"I shouldn't be up here," an angry Thunberg told the summit. "I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean.

"You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and childhood with your empty words."

Milena Kadieva | Bulgaria

Milena Kadieva recently triumphed at the Women of Europe awards where she was recognised for "undertaking extraordinary actions at the grassroots level".

It was for setting up the Gender Alternatives Foundation, which specialises in helping victims of violence against women.

It has a team of lawyers, psychologists and social workers who support women in difficult economic or social situations.

European Movement International
Milena KadievaEuropean Movement International

“My mission as a human rights lawyer has always been to protect women and girls from violence, to work for gender equality and to support those in need," accepting her prize.

"It is a recognition of every active woman in Europe. It is an inspiration to all women and girls in Europe that their actions matter. It is a sign that even the work of a single woman could change the world.”


Laura Codruta Kövesi | Romania

Laura Kövesi led the fight against graft in what is considered one of the EU's most corrupt countries.

She headed up Romania's National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) and secured convictions against ministers, mayors and MPs.

Kövesi won plaudits in Brussels and other European capitals but was controversially sacked while Romania's Social Democrats (PSD) were in power.

One of Romania’s most high-profile politicians, Liviu Dragnea, who was head of PSD when Kovesi was forced out, was jailed last May for three-and-a-half years for corruption.

Laura KovesiAFP

"In my view, to be powerful means to gain the trust of the people, and importantly, to succeed in keeping it," said Kövesi as she picked up a Women in Power award at the Women of Europe Awards 2019.


"In my line of work, you can do so only by working professionally, being consequent and by respecting the law at all times.

"This award belongs equally to all of the people that have supported me in the fight against corruption, and in upholding the rule of law and European values."

Johanna Nejedlová | Czech Republic

Johanna Nejedlová is co-founder of Konsent, a young feminist group whose aim is to help achieve gender equality in the Czech Republic by opposing sexism, deconstructing the myths around rape and promoting consensual sex.

She was recognised recently at the Women of Europe Awards 2019.

European Movement International
Johanna NejedlováEuropean Movement International

“It’s imperative to eliminate violence against women in order to achieve equality," she said. "We cannot expect women to truly flourish, both personally and professionally, if their safety remains threatened by harassment, assault or rape."


"We need to focus on creating a safer and better environment for women. And, there is no shortage of tools to do so. We need politicians and public figures to speak up and make gender-based sexual violence their priority and the first step on the long journey towards gender equality is the ratification and implementation of the Istanbul Convention in all European countries.”

Kiki Dimoula | Greece

Kiki Dimoula, one of Greece's best-known poets, died last month aged 88.

Her reputation was firmly established by the 1960s and, from the 1970s onwards, she received many awards, including the European Prize for Literature in 2009.

She became a member of the Athens Academy in 2002, the third woman to be elected to the literature chair.

Athens News Agency
Kiki DimoulaAthens News Agency

"I use humour to exorcise death," she once explained. "Poetry," said Dimoula, who often invoked the memory of her husband, who died in 1985, "can make absence into presence. I call on the dead. I invoke death."


Called by a critic "a poet of emotion but not of sentimentality," Dimoula had proclaimed that "we fall in love to conquer the fear of not feeling," insisting that love is always "a matter of one person, not of two" but also calling love "a victim of our pandering ego".

Beate Uhse | Germany

She is a controversial figure, but one thing is certain: Beate Uhse has changed Germany!

The entrepreneur broke taboos with the first sex shops in prudish Germany after the war and brought the topic of sexuality and eroticism and especially female lust into the public eye.

Even if the Uhse Group went bankrupt - the "Enlightenment of the Prudish Nation" was one of the most successful German women entrepreneurs.

Rob C. Croes / Anefo/ Nationaal Archief
Beate UhseRob C. Croes / Anefo/ Nationaal Archief

With her “Mail order for marriage hygiene”, she made a contribution to social change and a freer way of dealing with sexuality, against the toughest opposition from the judiciary and church.


Today Beate Uhse is judged ambiguously. For many feminists, Flensburg is a red cloth. She produced pornography that did not necessarily contribute to the emancipation of women, but rather served male fantasies.

Society finally made peace with the sex pioneer and awarded her the Federal Cross of Merit.

Adèle Haenel | France

French actress Adèle Haenel recently hit the headlines after storming out of the Césars film awards ceremony over film director Roman Polanski — charged with raping a 13-year-old girl in 1977 — winning an award

By publicly opening up about the sexual assault she says she was a victim of as a teen, the 31-year-old has cast a bright light on the darker corners of the small elite world that is French cinema.

Last autumn, Haenel said she was sexually harassed as a 12-year-old by the French director Christophe Ruggia in her debut film. Haenel filed a police complaint and Ruggia was charged in January with assault of a child by a person in authority. Ruggia has denied any wrongdoing.


Explaining her decision to walk out of the Césars, she said: "I was pissed off, but I wouldn't have lost it if it wasn't for that guy behind me who yelled 'Bravo Roman!' when Polanski won. That was the straw that broke the camel's back. I said 'shame, shame'."

Adele HaenelAFP

Judit Polgár | Hungary

Judit Polgár is a 43-year-old Hungarian chess grandmaster and generally considered the strongest female chess player of all time.

Polgár is the only woman to have won a game against a reigning world number one player and has defeated eleven current or former world champions in either rapid or classical chess.

Traditionally, chess had been a male-dominated activity, and women were often seen as weaker players, thus advancing the idea of a having a separate world championship.

Judit PolgárAFP

However, from the beginning, László, her father, was against the idea that his daughters had to participate in female-only events.


"Women are able to achieve results similar, in fields of intellectual activities, to that of men," he wrote.

"Chess is a form of intellectual activity, so this applies to chess. Accordingly, we reject any kind of discrimination in this respect."

Aiste Ptakauske | Lithuania

Aiste Ptakauske has many hats: an award-winning writer, film screenwriter and director, a culture project manager, lecturer, cultural coach, and onstage ambassador of Lithuania.

But she laughs and shrugs off the multiple titles: “In a word, I’m a content creator and what stems from that! Surely, empowerment of others, especially women, is very and very important to me.”

You can also spot her at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University, where she is the managing producer of a student television network.

The Baltic Times
Aiste PtakauskeThe Baltic Times

Vita Liberte | Latvia

As lawyer and entrepreneur, Vita Liberte, chief executive of a Riga legal firm, moves within the male-dominated board meetings and courtrooms.

An alumna of the prestigious New York University, Liberte is a popular speaker at local and international conferences.

“I firmly believe that the most effective teams are those made up of a diverse mix of people, each bringing different individual strengths, skills and viewpoints," Liberte told Euronews.

The Baltic Times
Vita LiberteThe Baltic Times

"Across Europe, more than 50 per cent of university graduates are female. If companies are avoiding empowerment of women then they are losing out on talent.

"When you value diversity, you encourage the exchange of different and contrasting ideas and this, in turn, delivers fresh business perspectives and innovative solutions.”


Kaja Kallas | Estonia

Former MEP Kaja Kallas is chairwoman of the opposition Estonian Reform Party and a tough fighter on gender equality.

"Kallas has definitely brought a tangible change to the national legislature, infusing it with effervescent young energy, sagacity and charisma," said Linas Jegelevicius, editor-in-chief of The Baltic Times.

A year ago, she was on track to become Estonia’s first female prime minister, but the country's parliament rejected her.

Raul Mee/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
Kaja KallasRaul Mee/Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

A lawyer by training, she was advised to act more masculine while on the campaign trail, such as swapping the skirt for trousers and even speak in a lower voice to win votes of the traditionalists, she recalled in a Euronews interview.

“The leaders of our country have been mostly male, so people may think there's something wrong with me because I'm different," she said. "But there's nothing wrong with me, I'm just a different gender.”


Antoinette Spaak | Belgium

Antoinette Spaak is a Belgian feminist and politician.

Born in 1928, she became the first Belgian woman to be head of a political party when she took over the leadership of the Front démocratique des francophones (FDF), the party to which her father, Belgian statesman Paul-Henri Spaak, belonged. She entered politics after his death in 1972. She remained at the head of the FDF from 1977 to 1982.

Antoinette SpaakAFP

From 1988 to 1991, she was a member of parliament for the Brussels constituency, where she chaired the Council of the French Community of Belgium.

King Baudoin awarded her the honorary title of Minister of State in 1983.

She was also a Member of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1984 and then from 1994 to 1999.


Fátima Cardoso | Portugal

Fátima Cardoso, 53, is an award-winning oncologist who's had a huge impact on society.

Born in Africa, Cardoso moved to Portugal aged eight, studied in Amadora and was an intern at the Oncology Portuguese Institut (IPO) in Porto, before becoming an international leader in breast cancer research.

Cardoso is now the director of the breast unit of the Champalimaud Clinical Centre in Lisbon

The European School of Oncology (ESO), together with the Advanced Breast Cancer Global Alliance, awarded Cardoso with the 2019 Advanced Breast Cancer Award "in recognition of her foresight in understanding the importance of advanced breast cancer and for launching a global alliance against it".

Joaquim Leal / Fundação Champalimaud
Fátima CardosoJoaquim Leal / Fundação Champalimaud

The ABC Global Alliance was launched by Cardoso in 2016 in Paris and the project has grown, having currently 177 members from more than 80 countries worldwide.


Its mission is to improve and extend the lives of women and men living with advanced breast cancer around the world and to strive for a cure, to raise awareness of advanced breast cancer and lobby worldwide for the improvement of the lives of patients with this type of cancer.

She is editor-in-chief of The Breast Journal, associate editor of the European Journal of Cancer and an editorial board member of several other journals. She has received several educational and research international grants and was also awarded in 2015 with the prestigious Order of Santiago's Sword for Scientific Merit.

Monica Cirinnà | Italy

Monica Cirinnà, 57, is an Italian member of Senate. The law allowing same-sex civil unions, passed in 2016, is named after her.

Born and raised in a Catholic family, she spent 20 years working for the municipality of Rome and is a life-long environmental, women and animal rights activist.

She made Rome open the first office for animal rights, contributed to the national law that bans cats and dogs suppression in public doghouses and she forced former Rome mayor, Gianni Alemanno, to appoint more women in his cabinet.


She lives on a farm with her husband, another politician of the Democratic Party, his four children and a lot of animals.

She fought for the equivalence between gay marriage and heterosexual marriage, but she had to accept a watered-down version of her proposed law. She also fought for stepchild adoption. She is vegetarian.

Doreen Lawrence | UK

After the racist murder of her teenage son Stephen in 1993, Doreen Lawrence campaigned for reform of the police service, pushing for an investigation that would eventually change the UK justice system.

Along with her then-husband, Stephen's father Neville, Lawrence claimed that the catalogue of errors in the Metropolitan Police's bungled investigation into her son's murder was due to racism in the force.

After six years of her campaigning for a public inquiry, in 1999 this was granted. The inquiry concluded that the Metropolitan Police was "institutionally racist" and this was why they had failed to solve Stephen's murder.


The report made 70 recommendations as to how not just the police but the judiciary, the civil service and the NHS should change in terms of race relations, and within two years, 67 of them had come into force.

Doreen LawrenceAP

Sir William Macpherson, who led the inquiry, said that it had come about as a direct result of the campaigning of Doreen and Neville Lawrence.

One of these reforms, the abolition of the "double jeopardy rule" under which previously no person could be tried for the same crime twice, allowed two men previously acquitted of the crime to be convicted of Stephen's murder in 2012.

Lawrence has continued to campaign for justice for victims of racially motivated crime. She founded the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which supports young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in overcoming discrimination to achieve their professional goals. She was awarded an OBE for services to community relations in 2003 and was made a Life Peer in 2013, making her Baroness Lawrence. In 2014 she was named Britain's most influential woman by BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour.

Svetlana Gannushkina | Russia

Svetlana Gannushkina is a prominent Russian rights activist. She was born in Moscow in 1942. For many years she worked as a professor of mathematics.


In 1990 she founded the Civic Assistance Committee – an NGO providing support, humanitarian aid and education to migrants and refugees in Russia. Since 2015 the organisation is labelled a “foreign agent” by the Russian government.

She was a member of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Svetlana GannushkinaAP

Christiane Brunner | Switzerland

Christiane Brunner, born in 1947 into a family of modest means, is responsible for the almost half a million Swiss women who took to the streets in 1991 for the country’s first-ever women's strike, at a time when they were no mobile phones, social networks, email or websites to share the news.

Involvement in activism and politics has been her life. As early as 1969, she co-founded the Women's Liberation Movement (MLF) in Switzerland. She holds a law degree and has worked as a lawyer, but she has also chaired trade unions and the Swiss Socialist Party.

In 1993, while she was a National Councillor (in the lower house), her parliamentary group selected her as the candidate for an empty seat in the Federal Council, a collegiate authority acting as head of government and head of State. She would not be elected, due to a violent sexist campaign waged against her, which would turn her into a symbol of the struggle for women's place in politics. She was later elected State Councillor in Switzerland's upper house for 11 years.


Tetiana Yalovchak | Ukraine

Tetiana Yalovchak is a Ukrainian climber, motivation speaker and author.

She is the first Ukrainian woman to conquer the highest summits on each of the world’s seven continents.

Yalovchak was born in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine, occupied by Russia-backed separatists since 2014. The personal tragedy of losing her home to the conflict has turned out to be an extra motivation.

"I know you can pick up all the pain and direct it into achievements," she said.

She also conquered the three highest peaks in the UK in 24 hours and swam across Bosphorus.


Besides her achievements in sports, Yalovchak is also an accomplished motivational speaker. She is a motivation trainer in a number of leading world companies like Danone and Nestle. She is a much-in-demand speaker at international conferences and higher education institutions. She has just published a motivation book in Ukrainian which translates as "Climb your Everest".

Her mission is to inspire people: "I don't call you to the mountains. I invite you to put big goals like Everest in front of you and to achieve them."

Facebook/Tatyana Yalovchak
Tatyana YalovchakFacebook/Tatyana Yalovchak

Video editor • Christophe Pitiot

Share this article

You might also like