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Interesting and important Hungarian women

Photo :
Veli Bej Fürdő, fürdő, medence

International Women’s Day on March 8 celebrates the achievements of women, while calling for greater equality. To mark this day we take a look at a selection of important and interesting Hungarian women. While this article is far from exhaustive, we think International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to highlight the achievements and contributions of a selection of Hungarian women – whether they’re key historical figures, active in the arts, have fought for human rights and social justice, or have reached incredible sporting results.

There are many other important Hungarian women, of course, so feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section below.
Historical figures
Ilona Zrínyi is a heroine of both Hungarian and Croatian history, and struggled for the independence of Croatia and Hungry from the Austrian Habsburg monarchy in the 1600s. With her second husband Imre Thököly’s fighters being forced to retreat against Imperial Habsburg Forces, Ilona Zrínyi defended the Palanok Castle at Munkács for three years. Eventually defeated she went into exile in Turkey, but her son Francis II Rákóczi would continue the freedom fight.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria aka Empress Sisi was of course Austrian, although she was the Queen of Hungary and was sympathetic to the plight of Hungary during the country’s 1848 revolution against the Habsburgs. She tried to do much for the country, so we’ve decided to mention her. Her great affinity for Hungary meant she studied Hungarian and would visit often. She played a role in the creation of the dual Austrian-Hungarian monarchy in 1867 via negotiations between the Hungarians and the Austrians and is said to have influenced the decision for Count Gyula Andrássy to be named the first Prime Minister of Hungary. After her coronation as the Queen of Hungary she was gifted a Hungarian residence and spent much time at Gödöllő and Budapest. Her fourth child was born in Hungary. Today Elizabeth Bridge is named in her honour, among many other things.  

We must mention the women of Eger, who we remember for their role during the siege of Eger castle in the 16th century when they helped fight the Ottomans. Among the many tales of heroic bravery are that the women poured hot water and oil over the walls of the castle onto the ascending Turks.

Photo: Bertalan Székely - The Women of Eger
We could also mention some Hungarian female saints, including Saint Irene of Hungary, Saint Agnes of Bohemia, Saint Elisabeth of the Árpád Dynasty and St Margaret of the Árpád Dynasty.     

Many women played an important role (alongside men of course) in the 1956 revolution against Soviet occupation. Just one example is revolutionary woman Ilona Tóth who was a medical student at the time and was involved in, and an organiser of, revolutionary activities. She was hanged in 1957 for this and her alleged involvement in a murder of someone thought to be in the dreaded secret service known as the ÁVH, but in 2001 her conviction was overturned.

Human rights and social justice
Margit Slachta was the first woman to be elected to the Hungarian diet (the legislative assembly, predecessor to the National Assembly/Hungarian Parliament). She started the Sisters of Social Service and did much to advance human rights and the rights of women. She also did much to help Jews who were persecuted in the 1940s and was named as a Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, the holocaust memorial centre in Israel. Katalin Karády was also given this title. She was an actress but she was also named a Righteous Among the Nations for risking her life to save Jews during the holocaust.

Blanka Teleki was a campaigner for women’s rights and the promotion of women’s education. In 1846 she opened a school for girls in Budapest. After the revolution of 1848 she was jailed for helping protect revolutionaries. After leaving prison she left to Austria and then France where she took on work to help refugees. Veres Pálné was also a pioneer of women’s education in Hungary in the 1800s.  

Ágnes Heller is an internationally known Hungarian philosopher. A large chunk of her work was devoted to questions around the practical and theoretical impact of socialism on society. She has been recognised both in Hungary and abroad for her work and continued to make significant contributions in academia around the world. Most recently Sena Dagadu, who we interviewed in 2014, a Ghanese and Hungarian popular soul singer, was in 2015 named the honorary ambassador to the European Union’s Year of Development program, a role which will see her contributing to creating a better world within the EU framework.

Photo: Sena Dagadu
When thinking about pioneers in certain industries, we could mention Vilma Hugonnai, Hungary’s first female doctor. She received her qualifications in Zurich but these were not recognised in Hungary until 1897 when she was allowed to practice. Lilly Steinschneider was the first Hungarian female pilot in the Austro-Hungarian empire, she got her pilots license in 1912, while Eszter Pécsi was Hungary’s first female engineer. The incredible thing about explorer Sass Flóra is that she was enslaved for 10 years before being purchased out of slavery by Samuel White Baker who became her husband. They went on an exploration trip of the Nile and discovered Lake Albert and Murchison Falls.
Amongst the dozens and dozens of Hungarian female actresses, writers and creatives we can highlight Magda Szabó – a Hungarian novelist who created some 40 works; Mari Törőcsik – a prize-winning actress of the stage and screen who won the Best Actress award at Cannes among a number of Hungarian and international recognitions; Margit Kaffka – one of the most important Hungarian female authors; and Éva Marton – an internationally-renowned soprano who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the Vienna State Opera and many other major venues. In 2006 Marton received the Persian Golden Lioness Lifetime Achievement Award in operatic music from The World Academy of Arts, Literature and Media. To select one contemporary woman of a younger generation, we must mention Szandra Sándor whose fashion label Nanushka has taken Hungarian clothing design to the world stage.
Photo: InStyle Australia
Krisztina Egerszegi is one of Hungary’s most successful Olympians and considered one of the greatest female swimmers of all time. She won a total of 5 gold medals across three separate Games. She is one of just two female swimmers to win the same event (200m backstroke) at three consecutive games 1988, 92 and 96.  

Judit Polgár is a chess master and considered to be the strongest female chess player in history. She was the world number 1 women’s player since the age of 12 (in 1989) until 2015. She was 9-years-old when she first won an international chess tournament, and before she was even a teenager she was able to beat Grandmasters decades older than her. At 15 she was the youngest ever chess Grandmaster. She competed in men’s tournaments rejecting pressure to compete only against women. In recent years she has focused on children’s education authoring books and working on incorporating chess skills into curriculum.