Inspiring Women You Should Know From Greek History

| © Melina Mercouri Foundation
Ethel Dilouambaka

In honour of International Women’s Day, we have compiled a list of some of the most inspiring and influential Greek women. Whether through their work or art, these emblematic figures should continue to be celebrated.

Despina Achladiotou (1889-1982)

Also known as the Lady of Ro, Despina Achladiotourose is a national heroine. For 34 years, she rose the Greek flag over the islet of Ro, off the shores of the island of Kastellorizo, in the Dodecanese. Her patriotic gesture started in 1927, when she moved with her mother and husband to the rocky islet, when the Italians ruled the region after the end of Turkish occupation. The Turks raised a Turkish flag on the islet, but she and her family protested to the Italian authorities, who proceeded to remove it.

While life on the island was harsh, she refused to move back to her homeland, fearing the Turks would regain power over the tiny rock. Kastellorizo and the surrounding islets were ceded to Greece in 1948, but Achladiotou, then a widow, only returned to Kastellorizo in 1961.

She passed away in 1982 and was buried with honors. Today, a memorial dedicated to her patriotism still stands on the tiny island.

The memorial of the Lady of Ro

Melina Mercouri (1920-1994)

An activist and award-winning actress, Melina Mercouri is perhaps one of the most fascinating Greek personalities. A minister of culture and a very charming woman, she lived passionately and wasn’t afraid to portray a prostitute on the big screen in Never on Sunday (1960), with future husband Jules Dassin.

A political activist during the military junta of 1967–1974, she became the first female Minister for Culture of Greece in 1981. One of her most notable contributions is the program of the European Capital of Culture, established in 1985. She fiercely petitioned for the return of the Marbles of the Parthenon, now on display at the British Museum. Even though she passed away over 20 years ago, her vision and her free spirit continue to inspire women today.

Laskarina Bouboulinas (1771-1825)

Born in a prison in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), Laskarina Bouboulinas was the daughter of Stavrianos Pinotsis, a captain from the island of Hydra. When her father died, her mother returned to Hydra, along with her children. They later moved to Spetses, a neighboring island, where Laskarina married her second husband, a wealthy shipowner and captain called Dimitrios Bouboulis, and took his surname. When he passed away, she took over his trading business, which included several ships.

In 1816, she joined the Filiki Etaireia, a dissident organization aiming to break free from Ottoman rule, and in March 1821, 12 days before the official start of the War of Independence, she was the first to raise a revolutionary flag. This fierce lady fought alongside men and even witnessed the fall of Tripolis, before the creation of the new Greek state in 1821. She was expelled from her home in Nafplio, the new capital of the newly established state, and forced to live on Spetses until her death.

She was later posthumously honored with the rank of general in honor of her many achievements. Today, you can visit a museum retelling her achievements in Spetses.

Portrait of Laskarina Bouboulina

Maria Callas (1923–1977)

Known for her angelic voice, singer Maria Callas, born in New York City, received her musical education in Greece and established her career in Italy, debuting at the Verona Arena in 1947. Her American debut followed several years later in 1954 in Norma, in Chicago.

The 1960s saw the decline of her career, and after trying her hands at teaching at Juilliard for a few years, she moved to Paris, where she mysteriously died from a heart attack. Ultimately, the world remembers her tragic love affair with shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis. But to this day, Maria Callas is still considered as one of the best-selling artists of classical music.

Maria Callas and orchestra director Nicola Rescigno, 11 July 1959

Amalia Koutsouri-Vourekas or Lady Fleming (1912 -1986)

Amalia was born in Constantinople in 1912, though she later moved to Greece. During the Axis occupation, she was jailed by the Italians for her participation in the National Resistance. She moved to London in 1946 to study and there she met Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. She married him in 1953, after his first wife died, becoming the second Lady Fleming. However, her husband passed away two years after their union.

She returned to her homeland in 1963, and was arrested by the military junta, though released due to health issues in 1971 and forced into exile. She later returned to Greece after the fall of the junta in 1974. Elected to the Greek Parliament with PASOK, she was an activist and was involved in many human right organizations. She launched the Greek Foundation for Basic Biological Research Alexander Fleming, a non-profit institution actively involved in many research areas, including genetics and molecular oncology.

Eleni Glykatzis-Arveler (1926)

Eleni Glykatzis-Arveler, better known outside Greece as Helene Ahrweiler, is a well-known professor of Byzantine History and an eminent Greek university professor. Originally from Asia Minor, she grew up in Athens and studied at the School of Philosophy of the University of Athens, working as a researcher at the Center for Asia Minor Studies before moving to Paris to continue her studies.

She was awarded the title of the director of the National Center for Scientific Research in France in 1964 and became the first female Rector in History of the Sorbonne University in 1976. She has won countless distinctions during her academic career, and is considered one of the most influential modern figures in the academic and intellectual world. She is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for Greece.

Helene Ahrweiler

Irene Papas (1926)

Irene Papas (also known as Irene Lelekou) was born on September 3, 1926, in a small village near Corinth. Her parents were teachers, which shaped her highly creative imagination and her attraction to the world of art. She learned to read ancient Greek next to her father, and dreamed of becoming an actress. In the 1950s, she participated in national theatrical productions, and is known for her fantastic interpretation of ancient tragedies. She moved on to the big screen and starred in over 70 movies during her career, and even gained international fame. She has received several awards, and appeared many films, including Zorba the Greek (1964) and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001).

Photo of actress Irene Papas from the television program MGM Parade

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