Anyone who has visited Istanbul is familiar with the name Sabiha Gökçen because the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport on the city’s Asian side is named after this famous pilot. Gökçen was the first woman in Turkey to earn a pilot’s license and is also believed to be the world’s first female combat pilot. With a specialization in fighter airplanes and bomber aircrafts, Gökçen was also the adopted daughter of Atatürk (the founder of the republic) himself.
Born in Istanbul in 1884, Halide Edib Adivar was not only a novelist but also a nationalist and political leader for women’s rights who actively fought for the emancipation of women. In her novels, Adivar focused on the low social status of women and criticized their lack of interest in altering their situation. The daughter of an elite family, Adivar left the comforts of her life in Istanbul to move to Ankara with her husband and join the movement during the Turkish War of Independence.
A graduate of the famous Robert College in Istanbul, Safiye Ali was the first Turkish woman to become a medical doctor. The Turkish physician became a role model for many women and was most known for her brave efforts in treating soliders during the Balkan Wars, World War I, and the Turkish War of Independence. Ali also went on to study medicine in Germany in 1916 and opened her own practice in Istanbul in 1922.
A blond beauty who worked as an actress, model, and writer, Cahide Sonku is most notable for being Turkey’s first female director as well as the first Turkish woman to establish her own film production company. Born in 1919, Sonku won her fame through her role in the film Bataklı Damın Kızı Aysel. She then went on to direct three of her own films and by 1949 began to produce her films as well, establishing her production company called Sonku Film.
Selma Riza was not only the first Turkish female journalist and novelist but also the only female member in the Committee of Union and Progress. Born in 1872, her father’s standing as a diplomat of the Ottoman Empire in Austria-Hungary allowed her to study at the Sorbonne University in Paris where she became the only female member of the CUP and began writing for newspapers in French and Turkish. After returning to Istanbul, Riza became the secretary general of the Turkish Red Crescent and also worked hard to turn the Adile Sultan Palace into a school for girls. Her only novel Uhuvvet (Friendship) was finally pubished in 1999 by the Turkish Ministry of Culture.
Not many people know this but Turkey actually gave women the right to elect and to be elected to parliament in 1934, before France (1945), Italy (1946), and Switzerland (1971). Çirpan was among the first women (18 to be exact) who became members of the parliament in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey. Her story stands out because during an excursion to Turkey’s countryside, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk met the female village chief who had also fought for years in the Turkish War of Independence, and was so impressed by her that he urged her to become a member of parliament.