Marie Belpaire at her desk, about 1910 | Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Letterenhuis, tg:lhph:11951

Arts & Sciences
1853 - 1948
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Marie Belpaire

Girls Go to School

In the 19th century educational opportunities for women from all levels of society were extremely restricted. The Catholic writer Marie Belpaire made it her life’s work to remedy the situation. She organised education for girls and lobbied strongly for the admission of women to colleges and universities.

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From 1874 Belpaire, with private capital, organised primary and vocational education for working-class girls in Antwerp. Her involvement shifted in the 1890s from working-class education to secondary and higher education for middle-class women. Initially instruction was in French but from 1911 also in Dutch in the Sint-Ludgardisschool. That was new. Belpaire was one of those involved in the launch of the Catholic Flemish College Extension for Women, where women could study science and philosophy. Her crowning achievement was the foundation in 1919 of the Catholic Flemish College for Women in Antwerp. But Belpaire did more: for decades she played a key role in pro-Flemish intellectual and literary life.

Kantklossende kinderen.

Leuven, KADOC-KU Leuven, Archief Lammens-Verhaegen, 3a32/06A, Dossier 759

In the second half of the 19th century girls from poor families in East- and West-Flanders learned a minimum of reading and arithmetic in so-called lace schools. Mostly those girls were a source of cheap labour. Here they are at work in the lace school of the Apostolines in Bruges.

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Girls Go to School

The 19th-century feminists realised that emancipation for the women would not come without proper education. Advanced studies for girls from the bourgeoisie, however, clashed with the ideal image of the woman as wife and mother. Because of poverty and child labour children from the lower classes had no chance at all of good schooling.

For boys the government had organised secondary education since 1850. After primary school girls’ choice was limited to the schools of certain religious congregations. They offered only a limited range of subjects, such as domestic economy and primary school teaching, Isabelle Gatti de Gamond founded the first municipal secondary girls’ school in Brussels in 1864. Other cities followed suit.

From the 1880s on the government also set up girls’ secondary schools, but they did not offer syllabuses that were required for one to go to university, with Latin and sufficient maths. Private initiatives, like that of Belpaire, did and in so doing ensured a flow of women into higher education. In the 1880s the universities of Brussels and Ghent opened their doors to female students, Leuven did not do so until after the First World War. From 1925 onwards the government secondary girls’ schools also offered all options. However, the measure that made the greatest impact on girls of all social classes, was the introduction of compulsory education up to the age of 14 in 1914.

Focal points

Isala Van Diest.

Wikimedia Commons

Isala Van Diest (1842-1916), undated.

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Isala Van Diest: the First Woman Doctor

Professions such as doctor and lawyer were only accessible to those with the legally required diploma. But women were not even admitted to academic courses. That was the experience of Isala Van Diest from Leuven. Getting her doctor’s diploma was no easy task. For want of the required preparatory education in Belgium, she went to school abroad. Still in 1873 the University of Leuven refused to enrol her for a degree in medicine. She was allowed, as a compromise, to follow a course enabling her to become a midwife. Van Diest did not regard this as an option and sought a solution outside Belgium. At the University of Bern women with scientific ambitions from all over the world found each other. Van Diest first did a doctorate in Natural Sciences and in 1879 qualified as a doctor.

Back in Belgium she again encountered resistance. Only after she followed extra subjects at the Université Libre de Bruxelles did she finally receive permission in 1884 to open a doctor’s practice. She worked first as a doctor for Le Refuge, a reception centre for prostitutes.

In 1890 an act of parliament gave women access to all academic courses. But that was not the end of the battle. In practice many courses and careers were reserved for men. It took until 1976 before the government made all professions compulsorily accessible for men and women.

Virginie Loveling.

Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Letterenhuis

Willem Geets, Portrait of Virginie Loveling (1836-1923), 1914.

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Virginie Loveling’s Sharp Pen

Despite the lack of educational opportunities and the discriminationexclusion or negative treatment of people on the basis of social status, gender or faith. in public life, some women in the 19th century played a significant social role. Belpaire was one of them, like the writer Virginie Loveling.

At home, in a liberal, free-thinking environment, Loveling had enjoyed a high-quality cultural upbringing thanks to private education. She built up a career as a widely-read and acclaimed author, who used her sharp pen for the things she believed in. In the novel Sophie of 1884, which caused quite a stir, she satirised the intolerance of country priests and the power of the church during the ‘school struggle’. In her books she introduced characters who illustrated woman’s social and personal battle.

Despite philosophical differences of opinion Loveling and Belpaire became friends. They found common ground around literature and feminist themes, such as more and better education for girls. In 1914 they jointly organised the exhibition The Modern Woman, which focused on women’s contribution to society. Isala Van Diest was honorary chair of the organising committee.

Sidonie Verhelst.
Ghent University, ARUG_P02416

In 1882 Sidonie Verhelst (1859-1906) was the first female student at the State University of Ghent.

Dietsche Warande en Belfort.
Dietsche Warande & Belfort, 1905

Marie Belpaire was the owner and financier of the authoritative literary and cultural magazine Dietsche Warande & Belfort.

Jongens en meisjes jonger dan veertien jaar werden ook op de drempel van de 20e eeuw nog altijd in grote aantallen aan het werk gezet in fabrieken en landbouwbedrijven. De in 1914 ingevoerde leerplicht bracht hier verandering in. De foto toont hoppeplukkers in Hekelgem, vandaag deel van Affligem, in 1913.
Uitg. Wed. Cornelis, 1913. Prentkaartenverzameling Belfius Bank, Académie Royale de Belgique.

Even on the threshold of the 20th century boys and girls below the age of fourteen were still being put to work in large numbers in factories and agricultural businesses. The compulsory education brought about a change in this situation. The photo shows hop-pickers in Hekelgem, today part of Affligem in Flemish Brabant, in 1913.

Katholieke Vlaamse Hogeschool voor vrouwen.
Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Letterenhuis, H 7205 / P

Group photo of students and teachers of the Catholic Flemish College for Women in Antwerp, around 1920.

België telde in 1929 1098 vrouwelijke studenten tegenover 9266 mannelijke. Vrouwelijke studenten aan de universiteit van Leuven in het academiejaar 1926-1927. Op dit beeld staan de studentes aan de Sint-Geertrui abdij.
KU Leuven, University Archives, Archief en Museum van het Vlaamse Studentenleven

In 1929 Belgium had 1098 female students as opposed to 9266 male students. Female students at the University of Leuven in the Academic Year 1926-1927. In this photo the students are standing at the abbey of Sint-Geertrui.

Discover more on this topic

Curriculum – Maria Verstraeten
Vlaamsche Koppen – Archief De Landtsheer (restauratie: Koninklijk Belgisch Filmarchief)

Bron: VRT archief en Cinematek – 19 dec 1980

Virginie Loveling
Publiek geheim – Het Duits vliegveld van Gontrode

Bron: VRT archief, Piet Dhaenens, Cynrik De Decker – 25 okt 2011


Bel Jacqueline, e.a.
Schrijvende vrouwen: een kleine literatuurgeschiedenis van de Lage Landen (1880-2010)

Amsterdam University Press, 2010. 

Bracke Nele
Werken en leren. Kantwerkscholen tijdens de tweede helft van de negentiende eeuw

Oost-Vlaamse Zanten, 77, 2002-1, p. 14-27. 

Coremans Luc
Vrouwen aan het front: van Dorothy Lawrence tot Marie Curie

Davidsfonds, 2014. 

De Maeyer Jan & Wynants Paul (red.)
Katholiek onderwijs in België. Identiteiten in evolutie, 19de-21ste eeuw

Halewijn, 2016. 

Dekeyser Dorinda, e.a.
Vrouwenfaam op straatnaam: vrouwen maken naam

Garant, 1999. 

Deruyttere Michel
Markante vrouwen in de geneeskunst

Houtekiet, 2014. 

Gubin Eliane
Liberalisme, féminisme et enseignement des filles en Belgique au XIXe et au début du XXe siècle

In: Gubin, Eliane, Choisir l’histoire des femmes, Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 2007, p. 127-144. 

Gubin Eliane, e.a.
Dictionnaire des femmes belges: XIXe et XXe siècles, L’Institut pour l’égalité des femmes


Loveling Virginie
Oorlogsdagboeken 1914-1918

uitgegeven door Sylvia van Peteghem en Ludo Stynen, Manteau/Meulenhoff, 2005. 

Rymenants Geraldine
Marie Elisabeth Belpaire. Gender en macht in het literaire veld 1900-1940

UPL, 2013 

Scheerlink Karl, e.a.
Marie-Elisabeth Belpaire: een vrouw met impact

Academia Press, 2019. 

Sciot Eline, Debaene Marjan & Vandekerkchove Veronique
Isala en Louise, twee vrouwen, twee verhalen

Museum M, 2011. 

Stynen Ludo
Rosalie en Virginie: leven en werk van de gezusters Loveling

Lannoo, 1997. 

Van Den Berghe Jan
Vergeten vrouwen. Een tegendraadse kroniek van België

Polis, 2016. 


De zussen Loveling/Les soeurs Loveling

Poëziecentrum vzw, 2021. 

Belpaire Marie-Elisabeth
Uit het leven

Drukkerij Vanos-Dewolf, 1887. 

Belpaire Marie-Elisabeth
Gestalten in ‘t verleden

Desclée de Brouwer, 1947 

Loveling Virginie
Een revolverschot

Gemoderniseerd en van een nawoord voorzien door Annelies Verbeke, De Geus, 2021. 

Radio 1
De wereld van Sofie – 13 mei 2023

Oud-leraar geschiedenis Helga Van Beeck (PIVA Antwerpen) over Marie Belpaire.