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Marie Janson: Trail-blazing politician

I continue my series of Remarkable Belgians with another woman who pioneered women’s rights in the country. Amazingly, when Marie Janson became the first woman to hold a seat in the Belgian parliament, it was a whole 27 years BEFORE women were granted the right to vote in Belgium!

Early life and family

Marie Janson was born on 23 July 1873 into an extremely politically active family. Her father, Paul Janson, was a leading member of the Belgian liberal movement and founder of the Parti Progressiste, a progressive liberal party which existed from 1887 until 1900. Her mother, Anna-Augustine Amoré, was a well-educated woman who had worked as a teacher at Isabelle Gatti de Gamond’s school before her marriage; Marie herself was educated there. Marie’s brother Paul-Émile Janson eventually served as Prime Minister of Belgium between 1937 and 1938.

Marriage

In 1894 at the age of 21, Marie married Paul Spaak, a lawyer and playwright, and they had four children. One of them, Paul-Henri Spaak, would later also become Prime Minister of Belgium (firstly between 1938 and 1939, immediately after Marie’s brother Paul-Émile Janson mentioned above). As I said, the family was extremely active in politics!

Early political engagement

Following this familial trend, after the First World War Marie joined the Belgian Socialist Party. She became active in social work, inspired by witnessing the misery of the working class. In 1921 she was elected to the municipal council of Saint-Gilles in Brussels. The same year she was selected by the party’s executive to serve in the Belgian Senate: becoming the first woman to do so. She thus broke new ground for gender equality and women’s representation in politics. (The Federal Parliament of Belgium is composed of two chambers: the Chamber of Representatives and the Senate.)

Marie Janson, the only woman in the Belgian Senate
Literally the only woman at the political table © Instituut Emile Vandervelde 

A staunch supporter of women’s rights

As a member of parliament, Marie Janson focused on a wide range of issues, including women’s rights, social welfare, and education. She was a vocal advocate for policies aimed at improving the lives of working-class families, promoting access to education for all children, and expanding opportunities for women in the workforce.

Throughout her parliamentary career, Marie Janson remained committed to advancing progressive reforms and challenging entrenched social and political norms. She was known for her eloquence, intelligence, and unwavering dedication to the principles of equality and justice.

Marie Janson was the first woman in the Belgian Senate
Marie Janson on her 25th anniversary
as a councillor in Sint-Gillis © Archive of Sint-Gillis Council

Death and legacy

Marie Janson continued to serve as a co-opted senator until 1958. She died in Uccle on 8 March 1960 at the age of 86. She has been honoured by a postage stamp, street names, a public square in Sint-Gillis, and a commemorative coin.

Stamp commemorating Marie Janson

Her groundbreaking achievement as the first woman to hold a seat in the Belgian parliament paved the way for future generations of women in politics. Her courage, vision, and leadership continue to inspire women around the world to participate in the democratic process and fight for equality and social change.

Progress was slow – and there’s still work to do

Gaining gender equality in politics was never going to be smooth sailing. In 1969, nine years after Marie Janson died, and 48 years after she was sworn in as the first woman in the Senate, the Belgian Senate was once more exclusively male! Thankfully it was the last time this happened.

Nowadays women are much more broadly accepted in politics. The European Commission has a woman President, and the European Parliament is close to a gender balance of members, with 40% women and 60% men. However, as of January 2024, only five EU Member States out of 27 have female heads of state. Globally, women hold just 26.7% of parliamentary seats.

For my day job I took the minutes recently at an event called Women in Public Life. One of the goals was to highlight the concerning trend that numerous women involved in public spheres are opting to withdraw. This includes notable figures like the leaders of Slovakia and New Zealand, as well as countless others. One of the reasons is the horrendous growth in online hatred and threats they face. One speaker cited research indicating that German female MPs receive an average of 30 abusive messages per hour: that’s one every two minutes coming into their inbox. Notably in politics, journalism, activism, and leadership roles, women are being attacked and silenced. As one of the speakers said:

“Driving women away from public life directly undermines the fabric of our societies and poses a threat to democracy … we have to devise practical, viable solutions … and broadcast the resounding message, particularly as elections loom, that women stand united and will not surrender.”

Women in Public Life conference, March 2024

Politics is still in the genes

Finally, a brief mention that Marie Janson’s granddaughter Antoinette Spaak (daughter of Paul-Henri Spaak, ex-Prime Minister of Belgium), followed in her footsteps, achieving another first: the first woman to lead a Belgian political party, the Democratic Front of Francophones.

12 thoughts on “Marie Janson: Trail-blazing politician”

  1. Another amazing woman of whom I have never heard! You are right about so many women withdrawing, and not just from the very top. When I give my talk about “my” suffragette I quote from her accounts of abuse received and point out not much has changed.

  2. Another amazing female Belgium trailblazer. I not surprised that she became the first woman to hold a seat in the Belgian parliament, considering that she came from a political family.
    The push back against women in politics, in the EU and elsewhere, is a disturbing development. Some men in the West would like us to believe that the patriarchy no longer exists. How far from the truth!

  3. Another amazing story. To not encourage use of women’s talents in any area is a social, political and economic waste. Afghanistan is an extreme example but of course it happens all over the world.

  4. Denzil, fascinating to learn about this formidable character and Marie Janson achievements are incredible, indeed! It is sad there is such a long way to go yet and disheartening that many women are leaving politics – but probably not surprising given the abuse etc. Annika

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