Romanian lawyer Sarmiza Bilcescu (1867–1935) was the first woman admitted to the bar in her country, and perhaps on the European continent. She earned a doctoral law degree at the Sorbonne in Paris, becoming the first woman anywhere to reach that educational level in the field of law.
Sarmiza Bilcescu grew up in an affluent family and was exposed to a mix of urban liberal political ideals and countryside self-sufficiency. Intellectually talented, she studied law in both her native Romania and France. Although she was admitted to the bar in Romania and established the first law practice run by a woman, her trail-blazing efforts yielded her few clients. Bilcescu's experience with the then-current belief that men were more competent than women in intellectual matters prompted a new calling. In the later years of her life, she advocated for educational programs that opened up new career opportunities to women.
Born in the Romanian capital of Bucharest in April of 1867, Bilcescu was descended from a family of small landowners in Bilcesti, a town located in rural south-central Romania where her family often spent time. Reports show her to have been something of a tomboy and to have been encouraged in that direction by her father, banker Dumitru Bilcescu, who often referred to her as “my boy.” According to Ion C. Hiru, writing for Revista Agero online, she did not “shed a tear when her doctor stitched, without anesthesia, a cut of 12–15 centimeters.” Back in the city, the Bilcescu family traveled in the same social circles as Romania's liberal nationalist leader Ion Bratianu.
After Dumitru Bilcescu was appointed to an executive position at the Romanian National Bank in Bucharest, the family prospered and moved to a larger house. While it was obvious that Sarmiza was intelligent and talented, her parents were unsure how to direct the girl's energies. She studied the piano with Eduard Wachmann, one of the top Romanian music educators of the day, and it was thought that she had the potential to become a successful concert pianist. Even after studying law, she continued to perform, singing as well as playing the piano. Accounts disagree as to why she ultimately undertook the study of law. According to Hiru, her father believed that, as a lawyer, Sarmiza could be most useful to the emerging nation of Romania, which had gained independence from the Ottoman Empire only in 1877.
Other accounts state that her mother, who harbored nascent feminist ideas, was the more important force in inspiring her. Whichever is the case, Bilcescu, after earning a university degree in Bucharest in 1887, headed for Paris. Her decision to pursue an advanced degree was not completely without precedent: women in the late 19th century were attempting, with varying degrees of success, to enter fields that had been exclusively male. The Polish scientist Marie Curie (Maria Sklodowska), born the same year as Bilcescu, came to Paris soon after Bilcescu and earned advanced scientific degrees on the way to her groundbreaking discoveries about radioactivity. Within Romania, women had been accepted into humanities programs as early as 1870. The field of law, however, remained exclusively male.
Her acceptance to the Sorbonne had not yet been resolved when Bilcescu, accompanied by her mother Maria, arrived in Paris. Although she was ultimately admitted to the school's doctor of laws program as a foreign student, more hurdles awaited. Reporting to her mother on her first day of classes, she explained that she found her way barred by an usher who informed her that women were not allowed to enter the building. How, her mother retorted, could a country that placed its “Liberté, Fraternité, Égalité” motto even on the gates of prisons refuse entry to a woman whose only desire was to learn? The matter now came to the faculty for a vote and Bilcescu's admission was reapproved, but not unanimously. Although some professors treated her very coolly, the reception she received from male students was friendlier.
Bilcescu and her mother moved into an apartment on the Rue des Fleurs, and Bilcescu immersed herself in her studies. Gradually, she began to earn the respect of even those who had initially resented her presence. One civil law professor, as quoted by Lécuyer, wrote that he was fearful that a police presence might be required in the lecture halls. Instead, Bilcescu had been assiduous and shown “exemplary conduct.” In her rare hours of free time, she took piano lessons from noted concert pianist and teacher Antoine François Marmontel. Several of her instructors praised Bilcescu after her first-year examinations, and after that she was accepted as one of the group.
After completing her thesis, titled “On the Legal Condition of the Mother,” Bilcescu successfully defended it on June 12, 1890, and was granted a doctoral degree in law by the Sorbonne. The thesis included a broad advocacy of liberal and proto-feminist ideas. As the university's first female law graduate, as well as perhaps the first woman to earn such a degree at any university, her accomplishment was heavily covered by the Romanian and western European press, with newspapers noting her pioneer status and progressive thinkers hailing her accomplishment. French feminist Jeanne Chauvin was one woman who followed in Bilcescu's footsteps, earning a doctoral law degree two years later.
After her return home to Romania, Bilcescu was admitted to the bar of Ilfov County, a region that included Bucharest. Although she was notable as the country's first female lawyer, her career foundered, much as she had feared it would. Despite their respect for her intellect and achievement, few Romanians were willing to entrust their personal affairs and difficulties to such an unfamiliar person as a female lawyer. Accepting this setback, Bilcescu retired as a lawyer and married Ion (or Constantin) Alimanisteanu, with whom she raised a family.
In later life, Bilcescu was active in causes related to women's rights. She cofounded a group called the Societatea Domnisoarelor Romane (Society of Romanian Young Ladies), and she traveled in the highest circles of forwardthinking Romanian society. An acquaintance of the country's Queen Mary, she attempted, unsuccessfully, to organize a program that would offer educational access to women who had been blocked from university attendance. Bilcescu also cultivated her interest in music, performing as a pianist and singer. She was reported to work 18-hour days, rising at 6 a.m. and going to bed at midnight, and her passions included funding scholarships for poor students as well as university residence halls for those who were able to attend college.
By the end of her life, Bilcescu was something of a celebrity in Romania, although she was little-known elsewhere. After she died on August 26, 1935, 4,000 villagers from the Bilcesti region attended her funeral. A Romanianlanguage biography of Bilcescu was written in 1947 by journalist Mihail Farcasanu, who published the work under the pen name Mihail Villara. Few accounts of her life are available in languages other than Romanian, and her role as a forerunner of the larger movement to extend educational access to women remains underappreciated.
Clio Revue online, http://clio.revues.org/ (January 17, 2017), Carole Lécuyer, “Une nouvelle figure de la jeune fille sous la IIIe République: l’Étudiante.”
Illuminated Letters Project online, https://illuminatedlettersproject.wordpress.com/ (January 17, 2017), “Who Was Sarmiza Bilcescu?”
Radio Romania International website, http://www.rri.ro/en_gb/ (January 17, 2017), “Sarmiza Bilcescu: Europe's First Female Lawyer.”
Revista Agero website, http://www.agero-stuttgart.de/REVISTA-AGERO/CULTURA/ (January 17, 2017), Ion C. Hiru, “Sarmiza Bilcescu Alimanesteanu.”
Wonderful Romania website, https://www.wonderful-romania.com/ (January 17, 2017), “First Woman in the World Who Earned Her PhD in Law—Romanian Lady, Sarmiza Bilcescu Alimanisteanu.”❑