“We understand well that our fate is in our hands and that all we have to trust in is ourselves […]” (speech given on 15th of May 1920, Kaunas, LT at the Constituent Assembly Lithuania)
Lithuania might not be the first country that comes to mind when looking for great feminists and women who helped move along women’s rights. For most of the 20th century, Lithuania has been occupied by Germany, the USSR, Nazi Germany and the USSR again. People had to fight for their land and their lives. The situation for women’s rights as well as for human rights in general were looking grim during those times. Only 30 years ago, 1990, the independence of Lithuania was officially restored.
The woman we introduce today managed to make an impact on women’s lives during such difficult times nevertheless. This is precisely why her achievements are even more impressive. Her name was Gabrielė Petkevičaitė.
Petkevičaitė was born in 1861 in the city of Kaunas which was occupied by the tsarist Russan Empire at the time. Her family were wealthy academics. Early on, Petkevičaitė was torn between her own aspirations and the expectations her father and society had for her. Feeling more and more trapped by the conservative lifestyle on the countryside, she started writing about a variety of topics. One of her earlier texts, which has never been published, was about beekeeping. Maybe this is the inspiration for what later became her pen name: Bitė (meaning bee in Lithuanian). From 1892 onwards Petkevičaitė was writing for different Lithuanian newspapers as well as working on theatre plays. She went on to establish Žiburėlis – a society which provided students in need with financial resources. A few years later she attended the League for Women’s Equality, the first all-women’s congress in Russia.
Bitė attended the assembly Great Seimas of Vilnius in 1905 during which the right to vote for women was decided (although it was only exercised in 1919 for the first time). Later on in her career in 1919, Petkevičaitė was one out of 5 women (and 25 men) to be voted into the Lithuanian parliament and even went on to chair The Constituent Assembly of Lithuania (a predecessor of the parliament). Arguably at the peak of her political career, Bitė was appointed as a presidential candidate – the first female one at that point.
The political and social climate changed drastically after the coup by the Nationalist Party and feminist issues were once again cancelled from the agenda. There is not much information on Petkevičaitė’s activities after 1927 until her death in 1943. What we know for sure is that she went on to teach and tried to create a united umbrella organisation for all women’s organisations of Lithuania.
Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė was a woman of many talents: As a teacher she educated children of families in need. As an author, she spread her progressive views on statehood, human rights and women’s rights especially. As an artist she shared her views with her audience. As a political activist and later briefly a politician she fought for a better representation of women in government and visibility of women’s issues in Lithuania. Therefore, we can honestly say: Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė is truly an inspiration!
Written by Perrine Yarar, WAVE Intern
European Student Think Tank (Audrius Sabūnas): She Waited Long Enough – Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė [http://bit.ly/2vvDYOX (accessed on February 12th 2020)].