Women have played a vital role in the economic life of Brussels since the origins of the city. They provided a core element of the workforce in the cloth trade, and, later, in other luxury industries, notably lace production. In the 19th century, the ranks of factory workers included many women, and, in the 20th century, they constituted a significant part of the labor force in the local economy as clerical and service staff.
   During the Middle Ages, Beguines emerged as a distinctive institution in the Low Countries, and religious orders of women have served as teachers, nurses, and dispensers of charity from earliest to contemporary times.
   Advances in winning entry into the professions and obtaining civil and political rights came slowly. Inroads were made first in education. Creation of the Association pour l'Enseignement professionel des Femmes, founded under the impetus of alderman Jonathan Bischoffsheim in 1863, was followed by establishment of Belgium's first nonsectarian school for girls, which opened in 1864 under the direction of Isabelle Gatti de Gamond (1839-1905). In 1880, the first women students were admitted to the Université libre de Bruxelles. Madeleine Gevers-Dwelshauvers (1897-1994) became the first female professor at the university in 1925. César De Paepe (1842-1890) established the first Belgian degree-granting nonsectarian nursing school in Brussels in 1887.
   Denied a request to take the oath to practice law, an embittered Marie Popelin founded the Ligue belge du Droit des Femmes in 1892 to press for wider civil rights. Her cofounders included Louis Frank, Léonie and Henri La Fontaine, and Isabelle Van Diest. Van Diest (1842-1916), the first woman physician in Belgium, settled in Brussels in 1884, where she practiced until shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The Fédération belge pour le Suffrage féminin was founded in 1913 by Louise van den Plas and Jane Brigode.
   Women won admittance to the bar in 1920, by which time progress proved steady. The wartime records of women, who played active roles in aid work and served with distinction in resistance movements during World War I and World War II, propelled the granting of franchise rights. In April 1920, widows or widowed mothers of soldiers killed in combat or civilians killed by the enemy—who did not remarry—and women in the resistance won the vote in national and provincial elections. All women, except prostitutes (see SAINT-LAURENT, RUE) and adulteresses, secured the franchise in local elections, and women over 25 were eligible to run for national legislative offices. They were granted the right to seek communal council seats (February 1921) and posts as alderman and burgomaster (August 1921).
   In November 1921, Marie Spaak-Janson of Brussels, the mother of Paul-Henri Spaak, became the first woman to sit in the Senate in occupying a seat for the Socialists. Her father, lawyer Paul Janson (1840-1913), served as a city councilmember (1884 and 1886) and was an active Liberal Party advocate for social justice and suffrage reform in parliament.
   Universal suffrage for all women over 21 followed after World War II—on 27 March 1948 for the national House of Representatives and Senate, and on 26 July 1948 for provincial posts. On 28 July 1981, the voting age for men and women was lowered from 21 to 18. Voting is compulsory (since 1893). Women have served in growing numbers in local elected and appointed government positions, including, as of 2004, holding four of the nine seats on the city's college of aldermen.
   Abortion rights were secured by a law in 1990, allowing legal abortion in Belgium up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. The legislation was adopted without the signature of King Baldwin I, who, in an unprecedented act, placed conscience over constitutional duty in abdicating for a day (4 April).

Historical Dictionary of Brussels. .

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