Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo

Europe's second female prime minister
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The Independent Online

Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo was Portugal's sole female prime minister and only the second woman to be prime minister of any European country.

Maria de Lourdes Ruivo da Silva Pintasilgo, politician and chemical engineer: born Abrantes, Portugal 18 January 1930; chemical engineer, Companhia União Fabril 1954-60; Minister of Social Affairs 1974-75; Ambassador to Unesco 1975-79; Prime Minister 1979-80; Member of the European Parliament 1987-89; died Lisbon 10 July 2004.

Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo was Portugal's sole female prime minister and only the second woman to be prime minister of any European country.

She was active to the end, reflecting in recent weeks the Portuguese people's growing rejection of its government's alignment with the US and the UK in the Middle East. She praised the Spanish decision to bring back its troops from Iraq and called on the conservative government in Portugal of José Manuel Durão Barroso to follow Spain's example and withdraw its military from the occupation force.

This pioneer feminist who achieved distinction in academia and business moved steadily leftwards from the primitive Fascism of the dictator Antônio de Oliveira Salazar in which she was brought up. A woman who escaped being pigeonholed by refusing membership of any political party, Pintasilgo has been mourned across her country's political spectrum.

Apart from the enormous work she did for women's rights, her main achievements included some success in narrowing the yawning gap between believers and unbelievers in Portugal. On the one hand lay an often ultra-conservative and obscurantist Catholic church led by dyed-in-the-wool bishops who were as close to the Salazar dictatorship as many Italian and Spanish bishops had been to the ideas of Mussolini and Franco. On the other lay politicians loyal to the sometimes stridently secular values of the republic. A committed Catholic with progressive views, Pintasilgo was seen as dangerous by many senior churchmen, but, such was the countrywide respect she commanded, they had to accept her.

She was born in 1930 in Abrantes, in the Tagus Valley, to Jaime Pintasilgo, who was in the wool business, and his wife Amélia. Maria Pintasilgo early showed signs of her exceptional qualities. Sent at the age of seven to the Liceu Filipa de Lencastre in Lisbon, she distinguished herself in the Mocidade Portuguesa, Salazar's avowedly Falangist youth movement. Pintasilgo went on to join Açao Católica (Catholic Action) and, in her university years at the capital's higher technical institute, the Catholic women's student movement, which she eventually led.

In 1953 she graduated with an engineering degree in industrial chemistry. In a country where opportunities for women were few and despite her love of philosophy, she opted for a "man's subject" so as to demonstrate the abilities of women. In the year after her graduation, she joined Companhia União Fabril, the "CUF", the large Portuguese conglomerate with interests in cement plants in Portugal and throughout the colonies. There she rose to become project director before leaving in 1960.

Meanwhile Pintasilgo had made contact with Graal (the Grail), an international Catholic women's association which she helped to establish in Portugal - despite the opposition of the ultra-conservative Cardinal Manuel Cerejeira, Patriarch of Lisbon, who was an intimate friend of Salazar. In the 1960s she became one of the Grail's leading international figures. From 1960 to 1974 she became the first woman member of Salazar's Câmera Corporativa, one of the advisory organs of the dictatorship.

In 1971 Pintasilgo went into battle for feminism in the Three Marias case when a provocative anti-Fascist work of feminism, The New Portuguese Letters, landed its authors, Maria Velho da Costa, Maria Teresa Horta and Maria Isabel Barreno, before the courts of Marcelo Caetano, Salazar's successor.

With the overthrow of Caetano by the Armed Forces' Movement in the "Carnation Revolution" of 1974 Pintasilgo was appointed Minister of Social Affairs in the first provisional government and two years later dispatched to Paris to become Portugal's first envoy to Unesco.

In 1979 she was called on by General António Ramalho Eanes, the President, to become Prime Minister. This post she occupied until the first weeks of 1980 and she pushed hard to modernise the primitive social welfare system which Salazar and Caetano had bequeathed. She left her mark by making social security universal and improving health care, education and labour legislation.

With support from the non-Communist left she put herself forward unsuccessfully as an independent candidate for the presidency in 1986 but with Socialist Party help sat as an independent in the European Parliament from 1987 to 1989.

At home in the world of culture, theology and chemistry, she went on to hold her own in many international scientific, economic and religious bodies from the Club of Rome to the OECD and the EU to the UN University. In the 1980s, the military asked Pintasilgo to arrange a meeting through the Indonesian embassy in London with General Suharto whose troops were conducting a murderous occupation of what had been the Portuguese colony of East Timor. The attempt came to nought.

She retained a moderate distrust of her male colleagues in the rough macho trade of international politics remarking once to a friend, "You know, they never forgive me for having dared to enter their world."

She did not marry, but was never regarded as a narrow-minded spinster. Rather was she seen as a chubby, humorous person of great charisma and wide interests with a broad mind and a zest for life.

Hugh O'Shaughnessy