“An Unknown Heroine” Essay by Archibishop Stylianos of Australia


This Article was published in the Greek Australian newspaper

TO VEMA November 2008     “Our Primate’s View”


                                                                      By Archbishop Stylianos of Australia

It has been quite rightly observed by Greeks and foreigners alike that we Neo-Hellenes, though possessing a multitude of natural attributes, are unfortunately also characterized by acute flippancy.

The first and worst consequence of our flippancy is that we do not ‘delve deeply’ into the essence of matters. And whatever remains on the ‘surface’ is naturally swept away by the prevailing ‘currents’ and forgotten.
This is the reason why the familiar folk-saying has prevailed: ‘Every miracle impresses for three days. Nine at the most’!

This year the ‘Lyceum for Greek Women’ of Greece, upon completion of an entire century since its inception, is preparing analogous celebrations. In doing so, it has invited a relevant representation from the Hellenic Women’s Lyceum in Sydney, which was its first affiliated Organization(!) to be established outside Greece, and for whose un-interrupted ethno-cultural activity and presence all Hellenes of the Antipodes may justifiably be proud.

Those of us who on occasions of National Commemorations or other celebratory functions have seen the stately National Costumes with which Women and Young Ladies of the Greek community here, chosen for their appearance and social decorum, always enhance community events with an especially ‘graceful note’, could never have imagined that these dignified ‘Penelopes’ are distant descendants of that most dynamic Greek woman of the 19th century, hailing from Rethymnon in Crete, Kalliroi Siganou-Parrén.

In order to give a brief moral and social portrait of this remarkable Greek woman who in a unique manner glorified the female gender with her exuberant presence and her tireless efforts for at least seven consecutive decades up until her death (1940), it is imperative that we provide in tandem some characteristic clarifications as to the historical setting in which she lived.

Hers was, by all accounts, a turbulent period with entirely contradictory strains which, as a consequence, would impact accordingly on what was, by nature, her unspoiled and pure conscience.

  1. Kalliroi Siganou (who later became known as Kalliroi Parrén through her marriage to Jean Parrén whose father was French and mother English) was born in Platania in the Amari valley (Rethymnon, Crete) in 1861.

It was a period during which, both in Europe and America, there had begun to materialize liberal ideas whose object was the attainment of Women’s rights.

For this reason precisely, the collective term ‘Feminism’ (from the French femme = woman), was considered as expressing one of the most modernistic movements for equality, freedom and justice, for all peoples and for both genders.

On the face of it, what would have been more natural than for this specific ‘crusade’ with its triple slogan, towards the end of the 19th century, to be deemed as a product of the French Revolution or the American Civil War?

  1. b) Here, though, it should immediately be observed that it would be unjust for the sturdy foundations of what is called ‘Feminism‘ to be sought primarily in the French Revolution (1789) or in any other re-active Uprising, for the enforcement of Women’s rights.

Regardless of party-political and ideological presuppositions, at least the peoples who respect the Bible should have the honourableness to profess that the equality of both genders has been enunciated explicitly by both the Old and the New Testaments.

Already from the Book of Genesis (1:27), the Bible unequivocally recognizes not only the equality but also the unbroken unity of both genders, which has its common root in the image of the invisible God:

So God created man in his own image; in the image of God

He created him; male and female He created them”.

The Apostle Paul also stated the same truths even more drastically in his Letter to the Galatians (3:32):

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”.

  1. c) Despite the above, it is true that the common trait of Feminism, as dictated by the two major Revolutions (French and American), could not possibly have been any other than that of revolutionary violence and of almost conspiratorial activity, to the point of bloodshed!

From this perspective, therefore, Kalliroi Siganou- Parrén, who was just 5 years old when the Destruction of the Arkadi monastery (1866) evoked not only the admiration but also the pragmatic interest of the entire civilized world, came as an unexpected surprise, as we shall see further down. She was an ‘idol’ who attracted sentiments of admiration, but also of mockery simultaneously.

On the one hand, the dynamism of her deep humanism did not permit her to ignore the sacrifices of well-known women of the mould of Joan of Arc, Bouboulina etc.

On the other hand, the sarcasm and the derision of the masses which still spoke the most instinctive language to the point where “blood boils”, did not allow for the ‘determinant differences’ of her struggle to be revealed – a struggle which manifested itself only as cultivation, education and peaceful enlightenment.

We could, therefore, justifiably say that this unrivalled Greek woman of the Modern era, as by a miracle, found herself in the highest synthesis of heroism: Between the sacred Teachings of the Bible on the one hand, and the post-Christian Activism of our day on the other.

Perhaps the only heroine with whom we could parallel Kalliroi Siganou- Parrén is Sophocle’s Antigone from antiquity with her immortal deposition that she “was born to love, not to hate”.

All the above comparisons and comments of gratitude expressed by those in posterity could possibly be deemed flippant ‘exaggerations’ if some contemporary had not discovered, albeit ‘telegraphically’, a diagrammatic sketch of this rare Woman who, strangely, ‘frightened’ her era, and more so her own Nation!

The magazine ‘STIGMES’ (Moments), published in Heraklion of Crete, has very interesting information on its website, and in Volume 61 recently offered a special Dedication.

In continuation, we quote verbatim the contents of the ‘STIGMES’ website and trust that we shall soon acquire the special issue (no. 61), because it will certainly be acutely enlightening for Hellenism, both within Greece and beyond.

In 1861 Kalliroi Siganou is born in the town of Platania in the Amari region of Crete in Greece. She grows up in a turbulent period marked by the continued longing of the inhabitants of the island for liberation. In 1866 the destruction of Arkadi takes place and in 1867 Kalliroi’s parents move to Athens where she attends the Soumerli school as well as French school for Nuns, whilst in 1878 and she receives her degree from the Arsakeio School. Her aptitude in literature is such that in the same year she is invited by the Greek community of Odessa to become Headmistress of its girls’ school. Indeed, this bold and progressive woman dares to leave and serve for two years in a distant city. Upon her return she marries Jean Parrén, the founder of the ‘Athens News Agency’, son of a French father and an English mother. In a few years her foreign name will be heard everywhere. The reason: her actions, which are characterized as pioneering and innovative.

          Kalliroi Parrén is the first who dares «introduce» to Greece feminist concerns that already engage women and governments in various Western countries. In 1888 she publishes the first newspaper for women, the weekly ‘Women’s Newspaper’ through exclusively female collaboration until 1918 when she is exiled to Hydra for her political persuasions. This first Greek feminist is also the first Greek female journalist and editor, but also the first Greek woman to participate in international conferences: in Paris in 1889, in 1891, at the 1st, 2nd and 3rdInternational conference on women’s projects and institutions’ whilst she also represented Greece and Greek women at the international conference of Chicago in 1893. The product of her impressions from this conference is to establish the ‘Union for Liberation of Women’ upon her return to Greece.

          In parallel, she does not cease setting up various charitable and educational women’s clubs, some of which still exist and evolve up till today. In 1880 she establishes the ‘Sunday School for Necessitous Women and Girls of the People’ where educated ladies teach reading, writing and some arithmetic to unschooled women and girls. Additionally, in 1875 she founds the ‘Asylum of Saint Catherine’, in 1896 the ‘Asylum for the Terminally Ill’ as well as the ‘Union of Greek Women’. This Union is divided into a department for education, a department for home science and a vocational school, a department for war widows and orphans as well as a department for home economics and professions which is headed by her self. In 1900, when the Union is dissolved, the department of home economics assumes the title: ‘The Household and Vocational Union of Greek Women’. In 1912, she participates in the ‘Patriotic Association’ set up by the then Princess Sophia, the same Association which later was to be named the ‘Patriotic Institution’ where she assumes the secretariat, while in 1911 she establishes one of the largest and most illustrious associations of Greece, ‘The Lyceum of Greek Women’. The activity of the Lyceum continues till this day, not only in its effort to preserve Greek principles, customs and traditions, but also in its contribution through lectures and courses for the elevation of Greek women, which was the prime consideration of Kalliroi Parrén.

          She submits an application to the then Prime Minister of Greece, Harilaos Trikoupis, for the recognition of women’s status by law and gathers signatures of women for the provision – at last – of the right for women to vote. After continuous representations to the Government of Deligiannis, she finally succeeds in 1897 and women are admitted to the University and to the Institute of Technology (Polytechneio). Again, through her own initiatives, the first woman doctor (Mrs Anthi Vasiliadis) is appointed to the women’s prison. In 1900, again following her appeals to the Government, she succeeds in securing protection for children, reducing working hours in sewing workshops and eliminating night work.

          In 1921 she revisits the issue of women’s voting rights, at which time the cause finds understanding and a congenial reception from the government and the then prime minister speaks enthusiastically about the issue of such a political right.

          Parrén also uses her pen brilliantly as an effective weapon for this purpose. Her reasoning subdues the reactions, matures people’s consciences, paves the way for changes in the existing data, and illumines her intentions. This revolutionary woman not only spoke of her convictions but above all practised them …

          Up until 15th January 1940, when she died, honoured with the gold cross of the Saviour, Kalliroi Parrén never abnegated the joys of her gender in the struggle for emancipation. She managed to overcome the present, to point to an unthinkable future despite the prevailing prejudices, and to demonstrate to society the value of the feminine, opening the way to equality with acrobatic breakthroughs.

In closing this article, we cannot avoid a double statement of justified bitterness.

Firstly, we doubt whether this remarkable Woman would have been given deserved attention in Greece and Abroad, had she not assumed her husband’s ‘foreign’ name Parrén, because Greece is well-known at times for her ‘subservience’ and her ‘xenomania’ (love of things foreign).

Secondly, it is disheartening that the most authoritative Encyclopedia of Greece which one would have expected to evaluate the ‘feminism’ of such a charismatic Greek woman, does not even mention her name under the entry ‘Feminism’(!). We refer to the Religious and Moral Encyclopedia (Thriskeftiki kai Ithiki Encyclopaedia) (volume 11, column 1010).