Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė: A Trailblazer for Women’s Rights in Lithuania
Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė was a remarkable advocate for women’s rights, a dedicated philanthropist for underprivileged children’s education, and a guardian of Lithuanian culture. Her leadership during the inaugural session of the Constituent Seimas was hailed as a global sensation, and, according to her close friend Albina Saladūnaitė, Bitė viewed her fight for gender equality as a means for women to serve society.
Born into the family of Dr. Leonas Petkevičius and noblewoman Malvina Ona Chodakauskaitė, Gabrielė was greatly influenced by her family and upbringing. Dr. Petkevičius held democratic views and understood the importance of education. The family atmosphere profoundly shaped Gabrielė’s worldview, as shared by A. Saladūnaitė, an employee of the Panevėžys County Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė Public Library.
Gabrielė grew up in an intelligent and educated environment. From an early age, she heard her father’s words about respecting every individual, regardless of their race, origin, or social status. Dr. Petkevičius instilled in her the belief that before you stands a divine spark, a human being, and you are duty-bound to respect, love, and help them because that is your oath.
Upon completing her school education, her father told her that she was fortunate to know the value of education, and her primary duty was to enlighten others. He emphasized, “What good are your studies if you do not serve others?”
Although Gabrielė was a highly intelligent student, excelling in mathematics, societal norms at the time limited opportunities for girls to pursue higher education. Her teachers would express regret that she wasn’t a boy, and Gabrielė herself hoped her father would allow her to attend university. However, her father claimed that it was enough and suggested that her “woman’s heart” would guide her in her path.
Thus began Gabrielė’s journey to fight for women’s rights. Initially, she struggled to find her purpose, but soon the educated young woman began teaching girls in her community subjects such as writing, languages, cleanliness, and hygiene.
Determined to further her education, Gabrielė’s father encouraged her to read and, eventually, she found an advertisement offering beekeeping courses in Deltuva. A. Saladūnaitė shares that Gabrielė completed the course, earned her diploma, and returned home with 50 beehives. With those hives, she achieved financial independence.
In 1894, Gabrielė and her like-minded friends established the charitable organization “Žiburėlis,” aimed at supporting talented children and helping them access education. Despite initial discouragement and criticism for soliciting funds, Gabrielė’s dedication to the cause remained unshaken.
The organization supported individuals such as the renowned artist Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis and writer Jonas Biliūnas. When people sought help, they received it – whether in the form of financial assistance or providing shelter and clothing for children.
Gabrielė’s deep concern for children and her commitment to helping them achieve an education were remarkable. She approached each situation with maternal care and love, a reflection of the values she inherited from her family.
In addition to her advocacy for women’s rights and philanthropic efforts, Gabrielė was a fervent supporter of Lithuanian culture. Her father, Dr. Petkevičius, supported revolutionaries, but during times of press censorship, he instructed Gabrielė not to transport Lithuanian books herself.
Gabrielė was determined to circumvent this restriction. She secretly brought Lithuanian books from Prussia to Lithuania, hiding them beneath her skirts. Her dedication to preserving Lithuanian culture was unwavering.
Gabrielė’s commitment to Lithuanian culture and the well-being of society made her an extraordinary figure in the nation’s history. Her journey, from a young girl striving for an education to a beacon of women’s rights and Lithuanian culture, continues to inspire and empower generations to this day.