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VERES PÁLNÉ, A TRUE FREEDOM FIGHTER FOR WOMEN

Restored and relocated statue of Veres Pálné, and "Gimnázium" named after her.

VERES PÁLNÉ, A TRUE FREEDOM FIGHTER FOR WOMEN

Olga Vállay Szokolay

She was born benicei, micsinyei és pribóczi Beniczky Hermin Karolina, on December 13, 1815, at the family’s estate at Lázi-puszta, Nógrád County, Hungary.  Her father, Beniczky Pál, deputy lieutenant of the county, passed away when Hermin was just a year old.  At age 15, she also lost her mother, née ózdi Sturmann Karolina, to the cholera epidemic.

Hermin and her two sisters, Mária and Karolin, were placed under the guardianship of their maternal grandfather, ózdi Sturmann Márton, who then raised the three teenage girls at his secluded estate.  The eccentric old man gave them everything he could to keep them happy, but he was unable to shed his bitterness over the rapid loss of his wife and six children.

It was their paternal aunt, Countess ebeczki Tihanyi, née Beniczky Teréz, who invited the three girls to her Pest residence, moving them out of their monotonous country life.  There, they – especially Hermin – faced their deficiencies.  Although she had read a lot at her grandfather’s library, none of the works there were Hungarian literature.  Once in Pest, the girls started to take lessons in Hungarian and had a chance to meet several public figures of the times. Hermin’s lively range of interests extended not only to literature but to political issues as well. 

Her second visit to Pest presented the occasion to meet her future husband, farádi Veres Pál, royal counselor, Nógrád landowner and county clerk.  They married on October 15, 1839 in Pest. In the 46 years of their marriage, they were devoted partners in intellectual and emotional harmony, helping, encouraging each other to the very end.  They settled at Vanyarc, where Hermin stayed even after the death of her husband, until the estate’s management exceeded her strength.

Their daughter, Veres Szilárda, was born in 1841.  She was given a caring, consistent, strict, but loving upbringing.  Raising her gave Hermin the inspiration to promote women’s education. They had another child in 1844, but he died after three days.  The couple could have no more children, thus Szilárda remained an only child.

The family enjoyed a rich social life.  At Vanyarc, they often entertained Madách Imre (author of The Tragedy of Man), with whom they developed an intimate friendship.  They had been supporters of Kossuth even earlier but, in 1847, they accidentally vacationed at the same location as the Kossuths and became friendly with them as well.

In 1855, Hermin took Szilárda to Pest, to have her taught by appropriate teachers.  She herself participated at those lessons, to make up for omissions in her own childhood.  She found it terrible that, unlike for boys, there was no school where girls could obtain a proper education. In his speech given at his induction into the Academy of Sciences, Madách Imre gave this woman of keen intellect and progressive thinking the final impetus when he said:  

“Women develop earlier, but never reach full, male maturity; they perceive and learn easier but, lacking creative genius, they never rise to be the people’s influential spirits.  They always represent only the passive, never the active element, thus, while they serve the kindest contingent of dilettantism, they never promote the arts and sciences.  Women are subordinate, their physical and mental strength seeks protection, care, and in the soul of the stronger man they evoke the same feelings as an abandoned child, a wilting flower, a frozen bird.”

For Hermin, those were fighting words.  Her article, “Felhivás a nőkhöz” (Appeal to Women) was published in the paper “A Hon” (The Homeland) on Sunday, October 28, 1865.  Considering the limited reaction, she wrote another piece titled “Buzditó szózat” (Stimulating Proclamation).  It was on May 24th, 1867, that the meeting she organized to discuss the education of women, materialized.  Encouraged by the success of the meeting, they held the inaugural conference of the Society for Women’s Education on March 23, 1868 at which she was elected president, with countess Teleki Jozefin vice president.  Their slogan became “Haladjunk” (Let’s Progress).

Despite the objection of Minister of Public Education Eötvös József, but with the support of Deák Ferenc, Minister of Justice, Veres Pálné (Mrs. Pál Veres) brought to life the first school for women, aiming at their mental development and the possibility of obtaining higher knowledge.  She prepared the curriculum herself, after realizing that “scholarly men” did not comprehend what the school wanted to provide.  In the beginning, they rented two rooms on Ország út (today’s Múzeum körút) in which the first class was started.  Fourteen girls began their studies, yet at the school year’s end, only seven took the exams.  Some parents had taken their daughters back to their country home, saying: the family farm, the estate was more important than some female studies.

The second year boasted 37 students, while 13 pupils attended only certain subjects.  During the first decades, due to lack of sufficient support, the school constantly struggled with financial difficulties.  Yet, as the number of students increased, the institution needed enlarging. Fundraising balls, game nights, concerts were organized.  Meanwhile, news of the institution reached other countries, luring many foreigners to view it and spread lauding accolades of it abroad, in Germany, France and Silesia.

On October 13, 1880, Veres Pálné lost her first and only grandson, Rudnay József, Jr.  The incredible pain devastated the family.  However,  that gave place to the decision by mother and daughter to have a special school building erected in Józsi’s memory.  “In memory of my dear grandson I am endowing a fund, to establish a permanent home for our institution.”

With funds, numerous fundraisers and loans, they purchased a lot at Zöldfa utca.  The school was built in the neo-Renaissance style, that being Józsi’s favorite.  The festive dedication took place on January 15, 1882.  Over the years, they procured the adjoining lot as well, on which they erected the second building of the institute.  It was dedicated on May 16th, 1888, in memory of her husband, Veres Pál, two years after his death.

Despite her old age and failing health, Veres Pálné often traveled between her country home and the institute.  She never stopped fighting for the recognition of women’s education.  Soon after her death, the doors of the University opened for women.

On her deathbed she still worked on an empirical psychology for her students, a work that was posthumously published in book form.

A few years earlier, she had moved to her daughter’s house, where she died on September 28, 1895.  Her statue was erected on Erzsébet tér, then, after being restored, relocated to the north corner of Veres Pálné utca (the old Zöldfa utca), which was renamed in her honor.  The school she had founded now bears her name as Veres Pálné Gimnázium.

                                                              ***

Honoring this exceptional woman gives me professional pleasure as well as familial pride. Without her visionary outlook and persistent sense of purpose, women might have had to struggle several decades longer to get a proper education, to be recognized as equal and not subordinate to men.  In the Hungarian language and social order, married women were, and to some extent still are, identified by two little letters only:  “-né”, appended to the end of their husband’s first name (contrary to the French “née” meaning "born as”).  Very few must have known the maiden name of farádi Veres Pálné.

To our family, however, this meant some vicarious glory.  My mother-in-law, Dr. Szokolay Gyuláné, was farádi Veres Katalin, from Nógrád County. She must have been some cousin, a few times removed, of farádi Veres Pál, our heroine’s husband.

Another proof that “It’s a Small World”?!

Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching.  She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.

 


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