This article was originally posted on the College Year in Athens blog as part of my MediaLab internship.
Imagine being a beloved actress and artist, performing around the world and receiving awards and praise for your talents. Then, a military coup happens in your home country, and your people struggle under a brutal regime. You use your platform to speak out and to seek justice, but the government does not approve–they strip you of your citizenship, and you are unable to return home. However, you continue to fight for what you believe is right.
This was the life of Melina Mercouri.
When thinking about impactful Greek women, it would be totally remiss to ignore Melina Mercouri. Before setting foot in Athens, I “knew” of Mercouri; her picture graces the front of one of my spring semester syllabi, standing proudly in front of the Parthenon, waving, smiling and carrying flowers. Later in life, she served as the Minister of Culture and campaigned for the return of the Parthenon Marbles, often known as the ‘Elgin Marbles,’ housed for centuries at the British Museum in London.
Before her time as a politician, Mercouri was an award-winning and beloved actress. She won the Cannes Film Festival Award for her performance in Never On Sunday, as well as gaining BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for Best Actress for the same role.
However, while Mercouri was living her dream, a nightmare was stirring in Greece. A Greek military junta, sometimes called the ‘Regime of the Colonels’ or ‘The Dictatorship,’ gained control of the country after a coup d’état directed by the Greek colonels.
The military regime claimed it wanted to ‘save’ Greece and argued that removing people’s rights was for the safety of the nation during the transition to a ‘better’ Greece. The junta suspended the protection of freedom of thought and freedom of the press. They tortured suspected communists and surveilled the Greek people. Ordinary citizens could not even take pictures in public places, and the regime’s control over their lives was terrifying.
Mercouri was performing in America at the time of the coup d’état in the spring of 1967. From the beginning, she fought back, traveling the world to educate people about the struggles of the Greeks under the military junta. She demonstrated great bravery by publicly denouncing the brutal dictatorship and was “one of the most ‘visible’ and severe critics of the military regime.” Mercouri protested through interviews, speeches, demonstrations and performances, and the junta responded by stripping her of her Greek citizenship and confiscating all her property.
Mercouri is a testament to the power of people in times of struggle, oppression and fear. Her courage in so publicly standing up for what was right inspires me. She knew the possible consequences of countering a strong and frightening regime, but she did it anyway. At a time when our rights, roles and freedoms as women were much more limited than they are today, Mercouri’s resilience is a special inspiration for future generations of women. She represents the power of a single voice fighting for justice.
The military junta fell in 1974, allowing Mercouri to return home to Greece and begin a political career. She served as a member of the Greek Parliament from 1977 to 1981, when she was appointed Minister of Culture in order to promote the arts in Greece.
As part of her ministerial platform, Mercouri introduced free access to museums for all Greek citizens, and on March 6, the day of her passing, entrance to monuments and museums is free for everybody. She also supported the completion of the Athens Music Hall and campaigned for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.
By supporting art, culture and the people, Mercouri strengthened Greek identity after the experience of the junta, and she inspired the country to rebuild after this troubling time in history.
Similarly, today actors and actresses also play an important role in shaping society’s conversations about human rights, political issues and culture. For example, the Me-Too movement has shed light not only on injustices in the film industry but also on many other facets of women’s lives. Whether countering the abuse of power, unequal pay or unfair policies, the women of Hollywood are advocating for themselves and for the less privileged. Mercouri’s activism paved the way, demonstrating the power and importance of public figures using their position for the public good in promoting equality and justice.