Maria de Lurdes Pintasilgo was born in 1930 in Abrantes, in the Tagus Valley. She early showed signs of exceptional qualities. She joined Acção Católica (Catholic Action) and, in her university years at the capital's higher technical institute (IST), the Catholic women's student movement, which she eventually led.
In 1953 she graduated in Chemical Engineering degree. 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 (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.
Pintasilgo made contact with Graal (the Grail), an international Catholic women's association which she helped to establish in Portugal. 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.
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.
Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo was Portugal's sole female prime minister and only the second woman to be prime minister of any European country.