Wednesday, 13 December, 2017.

Abstract: This essay represents an analysis of the introductory text "Women and Literature" printed in a publication Srpkinja dating from 1913. This text is compared with some elements from V. Woolf's A Room of One’s Own and other feminist critics' texts in order to point out its importance and value for contemporary feminist criticism in Serbia.

Although closely modeled upon Western feminist thought (at first upon the theories of l'ecriture feminine, and later increasingly upon the so called Anglo-American approach), feminist criticism in Yugoslavia has been developing in its own way, without strictly following in the footsteps of Western theory. In addition to the different order of the phases in its development[5] of our literary tradition is the text "Žene i književnost" (Women and Literature), published in 1913, in Srpkinja[6], as the introduction to the segment of the publication which brought out fifty biographies of Serbian women writers. The text was not signed, so we can only make guesses about who actually wrote it, although there is no doubt that its author is a woman.[7]

The text "Women and Literature" is not stylistically perfected as the essays of V. Woolf, and it is also a far cry from the narrative strategies employed in A Room of One’s Own. The anonymous author is neither interested in the depths of psychological processes of writing nor does she analyze the aesthetic aspects of women’s literature, by which she considers not only fiction and poetry, but also critical, scientific and journalist works. Nevertheless, it is surprising that this relatively short introductory text speaks to such extent about the issues that are still relevant for feminist criticism. These are, first of all, the material and social aspects involved in the creation of a literary work and in preserving a literary tradition.

Western theory recognized primarily these moments in V. Woolf's essays. Virginia Woolf begun her  research of the relationship between women and writing by considering the conditions for the creation of literature as well as the actual circumstances that make writing im/possible.  She summarized her attitude saying that the woman needs 500 pounds a year and a room of her own in order to be able to write. Money and peace, symbolized by these two requirements, are the necessary preconditions for every creative process, regardless the gender; however, the inequality between men and women meant that "difficulties were much more formidable"[8] for women. Many years later, by the end of the sixties, Anglo-American feminist critics rejected the New Criticism's idea of text as isolated entity, maintaining that literary research should also take into account the identity of a writer, and first of all her/his gender as the social construction of sexuality. Material conditions that V. Woolf wrote about were thus included into the notion of gender, which became a basic term in feminist approach.

The text "Women and Literature" opens with the statement that the Serbian woman is rarely written about, and when it does occur, it is either too pessimistic (the author mentions a text by Tihomir Đorđević[9] as an example) or too optimistic, like biographies in various calendars. The similar gap in literature about women is discovered by the narrator of A Room of One's Own ("Some sages hold that they are shallower in the brain; others that they are deeper in the consciousness") and in fiction ("She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger")[10]

The Serbian text as a whole is, as the title shows, dedicated to "literary women". In presenting their situation, the author begins with a key question in the history of women's literature - "in spite of all these beautiful gifts there are not many women here, who write a lot... In comparison to such a great number of men who are involved in writing (there are 400-500 registered), this is a phenomenon worth noting." (19). The question of women's absence from literature and literary history is the only possible way to start considering the relation between sex/gender and literature. V. Woolf spoke about the history of women's writing as full of lacunas, long periods without a trace of a literary woman, whereas in new feminist theory Tillie Olsen says that to every four or five books published by men appears only one by a woman.[11]

The author of the text "Women and Literature" points to the following important issues in search of the answer to her question: ("we should speak about it honestly and openly", 15): firstly, that there is virtually no woman’s magazine around which literary women could gather; secondly, that there are no literary links among those women and that it is not possible to create them on equal basis; thirdly, that the intellectual work those women perform is not paid, and therefore not appreciated; and, finally, that women writers are isolated. All these moments are, in her opinion, important elements in understanding their general situation.

Besides a few magazines, which are conceptually woman-centered, there isn't a single woman's magazine that would ensure a space for Serbian literary women. "Our women do not have a single magazine around which they could gather, so that when one takes it into one's hands, one can say: here are Serbian literary women." (15). The magazine Ženski svet (Women's World) is edited by a man, therefore, it is not an entirely woman’s magazine, says the author of the text. Žena (Woman) is the magazine of one Serbian party, and it gathers women whose husbands are members of that party, while Domaćica  (Housewife) is more oriented to housekeeping chores than to culture. Besides, its editor is also a man. A real woman's magazine would have to be edited by a woman and to have only women contributors, which is not likely to be achieved soon, says the author of the text. Women, she goes on, write for other magazines, too, but in small numbers and without being paid; in fact, they mostly work for minor magazines and calendars lacking contributors.

The objection that the editors of some women's journals are men does indeed make sense from women's perspective - Tillie Olsen, for instance, warns that the so called "Feminine Fifties" in the history of American fiction (the middle of XIX century, when a great number of women writers appeared) were actually dominated by men – publishers, editors and writers.[12] Similarly, Jane Tompkins, writing about the same period in American literary history, says that the critical attention is rising from the political struggle and institutional structures, and that "one such structure is the machinery of publishing and reviewing by means of which an author is brought to the attention of his audience.[13]

In the text from 1913 the request for a woman's magazine, the all women company and women's work is grounded in a wish to ensure a space where women could work and develop their talents without obstacles. The firmness of the attitude and the straightforwardness of its expression sound bold even today. When in the recent past new magazines for women's culture and feminist theory started to be published, their concepts were almost entirely in accordance with the vision of this anonymous author: they had female editorial boards and mostly women as contributors. However, a frequent objection could be heard that this meant only further gettoization and marginalization of women. The author of the text "Women and Literature"  did not have such scruples - she was absolutely aware that women's work would be more visible if done in the company of other women.

Besides the fact that the publishing domain was in male hands, literary links, necessary for the writers of both genders, were very rare among women. While men gathered in cafés, women were denied such possibility, wrote the author of "Women and Literature". Not only were they denied an appropriate place for their meetings, but also men did not treat women as their equals in such contacts. The similar case occurred in correspondence, which was a necessary activity especially for women who lived in smaller places. However, men would not answer when their female correspondents needed it, and additionally, they were always ready for every kind of theft: "Very unpleasant things may happen to our women in their literary correspondence... It seems that any kind of 'robbery' is allowed toward women in that field, simply because she does not have a place to go to make an appeal and to defend herself, and because nobody counts with her as with a political and party voter."  (17).

Even when women begin to work, they often soon give up, because either something unpleasant happens to them or because they work without a company of women "spiritually" equal to them. Women's cooperatives, which had been founded at that time in many cities, were mostly humanitarian societies and they did not have culture in their domain. So, women writers were left to work in the "loneliness of their souls". (18).

Without literary acquaintances, without opportunities for joint work and mutual company, separated from each other not only physically but also by obstacles in the form of patriarchal gender roles, the literary women of that time could not achieve the minimum needed for a career. Their work was not paid at all, or was paid just symbolically, so they had to make their living by wasting themselves "in the work that kills spiritual strength and in the administrative service that a man with the equal education would never accept" (16). Being paid for literary work meant, according to V. Woolf, an absolute breakthrough - speaking about Aphra Behn, an English writer from XVII century, she said that the fact that Aphra Behn had made her living by writing, "outweighs anything that she actually wrote"[14]. This virtually opened the writing profession for women, because "money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for".[15] It is interesting that the author of Serbian text almost identically defines the special value of money for literary women: "And why don't they /literary women/ have reputation? Because their work is not paid, and money is the king, to whom now everyone bows". (17 - 18).

Another important element of a literary career, literary links, have twofold meaning. Not only do they help writers in the process of creation, but they also play important part in the making and preserving their reputation. Jane Tompkins analyzed the way of creating the reputation of a classic, arguing that, "when classic texts are seen not as the ineffable products of genius but as the bearers of a set of national, social, economic, institutional, and professional interests, then their domination of the critical scene seems less the result of their indisputable excellence than the product of historical contingencies."[16] Among these circumstances are, as Tompkins points out, literary links, a network of friends and supporters. She compares the careers of Hawthorne and his equally popular, but later forgotten contemporary, Susan Warner, and shows how important it was to belong to the right network in order to achieve long-term success.[17]

At the beginning of XX century, literary women in Serbia were obviously unable to take part in the creation of such a network. Because of the inappropriate conditions, gifted women, says the author, are wasted and their work is lost for the education in Serbia, whereas less talented and less educated men occupy these positions owing to their membership to political parties. It is all, says the author, presented not from the perspective of a few, but from the perspective of all Serbian literary women whose works have so far been published, starting with Evstatija Arsić.

The issue, which feminist criticism has been trying to deal with for a long time and in detail (one of these answers is also the critique of the idea of a 'classic' by Jane Tompkins) can be summed up in the form of a question - "But Is It Any Good"- that is, if the works of women authors have been forgotten because they are of worse quality than the works of men, or for some other reasons. The author of “Women and Literature” does not ask such a question at all. She does not doubt the value of the works published by women, emphasizing exclusively the importance of the circumstances in which they worked. Quoting the examples of Savka Subotić, Jelica Belović-Bernadžikovska, Darinka Bulja and Jelena Dimitrijević, she points out that these writers were welcomed whenever they managed to publish a book, as well as to the fact that their texts were appreciated, published and well paid for in foreign countries. "When foreign literary magazines can appreciate the work of Serbian women, why is it then that Serbian men do not recognize Serbian women as their equals in the field of spiritual work?" (17).

The final part of the text represents a kind of invitation to recreate the literary tradition of the Serbian woman, and it is inevitably recalling the memory of Milica Stojadinović Srpkinja, a poetess "who gave a name to the Serbian woman". These words of appreciation, spoken on the occasion of unveiling her monument, it is said in the text, should be "read by all our women of pen, when they find it difficult to step over the stones, thrown to their feet by unpleasant people." (19). Milica Stojadinović is thus presented as a precursor, a "foremother", who enables future women writers to feel secure in their  "own space".[18] Becoming part of tradition, of literary connections with both the past and the future, constitutes a precondition for the creation of great works.[19] Completely in accordance with this, the author of "Women and Literature" promises that the work of Milica Stojadinović will be continued: "Be serene, Milica, because the Serbian woman is nowadays increasingly lead by the love of truth and justice, of obligation and our rights" (19). Then, as it is appropriate for a text whose primary purpose is practical, and not theoretical, a detailed list follows as an "inventory" of the names of Serbian women writers made after the edition of Srpkinja from 1897 and broadened with new names.[20]

A Room of One's Own has a very similar ending - it is an address to the collective women's spirit which is the only one capable of reviving the unlucky precursor, Shakespeare's sister: "But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while."[21]     

As a whole, the text "Women and Literature" clearly expresses the necessity of separating the involvement of men and women in literature, so that the differences in the position of women writers could be clearly seen and their needs for necessary conditions met. A separate magazine, paid work, the creation of bonds between other women of pen, the reconstruction and preservation of a distinct women's literary tradition - these are all preconditions for the career of women writers. These are exactly the areas that feminist criticism and feminist theory in general were analyzing during their first two decades: they were separately researching the position and the contribution of women, which had been neglected for centuries within the so called universal theories.[22]

Such requests would nowadays certainly be called the "feminist ones". The question is, however, whether the literary women from the first decades of XX century would have named them "feminist", and if so, what they would mean by this term. The anonymous author of the text at stake says that her demand for the recognition of the value of Serbian women's work can be presented "without any further pretensions either feminist or so called emancipatory" (17). However, it would be a mistake to believe that "feminism" had an exclusively negative connotation in that period, at least among the women belonging to intelligentsia. If one reads the whole of Srpkinja, one can note a certain confusion regarding the terms  "feminism" and "emancipation", the confusion that exists even today. In the biography of Jelica Belović, for instance, it can be noted that she had written in German "more than 800 various feuilletons on the issues of feminism and women’s education..." (Srpkinja, 31), while for the writer Darinka Bulja it is said that she "does not have anything emancipatory about her, although she is both modern and intelligent lady." (32). This terminological misunderstanding is the result of an effort to harmonize the tendencies leading towards the creation of modern society. These tendencies included the demand for women's rights and for the improvement of their position on the one hand, as well as the strong traditional images of women and women's role, on the other. The feminism in Serbia was under the influence of foreign movements, and it was, in that period, considered "an imported ideology", although the struggle for national liberation and for the sustaining of national consciousness gave it a peculiar mark.[23] Because of the strong traditionalism and patriarchal beliefs, feminism could not become deeply rooted among the folk: "With some exceptions, neither public opinion nor even women themselves could embrace the revolutionary ideas of feminism… However, ...general ideas concerning the improvement of woman's position entered... the public sphere and churned up our society."[24]

Therefore, women intellectuals are expected, as the text "Women and Literature" states, to influence the creation of culture among the folk, to make them "morally stronger" and more familiar with books. A peculiar concoction of modernizing tendencies and traditionalism is reflected in the belief that women's education should improve the society as a whole, through educated mothers: "... educated girls will become educated mothers and they will educate the children who will not have to die but will live for their people." (19). Turning the message on the need "to die for one’s people" upside down, the anonymous author of the text redefines the patriarchal idea of patriotism into a vision determined by women's values, philanthropy and maternal care: "Not to die, but to live for one's people, this is what our time demands…" The author concludes her thought in the spirit that could be called feminist, emancipated, or simply, reasonable: "Life is in the work - let Serbian woman work, this is all we ask for." (20).

Written sixteen years before A Room of One's Own, in the period of important historical upheavals and in the environment burdened with strong patriarchal heritage, this text is today unjustly forgotten. At the very end of the XX century, it still seems valid because of its engagement, precise observations and sharp criticism. With its openness, its requests and its practical ideas this text can still be of use in further development of feminist criticism in this country.

(January 1999)

[1] Svetlana Slapšak first pointed to this fact, in "Women Who Steal The Language," the introduction to the special issue of ProFemina Belgrade, 1997, p. 14.  "Feminist criticism not only failed to introduce a new and critical (subversive) reading of primarily misogynous male literature" ... but constituted itself from the start as, what Showalter sees as the second stage of American feminist criticism, "the feminist criticism of women's literature." 

[2] Only in the second half of the nineties, the magazine ProFemina began to reprint texts from our feminist heritage, whereas the first contemporary book on the history of woman's issue in Serbia appeared in 1996. It is a book Žensko pitanje u Srbiji u 19. i 20. veku (Woman's Issue in Serbia in XIX and XX Century) by Neda Božinović.

[3] See Slapšak , "Julka Hlapec Đorđević: iz skandalozne istorije zataškavanja feminizma među Južnim Slovenima" (Julka Hlapec Đorđević: From the Scandalous History of  Suppressing Feminism among South Slavs), ProFemina, Beograd, zima-proleće 1996, no. 5-6, pp. 86-89.

[4] See, among others, texts by Svetlana Tomin, Dubravka Đurić  and Ljubica Ćorović on Julka Hlapec, Jela Spiridonović and, respectively, Draga Dejanović (ProFemina, No.  5-6; 8; 13-14). 

[5] In the meantime, the first modern book on Serbian women writers appeared written by Celia Hawkesworth, Voices in the Shadows: Women and Verbal Art in Serbia and Bosnia, CEU Press, Budapest, 2000. There is a chapter in this book devoted to the publication Srpkinja (see, Hawkesworth, pp. 136-140.

[6]Srpkinja: njezin život i rad, njezin kulturni razvitak i njezina narodna umjetnost do danas. (Serbian Woman: her life and work, her cultural development and her folklore art up to date) Edited by: Serbian women writers, printed by: Dobrotvorna zadruga Srpkinja u Irigu (Humanitarian Society of Serbian Women in Irig), Štamparija Pijuković i drug, Sarajevo, 1913. The text can be found on the pages 15-22. The numbers of quoted pages will be given in brackets within the body of the text.

[7] It is most probable that the author is Jelica Belović-Bernadžikovska, the editor of the issue (other members of the editorial board were Zora Prica, Maga Magazinović and Darinka Bulja). Jelena (Jelica) Belović-Bernadžikovska (1870-1946) is one of the most interesting women authors of the period. She is primarily known by her works on folk handicrafts, and she also wrote fiction (a novel Mlada učiteljica/Young Teacher) and translated. She spoke nine languages, and a great number of her works was published in German. 

[8]A Room of One's Own, p. 51.

[9] She refers to the text on Serbian women by our well known ethnologist, Tihomir Đorđević, in which he classifies Serbian women in the categories of patriarchal women (village dwellers), half-patriarchal (women living in towns and having partial education) and cultured women. A more extended critique of the text and of the lecture, probably by the same author as the author of the “Women and Literature", can be found on page 89 of Srpkinja. The main objection expressed by the anonymous author concerning the professor Đorđević's text is that he did not speak about the role of man in the subordinated position of woman. She evaluates his text as scrupulous and accurate, but also as depressing, and wittily concludes: "Had the Professor promised us that the Serbian cultured man would from now on correct everything he had during centuries sinned against woman, there would have been much more of us who would have cheerfully and with light heart engaged ourselves in cultural activities."

[10] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, Granada Publishing, London, 1985, pp. 30 and 43.

[11] See, Tillie Olsen, Silences, Delacorte Press, New York, 1978, p. 24.

[12]Silences, p. 60.

[13] Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860, New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 23. The aim of the book is   "a redefinition of literature and literary study, for it sees literary texts not as works of art embodying enduring themes in complex forms, but as attempts to redefine the social order." (Introduction, xi).

[14]A Room of One's Own, p. 61.

[15] Ibid, 62.

[16] Jane Tompkins, p.xii.

[17] See ibid, p. 25.

[18] In the conception of literary tradition by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar the precursors are "lost foremothers who could help them find their distinctive female powers". Sandra M. Gilbert, Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1984, p. 59. 

[19] See, A Room of One's Own, p. 63: "For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice."

[20] In the footnote to the list, it is emphasized that only the names of the women who have been writing for a long time and continuously were added, in difference to the basic list from 1897, made rather arbitrarily, as well as the fact that the names of the outstanding literary women were graphically emphasized.

[21]Sopstvena soba, p. 182. Shakespeare's sister (Judith Shakespeare) is a character V. Woolf constructed in order to show the impossibility for women to poetically express themselves in Elizabethan times: "any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at." (ibid, p.48). A sad parallel to this story can be drawn with the tragic destiny of Milica Stojadinović Srpkinja.

[22] The later extension of focus on the social construction of masculinity prompted reactions of more radical feminists, because it looked like abandoning the concept of the research of exclusively women's issues.
[23] See about that Ljubica Marković, Počeci feminizma u Srbiji i Vojvodini, (Beginnigs of Feminism in Serbia and Vojvodina, reprint of the text from 1934), ProFemina, Beograd, jesen 1996, No. 8, pp. 209 i 210.

[24] Ibid, p. 210. On that period, Dr Dragan Subotić wrote: "Traditional village cooperative and patriarchal relations between genders did not allow for the modernization processes to come to the full swing in the wider circle of women, so that everything began and ended in the thin layer of bureaucracy which is nowadays generally referred to as Serbian bourgeoisie at the end of XIX and at the beginning of XX century, although the Serbia of that time was a typical pre-industrial agricultural society in which the place of a woman was within the family and in the home." See "Građanske i socijalističke ideje o ženskom pitanju u Srbiji (19. i 20. vek) (Bourgeoisie and Socialist Ideas on Women's Issue in Serbia, XIX and XX century), Srbija u modernizacijskim procesima 19. i 20. veka, 2: Položaj žene kao merilo modernizacije (Serbia in the Modernization Processes of XIX and XX Century, 2: Position of Woman as a Measure of Modernization, a conference), Institut za noviju istoriju Srbije, Beograd, 1998, p. 446. As an example of traditional approach, the author quotes the text by Tihomir Đorđević about the three types of Serbian woman in which he advocates for the type of woman who would embrace the positive traits of a village woman, woman from the town and cultured woman. (ibid).

On feminism in Serbia see also book by Neda Božinović, Žensko pitanje u Srbiji u XIX i XX veku , Beograd, DevedesetČetvrta, Žene u crnom, 1996. The book has a summary in English.


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