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Veronika Wöhrer: The tradition of literature within slovak women’s organisations and gender studies

The following ideas and observations were part of my master theses on Gender Studies and the use of the term “feminism” by Slovak academics[1]. The motivation for this research were my studies in social sciences and gender studies in Vienna on the one hand and my interest for Slovakia and Slovak language on the other hand. In summer 1995 I attended a lecture by Etela Farkašová on women in Slovak literature at Studia Academica Slovaca and so I heard about gender studies in Slovakia for the first time.

The following ideas and observations were part of my master theses on Gender Studies and the use of the term “feminism” by Slovak academics[1]. The motivation for this research were my studies in social sciences and gender studies in Vienna on the one hand and my interest for Slovakia and Slovak language on the other hand. In summer 1995 I attended a lecture by Etela Farkašová on women in Slovak literature at Studia Academica Slovaca and so I heard about gender studies in Slovakia for the first time. When I was back in Vienna, I could hardly find any information or material about feminism and/or gender studies in Bratislava nor any person who knew about this topic. I was amazed and disappointed, regarding the geographic (and historic) proximity of Vienna and Bratislava, but seemingly huge distance between the people – including academics and women’s activists - from these two capitals. Therefore I decided to examine the topic “on my own” and to try to establish “links” between women in Vienna and Bratislava[2]. Because even though at first sight it might look as if women on this and the other side of the former Iron Curtain have different issues and problems, many objectives actually seem rather familiar or even connected when you risk a closer look. In my point of view in a more and more globalised world patriarchal structures can only be analysed, questioned and changed when (feminist) academics and activists think and work beyond borders.

Before I continue with the current situation, I want to begin with some facts about the first wave of women’s activism and women’s organising in the area which is the Republic of Slovakia today, as in my point of view the important role of (writing) literature within gender studies has its origins in the structures of the national revival and the historic women’s movement.

The first activities by and for women took place during the so called “Slovak National Revival”, which started in the middle of the 18th century and lasted until the foundation of the first Czechoslovak Republic. Slovak people belonged to the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and formed a Slavonic minority in the Northern part, which was called “Oberungarn”. During this period Slovak speaking intellectuals began to be aware of their “nationality”, which means: They began to collect and document Slovak history, Slovak language, Slovak cultural traditions, etc. For example two different codifications of the Slovak language were elaborated and Slovak organisations, circles, magazines, newspapers, schools etc. were founded. The activism of Slovak “nationalists” was political and intellectual at the same time: They did not only work on but also worked out – and thereby constructed - Slovak history, language and what was – and still is – called Slovak “culture”.

Before the foundation of the Czechoslovak Republic there were no officially working Slovak political institutions or parties, which had any kind of executive power and only one Slovak representative in the Hungarian national assembly. So people who wanted to be politically active, had to find different ways of expressing and disseminating their ideas. The structure of Slovak society (no Slovak aristocracy and only a very small group of Slovak bourgeoisie) made intellectuals to become the leading political activists in the National Revival. Intellectuals meant predominantly teachers and priests - catholic and protestant ones. As political organising was very limited in “Oberungarn” and became even harder with the increasing nationalist orientation of Hungarian politics after 1875, writing articles in magazines and writing literature were important means of political activism. This held true for all Slovak activists, but the importance of writing was even more relevant for women: Their access to professions and organisations was limited compared to their male counterparts, so they mainly used literature to act and express themselves politically.

The first and most important women’s organisation was called Živena and founded in 1869. The initiating idea and activities for this organisation for Slovak women were set by a man: Ambro Pietor, a famous Slovak nationalist. His motivation was to establish a broader basis for Slovak nationalism. His idea was to reach the “other half” of the Slovak population, which meant: women. He wanted them to become good nationalist daughters and sisters, wives and mothers of male nationalists. According to these ideals the founding committee of the organisation was formed by three men. The secretary of Živena was Pietor himself. Only the president of the organisation was a woman: Anna Pívková, who was followed by Elena Maróthy Šoltésová in 1894. The latter was vice-president from 1883-1894, then president until 1927, published numerous articles and books and became the women’s movement’s “intellectual leader for over a quarter of a century”[3].

The Slovak women’s magazine “Dennica” was similarly founded because of an appeal by a Slovak male nationalist: Karel Kalál. His motivation was very similar to Pietor’s: He wanted to reach more people for Slovak nationalist ideas and discovered women as a new audience. But the foundation was also due to disputes between conservative Hurban Vajanský, who was editor of the well-known paper “Narodnie noviny” and refused to edit articles by female nationalists that were - in his point of view - “too emancipatory” and these female authors, who wanted to express themselves more openly[4]. So in 1897 the magazine “Dennica” was founded. The first editor of the magazine was Terézia Vansová, who retired in 1907 to care about her sick husband.

The work of the women engaged in Živena and Dennica was much influenced by their male nationalist colleagues, and their ideas were very much shaped by Christian ideals. Almost all of these women were in some way related to protestant (or catholic) priests. Because of these male relatives they gained access to nationalist circles, could travel to meetings and were familiar with nationalist literature. The Christian influence can be seen for example in the fact, that most female authors argued for women’s emancipation by using St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians and the quotation “So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women; you are all one in union with Jesus Christ”[5]. And Terézia Vansová stressed the origin of women’s movement in Christian values, when she wrote in an editorial of Dennica in 1902:

“After all who freed women from bondage and vassalage and set them at the level of men? Jesus Christ.”[6]

Unlike in some other countries, Slovak women activists mostly rejected any kind of “radical” emancipation or “feminism”, that might destroy the main goal of a balanced partnership between men and women. Šoltésová for example criticised the “exaggerated and distorted” descriptions of women’s emancipation in other countries by Slovak male nationalists in her most ambitious essay “Potreba vdelanosti pre ženu, zvlást’ so stanoviska mravnosti (The Need for Women’s Emancipation, Especially from the Viewpoint of Morality)” and describes the given “caricature” of emancipation:

“Most dubious is the view of women’s emancipation as a sort of insane battle of a wife against her husband, which is to say against her calling as a wife – a sort of unthinkable whim to imitate her husband, to bungle inquisitively into his role and ignore her own, to take over his rights without his weighty responsibilities, to take over his public vocation with the conceited belief that the world would be a better place under a woman’s rule, and so on. Obviously such an unthinkable emancipation would be doomed to fail if the idea could even be taken seriously.”[7]

Her own ideas of women’s emancipation seem to have been oriented towards family and partnership. She did not question a woman’s duty to be wife (and mother), but wanted her to stick to her tasks within the family, not taking over typically “men’s” duties. Corresponding to the statutes of “Živena” women activists wanted to educate “Slowakischen Töchter (Slovak daughters)” to become “sittsame, fähige und fleißige Hausfrauen und pflichteifrige Töchter (demure, competent and diligent housewives and zealous daughters)”[8], but they never fought for political or juridical issues, as e.g. the right to vote[9].

Nevertheless, the activities of female Slovak nationalists should not be underestimated: As Jana Cviková argues in her paper “An der Seite ihrer Männer und ihrer Nation: Die ersten slowakischen Schriftstellerinnen in der Bewegung”[10] the use of Christian rhethorics might have resulted out of tactical reasons. Furthermore Slovak women activists developed their own ideas of women’s emancipation independently from – and sometimes in opposition to - their male nationalist colleagues: They were active for women’s and girls’ education and supported women’s economical independence. Their ideas often provoked heavy criticism by male nationalists, mostly around the rather conservative circle of “Narodnie Noviny”.

Almost all important women activists in the main women’s organisation and the women’s magazine were also writers of literature who published novels and essays[11]. Some women carried out their activism only by writing, not by participating or working in organisations. (e.g. Izabella Textorisová).

The American literature historian Norma Rudinsky analyses the works of four important women writers at that time: Terezia Vansová, Elena Maróthy Šoltésová, L’udmila Riznerová - who published under the name Podjavorinská - and Izabella Textorisová. They were not only active in the women’s movement, but also published novels and stories, in which they described the lives of Slovak women or female nationalists. They wrote about women’s emancipation and wanted to set role models for their readers. Rudinksy analyses that these writers no longer described idealised female characters as it has been done in the literature of the Štúr tradition. Their “nationalist heroines” were not only more realistic and had more power than the ones of male nationalist writers, but also began to be more oriented towards women’s emancipation. Rudinsky analyses that Božena Slančiková - who published under the name Timrava - and Hana Lilgová Gregorová even developed female characters whom she describes as “feminist heroines”. The authors outline society’s bad states for women and develop characters being rebellious against externally defined roles for women as wives and mothers. These protagonists for example refuse to marry and stay economically independent. In works as “Ženy” (Women) by Gregorová or “Skúsenost” (Experience) by Timrava they show women’s longing for education and independence as well as society’s punishments for their “failures”. In many of her works Timrava criticises the nationalist movement itself. (The most famous of these is “Všetko za národ” - Everything for the Nation.) She uncovers hypocrites and materialists within the movement, bad living conditions for unmarried women and the ignorance of male nationalists towards women writers[12].

Rudinsky stresses, that the number of women writers increased rapidly in the 1870-ies[13] and that

„Writing seems to have been a nearly automatic part of nationalist activity and nationalist women were almost required to try to become writers.“ [14]

This equation of nationalism and writing seemed to be very common in the Slovak national revival: Rudinsky calls it the „ ... the Slovak tendency to identify nationhood with language and literature“[15]. For women it seemed to be almost imperative: Izabela Textorisová’s aptitude for botanical research was “ignored if not scorned by other women nationalists, who urged her to dedicate herself to writing”[16].

Unfortunately there does not exist much literature on women’s activities in the Slovak part of the first Czechoslovak Republic. In the Czech part there were a lot of women’s initiatives, groups and organisations[17]. Slovaks were freer to express their political ideas and the president of the republic Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was supportive of women’s activities. Therefore the political and social background for women’s activism might have been encouraging in Slovakia as well. In my opinion women’s organisations during this period would be a fruitful field for further research.

During the period of Socialism “emancipation” was stately defined and regulated. The only women’s organisation was the “Slovak Union of Women” (Slovenský zväz žien), which was directly submitted to the communist party. Women were not allowed to organise themselves autonomously. Within dissident initiatives women were active, but there was no “feminist” dissident in socialist Czechoslovakia. The Czech dissident and social scientist Jiřina Šiklova states that due to party politics old roots of feminism were forgotten and new discourses were forbidden in the ČSSR[18]. Feminist concepts did not get smuggled into the country, so communist propaganda shaped the image of feminism as a bourgeois concept of bored Western housewives[19].

After 1989 and a decline of women’s influence in politics and in the labour market[20], women started to build up organisations and projects again. In Slovakia the first women’s initiatives were run by female writers, literary critics and (visual) artists. The first and most important independent women’s organisation, that pushed - and still pushes – women’s agenda in a way they themselves called “feminist”, was the magazine “ASPEKT”. It is run by a group of literary critics, writers and philosophers. The magazine contains feminist theory, literature, interviews, pictures, portraits of visual artists etc. Every issue is dedicated to one main topic and includes translations of basic feminist texts from foreign writers as well as Slovak texts. Very often texts on theory are covered by foreigners, that get translated and introduced into Slovak society this way, whereas literature – poems, short stories, essays, collages, etc. - is mostly written by Slovak authors. Many of the contributions cannot be strictly defined as either theory/research or literature, but are rather combinations of both approaches, like for example: text collages, fictional interviews with famous (historic) Slovak women, literary interpretations of research, comics using survey data etc. These texts question the borders between “theory” and “literature”, they are “hybrids” and manifest bridges not only to link genres but also groups of readers: They send feminist messages to readers of literature as well as theory, to people looking for entertainment as well as (academic) education.

Questioning or deconstructing boarders between genres (or between fiction and science) reminds of feminist authors like e.g. Donna Haraway. Deconstruction of hegemonic discourses, inventing “hybrids” etc. became much discussed in postmodern feminist discourses during the 90-ies. Even though in the beginning Slovak feminists did not know too much about postmodern feminist theory or about Donna Haraway[21], their work as writers, artists and literary critics with feminist theories led them to very similar approaches crossing the borders of fiction and science.

Because of the lack of feminist books, they started to publish themselves in 1996. Until spring 2003 they published 39 books and booklets. 7 of them are labelled “Slovak prose”, 10 “translated prose”, 8 represent feminist theory or research, 5 are about prevention of violence, 5 are children’s books, three are calendars and one is a collection of interviews, published in the magazine between 1993-1998. So they cover literature as well as theoretical books and sometimes publish works that are neither-nor, or “in between”: Especially the calendars, some publications about violence and most children’s books (stories, comics, etc.) work with elements of facts as well as fiction and combine both. This made some of them not only “easier” to read, but also very popular: E.g. all three calendars were out of print soon after their publication.

Aspekt also runs the only library in Slovakia dedicated to women’s and gender issues. As other libraries and book stores hardly cover this topic (if they do, they just sell publications of Aspekt), they are the only source of information for students, journalists and other interested readers.

Besides the mentioned activities, Aspekt began to work in the sectors public relations and political lobbying, especially in the field of violence against women. So the editors and co-ordinators, originally being writers and literary critics, broadened their activities to social and political projects.

Another women’s initiative is the “Klub feministických filozofiek” (Club of Feminist Philosophers), which started to organise classes on feminist theory and gender studies at Comenius University in Bratislava already in school year 1990/1991. The first one was called “Pohl’ad z druhej strany (Feministická filozofia a literatúra)“ (View from the other Side [Feminist Philosophy and Literature], others were „Problém rozumu v moderne a feministická literatura“ (The Problem of Reason in Modern Age and Feminist Literature) and “Odporúčaná literatúra v slovenčine a češtine” (Recommended Literature in Slovak and Czech) in 1992. They broadened the topics of the lecture to different aspects of „rodové štúdiá“ (Gender Studies) in 1996/97 and changed it into an interdisciplinary lecture series given by different scholars from the whole faculty and counting for most faculty curricula. In autumn 2001 a centre for gender studies (Centrum rodových štúdií) was established at Comenius University, where lectures, courses and research in the field of gender studies are documented and co-ordinated. Since then the number of lectures increased to two or three per semester.

The club consists of philosophers; one of them is a writer at the same time: Etela Farkašová. Amongst other topics feminist aesthetics form an important part of feminist theory taught at university. In 1999 an “interdisciplinary and international” class was taught in this field together with the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and the University of Vienna. In the year 2000 an anthology, edited by Zuzana Kiczková, was dedicated to this topic: Otázky rodovej identity vo výtvarnom umení, architektúre, filme a literatúre (Questions of Gender identity within visual arts, architecture, film and literature).

Apart from these projects female writers are organised in a club called “femina”.

Unlike in many so called “Western”, but also most neighbouring countries, as the Czech Republic or Poland, feminist theory and gender studies in Slovakia did not emerge within social sciences, but within literature and philosophy. This includes academic feminism at university (club of feminist philosophers) as well as feminist organising at an NGO level (Aspekt)[22].

Most of the protagonists (as Jana Juránová, Jana Cviková, Etela Farkašová or Zdeňka Kalnická) of the more active women’s organisations are writers of literature. And literature – and the literature keeping magazine Aspekt - are the most important ways of transporting feminist ideas. This way of “transportation” seems indeed to be farer reaching than others: Women’s literature is the best represented part of Aspekt library. Jana Cviková says in an interview, that most readers come to the library because of women’s literature. So literature is not only a popular way of expression among active women and a field of experimentalism in Aspekt magazine, but at the same time seems to be a more outreaching means of disseminating feminist ideas than feminist theory or research.

Literature and visual arts[23] formed and still form an important and even leading part of feminist organising. This is a big difference to women’s movements in other countries, not only in the USA or Great Britain, but also in other Central European countries as Austria or the Czech Republic.

As I have shown in this paper the combination of literature and political activism for women’s issues has a long tradition in Slovakia. It was constituent for the first wave of women’s activism in the 19th century and is still significant for feminist organising and women’s projects in Slovakia today. In a country where political activism was very problematic for a long time - in the Hungarian empire as well as in socialist Czechoslovakia – political expression via prose and poetry seemed to be more appropriate.

The literary approach in Slovak feminist theory and activism can still be seen in projects and publications today and seems to be successful: It opens space for experiments with genres and subjects, and broadens the public for feminist ideas. In a society that is not very open to feminist issues[24], this might be a more efficient way of disseminating women’s issues than “plain” political activism.

Literature

BÚTOROVÁ, Zora et alii: She and He in Slovakia: Gender Issues in Public Opinion, Bratislava, 1996

ČERMÁKOVÁ, Marie: Sozialer Status im Umbruch. Die Frauen in der Tschechischen Republik, in: Kreisky, Eva (ed.): Vom patriarchalen Staatssozialismus zur patriarchalen Demokratie, Wien 1996, pp 73-83

CVIKOVÁ, Jana: An der Seite ihrer Männer und ihrer Nation: Die ersten slowakischen Schriftstellerinnen in der Bewegung. Paper presented at the conference „Genderfragen und kollektive Identitäten in der Habsburgermonarchie 1867-1918”, Vienna, 28.-29.3.2003

KICZKOVÁ, Zuzana: Úvod do feministických štúdií. In: ASPEKT 1/98: Myslenie žien, pp 298-305

MIKULOVÁ, Marcela: Die Frauen und das Volk an der Wende zwischen 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. In: Feminismus und Nationalismus: Dokumentation der Konferenz der FrauenAnstiftung 11.-13.6.1993 in Bratislava, Hamburg-Bratislava, 1993, pp 41-47

REINFELD, Barbara: Františka Plamínková (1875 -1942), Czech and Feminist and Patriot. In: Nationalities Papers, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1997, pp 13-33

RUDINSKY, Norma Leigh. 1991. Incipient Feminists: Women Writers in the Slovak National Revival. With an Appendix of Slovak Women Poets 1789-1875 by Mariana Pridavkova-Minarikova. Ohio

ŠIKLOVÁ, Jiřina: Report on Women in the Post-Communist Central Europe (Personal View from Prague). In: Bútorová, Zora et al.: She and He in Slovakia. Gender Issues in Public Opinion. Bratislava, 1996, pp 7-18

ŠIKLOVÁ, Jiřina: Men and Women United for a Higher Purpose. In: Transitions, January 1998, pp 34-35

ŠMEJKALOVÁ, Jiřina: On the Road: Smuggling Feminism Across the Post-Iron Curtain. In: replika 1/1995, pp 97-102

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[1] WÖHRER, Veronika: “Das verfluchte Wort Feminismus”. Eine Deutungsmusteranalyse zu Feminismus-Begriffen slowakischer Wissenschafterinnen, Wien, Dipl 2001.

What I give here are impressions, observations and theses about the perception and success of women’s literature as political and educational instrument. As a sociologist I will analyse the roles of literature and writers of literature in a certain field of activism and the effect that authors presume that literature has. I will not give analyses of literature itself. I think that further (historic) research on interactions and influences between literature and politics would of course be necessary to substantiate these ideas.

[2] Of course there were exchanges between women from Vienna and Bratislava already since 1989, but at the beginning they were not too many and hardly visible for an ordinary student like me. In the last years initiatives, meetings, conferences, etc. increased, connections were established, exchanges were organised, etc. So my initial disappointment changed into cautious pleasure about the growing formations of dialogues!

[3] RUDINSKY, Norma Leigh. 1991. Incipient Feminists: Women Writers in the Slovak National Revival. With an Appendix of Slovak Women Poets 1789-1875 by Mariana Pridavkova-Minarikova. Ohio, p 82

[4] Ironically enough: After 1875, when stricter discrimination of Slovak nationalist activities by the Hungarian government started and all Slovak organisations except Živena were abolished, the former women’s organisation was transformed into an organisation for men and women and took over certain agenda of prohibited Slovak organisations as e.g. Matica Slovenska. Step by step “women’s issues” became less important and in 1897 one of the strongest opponents of women’s emancipation: Hurban Vajanský became secretary of Živena (!).

[5] RUDINSKY, 1991, p 128

[6] Quote see: RUDINSKY, 1991, p 100

[7] RUDINSKY, 1991, 130

[8] See MIKULOVÁ, Marcela: Die Frauen und das Volk an der Wende zwischen 19. und 20. Jahrhundert. In: Feminismus und Nationalismus: Dokumentation der Konferenz der FrauenAnstiftung 11.-13.6.1993 in Bratislava, Hamburg-Bratislava 1993, p. 43, Translation by the author of this article.

[9] The ignorance of political goals might have also been partly due to the political context: political institutions did not offer many possibilities for Slovaks – neither for men nor for women!

[10] CVIKOVÁ, Jana: An der Seite ihrer Männer und ihrer Nation: Die ersten slowakischen Schriftstellerinnen in der Bewegung. Paper presented at the conference „Genderfragen und kollektive Identitäten in der Habsburgermonarchie 1867-1918”, Vienna, 28.-29.3.2003

[11] See e.g. RUDINSKY, 1991

[12] See MIKULOVÁ, 1993 , p 46 and RUDINSKY, 1991, p 175

[13] See RUDINSKY, 1991, p 114

[14] RUDINSKY, 1991, p 122

[15] RUDINSKY 1991, p 101

[16] RUDINSKY 1991, p 122

[17] For more details see e.g. ŠIKLOVÁ, Jiřina: Men and Women United for a Higher Purpose. In: Transitions, January 1998, pp 34-35 or: REINFELD, Barbara: Františka Plamínková (1875 -1942), Czech and Feminist and Patriot. In: Nationalities Papers, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1997, pp 13-33

[18] See ŠIKLOVÁ, Jiřina: Report on Women in the Post-Communist Central Europe (Personal View from Prague). In: Bútorová, Zora et al.: She and He in Slovakia. Gender Issues in Public Opinion. Bratislava, 1996, p 7

[19] See ŠMEJKALOVÁ, Jiřina: On the Road: Smuggling Feminism Across the Post-Iron Curtain. In: replika 1/1995, pp 97-102

[20] See e.g. ČERMÁKOVÁ, Marie: Sozialer Status im Umbruch. Die Frauen in der Tschechischen Republik, in: Kreisky, Eva (ed.): Vom patriarchalen Staatssozialismus zur patriarchalen Demokratie, Wien, 1996, pp 73-83

[21] For a description of the first contacts between scholars from Slovakia and feminists from so called „Western“ countries, see e.g. KICZKOVÁ, Zuzana: Úvod do feministických štúdií. In: ASPEKT 1/98: Myslenie žien, pp 298-305

[22] The director of the NGO “Aliancia žien Slovenska”: Katarina Farkašová also studied English language and Literature.

[23] One former important editor of Aspekt was the artist Anna Daučiková, another member of the board is the architect (and theorist) Monika Mitášová.

[24] See BÚTOROVÁ, Zora et alii: She and He in Slovakia: Gender Issues in Public Opinion, Bratislava 1996

 

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