New Feminist Contributions to Serbian Herstory

in Aspasia

Review Essay by Željka Janković and Svetlana Stefanović

Jasmina B. Milanović, Delfa Ivanic: Zaboravljene uspomene (Delfa Ivanić: Forgotten memoirs), Belgrade: Evoluta, 2015, 350 pp., €18.42 (paperback), ISBN 978-8-68595-773-4.

Ana Stolić, Sestre Srpkinje: Pojava pokreta za emancipaciju žena i feminizma u Kraljevini Srbiji (Serbian sisters: The emergence of the women’s emancipation movement and feminism in the Kingdom of Serbia), 2nd updated edition, Belgrade: Evoluta, 2015, 209 pp., €17.22 (paperback), ISBN 978-86-85957-69-7.

The two books reviewed here are important contributions to Serbian feminist historiography, bringing a better understanding of the past, as well as to (literary) research, on the role of women’s memoirs in studying the history of women in Yugoslavia/Serbia. Their authors, the historians Ana Stolić and Jasmina Milanovic, working respectively at the Institute of History and at the Institute for Contemporary History in Belgrade, concentrate their research interests around the history of everyday life and the evolution of women’s role in society since the nineteenth century, including the activities of humanitarian women’s societies such as the Society “Kneginja Ljubica” or the Circle of Serbian Sisters.

The intention of Ana Stolić is to offer a thorough analysis of the most important political, socioeconomic, and cultural factors that preceded the emergence of the Serbian Women’s emancipation movement in the light of women’s studies and feminist historiography, and to place them within a wider world context. Following the emergence of the first girls’ schools, as well as analyzing traditional discourses on gender roles, Stolić perceives entering the world of politics (1903–1914) and the beginning of the cooperation with international feminist organizations as some of the crucial factors that created the first important feminist figures in Serbia. Among those figures, one of the main positions is most certainly occupied by Delfa Ivanić (1881–1972), one of the founders of the Circle of Serbian Sisters, a member of the Serbian National Women’s Council in the prewar period, as well as the president of the Women’s Alliance in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. For reasons unknown, her memoirs did saw the light of day not in 1966 (the date stamped on the version found in one of the archives) but in 2012, thanks to Jasmina Milanovic. After comparing the two existing manuscripts, Milanovic determined that they were almost identical in the parts that matched (until chapter 71). Milanovic had also included the speeches, articles, and notes of Delfa Ivanic in the first edition of the memoirs, published by the Institute for Contemporary History under the name Uspomene (Memoirs), as well as the biography of her biological father, Ivan Music, written by Toma Oraovac. Those had been chosen by Fedor Nikic (1894/9–1989)—a lawyer and university professor who persuaded Delfa to write memoirs—and prepared for publishing in a special addition named “Appendices” for which he had written the foreword. In the second edition, entitled Delfa Ivanić: Zaboravljene uspomene (Delfa Ivanic: Forgotten memoirs) by Evoluta, published in 2015, Milanovic presented to readers the basic text of the memories of Delfa Ivanic without the aforementioned appendix. Regardless, researchers and readers are not denied the information on her written work and speeches, since Ivanic repeatedly listed in memoirs the journals in which they had been published.

In the introduction to her book, Ana Stolic notes how four out of the five processes listed by Karen Offen as grounds for the emergence of Women’s movements were clearly noticeable in the young Serbian monarchy: the rise of women’s education, the development of nationalism within nation-states, competitive relations between women organized in social democratic parties and feminists from the upper class, and initiatives and participation in international feminist organizations. Within the chapter “Women’s Emancipation Movement or Feminism?”—starting with the hypothesis that the women’s emancipation movement in Serbia represents a phase of early feminism—the author notes four developmental phases: (1) the first public debate on women’s place in Serbian society within the activities of the leading representatives of the United Serb Youth; (2) the emergence of Women’s long-term humanitarian organizations as forerunners of the emancipation movement, starting in the mid-1870s; (3) intense patriotic mobilization at the beginning of the twentieth century; (4) entering the world of politics (1903–1914), shaping the demands for the improvement of Women’s position, and beginning to cooperate with international feminist organizations.

The chapter “A Woman Should Stay a Woman: Gender Discourses and Women’s Role” analyzes the function of the state in creating discursive policies that solidify the supposedly biological difference between male and female “roles.” What is extremely significant in this chapter is the fact that attention is drawn to certain stipulations of the Serbian Civil Code that refer to inheritance rights and the exclusion of women from the public sphere. The author underscores that, in this first phase, the discursive practices and argumentation of both the law and the women’s emancipation movement rest on the idea of difference, listing the most apparent examples of conservative discourse coming from politicians, priests, teachers, and pedagogues. The members of the Serbian liberal intelligence, gathered around the United Serb Youth and youth papers in the 1860s and 1870s, exhibit a somewhat more moderate form and point out the inequality and the need for better elementary education for women. Finally, meticulously analyzing “feminism as excess” in the views of Draga Dejanovic, Svetozar Markovic, the Ninkovic sisters, and the first socialists who raised their voices for women’s right to education, work, and economic independence, the author underscores how they shed light on inequality as a social construct.

In the chapter “Education and Paid Work,” the author discusses the founding (as well as the difficulties and obstacles) of the first girls’ schools and the strengthening of imposed gender roles. Mostly girls from affluent families from Belgrade attended these schools. There were few women who could go and study abroad or attend the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade. They were almost all lower in rank, with a limited possibility of progress. Teaching became available to women not only because of the increased need of the state for such a profession, but also because it was considered an extension of Women’s gender role of caring for the upbringing of future generations.

The chapter “Humanitarian Women’s Societies and the Issue of (Re)production of Gender Roles” illustrates how the social policy of the state encourages charity work, presenting it as a moral obligation that suits Women’s sensitivity and tenderness, as well as their need to take care of others. However, the author points out that we should not forget how the Women’s Society of Belgrade, although reinforcing gender and class inequality, still managed to pave the way for a certain type of women’s participation in public activities.

The next chapter deals with social and rhetorical policies discernible in the activities of the Society “Kneginja Ljubica” or the Circle of Serbian Sisters with regard to patriotic mobilization, whose results are “national feminism” and the belief that women’s engagement is a patriotic duty. In the part “Is It Early for Feminism?” the author points out the dedication of Delfa Ivanic, Finance Minister Vukašin Petrovic, Maga Magazinovic, Katarina Milovuk, Jelena Lazarevic, and the Serbian National Women’s Alliance to Women’s suffrage and education. On the other hand, the author maps the social democratic movement and the appearance of women organized within the Women’s Worker Society, who used petitions, protests, magazine publishing, and the people’s deputies in the National Assembly to advocate for equal political rights for women and men.

Two versions of memoirs by Delfa Ivanic were kept for several decades in two archives after they had been written.1 Ivanic wrote her memoirs late in life, persuaded by the aforementioned lawyer and university professor Fedor Nikic. Nikic had been a part of the Women’s movement in the interwar period-together with Katarina Bogdanovic (1885-1968), the first editor of the journal Ženski pokret (Women’s movement)-and organized and led, at the beginning of the 1920s, the course “Social Class for Women.”2 The aim of the course was to inform women of all important institutions and issues in the state and society, to develop their interest in social sciences, and to educate them socially, that is, to develop the sense of social solidarity and awaken social consciousness in women.3 Nikic advocated for Women’s right to vote and for women to step forward as a united front in the fight for political equality, no matter what class they belonged to.4

It should not be surprising that Nikic, as a connoisseur of Women’s issues, was aware of the significance of Delfa Ivanic’s work and that he edited and prepared her memoirs for publishing. He explained his perseverance and tenacity in the process as follows: “I believed that her, Delfa’s, memoirs, would represent the first memoirs of a Serbian woman in the entire Serbian and Yugoslav memoir literature, and, as such, represent our significant cultural heritage.”5 Nikić was among the first to notice that not a single Serbian or Yugoslav woman had produced memoirs of her life and work in its entirety.6 For example, womens activist Savka Subotić (1834–1918) only mentioned her work in the public sphere in passing in her own memoirs.7 The reader is thus denied vital information concerning her work within Women’s organizations in the territory of then southern Hungary (Vojvodina) and the Kingdom of Serbia. The memoirs of Paulina Lebl-Albala (1891–1967), an activist for Women’s rights and a leading figure in the establishment of the Association of University Educated Women, entitled Tako je nekad bilo (That’s how it once was), end with her wedding day in 1920.8 There is almost no mention of her own interwar social and political engagement. Ivanic dedicated only two chapters to her life after 1944, entitled “Liberation” and “After Liberation, October 10th, 1944–1966.” Still, her memoirs could be considered a harmonious whole, since her own social and political engagement had ended by 1944.

The memoirs of Delfa Ivanic do not belong in the category of personal, intimate confessions. She not only provided information about her own role in various political and social events but also pointed out the important role of her husband, Ivan Ivanic, in the social and political life of Serbia. In the introduction to her memoirs, Delfa Ivanic emphasized that the focus and pride of her life was her work in Women’s organizations, as well as her writing and her cultural, educational, and propaganda work. She claimed that “by depicting and showing her life in that way,” she had wanted to demonstrate how a Serbian and Yugoslav woman intellectual “should live and work, and how she should love her nation and her country”9

The memoirs of Delfa Ivanic not only contain an interesting account of her personal life but also give information about the private life of upper-class women and men in Serbia and Yugoslavia, such as family context, divorce, custody over children, and so forth. It uncovers ways in which women extended their influence through informal channels and reveals that intraparty—that is, interparty feuds—influenced the work of Women’s organizations, and that the women activists were, in fact, politically profiled.

The two reviewed books offer the reader a thorough immersion in the complex framework of the epoch that birthed the Women’s emancipation movement in the Kingdom of Serbia, born in the context of the fight for national liberation. One of the main footholds of this epoch is found within the sociocultural mechanisms of constructing the image of national affiliation. As the social construction of difference, systemically presented as natural, tried to exclude women from the public sphere and history, Ana Stolić’s book represents a valuable testimony of the great contribution of Women’s societies, which awakens the hope that the names Delfa Ivanic, Draga Dejanovic, the Ninkovic sisters, Savka Subotić, Katarina Milovuk, Persida Pinterovic, and other women activists will take their rightful place in history books. Moreover, aside from Women’s magazines and archival material (which comes mostly from the archives of Women’s societies), memoirs written by women are vital sources not only in studying the history of women and gender in Serbia (and Yugoslavia) in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, but also for Women’s studies in general. They provide insights into the family and marital life of upper-class women, their education and career, and the work of Women’s organizations, the obstacles they encountered, and the ways they overcame them. These two books are thus very well worth reading and recommended to everyone interested in neglected historical and literary figures and phenomena.


This review essay was written within the framework of the research project “Knjižen-stvo: Theory and History of Women’s Writing in Serbian until 1915,” financed by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technological Development of the Republic of Serbia since 2011. Under the direction of Biljana Dojčinović—professor of literary theory, modernism, and gender studies at the Department for Comparative Literature and Theory of Literature at the University of Belgrade—the project, besides publishing a journal covering gender-based theoretical views and critical approaches, focuses on analyzing the history of Serbian Women’s writing and creating a database of Serbian female writers, currently containing information about the life and works of 173 Serbian women writers from the Middle Ages to 1915.


In the Archives of Serbia (“Varia,” Fund No. 3494) and the Archives of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Art (within the “Legacy of Delfa Ivanić,” No. 14515/1–40.


Fedor Nikić, Radovi (1919–1929) [Works (1919–1929)], vol. 1 (Belgrade: Šid Grafosrem, 1981), 224.


Ibid., 213–214, 221, 226–228.


Ibid., 220.


Delfa Ivanić, Uspomene [Memoirs], ed. Jasmina Milanović (Belgrade: Institut za savremenu istoriju, 2012), 32 (emphasis in the original).




Savka Subotić, Uspomene [Memoirs], ed. Ana Stolić (Belgrade: Srpska književna zadruga, 2001).


Paulina Lebl Albala, Tako je nekad bilo [That’s how it once was], ed. Aleksandar Lebl (Beograd: VMD, 2005).


Jasmina B. Milanović, Delfa Ivanić: Zaboravljene uspomene [Delfa Ivanic: Forgotten memoirs] (Belgrade: Evoluta, 2015), 87.

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Contributor Notes

Željka Jankovic is a Teaching Assistant for French literature in the Department of Romance Languages and Literature at the University of Belgrade. She is writing a gender-oriented PhD dissertation on Madame de Lafayette. She won numerous awards in the fields of language and literature, which offered her various opportunities to improve her skills abroad (France, Romania, Belgium, etc.). She has published numerous articles and translations, as well as one monograph. Fields of interest include women writers, stylistics, French and comparative literature, and French and Serbian cultural and literature connections. Email:

Svetlana Stefanovic majored in history and received an MS at the University of Belgrade, defending her thesis “žensko pitanje u beogradskoj štampi i periodici 1918–1941” (The woman question in Belgrade’s press and periodicals 1918-1941). She defended a dissertation “Nation und Geschlecht: Frauen in Serbien von der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts bis zum Zweiten Weltkrieg” (Nation and gender: Women in Serbia from the mid-nineteenth century until World War II) at the University of Leipzig. She is the author of articles published in academic journals and conference proceedings. Her research focus includes Women’s history and gender. Email:


The International Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women's and Gender History


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