The role of the woman in Yugoslavia changed significantly throughout the twentieth century. Women sought better positions within economic, political, and social realms than they had occupied in the nineteenth century. Were they successful in their struggles for gender equality or was the status quo maintained?
A chronology tracing the position of women throughout the different stages of twentieth-century Yugoslav history is presented below:
Women suffered the most from severe economic conditions. They worked for much less pay than their male counterparts, within factories and domestic service alike. For instance, “in the clothing industry and commercial services, women could expect to make a maximum of 50% of men’s wages.” While only a small number of women actually worked within industry, their conditions were so harsh that they were some of the most active in strikes.
From a political perspective, many women ascribed to the Communist mantra because it “was the only one that called and consistently strove for a political and social equality of women.” Women felt marginalized by religious and conservative ideologies that stressed the importance of the woman as a housewife and mother. The first Conference of Socialist (Communist) Women of 1919 symbolized the growing need that women felt for an entirely new political system. Interestingly, a large number of bourgeois feminists even began to subscribe to the Communist view “that the emancipation of women would depend on the radical transformation of society."
Though women proved themselves as politically and economically capable within the Partisan movement, a chauvinistic attitude was maintained. Double standards were rampant.
Women were fighters because fighters were needed for the war, and the war needed to be won. But it was a man’s war throughout, with men determining when, where, and how women would fight… recognition of the qualities of the woman fighter did not translate into giving even the most trusted fighters a role in decision-making either during or following the war.
Though female participation in the Partisan movement was high, the movement still functioned as a patriarchal system.
Yet within areas of study and in the workplace, women were mostly concentrated in traditionally female roles. For instance, “in 1979, 85% of all students in pharmacology were women; in social work, over 87%; and in two-year medical studies, 83%. By contrast, women represented only one-fourth of medical doctors.” There was not true freedom to choose male-dominated areas of study or professions. “The more prestigious and responsible jobs continue to go to men rather than women, despite 40 years of Party criticism of this practice.”
Women were furthermore not highly represented within leadership bodies. To be sure, there were cases of women that held prestigious positions within the Party. A few important names need be mentioned. Firstly, Latinka Perovic, a Serb woman, was Chief Secretary of the Communist Party from 1968-1972. Yet she was removed from office because Tito considered her views too liberal. Similarly, Savka Dabcevic Kucar, a Croat Premier Minister of the Communist Party from 1967-1969, was dismissed by Tito for being too liberal. She became co-leader of the Croatian Spring movement in 1970-1971. Most notably, Milka Planinc, a Croat, was the prime minister of Yugoslavia from 1982-1986. She was the only female to assume a head of government position within the Communist system. Though the cases of these women demonstrate that it was possible for women to reach high positions within the Communist Party, it was by no means commonplace. In fact, Planinc became president “partly in response to criticism from local feminists concerning the continued low representation of women in higher party echelons.” A table representing the low number of women in party leadership positions as late as 1985 is provided on page 7.
In addition to closing off many positions to women in the public realm, Communism closed off many avenues for females in their personal realm. In her book, How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Slavenka Drakulic vividly illustrates that for all its idealistic claims, Communism ignored the basic needs of women. “In the seventy years of its existence it couldn’t fulfill the basic needs of half the population,” Drakulic proclaims, as she describes the lack of sanitary napkins or tampons made available to women during the Communist era. “Besides all the hardship of living in Eastern Europe, if they can’t find gauze or absorbent cotton, they (women) have to wash bloody cloth pads every month, again and again, as their mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers did hundreds of years ago.” Communism did not transform the lives of women within the basic sphere of hygiene.
Yugoslav women yearned for other basic feminine products, such as make-up, which were taken for granted in the west. This led to a fascinating disconnect between Western and Eastern European feminists. While Western feminists felt stifled by the societal pressure to don bras and make-up, Eastern European feminists felt repressed because these feminine items were denied them. In reference to her meeting with Western European feminists in 1978, Drakulic remarks that “we thought they were too radical when they told us that they were harassed by men on our streets… Or when they talked about wearing high-heeled shoes as a sign of women’s subordination. I remember how we gossiped about their greasy hair, no bra, no make-up.” In essence both groups were struggling for the same thing- the ability to express themselves as women without conforming to their respective society’s expectations for women. For the Western European women, make-up, bras, and lingerie classified women as sex objects. For the Eastern European women, these items represented the ability to feel beautiful and express individuality.
The essence of the plight of Yugoslav women during the Titoist era is captured so effectively by Drakulic. Despite any claims that Communists made about a better female literacy rate or representation within government, the bottom line was that they denied women basic necessities. In the name of gender equality, they took away from women the uniqueness of being women. They ignored what the women actually wanted and needed. Though Titoism theoretically encouraged of gender equality, true equality did not exist.
Overall, women attempted to engage in Yugoslavia’s economic, political, and social spheres in the twentieth century. Though they succeeded in certain ways, a true turn from andro-centrism within Yugoslavia did not occur. The result was that despite strides made in ideology under Tito, in actuality progress was not made. This is not to say that the nationalist democracies that formed in 1991 provided more opportunities for women than Communism did. According to Ramet, “in the age of politicized nationalism, the self-proclaimed defenders of ‘the Nation’ reinterpret the community in folk-mythological terms, reducing women to ‘womenfolk’ who need men’s protection and construing feminists who dare to challenge the patriarchal agenda of the nationalists as witches.” The results of reactionary, right-wing measures adopted by the new nationalist states are vividly described by Drakulic. “‘We live surrounded by newly opened porno shops, porno magazines, peepshows, stripteases, unemployment and galloping poverty…Romanian women are prostituting themselves for a single dollar in towns on the Romanian-Yugoslav border. In the midst of all this, our anti-choice nationalist governments are threatening our right to abortion and telling us to multiply, to give birth to more Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Croats, Slovaks.’” The twentieth century as a whole unfortunately did not bring emancipation to Yugoslav women.
This translated excerpt was provided in Ramet’s book as an example of typical governmental publications regarding gender equality during the Titoist era:
In the course of the socialist revolution, significant results were achieved in advancing the socioeconomic position and role of woman in our society. This is indicated by data concerning the number of educated and employed women, analyses of their successful pursuit of professional, leadership, and socially responsible careers, everyday actions for the resolution of problems traditionally connected with women… etc… (But) the battle for the complete emancipation for women is not yet over.