The Development of the Anglicist Women’s and Gender Studies of Continental Europe
Edited By Renate Haas
Croatia: The Social Symbolic in a Transitional Society and Women’s Studies
Women’s studies in Croatia, in my view, are paradigmatic of the development of women’s studies in post-communist, transitional societies. Croatia provides an interesting example, because it was open to the West and not sealed off by the Iron Curtain, but was nonetheless a Communist or, as was the official designation, Socialist country with a one-party system. Ideologically it was defined as working-class and proletarian, rural in tradition, but with private ownership of small businesses and a kolkhoz-type of agriculture. The structures of control depended on the state-dependent economy and the anti-bourgeois rhetoric, which equated the West with decadence. This also marked the rhetoric on the women’s liberation movement, which was seen as an import from the decadent West. However, the official regulations of the female social position were praiseworthy. Equality of women was guaranteed in regard to job opportunities and wages, legal and voting rights, health care and abortion; there was a one-year maternity leave and single mothers were socially protected. The bourgeois hierarchy privileging a marital status was annulled, as the official form of address was comrade for all women. On the other hand, as the communist version of feminism was defined by anti-bourgeois ideology, the ideal image of a woman with a ← 219 | 220 → scarf, driving a tractor, or armed with a rifle, totally unfeminine, did not appeal to many (both men and women alike) and was a case of ridicule rather than role model on the level of the socio-symbolic. An excellent example of the ambivalence in the perception of femininity is the celebration of the 8th of March. Women’s Day was marked as a festive occasion: the offices would not close but men would bring their female colleagues red carnations and often they would stay in the office or factory far into the night dancing and singing. Food, however, and the subsequent cleaning-up were taken care of by women. At school, children were encouraged to draw pictures or pick flowers for their mothers in the tradition of Mother’s Day. This dichotomy is symbolic of the situation of women from the 1950s to the 1970s. Their legal rights did not work out in practice – women were still ‘the keepers of the three corners in the house’ fulfilling all the traditional role expectations. At work they were legally equal, though statistically they were paid less, as the jobs they were holding were devaluated (such as being a teacher or a nurse). Moreover, feminism was seen as a part of the communist value system with which the rising middle class did not identify. The way in which women were addressed in the private and public spheres shows this clearly: whereas the official address was comrade, in private contexts the equivalents of Miss / Mrs. prevailed and comrade would only be used as a joke.
Within this dichotomy of the socio-symbolic, the position of women’s studies has to be understood. It was already in the 1950s that women’s studies were formed. They were mainly based in academic institutions, such as the Institute for the History of the Workers’ Movement, and were in accord with the official ideology. Primarily they were devoted to the history of international feminist movements and to the role of women in the communist and partisan resistance in Croatia. Such feminism, however, was widely seen as a part of the shallow communist propaganda. Even the engaging personal life-narratives of courage and suffering of women and children were dismissed as propaganda of the political Other that ordinary women from the rising middle class did not identify with. Therefore, those first attempts at a history of women’s movements had little impact on academic and social life.
However, the academic Marxists were semi-integrated within the system of higher education (notably the members of the Korčula School of ← 220 | 221 → Philosophy,2 in whose summer schools scholars from all over the world participated, Gayatry Spivak among them), and a move towards more liberal and internationalized women’s studies began to appear. There are three landmarks in the 1980s. First, Lydia Sklewicky organized a section for women’s studies under the auspices of sociology at the Filozofski Fakultet in Zagreb. Held at the Academic Club of Zagreb University, it became the centre for the dissemination of contemporary feminist theories, and these found their way not only into scientific and cultural research and periodicals, but even influenced more popular media.3 A climax was reached in 1984 with the publication of a special issue of the literary journal Republika (Zagreb) devoted exclusively to women’s writing and dealing with leading feminists such as Virginia Woolf, Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray as well as with the feminist re-evaluation of Croatian female authors. Another important academic factor were two international conferences on feminist theory and women’s writing held in the Inter-University Centre in Dubrovnik.4 As one of the disseminating points of new disciplines, the Centre was at that time ← 221 | 222 → a very special place, since to non-aligned Yugoslavia scholars could come both from the East and the West. Thus, the IUC in Dubrovnik, together with the Korčula School of Philosophy, enabled the dissemination of knowledge otherwise prevented by the Iron Curtain.5 The two feminist conferences were extremely well attended, with significant participation of French and American scholars. They received extensive coverage even by the popular press (something hard to imagine nowadays). Thirdly, in the eighties, an ongoing polemics started between Slavenka Drakulić, a prominent Croatian feminist author, and Igor Mandić, a male enfant terrible. It prompted a more popular discussion about the condition of women, in particular addressing their sexual choices. All these events influenced the modes of discoursing about women and gradually impregnated not only the critical idiom but the everyday socio-symbolic. As a result, the generation born after the late fifties produced a number of young intellectual women who started to think, behave and act differently. Though courses on women’s writing were not introduced to the universities, the young intellectuals began to apply feminist theories in their writing and teaching.
All this changed drastically in the 1990s. The war brought national homogenization and nationalistic values to the fore, and women were once again seen as national heroines, mothers and nurturers. Even women’s rights were limited in regard to birth control (in particular in regard to abortion, as doctors were given the right to be conscientious objectors). Also a great deal of Catholic propaganda and pro-life activism was given voice in the media and in politics. The after-war period brought a number of changes. The liberal economy created a more competitive market, which has been especially merciless to middle-aged women. The rise of a new class that emerged after the war, its wealth based on war profits, produced a new set of values and new power constellations. Women entered this display of vanity sometimes as rootless male equals, more often as the scopophilic objects of desire. Female writing started to dominate the literary scene, but ← 222 | 223 → more as an exhibitionist or pornographic manifestation. The top novelists of the eighties, such as Dubravka Ugrešić, Slavenka Drakulić and Irena Vrkljan, were given less attention than the pornographic biography of a football-star’s wife, who even received a prize for the best-selling novel a few years ago. However, as Croatian society has been deeply scarred by the collective as well as very private and personal memories of war atrocities, separation and violence, and almost equally troubled by the ruthlessness of the primary accumulation of capital in the liberal economy, people have developed a strong need not only for the yellow press, soap operas and football games to comfort them, but also for all forms of psychological reassurance and support offered by self-help books, psychological counselling and life-narratives. It is for this reason, I believe, that women’s studies (which should by no means be equated with feminism, although they do echo some feminist ideas) have started flourishing in the academic institutions as well as in popular media. As a result, certain changes in the awareness of human rights have occurred with regard to family violence, sexual orientation, etc. However, a phallogocentric view has still been dominant not only in the cultural symbolic and the media presentation of women but also in the self-fashioning of popular singers and soap-opera divas. But this is not peculiar to Croatia. If we look at the ideological postulate underwriting the most popular emancipatory works concerning female sexuality, such as Sex and the City, or woman’s position in society (The Devil Wears Prada), we detect the same phenomenon: the traditional phallocentrism in portraying woman as male-dependent in her self-definition (Carrie) or as monstrous, if strong and enterprising like a man (Miranda). ← 223 | 224 →
1 As explained in the Introduction to the volume, death prevented Ina Gjurgjan from elaborating the Anglicist aspects. Her outline is, nevertheless, illuminating. A member of the older generation with broad international experience, she makes her contribution to ongoing attempts at coming to terms with the recent Croatian / Yugoslav past and to the historiography of feminism in Socialist / Postsocialist countries. In her emails to me, she repeatedly expressed her conviction that she had crucial things to say in these respects and that despite its brevity the paper already contained important correctives. The difficulties of further documenting her statements, indeed, show how much the atrocities of the nineties have, at home and abroad, obliterated the memory of Yugoslavia’s important role as mediator between East and West during the Cold War. All notes mine, RH.
2 Also known as Praxis School, after its journal. They stressed the significance of the early humanist writings of Marx and pleaded for a creative adaptation of Marxism in the context of Yugoslav self-management. This brought them continuous criticism and serious attacks by party officials, but heightened their appeal to Western intellectuals. The famous summer schools took place on the Croatian island of Korčula from 1964 to 1974. To name a few further attendees: Ernst Bloch, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Jürgen Habermas, Agnes Heller, Henri Lefebvre, and Lucien Goldmann. Milan Kangrga, ‘Korčulanska ljetna škola’, in Izvan povijesnog događanja: dokumenti jednog vremena (Split: Feral Tribune, 1997), pp. 278–94.
3 For further information on Sklewicky see the entry on her in Francisca de Haan / Krassimira Daskalova / Anna Loutfi, eds., A Biographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms: Central, Eastern, and South Eastern Europe, 19th and 20th Centuries (Budapest / New York: Central European UP, 2006), pp. 517–20.
4 1986: Poetics and Politics of Women’s Writing / Éthique et poétique de l’écriture féminine; 1988: Writing and Language – The Politics of Feminist Critical Practice and Theory / Écriture et langage – Éthique et poétique d’une pratique et d’une théorie féministe critique. Gjurgjan was a co-organizer of both. The conference of 1988 attracted over one hundred international scholars and led to the following important publication: Alice A. Parker / Elizabeth A. Meese, eds., Feminist Critical Negotiations (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1992).
5 As part of an exchange program with the State Department, international seminars in Dubrovnik also paved the way for the setting up of the unique multidisciplinary American Studies graduate program in Zagreb in 1986. The number of universities formally associated with the IUC grew to more than 250 before the outbreak of the Balkan wars.