Yugoslav Women in Politics and Society


For the entire perception of the question of situation of Yugoslav women in politics and society between two World Wars, press writing and report from that period represent a very important sort of historical source. Daily newspaper “Politika”, one of the most important daily newspapers on the Balkans, has appeared in continuity since 1904 (except periods of the First and the Second World War) and therefore it represents the inevitable archives material for the research of the history and culture of Serbia and the Balkans within 20th century.

The digital Politika for the period 1904-1941 is since recently been available online through The National Library of Serbia website.[1] Due to the possibility of relatively easy navigation through articles, after reading through all the numbers of Politika for the appointed period, several subjects singled out. In case of this survey, we settled the next four subject matters: female societies, the rise of the feminism, the regional female cooperation and the struggle for the right to vote.

Interwar period in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) was, beside other changes, marked by the struggle for affirmation and recognition of woman in public affairs and for her emancipation. For that reason, after the First World War, the ‘woman question’ became the matter of great importance. Under the altered circumstances, women looked for their new role. In those years they demanded the right to vote, civil equality and the equal right of inheritance.

Female societies

During the First World War women worldwide showed energy, consciousness and capacity, stamina and skillfulness surplus undreamt of i. e. she showed all the abilities she had been denied of. Encouraged by their war engagement, women in interwar period, beside their involvement in humanitarian organizations, began their engagement in a line of newfounded feminist associations such as The Alliance of Feminist Societies in the State of SCS, The Association of Female Students of Belgrade University, The Feminine Small Entente, The Women’s League for Peace and Freedom, The Women’s Party, The Association of Women with Academic Education… Considering their level of organization, those were the first more decisive steps toward the essential aims of the struggle for equality, a long-term struggle with changeable results.

The National Women’s Alliance in SCS was founded in September 1919. Its main tasks were the general enlightenment of population and, above all, the equalization of male and female. At The Yugoslav Women Congress, which met in Belgrade and where representatives of all female associations were assembled, the main issues were feminist question and prostitution. Although all the participants of the Congress agreed that it was necessary to educate and make people literate, there was no agreement on a way to achieve that task. One side thought that they should go among the people and educate them on the basis of charitable work, the other side had the opposite opinion that the adequate results could be achieved only by force, through the authority of state rule and law. Absolute equalization of the male and female rights was also asked for because, as it was emphasised: a man has no higher moral qualifications than a woman so that her subordination could have been legalized only by man’s conservative sense. Civil equality, the right to vote and the right of inheritance were the three issues which would rise a woman on a man’s height and make all the paragraphs which humiliate women and equalize her with men only in terms of guilt, crime or punishment out of the law.

In the field of women’s enlightenment members of The Society for Women’s Enlightenment and Protection of Her Rights, assembled around the Women’s Club, which was solemnly opened in January 1922 in Belgrade, were engaged. Among numerous activities organized by the members of this society was also the organization of the analphabetic course for which so many women were interested in so that it was impossible for all of them to participate. Such actions were the evidence of necessity of spiritual enlightenment of Yugoslav women as the basic prerequisite for successful realization of their rights. Besides, the society organized several courses where they taught rural women how to raise and educate their children.

In spite of appointed principle of the necessity of unique activity among women societies, there occurred some separations between them sometimes and even open fight. In October 1926 there broke out a conflict in central groups of Belgrade women societies. This conflict led to the split of women societies and foundation of a new women organization The National Female Community. The Circle of Serbian Sister took initiative in trying to reconciliate the quarreled sides and as a result they organized a common conference at which forty representatives from more than twenty associations took part. Besides, in March 1928 articles about Women’s Party work and the conflicts in the main board which was the only state factor in organization for the female right to vote, started to appear in the press. Such events caused satirical headlines and sarcastic comments on activities of women association. For that reason in March 1928 in Politika appeared an article The Manliness of the Women Party whose author gave opinion that women finally proved that they are equally capable as men because they showed such sense for party struggle that the bitterest partisans now feel ashamed in comparison to their competitors in skirts. Women are praised for the dictatorship they took in as soon as they founded their parties and therefore showed not only the political sense but even the use of the most contemporary methods in politics.

“The Manliness of the Women Party” – Women are praised for the dictatorship they took in as soon as they founded their parties. “Politika”, 10 March 1928.[2]

Along with growing tensions in international political situation, there appeared the additional engagement of Yugoslav women in the ideas of peace and pacifism. The fourth annual assembly of The Women League for Peace and Freedom was held in March 1933 in Belgrade. Many Yugoslav and foreign politicians were invited and gave many lectures, and the subjects were always from the international politics field. One of the aims of the League was the education of the youth on pacific basis.

The Women League for Peace and Freedom

The Rise of Feminism

Women participation in every form and manifestation of public life became more frequent and attracted more and more attention. Woman who by that time exclusively belonged to the private sphere now, the same as a man, started to appear in public sphere. On one side, she began to do work which, by that time, was the exclusive privilege of man, and on the other side she started to involve in social life.

Obvious evidence to this assortment we find in the article Modern woman which was released on the 1st and 2nd page of Politika in January 1924: “While men of our times, philosophers, tradesmen, clerks, citizens, in one word could be compared with wise men or citizens of old times, the modern women is essentially different from women of all earlier historical periods. (…) it’s not the class, not the nation, not even the race, but it is about  the entire half of mankind”.

During the whole interwar period Politika brought many articles which were related to a new woman role on public scene. Reports about conflicts and resistance which followed the affirmation of women were especially interesting. Therefore, when one radical deputy required that women should be cleared away from public service, the editor of the magazine “Woman and World”, Mrs. Jelena Zrnic answered with article Wild man in the Parliament.

Members of women associations organized feasts in honour of eminent women and in that way gave acknowledgement to women who succeeded to crash the social barriers and achieve significant success in public life. In honour of Dr Ksenija Atanasijevic, the first female professor at the University of Belgrade, in April 1928 there was held a solemn academy in Women Movement. On that occasion it was emphasised that the success of Miss Atanasijevic is not only her individual success, but also the success of the entire Women Movement and all feminists in the world.

The Regional Female Cooperation

The organizations which supported the regional women cooperation and actively took part in it were The Feminine Small Entente, The Association of Women with Academic Education and the Women Alliance. They introduced themselves with the situation in their countries through conferences, congresses and national thematic events. On that way they acknowledged with problems they met in realization of their aims and undertook precise steps toward their solutions.

The Feminine Small Entente was founded in Rome during the international feminist committee and included all Eastern Europe countries except Russia – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Yugoslavia. The basic principle was spreading of feministic and pacifistic ideas in wide layers of population. Bulgaria was excluded from the membership when she accused Serbs of barbarianism and oppression toward Bulgarian minority in Macedonia, which was the break of the main principles of this organization. The first Congress of the The Feminine Small Entente was held in Bucharest in 1923 where the basic rules and aims of the organization were established: political liberation of women with the aspiration that all feministic ideas should get legal recognition, protection of the socially minor, work on everlasting peace and protection of national minorities. It was also insisted on introduction and bringing closer nations and states which The Feminine Small Entente was consisted of through students` interchange, scientific excursions, emission of newspaper articles and small studies on the most significant questions, conferences. The highest political leadership of Romania greeted this meeting, and the premier Bracan promised intervention in work on a new law of local communities which would contain female right to vote in local self-government. Work was continued in 1924 in Belgrade where the participants showed satisfaction with the Serbian system of education, and as the main issues were considered the problem of venereal infections, the equalization of the political rights of men and women and the rights of legitimate and illegitimate children. Adopted resolution was related to the latter problem, the state was obliged to investigate the origin of the father of the illegitimate child and the decision of the foundation of the fund for illegitimate children was made which would include progressive tax which children’s fathers would be obliged to pay. The Congress initiated the question of the tactics and agitation for the achievement of the civil and political women rights. The development of the sense for the civil and political women rights was planned through reading magazines, books, presence at the conferences, the introduction of the subject of civil and political rights of subordinates, propaganda of feministic ideas, movie, agitation in political parties. The Congress in Athens in 1925 didn’t get any detailed report in press but the work of the Congress in Warsaw in 1929 was intently followed. The main issues were work on pacifism, equalization of morality and the influence of the professional work on a woman and a mother. As primary tasks, there were emphasized the struggle against prostitution through the sexual education of children, rise of social women self-consciousness and the introduction of female police, solving the abortion problem and bringing the anti-venereal law.

The Struggle for the Women’s Right to Vote

The Women Party was founded in 1927 in order to realize civil and political rights and initiate the activity in whole population. It presented the resolution to the National Assembly which requested the general voting right for women for local communities, regions and the National Assembly.

The equalization of men and women was defined as democratic principle. This problem was considered through the prism of political opportunism and the prism of justice and democratic logic. The alibi for non-giving the political rights to women was in their incapability and in attitude that they would contribute to the disorder in relationships among political parties in favour of strengthening of extremism. As the advantage women participation in political life was quoted the solving of social questions related to family life, life of woman and child. The Constitution from 1931 also left the freedom to the lawgiver to solve the question of women’s right to vote, and the law of election of members of Parliament gave the right of election to man only. Only Yugoslav and Bulgarian women were left without political rights even in 1933. The political elite had different opinions concerning this question. Dragoljub Jovanovic, the president of The Alliance of the agriculturists, considered the female political rights as an actual an inevitable reality and that with their realization politics would become the life itself. Dimitrije Ljotic, the president of the Yugoslav association Zbor, emphasised that male and female functions are different and therefore their rights cannot be the same. They are only equal in moral field and in the case of giving political rights for women they should be limited to those women who play the role of man and necessary condition is to be married because only through this they could represent the ideal of society. Zivko Topalovic considered that who contributed to the maintaining of society by useful work should also right to influence to it. Participation in political life is the factor in forming the spiritual and moral person, ascension of women and cultural progress of whole nation. He sets as a goal the forming of a woman as a conscious and serious citizen dedicated to the public affairs and capable to influence the peace history. Female political right would, in his opinion, bring the development of respect between sexes. The year of 1935 was the year of great assemblies women in struggle for the right to vote. One of the slogans was ‘In struggle for peace, freedom and progress’. The most active participants were Milena Atanackovic, who emphasised that the opposition to the women’s right to vote is identical to democratic principals and Alojzija Stebi, who thought that the goal of women’s struggle was the division of responsibility between women and men for people destiny and marked the double subordination of women: to the family and the industry as well as the impossibility to struggle for peace without political rights. These meetings were held all around Yugoslavia and beside Belgrade they took part in Zagreb, Skoplje, Split, Ljubljana, and the women were about to struggle for realization of their political rights for another future period of time.

*   *   *

Digital collection of the newspaper Politika successfully lightens the intensity and strength of changes in women life in the sphere of private as well as in the sphere of public life and surely represents inevitable historical source for researching the woman question in Serbian, Yugoslav and Balkans society.

It is a great significance to emphasize there still are few such digital collections in Serbian cyber space and therefore it represents the excellent example of how to make historical sources in Serbia available to the users all over the world by using new technologies. Decentralization of Internet and possibility of presenting material from the widest circle of institutions and individuals allow that presentations of the material could be widen in quantity and in quality. Today, historian can use Internet, CD ROM, electronic basis of documents, electronic post, digital photos and the other products of the informatics’ period in his research.


Online Sources

Politika (1904-1941)”, in: Newspapers and magazines – Digital National library of Serbia, <http://www.digital.nbs.bg.ac.yu/eng/novine.php?> (21 November 2007).


R. Vučetić-Mladenović, Evropa na Kalemegdanu, Beograd 2003.

 R. Vučetić, „Žena u gradu. Između rezervata privatnog i osvajanja mesta u javnom životu (1918-1941)“, in: Privatni život kod Srba u dvadesetom veku, (Ed. M. Ristović),  Beograd 2007.

[1] Digital images of pages of all numbers of the daily newspaper Politika, from the first number, appeared the 12. of January 1904 to the last number before war, dated April 6. 1941. Politika is the only daily newspaper on the Balkans which appears in continuity since 1904 up to today (except periods of the First and Second World War) and it represents the inevitable archives material for the research of the History and Culture of Serbia and the Balkans within the XX Century. The Digital Politika for the period 1904-1941 is available online through the NLS Website and the Website of Politika Newspaper. The Digital Politika for periods 1945-1975 and 1987-2000 is only available on CDs within NLS reading-rooms. During 2007, the National Library of Serbia will digitized the rest of numbers from 1975 to 1987, therefore the entire Digital POLITIKA from 1904 – 2000 will be available to the users within the National Library of Serbia. The Search of the Collection is possible by years, months and dates of issues. Digital National library of Serbia, Newspapers and magazines,  <http://www.digital.nbs.bg.ac.yu/eng/novine.php?>, (21 November 2007).

[2] Politika (1904-1941)”, in: Newspapers and magazines – Digital National library of Serbia, <http://www.digital.nbs.bg.ac.yu/eng/novine.php?>, (21 November 2007).

Originally Published: The Yugoslav Women in Politics and Society between the Two World Wars: The Digital Collection of the Daily Newspaper Politika (with Jovana Pavlovich), in: Women and Minorities: Ways of archiving, Sofia-Vienna, 2009, pp. 174-180.

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