Typing “Slavic women” into Google is often a mistake. Doing so brings links titled regrettable things such as “How to get with a Slavic woman,” or “Why are Eastern European women so hot” and similar such. No scientists, no athletes, no revolutionaries, no activists, just a barrage of advice for lonely men with blood centralized around a particular organ.
The immensely unwelcome truth is that history has not been kind to women. An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery is a joyous love letter to the good and the great of Slavic history, but the male-to-female ratio is frustratingly lopsided. History is full of incredible ladies, but for centuries, the boys did what they could to maintain the glass ceiling.
The ceiling inevitably cracked, but in Bulgaria it was blasted away by a veritable force of nature in the mid-19th century. Baba Nedelya was her name (well, Nedelya Petkova was her actual name), and educating girls was her game. Chain smoking and being obscene were also games that she took part in, but it is the belligerent way in which she went about improving the lives and intellects of young women for which she is best remembered.
Petkova was born in 1826, and the death of her husband some 33 years later lit a fire under her, to say the least. She began to travel around what is today Bulgaria and Macedonia, teaching young girls and angering authorities left, right and center. She was regularly arrested and put on trial, walking free every single time and leaving a trail of cigarette smoke and ‘effin and ‘jeffin in her wake.
She was fired because of her “free behavior, clothing and smoking,” but this only increased her vigor. Petkova was treated with open hostility, but she responded to that hostility by lighting another cigarette and proudly raising a middle finger, before getting on with what mattered - improving the lives of women in Bulgarian and (Slavic) Macedonian lands.
Things are certainly far from perfect for women in Bulgaria today, but the improvements need also be recognized. 20% of Bulgaria’s parliament is made up of females, a statistic that sounds low until you compare it with supposed rights trail blazers such as the United States (19%), or forward-thinking Japan (9.5%). The gender pay gap in Bulgaria is also the lowest in the EU, and some 40 years ago, Bulgaria had the highest percentage of working women in the world. It all began with a chain smoking tour de force of the 19th century.
For Nedelya Petkova in Bulgaria, read Angela Vode in Slovenia. Vode was born at the opposite end of the 19th century to Petkova, but her tireless work in women’s rights organizations paved the way for generations that would follow. Vode grew up in a time when the only future prospects for women were “wife,” “teacher” or “wife of teacher.” Things needed to change.
Vode worked as a teacher until 1917, when she was fired for her somewhat left-leaning political beliefs. This didn’t stop her (well, it stopped her from working in her initial job, but you get the point), and she went to Prague, Berlin and Vienna to study special education, before returning to her home nation to work as a teacher of children with disabilities.
Angela’s biggest focus at the time was women’s rights in what was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which would become the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929. Women’s rights, as a political and social question in Slovenia, was relatively new at the time. The first women’s rights organization in the nation was established in Trieste (now part of Italy) in 1887, just 40 years before Vode came to prominence.
In the 1930s, Vode published a number of works on women’s rights and social injustice, but the utter misery that was World War II put an end to her prominent position at the head of the movement. Vode openly criticized the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that saw Hitler and Stalin agree to carve up Eastern Europe, and she became persona-non-grata from that point on.
She didn’t exactly ease her plight following the war, when she was one of the few who tried to organize a legitimate political opposition to the communists. Arrest and imprisonment was depressingly inevitable, and in 1947, both duly came. Vode was sentenced to 20 years, serving only six, but having her life destroyed in the process. It wasn’t until the 1980s that her work began to resurface, and by this time a new generation of women were eager to eat up the words of this long-forgotten revolutionary figure. Vode wasn’t around to see this - she died in 1985.
Vode influenced with her words, but figures such as Milunka Savić, Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz, Martina Navratilova and Marie Skłodowska-Curie did so with their actions. Savić was a real life Mulan, a Serbian woman who took her brother’s place in the army and fought in the Balkan Wars and World War I, becoming the most-decorated female soldier in history in the process.
The names Navratilova and Curie will be more familiar to the reader with a cursory knowledge of modern history. It was Navratilova who revolutionized women’s tennis, doing so whilst fighting against political repression in Czechoslovakia, and acting as a role model for LGBT people worldwide. In 1903, Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, a feat she topped in 1911, when she became the only individual to win two Nobel Prizes in two different fields.
Chojnowska-Liskiewicz’s achievement is lesser known, but no less impressive. In 1978, Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz became the first female to sail around the world entirely on her own, a journey that took the Warsaw-born sailor a whopping 401 days and covered some 31,166 nautical miles. Along the way, she repelled pirate attacks, sailed through hurricanes, overcame a kidney ailment in Australia, and somehow dealt with the crippling loneliness of sailing alone at sea.
The list goes on and on, and the good news is that the list continues to grow. History tried to keep them down, but the work of Petkova, Vode, Veselinka Malinska, Savić, Navratilova, Staka Skenderova and the rest will not be forgotten.