- Draga Gavrilović (1854–1917), the First Serbian Female Novelist: Old and New Interpretations*
To Vladimir Milankov and Milorad Antonić
Despite the fact that Draga Gavrilović was the first Serbian female fiction writer who contributed to Serbian literature, her work has been almost forgotten, and when discussed it is continually misinterpreted and misjudged. Gavrilović’s experiences as one of the first female students in the new public schools for young girls, and later on, one of the first female teachers and feminists, made her critique of women’s restricted positions in a patriarchal society bold and uncompromising. This essential context of Draga Gavrilović’s life and work further explicates what other interpretations fail to present, and explains what it meant to be a female writer in a culture whose fundamental definitions were and still are patriarchal.
For Draga Gavrilović, to be a female writer in a patriarchal society meant to confront the patriarchal stance which excluded or diminished values of female characters, or with its strict roles of female identity which were limited only to women’s physical life of childbearing, care giving, and domestic work. She was the first Serbian author who created intelligent female personalities, in the range of very young daughters, sisters, friends, colleagues, female students or teachers, an actress, and female writers. For Gavrilović, to be a female writer meant to support, in many different ways, the new authority of an emerging social category, which she named the “women who think.” For a patriarchal society, the category of the “women who think”, or more precisely female writers or intellectuals, was not an acceptable form of female identity. Therefore, the patriarchal society exerted many kinds of pressures, and in the end, labeled Gavrilović a mad woman, causing her to abandon literary work. [End Page 167]
In this article I clarify and provide the history of academic misjudgments about Gavrilović’s works and explain how they affected contemporary research. The main part stresses the complexity of her inherently gendered experiences—of a female student, a female teacher, and a female writer. The conclusion, except for reading Draga Gavrilović’s withdrawal from literary work in a new light, underlines misogyny as the core of patriarchal politics toward women. Despite Gavrilović’s hard existential circumstances and public resistance, she succeeded in making progress in perceiving, understanding, originally creating, and publicly encouraging women’s prominent intellectual roles in a society, thus preparing the ground for her female peers.
From the late 1970s to the present, in the West as well as elsewhere, feminist researchers have been continually trying to prove a hypothesis that the absence of female writers from the literary canon was constituted by male authority over knowledge, which presents and protects patriarchal norms, values, judgments, and laws. For that reason female artists are marginalized and are more likely to disappear than appear in a cultural canon, which does not respect or value them in the same manner as it does male artists. On the one hand, struggling with the male tendency to diminish the significance of female artists’ work, of devaluing and ignoring the meaning even of female characters, and of misinterpreting power relations in society, feminist scholars discovered many female authors whose work proves their cultural importance and aesthetic distinction. On the other hand, such research underlines the tendency of male centered interpretations which are lacking in objectivity and therefore also in plausibility, validity, and responsibility.
The same problem is apparent in the relationship between Serbian literary history, criticism, and methodology and the first Serbian female fiction writers. When in the last two decades of the 19th century a number of female fiction writers emerged in Serbia, such as Draga Gavrilović (1854–1917), Milka Grgurova (1840–1924), Mileva Simić (1858–1954), Jelena Dimitrijević (1862–1945), Kosara Cvetković (1868–1953), and Danica Bandić (1871–1950), they had two things in common which make a literary and social phenomenon worth researching. Except for Jelena Dimitrijević and Milka Grgurova, all of them were the first generation of Serbian women who graduated from first public high schools for Serbian girls in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian empire1 and all of them focused on the perspectives of [End Page...