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  • The Professional Emancipation of Women in 19th-Century Serbia
  • Ljubinka Trgovčević

In the nineteenth century, Serbia had just started working towards its independence. The difficult legacy of centuries under Ottoman and Habsburg rule had left Serbia an agricultural society of small landholders with an undeveloped economy, general illiteracy, no public institutions, and no infrastructure.1 Development was further hindered by Serbian and other Balkan national movements and the clashing interests of great powers, which caused permanent political instability and constant wars.2 By the early twentieth century, Serbia was still one of Europe's most underdeveloped states.3

In such an underdeveloped society, patriarchal norms linked the position of women to their biological role as mothers and wives and relegated them to the private realm. In the first half of the nineteenth century, there were only a few women in the public sphere: wives and daughters of rulers and some members of the elite. The traditional role of women was woven into the law. The right of women to engage in business transactions was abolished in the Civil Code of the Principality of Serbia of 1844 (in force until 1946). A married woman could enter into legal and business agreements only with her husband's [End Page 7] consent. A married woman could not be employed or engage in any public service without her husband's consent; unmarried women were in certain cases left the possibility of free choice.4 This was not an exception in countries in which Napoleon's Civil Code of 1804 was imposed. Consequently, women were legally and politically subordinate to men.

From Education to Emancipation

The first step towards the emancipation of women was the right to education, which provided access to employment, economic and social independence, and active participation in civic life. In the nineteenth century, this request preceded the demand for female suffrage.

The Ottoman Empire granted Serbia the right to open Serbian-language schools in 1830. Before then, hardly any Serbians, especially women, were literate. Apart from a few wives of Serbs from Hungary who came to help in building the new state, Jevrem Obrenović's daughter Anka, who at the age of 13 published translations of stories in Zabavnik and wrote a diary, was one of the few Serbian women to have a solid education.5 It is documented that in 1832, of 211 pupils in Belgrade 16 were girls.6

An incentive for opening girls' schools was provided by the satirist and Minister of Education Jovan Sterija Popović, who claimed that the state had an equal obligation to the education of boys and girls.7 The passage of the first school law of 1844 allowed for the establishment of the first special schools for girls, and where such schools did not exist, girls could attend boys' schools until the age of ten. By 1858, 30 girls' schools had been opened.8 The beginning of 1883 saw the passage of the most important law of that time, which introduced six years of compulsory and universal public education "for [End Page 8] each child living in Serbia," which by that time was the standard in most developed states, like France, the United Kingdom, and some American states.9

Secondary education for girls started with the opening of the Higher Women's School in Belgrade in 1863. Apart from providing general education, its task was to prepare female teachers to work in girls' elementary schools. Its faculty boasted some of the most highly educated women in Serbia.10 In 1879, the first female craft school opened its doors, followed by a school of commerce and several private institutes. The first gymnasium for girls was not established until 1905. By 1900, Serbian girls were attending 165 elementary schools, and by 1914 there were 12 gymnasia, 45 craft schools, 2 schools of teacher education, 3 colleges, and several private schools.11

The increase in the number of educated girls notwithstanding, at the end of the nineteenth century Serbia had the lowest rate of female literacy in Europe. Out of 1,211,604 women listed in the 1900 census, 94 percent were illiterate. Compulsory education was not enforced; only about 10 percent of girls and...


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