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  • "Sinner without Sin"
    The Sin of the Emancipated Woman
  • Radina Vučetić

The interwar years (1918-41) were a time of accelerated modernization in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and part of this modernization was the emancipation of women. The struggle for women's rights and emancipation, which began at the end of the nineteenth century, reached its peak during this period. This coincided with worldwide trends; not only were the material conditions of women's existence transformed, but women also gained some of the rights for which their foremothers had fought: citizenship status, marital equality, access to higher education and professions, increase in earning power, and expanded opportunities to work, to create, and to live as they chose.1

In Serbia, the struggle for the emancipation of women began with the formation of the first women's societies in the 1870s and continued throughout the interwar period. A strong social engagement among women changed the core of women's public and private lives, despite strong opposition from conservatives. Urbanization, division and specialization of labor, the introduction of new home appliances, and new forms of entertainment all encouraged "the emancipated woman" of the 1920s and 1930s to step out of the patriarchal framework and into a better position in society.2

The increase in the number of women's humanitarian, artistic, feminist, and pacifist societies testifies to the entry of women into public life. The number of women enrolled at universities increased, women artists conquered the cultural scene, and professions previously reserved for men became available. [End Page 95] Belgrade saw its first woman police officer, Marija Ilić, in 1929 and its first woman pilot, Danica Tomić, in 1933.3

Even the appearance of women indicated that a new look meant a new perspective and a new position in society. The changes to dress and behavior were most shocking after World War I and most upsetting to conservatives. From the thirteenth century right up until World War I, women's skirts and dresses covered the entire leg, nearly touching the ground. This tradition changed during the war. From December 1914 skirts became shorter, and by the winter of 1915-16 they were 25cm above ground.4 A short skirt, high heels, and silk stockings were shocking in that age. The fashion came with a new look, and women began to watch their figures and to diet. Along with the short skirt, short bobbed hair replaced long hair, a centuries-old feminine attribute. The shortening of skirt and hair brought women greater freedom of movement, allowing for a freer walk, as well as participation in many sporting activities.

The changes included makeup and cosmetics. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, a woman with makeup signaled sexual availability. This question burst onto the scene during and after the war, when women began to use makeup more frequently—some on special occasions, others on an everyday basis.5

The new European woman had a boyish figure, short hair, and wore a short skirt. She conquered the street, the cafes, and the dance halls. Such women graced the front page of Vogue. They were heroines of novels and films (such as Coquette of 1929) and were portrayed by cinema stars such as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. They were on the cover of Žena i svet (Woman and World), in the novels of Milica Jakovljević Mir-Jam and Branimir Ćosić, in paintings by Milena Pavlović-Barili, and in the Belgrade theater.6

In addition to the physical changes, there were much more serious ones. Short hair and short skirts were accompanied by, as the satirist Branislav Nušić wrote, short marriages. Women's emancipation led to changes within the family—the number of divorces increased and the size of the family decreased, disrupting the patriarchal order and system of values. The number of [End Page 96] divorces in Belgrade reached "epidemic proportions," rising from 10 percent in the 1930s to 16.36 percent in 1939.7

The new women developed new standards and values for their private lives, relationships, and sexual behavior. Sex was no longer taboo but increasingly a part of public discourse.8 Serbia got its...


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pp. 95-106
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