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  • Ksenija Atanasijević and the Emergence of the Feminist Movement in Interwar Serbia*
  • Anna Novakov

Congratulations, young lady, you have entered into hell.1

Ksenija Atanasijević (1894-1981) was the first Serbian woman to earn a doctorate and become a professor of philosophy at the University of Belgrade in 1924. Atanasijević was a prolific writer, fluent in German, French, and Serbian, who published more than 400 books and articles on aesthetics, metaphysics, literature, feminism, and philosophy. A pioneer for women's rights, Atanasijević was also active in the Serbian Women's League for Peace and Freedom, the Women's Movement Alliance, and the Women's Movement (Ženski pokret) journal, which she edited from 1920 to 1938. In 1936, her male colleagues launched a smear campaign that cost her her professorship. A series of heated public hearings was then held at which some of Belgrade's most prominent intellectuals, including the poets Rastko Petrović and Sima Pandurić, came to Atanasijević's defense. From 1936 until 1941 she worked in the Ministry of Education. While there, she wrote articles denouncing anti-Semitism and National Socialism that brought her to the attention of the Gestapo, who arrested her in 1942. In 1944, after the Partisans had liberated the country, Marshall Tito's government accused Atanasijević of spreading controversial political ideas during the occupation, and she was imprisoned. Her final prison release came in 1946, after which time she was only able to [End Page 107] work as a clerk in the National Library of Serbia. This biographical study focuses on Atanasijević's contributions to the history of philosophy, the interwar women's movement in Serbia, and on the personal and professional price that she had to pay for her activism.

Ksenija Atanasijević was born on 5 February 1894, the sixth child of Jelena (Cumić) and Svetozar Atanasijević, a medical doctor. Svetozar trained in Berlin before settling on Svetogorska Street in Belgrade's Terazije district. Tragedy hit the Atanasijević family early when Jelena died of an infection shortly after giving birth to Ksenija. A few years later, Svetozar married Sofia Kondić, a teacher at Viša Ženska Škola (Higher Women's School) in Belgrade. Sofia assumed the role of second mother to Svetozar's six children, even after her husband's death from tuberculosis on 3 May 1906. Raising her stepchildren as her own, Sofia supported them through the tragic death of Milutin, Ksenija's 28-year-old brother, who was killed, while another brother, Dragomir, a writer, died on 4 January 1938. Sofia's devotion to the children was profound and lifelong. She also kept in close contact with Ruža, Ksenija's sister, who was a teacher, and their other sister Zorka, who was married to Pavle Ljotić, a university professor. Sofia lived with Ksenija in her Belgrade apartment up until her death on 29 December 1940.

Growing up, Atanasijević was friends with famed female artist Nadežda Petrović, who painted her portrait in 1912. The portrait, now in the Pavle Beljanski Memorial Collection in Novi Sad, captures the 16-year-old Atanasijević visiting the Petrovićes' family home on Ratarska Street. At the time, Nadežda had just returned from Paris, bringing with her a large black hat, a present to her sister Milica Misković. Ksenija posed for Nadežda in this hat. The image is striking in its dramatic use of black and white as well as masterly impasto brushstrokes, which reflected the artist's interest in Expressionism. The painting remained in Milica's personal collection until 1956, when Pavle Beljanski purchased the work for his art collection in Novi Sad.

Ksenija Atanasijević attained an unprecedented level of academic achievement at a time when educating girls was rare in Eastern Europe. In the 19th century, education for girls in Serbia was reserved for children of the elite intelligentsia.

The state adopted a policy of sending talented students to major European universities, in order that upon their return they enter civil service and become well-qualified state functionaries. The professional differentiation of the elite emerges only in the second half of that century, when the state stipends were also given to students studying [End Page 108] medicine, philosophy and the arts alongside...


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