Hidden Belgrade (27): Old headquarters of women’s movement in Belgrade

Although women were not barred from pursuing education in early 19th Century Serbia, in line with the global mores of the day, there was a lot of debate whether education will make them leave the family hearth and neglect their traditional roles, and of course whether mixing with men is at all appropriate.

However, in the beginning of modern Serbia, when it achieved an autonomy from the Ottoman Empire in 1830, the educational level of the country in general was very low and a lot of laws and institutions were made on the go, which allowed some leeway for the independent minded-ladies to push through.

Already in 1832, there were sixteen ladies who were educated in Belgrade, while in 1845. Serbia allowed the opening the first specialised school for women in Paraćin. In 1883, a law was passed that required universal basic education or both sexes, although, due to the wide-spread poverty and conservative social mores there was still a large number of illiterate girls – in the beginning of 20th Century only 7% of women were literate (the number for general population was around 20%).

The beginning of the organised higher female education and subsequent female-led struggle for emancipation in Serbia can be traced to 1863, when liberal Price Mihailo, against the wishes of the State Council, decided to found the Higher School for Women.  Initially, it was housed in a private house in the vicinity of Zeleni Venac, however due to its popularity (there were 90 girls who signed up) in 1865 it was moved to a purpose-built building in the clothiers quarter of the city (Abadžijska čaršija), ironically, next door to the State Council building and its reportedly beautiful garden.

The task of caring about the minds of the ladies above the age of 11 was the responsibility of Katarina Đorđević, a 19 year-old teacher from Novi Sad who was educated in Odessa. In 1865, Katarina married Milan Milovuk, a fellow educator who was the principal of Belgrade Realka, as well as the founder and choir-master of the Belgrade Singing Society.

Milovukica, as Katarina was better known, was a forced to be reckoned with in Belgrade’s society. She did not only educate almost all of Belgrade’s ladies of high standing, but also organised them into Belgrade Women’s Society in 1875.

Although it was not the first society of its kind in the city (a Society of Sephardi Women was formed in Jalija one year before), it was arguably the most powerful voice of women in 19th Century Serbia. As the president of the society she also helped launch “Domaćica” (Housewife) magazine for women, but she could not serve as its editor in chief, as it was against the law for women to edit publications in Serbia until 1935.

Throughout her life Katarina Milovuk and her society were cautiously pushing for more rights for Serbian women, framing their requests in terms of the wider patriotic mission and desire to be recognised for their sacrifices. As Serbia was plunged into frequent wars in the late 19th Century, educated women were continuously relied on to act as nurses, doctors and administrators while men were fighting, which allowed them to prove their remarkable skills. Unfortunately, as soon as things returned to normal, they would normally be relegated to lower ranks and their professional and social privileges would be revoked. One example was is the fate of the first Female Hospital, located close to the school, funded and staffed almost entirely by women-doctors from the Belgrade Women’s Society which took care of the wounded in the Serbo-Turkish war of 1876. Although awarded numerous medals for its service, it was disbanded in 1877 because women were prohibited by a new decree from taking care of the wounded.

Katarina’s many extracurricular activities during her 30-year reign did not stop the school from prospering. The numbers of girls swelled, as they were coming throughout the Balkans to seek Serbian-language education in Belgrade. It provided education to Serbia’s finest female doctors, painters, writers, teachers, and architects, who were nevertheless required to ask for (begrudging) permission from principals of boys-only “gymnasiums” to sit exams that allowed them to continue to universities entrance exams.  After eventually taking over the next-door State Council building, it added a barrel-shaped chapel (a gift from Queen Natalija), as it was not pertinent for the ladies to attend service in the nearby Vaznesenjska Church which served the military.

With time and increased number and needs of educated Serbian women, the school started to become obsolete. In 1900, Belgrade’s teacher’s school broke off, and then in 1905 the school splintered into the (now higher ranked) First Women’s Gymnaisum (which in 1914 moved to Njegoševa and then to Ilije Garašanina) and Second Women’s Gymnasium (which retained ownership of the land but moved after WWI).

Even after retiring, Katarina continued with her promotion of female education and female empowerment, supporting her erstwhile students in organising Kolo Srpskih Sestara and becoming more firebrand. In 1897 and 1900 she was the first women to petition the city of Belgrade and then King Aleksandar Obrenovic (whose wife, Draga Mašin she educated) to be granted the right to vote. Her request was dismissed, with a scornful comment from one of those consider her petition, that her childlessness gave her too much time to think about female empowerment.

Despite this setback she persisted and famously said that she “does not know with what right have the men taken all the power into their hand and control the fate of this land without our [women’s] support, when this land is theirs as much as ours, and we are its children, taking part in both good and the bad that happens to it”.  She died in 1913, a few months after addressing the Conference of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Budapest, and despite her many powerful friends and enormous contribution to Serbia does not even have a marked grave.

Twenty years after Katarina’s death, a beautiful new neo-byzantine building of the Second Women’s Gymnasium replaced the old complex. It was designed by Milica Krstić (nee Čolak-Antić), a rising star of the Belgrade’s architectural scene who later designed the First Men’s Gymnasium and Belgrade’s Police Headquarters. The palatial school also included a chapel (a rarity for a School in Serbia).

After WWII and socialist takeover, the school (without the chapel) continued to educate Belgrade’s ladies (including my grandmother), but it had to share the building with two other schools. When co-educational gymnasia became the rule in 1953, its ladies became part of the Fourth Belgrade Gymnasium.  In 1956, the Fourth Gymnasium moved to Dedinje and the school was given to the Electrical Engineering High School “Nikola Tesla”, which occupies it to this date and is, ironically, one of the most male-dominated secondary schools in the city.

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