“Bossy”, “butch” and “bitchy”: Three women who shattered the glass ceiling in Serbia

There have always been women who decided to go against the social grain in pursuit of greater freedom and success.  Unfortunately, they were almost alway held back by the patriarchal norms and often cruelly treated by their societies, even if they are eventually allowed a modicum of praise and support.

Female entrepreneurs, scientists, activists, journalists, artists, and free thinkers or all stripes still cause a stir when they overstep the narrow confines that the society places on how they should behave, look and feel. Although they all fight constantly to make the world a fairer place, a few of them play out their struggle on the grand stage of history, while the most affect only those around them.

Given the seemingly constant radical shifts the Serbian society experienced in the past two centuries, many of the women who once played on the society’s grand stage for female rights were forgotten. Even many of those who are still with us, working tirelessly to preserve their freedom and make the society fairer for us all, are constantly pushed aside and harassed.

I wanted to pay tribute to three women from late 19th and early 20th Century whose biographies I only recently read, and could not even imagine the amount of difficulty their freedom caused them.

All of three them were made to suffer greatly due to their unwillingness to yield to the societal expectations, yet no matter how deep their tragedies were, and how tragically little we still appreciate them, they showed that for all the hurtful things the society did to them, they could never take away their integrity and freedom of thought.

I labelled them according to how they must have been perceived by their contemporaries, and probably would have been seen by most people even now. I did it so that we can appreciate the idiocy of these labels when they are hurled at women by the society, but also more importantly, when any of us individually hurls them at someone they know.


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Draga Ljočić

Born in 1855, into an ethnically Aromanian (“cincar”) family in the town of Šabac, Draginja (Draga) Ljočić was from her childhood had experiences in standing up against the system. When her father lost a court case against a wealthy merchant who usurped his property, he paid the local church to ring the funeral bells. When he was confronted by the authorities, he said that the bells are ringing because “justice died”, and was subsequently punished with 25 lashes.

Atypically even for a woman in mid-19th Century Serbia, especially given her limited means, Draga attended a Higher School for Women in Serbia and took exams in Belgrade’s men-only lyceum, before moving to Zurich in 1972 to join her older brother and study medicine. At the time Zurich was a progressive city and its University was one of the few schools in Europe that allowed women to earn a tertiary education degree. There she could enjoy new liberal ideas, many of whom she picked up from Russian nihilists, who challenged the strict norms of patriarchal societies.

Despite the freedom in Zurich, Draga paused her studies to provide medical assistance during the Serbo-Turkish War of 1876 and was promoted to the rank of colonel. She finished her studies in 1879 and thus became the first Serbian female medical doctor.

Ever since she returned to Serbia and to her death in 1926, Draga had to push hard against the patriarchal system and prejudice to be able to work freely as a doctor, let alone obtain status and salary which her education and experience would have granted her if she was a man.

First of these obstacles was that when she returned from Switzerland, Draga was not allowed to practice medicine due to her gender. It took lobbying from Queen Natalija of Serbia for her to be allowed to open a private practice and join the Serbian Medical Society along with her friend and ally in the fight for female equality Maria Fyodorovna Seebald. She finally got a post in a public hospital in 1881, but was not considered an equal by her male colleagues. Although she performed the same tasks and received the same education, she held a title of “medical assistant”, rather than a “doctor”.

After eight years of stellar service which included heading a Women’s wing of a hospital and acting as the only medical doctor in Belgrade’s three hospitals during a 1885 war between Bulgaria and Serbia, Draga decided to ask for a raise and a promotion, which, even now, is a rarity for many women to do. She was proptly fired and the explanation from her colleagues was the following:

“A woman, due to her physical nature, needs to rely on someone stronger than her, a man who will lead her through life…Could Mrs Ljočić be a provincial, regional, municipal or military doctor? Those who know the nature of married women will know that Mrs Ljočić cannot perform any of those roles.”

The response not only captured the ingrained prejudice, but also another the systematic disadvantage that women faced in Serbia, especially when they were married. The laws at the time treated married women as their husband’s wards and they had no autonomy in any professional or personal dealings. Draga, in her own way, rebelled against this by becoming the first woman in Serbia to keep her last name when she got married to Raša Milošević, a politician, in 1883.

Despite frequent professional setbacks and deteriorating health, Draga fought on and continued to practice medicine, often working for free to help the poor working women. Beside campaigning for female equality, she was also a prominent public health advocate who worked on establishing several institutions that brought down the infant mortality rate in Serbia. Although in her late 50s, she worked as a medic during the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 and fundraised for Serbian prisoners during the great war.

She was finally granted the title of a medical doctor in 1919, forty years after graduation, and started receiving a state pension for her work in 1924, two years before her death.


Milunka Savić

Milunka Savić was born in a remote village by Jošanička Banja in Central Serbia in 1892 (or 1890), as the eldest daughter, or a semi-literate farmer and his illiterate wife. The expectation for a girl of her background would be that she would learn to work hard for her family, marry as a teenager and then, for the rest of her life take care of her husband, children, her in-laws and perhaps her ailing parents.

However, twenty-year-old Milunka had no interest in this and she decided to join the Serbian army to fight the Ottoman Empire in 1912. With the usual theatrical trick of bandaging her bosom, she managed to convince everyone that she was a man (she called herself Milun), and was assigned to an artillery division. Her ruse fell apart when she had to be treated for her injuries after the Battle of Bregalnica in 1913. She was almost dismissed from the army, but after she threatened to continue fighting on her own, her superiors decided to allow her to stay in her unit.

When WWI started, she responded to the mobilisation call again, this time without the disguise, but was eventually admitted to an elite infantry unit. During the war, Milunka distinguished herself in combat, at one point even capturing 23 Bulgarian soldiers. She was also gravely injured several times, and after crossing the Albanian mountains with the retreating Serbian army, had to be transported to North Africa for treatment.

Although one of the most decorated women in war history, and especially revered in France, Milunka, like many war veterans, without education and savings, was left penniless and needed to search for work across the country she fought for. This took her to Mostar, where she briefly married in 1923. Although her marriage quickly unravelled, she gave birth to one daughter and adopted three other girls. Finding herself in financial straits again, she moved to Belgrade where she worked as a seamstress and then as a cleaner in a bank, where she was apparently subjected to snooty comments from her co-workers.

Although she appeared in many commemorative events for WWI, she lived the rest of her life in modest anonymity in Belgrade suburbs of Voždovac and Braća Jerković.



Ksenija Atanasijević

Almost completely forgotten until 2005 book by Ljiljana Vuletić about her work, Ksenija Atanasijević was the first woman to receive a PhD from Belgrade University, the first woman to lecture at university in the whole of ex-Yugoslavia and a sort of academic cause celebre in 1930s Serbia.

Born into a wealthy Belgrade family in 1894, Ksenija remained an orphan in childhood, but was raised by step-mother who was a teacher. She was steeped in a highly intellectual environment, and was friends with the Petrović family which included one of the most famous Serbian female painters and activists, Nadežda.

Nadežda Petrović’s portrait of Ksenija

After showing academic prowess, Ksenija studied philosophy in Belgrade under the mentorship of Branko Petronijević, one of the most distinguished Serbian intellectuals at the time. In 1922 Ksenija was to defend her doctoral dissertation about a work by Giordano Bruno, which drew in large crowds to see the first woman trying to gain her PhD.

According to the contemporary reports, her academic skill was tested with unusual thoroughness, and she was even asked to solve a mathematical problem that was tangential to her thesis and field of interest. When she managed to satisfy the commission with this feat, one of the mathematicians excitedly asked “Can you believe it, dear colleagues – is there something wrong with this young lady’s hormones?”

Her thesis defence only hinted at ordeals that Ksenija will be subjected to in her academic career. After she was put forward for a teaching post at the University, one professor even stated that “there are parts of Serbia where women are expected to kiss hands of younger men, and you want to allow one young woman to teach at university”. Despite objections and unusually high bar that she needed to surpass, she was employed by the university in in 1923 and started teaching a year later.

Ksenija’s unwillingness to be “pleasant”, join cliques and yield to her mentor Petronijević meant that she was quickly ostracized and that her colleagues even started plotting to remove her. The first problems started when she publicly started criticising work of one of her colleagues, which led him to sprinkle insults about Ksenija to their students. However, the main showdown with her many opponents happened when she was to be promoted to a higher post in 1928.

Although her philosophical research was well regarded, and her lectures at the University were well attended, that was not enough. Spurious allegations of plagiarism were made up to put a spanner in her academic progression. After a two-year investigation, plagued with much interference, plagiarism was dismissed as an issue with Ksenija’s work, however the University still decided not to promote her to professorship.

Her few but vocal supporters turned towards the public for support which lead to an outcry in the media.

In 1935, Julka Hlapec-Đorđević, a distinguished female intellectual herself , came into defence of Ksenija, writing that it was never the academic credentials that were the reason for Ksenija’s troubles but that her real “sins” were that she “does not greet professors, she is unpleasant and conceited, does not socialise with colleagues and is a real spinster!”.

Many pointed out the relative lack of achievement of most professors at the time and the tradition of nepotism and intrigue, which is still very much present in Serbian intellectual elite.

The other side hit back, spreading rumours that she was romantically linked with her mentor, then her best female friend, and finally, a married man (who she eventually married).

After almost twelve of struggle, in 1936 Ksenija decided to resign herself writing that she “wholeheartedly wants to satisfy the great wish of the rector of Belgrade university… and his helpers in the Faculty of Philosophy… to rid me from all avenues of working.” Ironically she resigned shortly after, one of the greatest achievements of her career, Encyclopaedia Britannica used her work as reference for several entries.

A pacifist and a humanist, Ksenija continued giving public lectures and writing until WWII. In the beginning of the war she not only refused to support the puppet Nazi government in Belgrade (which many of her former enemies embraced), but also held lectures in Jewish societies in Belgrade. This meant that she was taken in by the Gestapo for questioning.

The arrival of communists to power in 1944, did not change the institutional attitude towards Ksenija, although it did bring benefirts to women, such as the universal suffrage.

Although a number of her former enemies were shot as collaborators, she was also held in the crosshairs of the new government because she refused to join communists before the war. One of her former colleagues, who was in charge of writing lists of “collaborators” at the university even asked for her to be executed under trumped up charges, but she was again “only” taken in for questioning and the Party decided to ban all her works. Although she received offers from the US universities to move, she decided to stay in Belgrade where she worked in the University library and continue her research.

As the Yugoslav communism became softer, the attitude towards this remarkable woman also thawed. The ban was lifted from her works and she continued translating and publishing essays, and even received praise and acknowledgment from Belgrade’s academic community. Ksenija died in 1981, in her home in Gospodar Jovanova in central Belgrade. Although her grave is unmarked, there is now a plaque on her former house, celebrating the life of this amazing women, whose only sin was to be outspoken and “unpleasant” with her colleagues.

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