These are just a few of the women who have marked the history of Serbia over the last century. They educated themselves, made careers and left a tremendous impact on a society whose laws and rules of behaviour were crafted by men
They were heroines who in wartime fought against an occupier, and in peacetime with the traditions and prejudices of their surroundings. Some of them went out into the world to study, create, celebrate, but they returned to their country to build, raise and help without asking the price. Many of them paid dearly for their choice, but today represent the great pride of a small nation, even though attitudes towards them were often a disgrace to that nation. Fortunately, the court of history has finally given them their rightful place.
In spite of their circumstances, the zeal of these women held noble and selfless sacrifice as a genuine commitment to defend all values, but most of all the value of dignity. They did everything in their power to change reality for the better. They did this with a firm conviction and their own view of the world. Many of them had not even had role models of their own, but they themselves became role models for all future generations. We cannot conceive of our historical, social and individual identity without reminding ourselves of their outsized contribution to social and cultural change.
THE FIRST WOMAN DOCTOR
DRAGA LJOČIĆ (1855–1926) was twenty-four years old when she returned from Zurich, the only city where a woman could study medicine, as the first female Serbian doctor – to be disqualified in every way in Serbia. She did not receive the same salary as a man, which did not prevent her from being a front-line doctor in every war that befell her: the Serbian-Turkish, Serbian-Bulgarian, the Balkan wars and the First World War.
She was allowed to work only as a medical assistant in a state hospital, and was fired after ten years. She continued with private practice and successfully treated her patients. It was only in 1919 that she received the full title of doctor, and in 1924 she acquired the right to a pension.
She was married to Raša Milošević, one of the founders of the People’s Radical Party, the first party founded in Serbia. They had a son and four daughters. In 1906, together with other prominent women in Belgrade, she founded the Serbian People’s Women’s Council, which united all the women’s associations in Serbia at the time.
THE FIRST FEMINIST
MILICA TOMIĆ (1859–1944), a fighter for women’s emancipation, was formed alongside her father Svetozar Miletić, the most important Serbian politician in Hungary in the 19th century.
She entered politics publicly at the age of less than twenty, while her father was in prison from 1876 to 1879. She married Jakov, Jaša Tomić, a journalist, politician and writer, who was one of the most prominent Serbs in the National Assembly, which in 1918 made the decision to join Banat, Bačka and Baranja to the Kingdom of Serbia.
As an ardent supporter of women’s emancipation, Milica started a women’s magazine in Novi Sad, which was published from 1911 to 1914 and from 1918 to 1921, and at that time had a revolutionary role. Milica was the first woman to speak publicly about the unworthy position of Serbian women. She wrote and translated texts on the position of women in Europe and America and informed readers about women’s actions and progress in the field of women’s emancipation. Woman was a modern, feminist magazine, right at the beginning of the twentieth century, and clearly played an immense role.
THE FIRST FEMALE ACADEMIC
ISIDORA SEKULIĆ (1877–1958), a writer who was welcomed into the world of literature by the evil spirit of the critic Jovan Skerlić, who buried her first book Companions, and her second, A Letter from Norway.
Even more unworthily, the powerful party figure Milovan Djilas attacked her in the magazine Borba in 1952, on the occasion of her life’s work To Njegoš – a Book of Deep Devotion. After his political downfall, Djilas attempted to get in touch with Isidora, but she resolutely refused to receive him. She never forgave him or Skerlić for the evil they had done to her, to women and to writers.
It was said that she was the most literate Serbian woman since Jefimija. She was admitted to the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts as the first woman in this institution of the greatest national importance. She studied in Budapest, graduated from the Group for Mathematics and Natural Sciences, and received a doctorate in Germany. She retired as a teacher at the Second Women’s Gymnasium in Belgrade. She spoke German, English, French and Russian, and translated from Norwegian and Swedish.
A PIONEER OF WOMEN’S ARCHITECTURE
JELISAVETA NAČIĆ (1878–1955) was the first female Serbian architect to graduate in the first generation of students at the Faculty of Architecture in Belgrade at the age of 22.
She began as a cartoonist in the Ministry of Construction, then passed the state exam and took work in a Belgrade municipality as the only woman. Among her works is today’s eight-grade school Kralj Petar in Kralja Petra Street in Belgrade, she designed parts of Terazije, Veliki and Mali Kalemegdan … Her greatest work is the parish church of Alexander Nevski in Dorćol, Belgrade, built in neo-Byzantine style.
Like many intellectuals and patriots, she was interned in the Nežider camp in Hungary in 1916. There she met an Albanian revolutionary and intellectual named Luka Lukai. She married him and in 1917 they had a daughter, Lulu. Under her influence, Lukai was a great advocate of the rapprochement of Albania and Yugoslavia. Due to their revolutionary activity, both were expelled from Albania and in 1920 settled in Dubrovnik where they remained until their deaths.
A WARRIOR FOR HISTORY
MILUNKA SAVIĆ (1892–1973), volunteered in the Balkan War in 1912, registering as Milun Savić.
She fought as a man for a while, until she was wounded in the Battle of Bregalnica. In the First World War, she volunteered again, and as a part of the elite Iron Regiment, she stood out as a grenadier at the Battle of Kolubara. She was wounded again, the second time out of four, but as soon as she recovered, she went to the Thessaloniki front and dislayed courage once more at the Battle of Kajmakčalan, capturing 23 Bulgarian soldiers.
She received the highest medals for bravery – the Karadjordja star with swords, the Milos Obilić medal for bravery, the Légion d’Honneur. She is the only woman in the world with the French Order of the War Cross with the Golden Palm, which was presented to her by the French General Franchet d’Espèrey. She was admired by the Allies and respected by her enemies. The French General Charles de Gaulle invited only her from all of Serbia to his inauguration. The French government offered her to live in France as a knight of the Légion d’Honneur and receive a pension, but she refused.
Milunka Savić is the woman with the most decorations in the history of Serbia.
THE FIRST PH.D.
KSENIJA ATANASIJEVIĆ (1894–1981) was a philosopher, the first woman to receive a doctorate from the University of Belgrade.
In a male world that was unforgivable, so at the Faculty of Philosophy, where she taught philosophy, she experienced mistreatment and persecution from many colleagues. Her doctoral dissertation on Jordan Bruno has been included in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Many believe that her most significant work is from ancient philosophy, a study of Epicurus, which she published in 1927 in Paris.
After World War II, one of her colleagues became dean of the Faculty of Philosophy, academician and president of the War Crimes Commission, and he demanded the death penalty for her! He took revenge on her for refusing his invitation to cooperate with Bolshevik agitators in Paris in 1921, when she was writing her doctoral dissertation. However, she was released from prison, only to be deprived of her civil rights, and all her books were placed on the banned list.
She was buried in Belgrade’s New Cemetery. The grave site was dug up and sold to new owners, and all the gravestones were destroyed. There are no monuments or preserved earthly remains of this important Serbian woman.
THE FIRST IN VOGUE
MILENA PAVLOVIĆ BARILI (1909– 1945) was one of the most interesting and talented Serbian women of the 20th century.
Her mother Dania was from Karadjordjević, and her father Bruno Barili was a composer, poet, bohemian, war reporter, a black sheep in a rich and snobbish family environment, originally from Parma.
With a degree from the Royal School of Art, she continued her painting studies in Munich in the autumn of 1926. Her role model was the painter Giorgio de Chirico, whom she would later meet. From 1930 she spent ten years in Spain, Rome, Paris, London… She met Paul Valeri, Jean Cassou, Jean Cocteau, Andrea Breton, befriended Giancarlo Menotti… She exhibited in prominent galleries of the time in Belgrade , London, Paris, and Rome. In August 1939 she sailed for New York. There she painted, exhibited, struggled, was the first and remained the only Serbian woman to appear on the cover of the American fashion magazine Vogue.
In her native Požarevac, there is a gallery that bears her name and which houses the largest collection of her works.
A MAGICIAN IN THE THEATER
MIRA TRAILOVIĆ (1924–1989) was a theater director by education, the founder and director of Atelier 212 and the founder and director of Bitef.
She will be remembered for bringing the world to Belgrade and bringing Yugoslavia to the world. She succeeded in all this at a time when a membership card of the League of Communists was required for any serious position, yet she died without joining any party. She married Dragoljub Guca Trailović, a journalist who would later be director of Politika, and who was ejected from the Party because he married a bourgeois.
There were no more capable and successful women in the field of culture in Yugoslavia during the 1960s, for as long as she lived. She brought to Belgrade, more precisely to Bitef, the biggest theater stars such as Bob Wilson, Elena Stewart and La Mama, Eugenio Barba, Roberto Chuli, Jerzy Grotowski, Samuel Beckett, Peter Brook, Yuri Ljubimov, Peter Stein, Pina Bausch … She staged Hair at the Atelier, as the first European premiere of the famous musical. For two years, she ran the Theater of Nations in Nancy at the invitation of the French Minister of Culture, Jacques Lang.
A WOMAN OF THE NEW AGE
ZORICA MUTAVDŽIĆ KNEŽEVIĆ (1924–2011) received an offer from the newspaper Politika in 1964, to start the first magazine for women and families in postwar Serbia.
At that time she had a husband, two children and a respectable career as a journalist in the cultural sections of Tanjug, Duga and Radio Belgrade. She travelled the world as a reporter, interviewed Ivo Andrić, Sartre, Stravinsky, Vivienne Lee… She conceived the concept of the first civic magazine in socialist Serbia, and her husband, a sports journalist and editor of Radio Belgrade, Predrag Knezevic Kneza, gave it its name – Bazaar. It was also her fate to surround herself with the best.
In Bazaar, Momo Kapor wrote Notes of an Ana, a column that brought him great popularity, the fashion editor was a magician among creators Aleksandar Joksimović… Zorica was the first pen of Bazaar, and she initiated the selection of the most beautiful girl in Yugoslavia. Among the first winners was Nikica Marinović from Dubrovnik, who in 1966 became the first runner-up in the Miss World pageant!
For ten years, this capable woman was editor-in-chief and the main promoter of civic values, which she advocated in the magazine and in life. With a vast circulation.
THE CHESS QUEEN
MILUNKA LAZAREVIĆ (1932-2018), a chess grandmaster who was and remains the best in the history of this game in Yugoslavia and Serbia! She was six times the chess champion of Yugoslavia, and for twenty-five years she played non-stop in world championships.
She was proclaimed the first active woman chess grandmaster in Yugoslavia, won a silver medal at the Olympics in Split … She was the only Yugoslav chess player to play twice in the world championship – in 1964 and 1971 – and won third and fourth place.
As a journalist, she was the best reporter from the Fischer-Spassky match in Iceland in 1972 and her interview with Bobby Fischer was memorable. When the young poet played in Leningrad in 1964, the future Nobel laureate Josif Brodski was her most ardent fan. While the organisation FIDA was president of the Women’s Chess Commission (1970-1978), she introduced reforms that have not been changed to date. When Dr. Max Eve proposed her as president of FIDA in 1974, she refused because she still wanted to play, write, travel.
She was the mother of one son and a grandmother of six.
(For this text, I used the book Exceptional Women of Serbia, written by Dr Neda Todorović and myself, based on an idea of Madelene Zepter. The photo editor is Goranka Matić, publisher of Zepter Book World).