Exceptional Women of Serbia of the 20th & 21st Centuries

Great Pride of a Small Nation

Exceptional Women of Serbia of the 20th & 21st Centuries

The women who have marked the history of Serbia in the last 100 years represent the great pride of a small nation, although attitudes towards them have often been a major embarrassment for this small nation. Many of them were educated out in the world, only to return to little Serbia and stay here for the benefit of their people, while some of them were more recognised elsewhere in the world than in little Serbia.

The recently published book entitled Exceptional Women of Serbia of the 20th and 21st centuries, released in Serbian and English, offers readers a collection of 100 biographies of selected exceptional Serbian women of the last century and the present one. The short, informative texts, like mini essays, are arranged chronologically in nine sections: Science, Medicine, Architecture; Theatre and Film; Music and Dance; Fine Arts; Literature; Sport; (Multi) media; Politics and Society; Charity. They represent the works and importance of women in the modern Serbian history of the past hundred years.

This list of exceptional personalities was comprised by authoresses Neda Todorović – a professor at the Belgrade Faculty of Political Science – and Radmila Stanković, NIN journalist and CorD contributor. (The book’s photo editor is art historian Goranka Matić, while the publisher is Zepter Book World).

The authors consulted with several dozen eminent experts from academia and public life – historians, culture experts, professors of women’s studies, journalists, historians of art and literature, film/theatre directors, sociologists etc. They also reviewed all available literature. They were also led by the initiative of women from the Serbian diaspora to establish such a list and such a selection (in chronological order).

All of these women who – due to their scientific, wartime, artistic or sporting merits – found themselves in this book, paid for their choice. This is also a thread that connects them

Isidora Žebeljan
Isidora Žebeljan

Writing this monograph was initiated by Madeleine Zepter, a famous and proven benefactor of European and Serbian culture, who personally participated in its creation and facilitated its implementation. Her commitment and material participation resulted in the building of the first private opera and theatre house in Southeast Europe: Madlenianum in Zemun. While her investment in the purchase of artworks led to the opening of a respectable museum of fine arts in Belgrade’s Knez Mihailova Street, and, thanks to her scholarships and aid, many talented young artists have been able to secure education elsewhere in the world.

One of the most successful of these students is baritone Željko Lučić, now a champion of the New York Metropolitan Opera,.The monograph Extraordinary Women of Serbia of the 20th and 21st centuries is an attempt to draw attention to the heroines who have devoted themselves to Serbia, many of whom have been forgotten, while some are little known or completely unknown.

Common to all of these outstanding women, who have struggled with the traditions and prejudices of their environment and continue to do so today, is that they spoke foreign languages and were intellectuals, European women. They went out into the world to be educated, to create there, to celebrate, but they returned to their country in order to build it up, raise it and help it, without asking the price. These are personalities whose lives and works are so significant that each of them is worthy of a special book of their own.

Milunka Lazarević
Milunka Lazarević
Milunka Savić
Milunka Savić

Times were tough in Serbia at the beginning of the last century, particularly for learned women, particularly those well-schooled, highly educated women who wanted to show, change or move something. It was even harder to be the first – the first female doctor, the first female architect, the first female philosopher, the first film actress, the first female academic etc.

All of these women who – due to their scientific, wartime, artistic or sporting merits – found themselves in this book, paid for their choice. This is also a thread that connects them, even more so because they rose even higher.

Placed together in such a way, these exceptional women who have marked the history of Serbia in the 20th century represent the great pride of a small nation, although attitudes towards them have often been a major embarrassment for this small nation. Fortunately, thanks to the court of history, they have received their rightful place, and it was up to us to also acknowledge their achievements in this way; to show how many of them were educated in the outside world only to return to little Serbia and remain there for the good of their people; to show how some of them were more recognised elsewhere in the world than in little Serbia.

It is good that today one of our 100, world-renowned scientist from the field of biomedical engineering, Gordana Vunjak Novaković, says that she never felt that she was hampered in her career due to being a woman. This means that the circumstances and conditions changed for the better; that it is today far easier and nicer to be a successful and recognised woman than it was just a century ago.

Žanka Stokić
Žanka Stokić
Angelina Atlagić
Angelina Atlagić

At the beginning of this book is the biography of Milunka Savić, a female warrior with the most medals in the history of Serbia. She is celebrated for her enormous courage during several wars. There are other female fighters who were anti-fascists, such as Saša Božović; there are women who were national heroes, such as Sonja Marinković; politicians like Latinka Perović or Vesna Pešić; scientists like physicist and mathematician Mileva Einstein and linguist Milka Ivić; or doctors like Nada Basara; members of the Serbian Association of Science and the Arts, such as a neuro-psychiatrist Dušica Lečić Toševski; artists from all areas, from painter Nadežda Petrović, actress Žanka Stokić, opera diva Radmila Bakočević, world-renowned performance artist Marina Abramović, to costume designer Angelina Atlagić and composer Isidora Žebeljan; writers, from Isidora Sekulić and Desanka Maksimović to Gordana Ćirjanić and Biljana Srbljanović; athletes and sporting competitors, from chess player Milunka Lazarević, tennis coach Jelena Genčić and fencer Vera Jeftimijades, via athlete Vera Nikolić and sharpshooter Jasna Šekarić, to long-jumper Ivana Spanović et al.

It is good that today’s heroines and exceptional women are no longer warriors, but rather the likes of the country’s only world-renowned fashion designer, Roksanda Ilinčić. All of these women, all 100 who are now celebrated by Serbia, are also a pledge for a future in which the successes of women in all fields will be spoken about with more attention and respect.

It is good that today’s heroines and exceptional women are no longer warriors, but rather the likes of the country’s only world-renowned fashion designer, Roksanda Ilinčić

One of the reviewers of this book, Ratko Božović Ph.D., says that in searching for the character and peculiarities of the famous women of our recent history, “the authors of this work carried out the selection of a hundred personalities who, through their work and deeds, changed both themselves and the world around them.

The biographies of those they selected serve as authentic testimony about the other side of our social and cultural images; that side which most often remained in the shadows, even being lost to oblivion. In the zeal of women, despite the circumstances, was present noble and selfless sacrifice as an authentic commitment to the defence of all values, and especially the value of dignified existence. They did everything in their power to make reality better than it was. They did this with their free convictions and their view of the world.

It has already been observed that many of them did not have role models of their own, but they themselves became role models for future generations. Our historical, social and individual identity is inconceivable without the revealing of their significant contribution to both social and cultural changes.

Therefore, more than anything else, this carefully composed work, shows the extent to which it is unacceptable that there is aggressive rigidity in the accustomed “order” in the conservative way of thinking about the absolute rule of male stereotypes in the evaluation of what has been created and what is being created”.

Because of everything said, Božović believes that this book is a work that imposes itself as a necessity for the re-evaluation of male stereotypes and existing prejudices. At the same time, it is also a book of answers which shows convincingly how the culture of remembrance is achieved; and how the presence of famous women in history, society and culture is defended.

The special value of this book lies in the success of its authors to bring together the comprehensive deeds and importance of women in modern Serbian history of the past hundred years – considers Jelena Đorđević, a professor and sociologist from the Faculty of Political Sciences. It shows that our memory of them can be extended in all directions – from the arts to politics, from charity work to warfare, from crafts to philosophy.

In her review, Đorđević proves that this book is not feminist, but rather humanist – criticism of prejudice and oblivion is implicit, unobtrusive, but the goal is set in the right place. At the same time, this presentation of the lives and works of women in Serbia, of differing origins and destinies, is devoid of an ideological burden, presenting equally their works and roles in the periods of the monarchy, socialism and the present. In this way, this monograph is a kind of commentary on character, politics and culture in a region that’s prone to consigning to oblivion and favouring discontinuity.