“Learning a Feminist Language”: The Intellectual History of Feminism in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s

Thesis author: 
Zsofia Lorand
Academic Area(s): 
Year of enrollment: 
Thesis supervisor: 
Balázs Trencsényi
Thesis supervisor: 
Jasmina Lukic
CEU unit: 
Department of History
Full description: 

Language, concepts and ideology were the key elements to a new feminism emerging in Yugoslavia in the early 1970s. Not much after the second wave feminism had come to the fore in the West in its more and more diverging forms, Yugoslavia also had an organised form of feminism, a phenomenon that remained an exception in East Central Europe until the late 1980s. It was created by a few intellectual women and spread out in the three major cities in Yugoslavia: Belgrade, Ljubljana and Zagreb.

In the mid-1970s the universities in Zagreb and Ljubljana and the students’ cultural centres in Belgrade and Ljubljana offered space for the groups which were called Žena i društvo [Woman and society]. The group had a “very traditional name, but still, we were feminists from the beginning” – said Biljana Kašić, a sociologist member of the group from Zagreb, studying earlier in Belgrade and later teaching at the University of Rijeka. This name itself tells us a lot about the place of this group within the Yugoslav political and intellectual scene. The phenomenon which I will refer to here mostly as the new Yugoslav feminism – sometimes called by the members neofeminizam, that is “new feminism”, a name however not acknowledged by all the members of the group – in my reading took a critical, counter-discursive, dissenting stance within the Yugoslav system. The new Yugoslav feminism targeted the proclaimed, yet to them, unfulfilled equality of women in Yugoslavia. They argue from a feminist base, inspired and infused by critical Marxism, post-structuralist French feminism, new theories in psychology, anthropology and sociology, but also referring to the Yugoslav partisan tradition as an emancipatory ideology for women. The arguments take shape first in academic work, the arts and literature, relatively quickly reaching the popular mass media and turning into activism.

This research places itself within the scholarship which treats feminism and the artistic counterculture in Western capitalisms from the 1960s on as dissent. While I also acknowledge that dissidence in the oppressive regimes of the Soviet bloc had different stakes and different limitations and I do take into consideration that we cannot think of East European socialisms in terms of the pure binaries of state vs. individual, collaboration and resistance. Reading through the history of these movements and the theoretical implications arising from that, I base my analysis on the questioning of the binary and rather focus on the tensions and balance within the new Yugoslav feminists discourse. Therefore, my claim is that through rereading concepts and meanings, integrating ideologies and theories from “Western” feminisms and through transfer creating their own version, new Yugoslav feminism is at the same time cooperating with the state and criticising the state.

With the longest feminist history in Eastern Europe between the Second World War (hereinafter WWII) and the fall of state socialism, Yugoslavia offers a case study where the socialist state is challenged based on one of its biggest promises, the equality of women. It is exactly this promise that places new Yugoslav feminism at the crossroads of discourses. In comparison to Western capitalist societies, where feminism was directly clashing with the state about women’s emancipation and therefore clearly appeared as dissent, it is widely discussed that the state guaranteed many of the rights which the North American and most[1] West European feminist groups were fighting for. In the meantime, new Yugoslav feminism is a counter-discourse vis-à-vis the newly emerging oppositional discourses in Yugoslavia too. The oppositional groups producing these discourses, either refused to discuss women’s rights in search of an agenda of liberal democracy which disregards difference and stating that these were already achieved by socialism and could simply be maintained, or with a bio/ethno-nationalistic agenda, propagated the reversal of the “unnatural” and forced emancipation of women. As we shall see, the new Yugoslav feminists had a cooperative communicative relationship with Western feminisms, with the newly emerging liberals and the state itself as well, even if to a lesser extent. The only group that the Žena i društvo members refused to communicate with, at least until the very late 1980s, were the nationalists. It is exactly this diversification of the group and the change of the political environment which signals the end of an era in the history of Yugoslav feminism and this is why my research stops in 1990.

I divided the chapters of this dissertation along disciplines or discourses, taking the different audiences a discipline or publication attracts and the difference in the language a discipline or a type of publication allows. These factors define the ways criticism can be expressed. The first scene, where feminist ideas were formulated, was the academia. The first chapter, “Neither Class, Nor Nature – (Re)Turning to Feminism in the Social Sciences and Humanities”, focuses on the academic works investigating feminism, through the prism of concepts such as “radical”, “extreme” and “revolutionary”, reinterpreting the role of class, work, family, consciousness, and introducing the concept of gender. In the second chapter, “Creation, Instead of Production: Feminism in Literature and Art”, I analyse ways of expressing feminist ideas in art and literature, as well as the ways feminist theory and feminist art support and influence each other. The possibilities of women’s creativity, and the concepts of the body, violence and motherhood are in the focus in this chapter. The way in the first chapter the “women’s question” is replaced by the concept of feminism, the ideological shift here is marked by the replacement of the concept of “women’s literature” with žensko pismo, the local variant of the French écriture féminine. The third chapter, “Feminism in the Popular Mass Media” investigates the politics of feminism when it reaches a wider audience, especially the compromises and achievements the mass media requires and facilitates, and also the tension between censorship and independence through popularity and high circulation numbers. I write about feminism’s ambivalent relationship to mass media, with emphasis on the issue of sexism in the genres of women’s and men’s magazines, and the ways the feminist approach to sexuality and violence can be presented in popular mass mediums. Besides the ideological shifts, I analyse the concept of the sexual revolution in detail. The last chapter, “Reorganising Theory: From Kitchen Tables to the Streets, from Theory to Activism” tells the story of new Yugoslav feminism’s “second wave”, that is the time after 1985. This is the time of new forms of activism and self-organisation, when the lesbian movement becomes an important ally and source of inspiration for the feminists and when new energies are gained from the women-only groups. The major concepts of the time are again sexuality and violence, and a further crucial theme is women’s health. I pay special attention to how the new Yugoslav feminists’ access to an international feminist movement was growing and how these connections influenced their discourse and actions.

My Own Place

“Feminism has been historically a complex political practice; its history should be no less so. Indeed, it is engaging in such critical practice that the history of feminism becomes part of the project it writes about; it is itself feminist history.”[2]


The year before I started this research, I became a volunteer activist of the main Hungarian feminist NGO working against violence against women, called NANE.[3] The experience with women and children survivors of gender based violence put my then ten years of reading of feminist theory, history, literature and art into a new perspective and made me believe that the primary aim of any work I do should be to contribute to the changing of the situation of these women and children. Having grown up in a society without feminism, even starting my higher education without access to feminist ideas, I was deeply impressed when I learned about the existence of such a rich history of feminism in Yugoslavia as early as 1970s and 1980s. These are exactly the decades we, in Hungary in the 1990s were missing from our own feminist history, which is the reason why the first years of my higher education were also the times of the, if not first, then second and third tentative steps of feminist theory and activism in Hungary. Writing this story is writing the story we never had, so that we can have it and share it.




[1] Scandinavia was an exception, cf. “Scandinavian state feminism”. Interestingly and similarly to Eastern Europe, the state offered equality slowed down the development of women’s independent organising and the appearance of radical feminism. Cf. Lesley McMillan, Feminists Organizing against Gendered Violence (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007).

[2]Scott, Only Pardoxes, 18.

[3] Nők a Nőkért Együtt az Erőszak Ellen Egyesület, that is “Women with Women Together Against Violence”, the official English name being NANE Women’s Rights Association.