Zsofia Lorand on "Learning a Feminist Language": The Intellectual History of Feminism in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s

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

As the third event of Departmental Research Seminars, Zsófia Lóránd gave a lecture on the development and divergence of feminism during the 1970s and 1980s in Yugoslavia.  She summarized the results of her six-year-long research work - strongly motivated by her activism against domestic violence - that has been distilled in her recently submitted PhD dissertation.

She investigated the diverse transfers of the intellectual achievements of the feminist movement that had gained a new impetus during the 1960s in the United States and Western Europe and had found a receptive environment in the early 1970s Yugoslavia. “Western feminism” was adapted in a unique way into the mythical role of partisan women whose daughters constituted the “feminist generation” and into the ideological context of self-managing socialism. Thus the activity of Yugoslav feminists – whose group  was called Žena i društvo (Woman and society) - simultaneously cultivated continuity in terms of revolutionary traditions and explicated criticism against the achievements of the state. The lecturer elaborated on this inherent duality with the help of more sophisticated analytical concepts as she had investigated Yugoslavian feminism in the context of dissent striving for a more open definition of the term. She pointed out that dissent had different stakes and limitations in an authoritarian regime compared to the western countries. In her interpretation, Yugoslav feminism created its own specificities of cooperating with the state and challenging its role, while feminists negotiated their own position in various ways that manifested in more radical and more compromising forms. They challenged the authority of the state especially in respect of its role of maintaining gender inequality and its shortcomings in achieving the declared the emancipation of women, while this still did not appear in the form of explicit questioning the existence of the state. Feminist artists and intellectuals found their audience and institutional background mainly at the universities and youth cultural centers of Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade.

The lecture presented the diversity of new Yugoslav feminism's attitudes and strategies in different fields and mediums including the humanities and social sciences, arts and literature, popular mass media and activism. These discourses generated practices and new ways of expressing the claim for emancipation not only through intellectual and artistic activity, but also in the institutionalization of formerly informal communities cultivating feminist ideas: research groups evolved at the universities from “kitchen talks” and S.O.S. helplines from scholarly articles thematizing domestic violence. The interaction of such discourses and practices created a firm basis that facilitated the renewal of the movement after the devastations of the Yugoslav Wars and could have an impact on feminist activism in the surrounding countries, too.

The lecture generated intense discussion. Several questions revolved around the dilemma whether it is appropriate to talk in general terms about Yugoslavian feminism or rather the variety of transfers and adaption of feminist ideas should be considered. Other commenters raised questions about the penetration of feminist discourses into the prevailing political language and inquired into the class consciousness and social background of feminists.