Even though the world we live in today isn’t perfect one can undoubtedly say that it is better than it was in the 18th or 19th century. Women’s status in society has improved since the beginning of the feminist movement, but we still have a long way to go. Throughout history women were considered to be maidens first, but ultimately mothers, and the main characteristic of their lives was the fact that they were excluded from the political topics that were considered to be reserved for male only. But what happens when male run institutions cannot provide enough for their society and the people are suffering?
From the turn of 19th to 20th century in Serbia the story of helping ones in need and empowering women goes hand in hand. In the country that has only recently gained its independence women’s work, which was anonymous for so long, has replaced the work of state bodies that either could not or did not have the understanding to create institutions for educating women’s youth or taking care of the injured, poor or neglected children. The development of feminism in Serbia is inextricably linked to humanitarian work, because the Serbian women of that time believed that it was more important for women to have the right to education and independent support than to have the right to vote.
One of the first women who dedicated her life to helping the poor was Marija Trandafil. She was a wife to a wealthy merchant, after whose death she donated several of buildings she and her husband owned to charity. She also founded scholarship funds that helped poor girls get education. Her recognition and prestige in Novi Sad’s social life enabled her to become the president of the committee for collecting aid for the wounded in the First Serbia-Turkish war in 1876.
Savka Subotić is among the first ones who saw how important girl’s education is. She believed that women were not destined only for the role of mothers and housewives, but that they had the right to education and work. She dedicated her life to fighting to raise awareness among women that the strictly patriarchal community should be changed. As a means of achieving this goal she founded the First Women Collective in Novi Sad that helped poor girls get the education needed to become teachers.
As Novi Sad at that time was not part of the Kingdom of Serbia, the first women’s society on the soil of Serbia was founded in 1875 by Katarina Milovuk, headmistress of Women's Grande école in Belgrade. Her Belgrade Women’s Society made anonymous female charity work public. The Women's Society helped with preparing poor girls for marriage, taught them how to read and write, helped with the poor and injured soldiers, and helped with founding several girls’ schools.
Milica Tomić was a prominent politician, activist, editor and one of the six women who took part in the Assembly that made a historic decision to annex Banat, Bačka and Baranja to the Kingdom of Serbia in 1918. She dedicated her life to fighting for the rights of women and even had a correspondence with the leaders of the suffragette movement. She is the best known for the establishment and editing magazine Women, one of the leading feminist magazines in the beguinning of the 20th century. She advocated for the women’s right to education and their exit from the private sphere of the home to the public sphere.
Draga Dejanović is considered to be the first feminist in our country. As a poet, pedagogue and one of the first female actresses she dedicated her life to improving the lives of others. With her example, which was reflected in various forms of artistic expression, she paved the way for equality for Serbian women.
Lives and work of these women is often overlooked by history. The improvement their work made not only to the status of Serbian women but to Serbian society in general is far greater than we can imagine and most importantly it represents the foundation to what we are doing today - improving society.