March is widely celebrated as the women’s history month. However, I don’t want to categorise this article as “women’s history”. Instead, it should be just a biography, people’s history. In fact, this story is about Marija Jurić Zagorka the first woman political journalist in Croatian history.
She was a woman who never gave up. After being married off, arrested, imprisoned in mental health institutions, and often rejected by her peers just for being a woman, she kept going. Although she faced some incredible troubles, we can’t say that she was a lacklustre person. She achieved a lot in her 84 years long lifetime. Most importantly, she became an easily explainable icon of women’s rights to work and live the life of their choice. Since she is very little known outside Croatia, I decided to dedicate this article to her.
For a little bit of background about Croatia (as a region inside the Austrian Empire) in 18th/19th century, I recommend my article about the Sugar Palace in Rijeka. In that article, I explained how complex was the Austrian Empire, also known as Habsburg Monarchy. In the second half of the 19th century, some important reforms took place. The Empire became a kind of “dual federation”, with Austria and Hungary being the two nations inside of the Empire. The Empire’s name changed too, as from then on it was Austro-Hungarian Empire.
However, there were way more cultural and linguistic groups over the territories, and they didn’t have equal status. As stated in that previous article, the Hungarian political influence on Croatia was quite big. After all, Croatia was merely a region (although it was nominally autonomous as the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia), and both German-speaking and Hungarian-speaking cultures were trying to dominate the school system, literature, and everything that relates to language.
The complicated combination of feminism and “patriotism”
I will not talk much details about history of Croatian-Hungarian relations. It is important to notice that many Hungarians were told different things, and they might have a different perspective on it. This kind of stories comes with biases and we always know more from one side. All I want to talk about is how this situation influenced Zagorka. The fact is, many Croatian politicians and noblemen stood by Hungarian side for privileges and perks. Many of them valued money and power way more than any feelings for the local communities. Meanwhile, there were also occasional waves of stronger German language hegemony.
Most importantly, Zagorka was a feminist AND an activist for the local language and culture, something you may call a “patriot” (I am not a fan of that word). Nowadays, it is not so common in Croatia. There is a big disconnection between these two things. That is to say, the ones who care for local communities are often religious and somewhat conservative, while the ones who care for human rights tend to adopt some globalist mindset. Contemporary feminists are no exception. It is just too difficult to be a feminist and the one who cares for authentic local culture at the same time.
The Apartment where Marija Jurić Zagorka lived
In central Zagreb, there is a picturesque market on the Dolac square. It is the place where many tourists will pass by to see the colourful umbrellas and desks full of tidily arranged fruits and vegetables. When coming from the Jelačić square and going upstairs, you will se the towers of the Cathedral. But in front of that, on the right side of your view, on the entrance of one of the apartment blocks, you will find a board indicating a memorial apartment of that person whose name is Marija Jurić Zagorka.
The apartment is also the home to the Centre for Women’s Studies. It was Ana Zbiljski who received me there on that sunny Monday afternoon on the first day of March. We chatted briefly about the diversity and inclusion in general before we started discussing the significance of Marija Jurić Zagorka in women’s history. We agreed that we should not take for granted all the results of the women’s rights activists’ struggles. Nowadays we have all the opportunities that Zagorka didn’t have. For instance, in the late 19th century, when Zagorka was young, women were simply not allowed to work. Although they could become teachers, once they were married they had to give up on their jobs in order to be good wives and mothers.
As a result, many female characters in Zagorka’s novels are women who try to be something they are not allowed.
“Mentally ill” for not accepting the immoral offer
Zagorka grew up in quite a privileged family, as her father was the manager of a nobleman’s estate in the Croatia’s region of Zagorje, from which her pen name Zagorka derives. That region is located on the North-West from Zagreb, starting almost from the outskirts of the contemporary city. Therefore she saw politicians and the upper class during her childhood. As a result, she early understood the political situation in her surroundings. In some of her diaries, she remembers moments in which the notorious Khuen Hedervary, the Hungarian leader of Croatia visited the estate on which she lived. As a little girl, she was brave to speak up for her poor neighbours in the area.
She attended a religious all-girls high school, but she didn’t manage to graduate due to her disrupting activities. After that, she was forced into an arranged marriage with a Hungarian railway manager, much older than her, when she was only 17, and she had to move to Hungary. Back then, there was a belief that there are “natural differences” between the genders, and women have a “natural” role to belong only to “kitchen, church, and ballroom”. Her husband was a hostile man who obviously didn’t allow her any freedom she wanted. However, she found her own ways.
First, she accepted learning Hungarian in the exchange of favours so that she could write. Second, she accepted to go to Budapest for some “negotiations”. Subsequently, she got an “immoral offer” to be a “Hungarian lady writer”, and to write something that was popular on the market – romance novels. She obviously refused, and her husband proclaimed her mentally ill. She managed to escape and arrive to Zagreb where she got some protection from people who supported her activism.
They told her to shut up and just adapt.
Adapting to the mainstream is usually the easiest way. Some people get incredible success and fortunes from that, others remain hopeful that a lucky day will come to them. After every obstacle, Marija Jurić Zagorka got more and more stubborn with her own goals. Throughout that complicated Austro-Hungarian Empire, there were different political streams resulting in an enormous diversity of ideals. As a result, she got support even from some Hungarians and Austrians. Meanwhile, in Croatia some men didn’t want to work in the same space with her because they felt offended with a woman writing about politics.
How incredible it was?
Her birth name is Marija Jurić, while Zagorka is her “pen name”. She signed her work as Zagorka, as it is the word for a woman from her region of Zagorje, but at the same time it is a fairly common surname. That way, she masked her real identity and people didn’t know that a woman wrote the text(s).
Aside from political journalism, she also wrote many novels. Aside from some beautiful fiction derived from the contemporary situations, she wrote many historical books. In most of these works she criticises the hypocrisy, mostly in Catholic Church and among the noblemen. It was so common to see priests telling to believers how to live their lives as well as noblemen having “clean” public looks. However, behind the curtain, the reality of these people was so different. For pretty clear reasons, Zagorka’s books were unpopular in these “groups”.
Marija Jurić Zagorka wanted the independence for Croatia, but not for a toxically conservative Croatia
Finally, I need to give some context about thing that happened after the First World War. As the Austrian-Hungarian Empire collapsed, Croatia became a part of a new, completely different union – The State of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, later known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In short, it was a result of an idea that had been popular among some politicians and activists for quite some time before. They believed it was a way to freedom for Slavic nations.
During the Second World War, there was a puppet state called Independent State of Croatia, directly led by the Nazi Germany. After that, the Socialist Yugoslavia was established where properties of all these noblemen were nationalised. Zagorka was already in her seventies and eighties when it happened.
Throughout these incredible shifts of regimes, she was changing her narratives from time to time. Most importantly, she never wanted a conservative, nationalist Croatia where women would not be allowed to work. On the other hand, she didn’t like any nationalism from neighbouring lands with different national feelings, whether they are Austrian, Hungarian, or Serbian. Above all, she believed in an ideal, that is likely not happening anytime soon if we don’t build it.
Visiting the Memorial Apartment in Zagreb
The Memorial Apartment of Marija Jurić Zagorka is open to visitors, but I have to tell you that it is not easy to visit or understand for people who don’t speak Croatian. If you are researching (or just passionate) about women’s studies, history of Croatia, Austrian Empire, Hungary, or Yugoslavia (or these areas in general), I recommend you to check the website of Women’s Studies, and there is the contact information on that site. The site dedicated to Zagorka is in Croatian.
P.S. I find it puzzling how Zagorka fought to work, but when she managed, she got her salary for it. She was able to afford her living and not to depend on anyone. Nowadays, we fight to be paid fairly if we want to write or do any creative work. The institutional “frameworks” value mostly mediocre proposals that are just fine enough, while companies only value things with clear profitability.