The goal of this term paper is offering a longitudinal case study of the Bulgarian Association of University Women (BAUW) as an individual SMO within the frame of the emergence and history of women’s movements in Bulgaria. It is based on primary sources (such as the unpublished archives of the Bulgarian Communist Party). It will discuss the Association’s development in the period between the Bulgarian National Revival (the 1950-iеs) and the fall of Communism (from 1989 onwards), and will focus on the changes in the official discourse of women’s movements in response to that of the power structure. At the same time, it will discuss their interaction with the state, and the ways in which the changes in political environment affected their identity and organization.
BAUW – THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT DURING THE PERIOD OF THE NATIONAL REVIVAL
The noble, enlightening wind of the modern times has ruffled the lines of our gentle sex as well, leaving there glorious monuments in honor of education. The women’s associations which are among the best and most precious fruits of the modern times and which initially were not considered to have as much stamina as they recently showed, are the clearest testimony of how mightily our people has been shaken by the hand of the spirit of the present era.
The women’s movement in Bulgaria dates back to the late 1850-ies, the period of the Bulgarian National Revival. Within less than a decade a myriad of women’s organizations were founded in just about every large town of the country. Bearing names like Milosurdie (Charity), Dobrodetel (Virtue), Razvitie (Progress) and Zhenski glas (Female Voice), they were part of the rich tapestry of a newly emerging national and social consciousness (Mouharska 23). The initial quote practically illustrates the unique synthesis of two pivotal discourses, which channeled the social energy of the epoch – the national and the educational. The two are so closely knit together, that reading through the documents of the time, one can hardly separate them. In a unique way the women’s movement was born out of this mixture in a non-antagonizing way. It suffices to remember that during the late 19-th century, prior to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, Balkan societies were extremely patriarchal – probably a defense mechanism against assimilation (Bulgarian Academy of Sciences 128). It is within the constraints of national patriarchy, and the already loosening political ties of the Empire that women started to build a new identity, inscribing its discourse within the larger discourse of nation, enlightenment, education and progress. And while the larger, embedding nationalist discourse exhibits all the traits of social and political discontent and contestation, it also offers various new identities and incentives for collective action (Mouharska 55).
The women’s movement is a practical outcome of this new constellation of possibilities. Stepping out of the traditional roles of mothers and wives, women opted for education and emancipation. This development, however, was not overridden with gender conflict. Women came on the social scene precisely at the time when Bulgarian society was learning new social roles and competences. This also explains why for a long time the Bulgarian women’s movement did not evolve an oppositional gender discourse (Bulgarian Group for Gender Research 59). The driving force behind the numerous organizations of civil society both before and after the National Liberation, was the desire to catch up with the progressive spirit of the time and become reintegrated within Europe (Koumanov 283). And among the “European values” which Bulgarian society embraced wholeheartedly, were education and social participation for women.
After the Liberation
Bulgaria regained its national independence following the Russo-Turkish war in 1878. Politically, it was organized as a parliamentary monarchy with one of the most progressive democratic constitutions in Europe at the time, the Turnovo Constitution 1878-1879 (Hristov 210). In the period from the Liberation until World War II there was a rapid differentiation of the political and ideological field. The numerous political parties were loosely grouped around the conservative and liberal democratic concepts. It is in this period that a new dimension evolved within the discourse and practices of some women’s groups. For the first time claims were formulated against inequality in higher education, professional and electoral rights. World War I was the point of departure for a stream in the women’s movement which closely converged with socialist claims and ideology. The war acted as a catalyst for the radical wing among women’s groups (Mouharska 209). Pressed by poverty and the bleak realities of everyday life, women initiated a number of demonstrations and protest marches, some of which ended in violence, e.g. “the women’s revolts” in the tons of Svishtov, Sliven, Pazardzhik, Dupnitsa, Veliko Turnovo. Political parties did not lag behind the realities of civil society – practically all big parties had women’s wings (Bulgarian Group for Gender Research 66). This fact is hard to evaluate without special research. It is not quite obvious whether the political field was taking advantage of the energy generated by movement groups, and ultimately sapping its energy, or genuinely trying to add a gender dimension to political problems.
Origins of the BAUW
The Bulgarian Association of University Women (BAUW) was founded on May 29, 1924 in Sofia, as a cultural and educational organization, member of the International Federation of University Women. To be more precise, BAUW was co-founder of the IFUW along with the British and Swiss associations (“Archive of The Bulgarian Association of University Women”). Thus, it was inscribed within an international context right from its very beginnings. This fact was important for two reasons. Firstly, because all national member organizations shared similar aims and adopted identical statutes, and secondly, because the hierarchical structure and method of functioning ensured its sustainable development over a long period of time.
Here are some of the aims BAUW puts forward as the rationale for its existence:
a) to unite Bulgarian university women on the grounds of their common interests and encourage them in their scientific and social activities;
b) to give full intellectual and moral support to its members and – provided there is a financial possibility for that – assist them materially to work in the sphere of science and the arts;
c) to collect and distribute information of interest for its members;
d) to make a survey on the position of Bulgarian university women, by collecting and processing statistical data which refer to them;
e) to promote the professional equality among men and women;
f) to take special care of female students (“Archive of The Bulgarian Association of University Women”).
The inspiration underlying this list rests on two realities – the existence of professional women with university education, and the realization of their unequal status in comparison to their male counterparts.
Even though the latter statement is not straightforward, but rather left to be inferred, it was given special attention by the government, as represented by the Secret Police (“Archive of The Bulgarian Association of University Women”).
The list of founding members of the BAUW contains professional teachers, architects, doctors, accountants, artists, etc. It is testimony to the continuity with the heritage of the long pre-liberation period, when the national spirit required that daughters, as well as sons, should get the best in terms of education, usually in Europe. Ideologically, BAUW steered close to the liberal socialist ideals of the time. Membership required a university education, but did not exclude allegiance with a political doctrine, or party. The data available show that the most active members of the BAUW were also social democrats, or communists. Some were closely related to notable social figures of the time. Thus, by virtue of this shared allegiance, the gender discourse of the period was couched within social democratic terminology and practices (Bulgarian Group for Gender Research 214).
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the activities of the BAUW were monitored by the Secret Police as a potential menace to the state. The occasion, as can be seen in the excerpts below, was the Open Letter to the Prime Minister, advocating equality for women, initiated by D-r Vera Zlatareva, member of the Board of Officers of BAUW, who also endorsed the support of the Workers’ and Communist parties.
To: Secretary of the Intelligence Unit
From: Agent No. 95
A women’s constitutional commission has been formed, which aims at fighting for the restoration of the Constitution and granting full rights to the women. The constitutional commission is headed by d-r Vera Zlatareva. The commission launched this open letter and through the Workers’ party distributed it among the regional secretaries of the party, and the latter, on their part – among the masses to be signed and after the signatures were collected, to be returned to the women’s constitutional commission which sent it to the Prime Minister. The letter was published and distributed in 5000 copies. Since the Workers’ party also took part, Vera Zlatareva took the responsibility, and agreed to say everywhere that it is on her initiative that the above letter is distributed among the women. …
D-r Vera Dimitrova Zlatareva was elected delegate of the international women’s conference, convened by the communists on 13-14-15. V. 1938 in Marseille, but she was not allowed to travel to France on these dates. /See doc. No. 709 and 710 of the Board of Directors of the Police and respective attachments/. …
I bring to your attention, Sir, that from the evidence gathered, I was able to establish that D-r Vera Dimitrova Zlatareva in almost all her public discourses has been very skillfully propagating the ideology of the communist party and for this reason she is admired by the popular masses (!). Her lectures are always highly attended. Vera Zlatareva was also very active in the abstinence movement in Bulgaria. After she married Dr. Mihail Genovski – a well-known and very active member of the “Pladne” political circle, she fully succumbed to his influence … (“Archive of The Secret Police”).
These documents provide the complementary point of view – that of the formal political system that BAUW is trying to shake from outside. Coming from the pen of a ‘secret agent’, they are an impressive assessment of BAUW’s leadership potential, mobilizing resources and style of work. The specific imbrications of emancipating discourses and protest practices are typical for the period – the late 40-ies (Mouharska 313). Within the Bulgarian context, women’s organizations were resourceful, yet reformatory, rather than revolutionary and disruptive.
The texts also give a glimpse of BAUW’s opponent – the state and its repressive organ, the Secret Police. It is obvious that the instigators of the open letter mission were regarded as a serious challenge, yet the actual subject the author envisages is ambiguous. He is impressed with Vera Zlatareva’s dual identity – she is a female political activist of communist inflection, campaigning for women’s rights. Yet what we perceive as her feminist essence is constantly downplayed by him. Which aspect of her activity and identity is he prone to criminalize? Is it her allegiance with the communists on this particular instance, or is it the gender equality issue? This remains unclear, and it cannot be otherwise, as it is built in as a structural component within the way the women’s movement inscribed itself within the political system prior to the communist regime. Gender social activism was taken seriously enough to deserve ‘unfair play’ (e.g. obstructing their international contacts, stopping them from traveling), yet it was consistently de-emphasized by negating the essence and focusing on the collaterals (Mouharska 322). The campaign for gender equality is completely overshadowed by Zlatareva’s connection to Communist party activists. This is all summarized in the secret agents last words: “All the meetings which d-r Genovski organizes at his home on 17, Klementina st., are attended by his wife Vera Zlatareva, who is a blind tool of her husband” (“Archive of The Secret Police”).
WOMEN’S ORGANIZATIONS WITHIN THE COMMUNIST POLITICAL SYSTEM
The end of World War II brought dramatic changes to countries in Central and South-East Europe. As tradition had it, until recently there was a ‘sacred’ date for each of them, celebrated as the day of the ‘People’s revolution’, the date of the tumultuous transition to a social order long aspired for. This myth, however, came into circulation relatively later – after 1947, when social space was once and for all monopolized by a single political subject – the Communist Party.
For four years Bulgaria had a left-coalition government of the Fatherland Front, dominated by the representatives of the Bulgarian Workers’ Party (communists). Although the dominant political discourse reflected the left-wing ideologies of the partners, the political and social scene was still rife with bustling activity. Opposition parties, though aware of the new geopolitical realities, were forcefully opposing what they saw as the infiltration of an alien (Soviet) social and political discourse and practices (Koumanov 341).
Since the liberal democratic social model presupposes a division of social space into ‘the political’ proper and the space of civil society, it is this ‘niche’ that one should look into when trying to outline the history of women’s organizations.
The facts speak for themselves:
Immediately after September 1944, the following women’s organizations were functioning – Maichina Grizha (Mothercare) in Gabrovo and Plovdiv, Bulgarski dom (Bulgarian Home), Vdovitsa (Widow), The Union of Families with Many Children, the Union of Women in Agriculture, the Bulgarian Association of University Women, and the Bulgarian Women’s Union (Bulgarian Group for Gender Research 250). The names of these organizations attest to the various tasks they had set themselves and to the social commitments Bulgarian women were willing to take.
Following September 1944 and the formation of the Fatherland Front government, women’s commissions were formed as part of its national and local level structures (Bulgarian Group for Gender Research 271). They initiated the establishing of the Bulgarian National Women’s Union (BNWU), claiming to be the hair to the Bulgarian Women’s Union pre-1944. It is worth mentioning that an attempt was made to ‘renew’ the existing women’s organizations by “replacing their leadership with the activists of the BNWU” which proved unsuccessful. Hence, a different strategy was employed – the Bulgarian National Women’s Union incorporated, or swallowed up all previously existing autonomous women’s organizations. Its first congress was held in June, 1945 (“Archive of The Fatherland Front”). Thus, the multiplicity of organizations was replaced for a single overarching unit.
The Bulgarian National Women’s Union enjoyed a six-year life. On November 27, 1950 the national conference of the BNWU made a decision to cease its independent existence and join the Fatherland Front. Within the latter’s structures the Committee of Democratic Women was established, which took up ‘work among the women’ as it was customary to say by that time (“Archive of the Committee of Democratic Bulgarian Women”). The fate of women’s organizations was shared by practically all SMO’s existing prior to 1944. Over a period of 2-7 years members of the ruling coalition employed the strategies of gradual ‘hostile takeover’, merger and original discourse displacement, until finally a ‘homogeneous’ product was achieved, part and parcel of the state machine and fully manipulated by it. Its activities were limited to issuing (and manipulating) reports on the status of Bulgarian women, and serving as the system’s mouthpiece in glorifying the long-achieved gender equality under communism, and anathemizing the BNWU’s counterparts in the capitalist world. Membership, even though encouraged (but not made mandatory), was limited (Bulgarian Group for Gender Research 280).
Here is the way in which the new, reformed BNWU assessed the history of the women’s movement prior to the communist revolution:
The BNWU is the birth child of September 9, 1944. By that time there existed a union of the Bulgarian women, but it united bourgeois women. The doors of this union were closed for women from the people.
Its activities amounted to organizing tea parties and small charity to fill the ample free time of bourgeois women.
The victory of the mass anti-fascist revolt of 9.9.1944 brought liberation for working Bulgarian women, too. This freedom, however, was not given to them as a gift. They fought for it. Women were most active in the heroic struggle of our people against the Tsarist, police and fascist domination. In concentration camps and prisons, in partisan squads, as helpers and couriers there were numerous women who manfully and with dignity stood up the trials and fought along with the men. There were numerous victims among the women, too. The names of Yana Laskova, Vela Piskova, Yordanka Chankova, L. Dimitrova and hundreds of known and unknown heroines will remain a bright page in the heroic history of our people and will shed light on the Bulgarian woman’s road to her ascent.
The people’s government estimated the sizable contributions of women in the struggle for freedom and one of the first laws passed granted full political rights to women. Woman was recognized as equal to man in all spheres of human activity. Thousands of women, who by that time had lived in the narrow circle of family and kitchen interests felt liberated for social and political life (“Archive of the Bulgarian National Women’s Union”).
Once again, the gender aspect is pushed aside, this time completely digested within the discourse of a triumphant official language, glorifying itself. In its denial of resistant identities and discourses, the communist system ultimately produced a strain of language completely devoid of any sense. Now that we have access to archives, however, it appears that the documents and decisions which really made a difference nearly always came within the genre of The X-files. Here I mean documents, reports and analyses produced within the system itself, and not within resistance circles. Thus, in the late 60-ies, the Committee of Bulgarian Women, generally perceived as completely useless, produced a secret report based on a comprehensive study of women at work. The study claimed that urban women spent an average of 15 minutes daily on their children, while women in agriculture spent 8 minutes only. Further on, the authors argued that the economy would benefit from fully-paid maternity leave until children reached school age (“Archive of the Political Bureau of the Bulgarian Communist Party”). Without denying the significance of women’s access to the professional field, the report practically blames the state and the political system for placing a dangerous double burden on women. At the time, however, it was completely clear that the economic system could not cope with its own tensions and achieve the promises so amply lavished 30 years before.
WOMEN OR GENDER: THE BAUW AFTER THE COLLAPSE OF THE COMMUNIST SYSTEM
In 1989 Bulgaria opened itself to the multiplicity of late modern discourses, so strictly avoided by that time. One of the first dramatic clashes occurred with feminist discursive and non-discursive practices. Open as post-communist society was to new ways of conceptualizing the world, gender discourses were among the first to come across certain resistance. What is more, the resistance seems to have occurred at the discoursal, and not at the conceptual level. Resentment was largely due to the fact that as a resistant discourse feminism is constructed in opposition to mainstream Western discourse, which in turn, post-communism was seeking to embrace. Thus, paradoxically, despite the wide recognition and resentment to the ‘double burden’ of the communist ‘superwoman’, feminist discourse was not felt to possess the liberating potential it has for Western women (Mouharska 378). And even more paradoxically, in trying to explain their reaction, Bulgarian women resorted to official emancipatory discourse of the communist period – women in this part of the world have already ‘achieved’ what feminism strives for, though they are not sure if it was worth it.
Thus, the issues raised were both ‘old’ and ‘new’. Old ad nauseam because of the prolific and generous treatment of the topic in official communist discourse before 1989. New because the familiar problems were inflected in a different way – in the beginning this novelty was only felt intuitively. To me the ambiguity of the clash lies in the opposition women vs. gender. The former belongs to the ‘things already past’ and the latter to a reality which is yet to come. Significantly, the term ‘gender’ has not found a meaningful translation yet.
The BAUW is given a new lease of life
In 1992 a group of Bulgarian university lecturers were approached by members of the British Federation of University Women with the suggestion to renew a connection of long standing between that organization and its Bulgarian counterpart, which existed until 1950. Thus, it turned out that the archives of the original BAUW could be retrieved from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where they were kept after it was forced to close down in 1950. This was followed by a legal request to re-establish the organization, which was accomplished by early 1993 (Dakova 2).
The BAUW in search of identity
Nowadays the BAUW’s chief problem is that of identity. The Statutes require that membership is granted to all women with university degree (“Archive of The Bulgarian Association of University Women”). Unlike other organizations, where shared identity is the chief motive for participation, the BAUW has to negotiate its own right of existence among a wide array of present-day female identities – conservative (the old communist type of activist who claims to have achieved gender equality long ago), radical (eager to scandalize academia), those whose chief interest is in feminist theory, and those who would like to focus on social issues. None of these groups has gained the upper hand for the time being, largely because for nine long years there was a difficult lesson to learn – how to survive in a social climate which is neither hostile, nor supportive (Dakova 4). The greatest challenge for all SMO’s initially was to learn the language and realities of NGO’s at the turn of the 20th century. Thus, the choice over liberal or radical philosophy was supplemented with the management-speak of organization building, budgeting, fund-raising, etc. The BAUW’s agenda is largely dictated by foreign funding organizations, and its collective identity is thus slowly coming to terms with the outcomes of the women’s movement in the West. To use another fashionable term, borrowed from EC-speak, a ‘harmonization’ is occurring between the agenda of similar organizations through the distribution of funds (Dakova 8).
If there is a hope for BAUW to find a focused collective identity and mobilize its efforts, it comes from the writings of some Bulgarian female journalists. Here is a text, produced two months ago in response to Parliament discussions on gender equality at work:
From now on, discussions on the topic of gender discrimination should be banned. Do Bulgarian women have to listen to flat-breasted foreign lecturers, who are paid to tell us that their husbands’ favorite pastime is oppressing them, given that Bulgarian women have never had a problem like this? Just a few days ago, a cured alcoholic thanked her doctors over the Bulgarian National radio, saying: “When I got drunk, I’d beat my husband.” What is more, Bulgarian women have monopolized all professions, normally considered a male domain – teaching, medicine, journalism. I suggest the following – we should ask the manager of the National Historical Museum to acquire and exhibit a few males as an extinguished species so that we can show them to foreign feminist lecturers when they come to tell us how despotic men are (Kamenova 2002).
As the preceding pages demonstrated, the discourse, identity and even existence of women’s movements in Bulgaria are largely dictated by the political realities of the day. Since 1989, they have also been affected by the burden of previous social and political experiences. Since neither the official feminist discourse, nor the mechanism of gender movement emergence typical for the West have found application in the country, it could be expected that as women’s movements there develop, opportunities for new, region-specific, research and theories will occur. What is left for students of feminism is to wait and see.
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