VILMA VUKELIĆ ON WOMAN’S PLACE IN THE SOCIETY
Many profound psychological treatises were written about the difference between the sexes, in which it was claimed that “a woman in her deep commitment to her own being refuses everything connected to public life”. There was talk about “the sex factor” in the definition of femininity, about the “organic unity” of the female nature, about the “accentuated instincts and vegetative life impulses in females”, about their “oversensitive and unstable nervous systems”, and their “by-nature-conditioned menstrual cycles and a smaller brain”. There was talk of anatomy and physiology, as well as references to medicine, political economy, and aesthetic norms, and, as the ultimate argument, the claim that it would be dangerous to open the job market to women and create havoc on the wage front. Women would introduce unfair competition, which would make it difficult for men to start a family, and would, in many cases, end up by excluding men from certain categories of jobs. Entire books were written on that topic, which caused a flood of indignant replies from the feminine side. The indisputably worst pronouncement on that subject was put forward by a sociologist from Vienna, Professor Gruber,[i] who concluded in his treatise on social hygiene that women should under no circumstances be allowed to enter universities. Rather, they should, like cows, be left to graze in pastures, not be engaged in any activity other than to prepare themselves for their only proper vocation—breeding and motherhood. The men thus fighting to preserve their privileges conveniently kept forgetting that it was the women, prevented from studying medicine due to their alleged physical weakness, who were effectively engaged in the most physically strenuous professions of caregiving, nursing, and midwifery. They forgot that women stood behind machines in manufacturing facilities and factories, did the hardest agricultural work, and applied themselves as hard as they could in all other jobs they were forced to do during their lives. We should add to all that such things as housework, giving birth, raising children, and being victims to endless abuse by their husbands, who were protected by law and tradition. Millions of women around the globe were forced to assume all forms of inhuman labour and not be appreciated for their sacrifice. In the male-dominated world, this was an accepted fact and met with no objection on behalf of men.
It was difficult—sometimes to the point of being impossible—to stand up as an individual against such an unreservedly sustained state of affairs by the society at large. It was impossible, with the simple use of one’s own energy, to break the constraints of an entrenched tradition and prejudice, especially if that person was young and inexperienced, and lived in the oppressive atmosphere of a remote provincial town. There, everything was closely connected and every deviation from the norm was immediately confronted as if it posed a threat to the established order of things. I was aware—let us say, I suspected—that the position of a so-called upper-class woman was unfair, untenable and abusive. I was also aware that at issue was the welfare of only those women, since the welfare or misfortune of working-class and peasant women was an entirely different problem. In the time of enlightenment, liberalism, technical advancement, and unlimited possibilities provided by overall social progress, the position held by a woman in society represented a horrifying anachronism. In her role as a luxury object, she was denied the possibility of keeping up with the social changes of the day. Instead of her strength, she was required to rely on her apparent feminine weaknesses to attract the eye of a man. Women who dared to develop their own personalities were regarded as anomalies, and, in especially drastic cases, even monstrous phenomena, comparable to a calf with two heads or a similar circus attraction. If a woman happened to excel in a cultural domain, it was considered an exception to the rule. The time between the age of fifteen and twenty was considered nothing more than the waiting period for that great moment when “the most wonderful of them all” would step on the scene to reveal to his chosen one the heavens of love and the harbour of marital bliss. A woman’s life could then finally begin. That is, of course, if one was lucky. It was a commonly held belief that the suitable time for marriage was over after one’s twentieth birthday, when the bloom of youth began to wither. There was no more time to wait for a prince charming and one had to accept whatever became available, namely a marriage of convenience, for which material security was a decisive component of acceptance. (p. 194-6)
[i] Max von Gruber (1853–1927) was not a sociologist, but a well-known bacteriologist specializing in problems of public health and hygiene.
VILMA VUKELIĆ ON LITTLE GIRLS’ OUTFITS
They found yet another means to prevent me from playing—the requirement to go for a walk with the governess and Anny on the afternoons when I had no school classes to attend. Preparations for that activity were in themselves a special form of torture, since it was obligatory to be dressed following a prescribed elegance for those occasions. The fine dresses restricted all freedom of movement: they were uncomfortable, impractical, and required attentiveness when worn. I was lucky, insomuch as my mother was against any exaggeration when it came to fashion for children. But there were little girls whose hair would reach below their waist and had to be wound on to papillottes once or even twice a day, followed by a good half an hour of combing and brushing. Quite a few girls as young as ten wore shoes with high heels, usually also too tight for comfort. As a result, they were unstable on their feet and could only take small steps. Many girls of my age already wore bras, even real corsets, because their narrow-minded and vain mothers claimed that it was never too early to begin the lacing-up, in the belief that it was the body, while still in the developing stage, which had to adapt to the form of a corset, and not the other way round. This was the only way to obtain the tiny “wasp waist”, which in those days signified ideal beauty. Sensible mothers put off the wearing of the corset until the age of thirteen, but then it became inevitable.
The extravagant outfits of elegant little girls included also various additional fashion follies, all according to the style of the day. Those were, for instance, shoes made of the so-called everlasting material, with twenty tiny buttons on each shoe that kept slipping through the fingers while being buttoned up. A huge sash made of satin and worn beneath the waist (and not easy to keep in place) supposedly provided a finishing touch to a girl’s dress. It was tied in the back into a big bow which, with its exaggerated shape, corresponded to the bustle, a pad made of horsehair that adult women wore on their back under their heavily pleated skirts. A wide Florentine hat, swinging up and down, decorated with enormous ostrich feathers, covered the short haircut. A rubber band under the chin held the hat in place and its owner was thus transformed into a gigantic mushroom, looking utterly comical. Everything was distasteful, uncomfortable, and affected, nothing but a bad imitation of ladies’ fashion whose trends between 1880 and 1890 adopted grotesque characteristics. Along with the “wasp waist”, high stiff collars also became fashionable, as was the lavish use of dress fabrics by multiplying and extending skirts folds, as well as plastrons, ribbons, flowers, feathers, and lace. All this was eventually passed from grown-ups’ fashion to children’s clothing and turned little girls under the age of ten into caricatures. (p. 64-5)