From Revolutionary to Productive Subject: An Alternative History of the Women’s Antifascist Front

Sunita Fišić, Ink drawing

But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us
Too harshly.

1. Introduction, or Beginning After the End of History – Thinking the Women’s Antifascist Front Again and Anew

Thinking the Women’s Antifascist Front (henceforth AFŽ) today, 74 years after its formation and 63 years after its “dissolution”, requires a lot more than merely knowing the (archival) facts. Although the facts cannot and should not be neglected, it is our duty to put them in their, and then in our, historical context. But what is the relation between these two contexts and should we persevere with this problem, insisting on political continuities? And which and what kind of continuities would these be? Is it not precisely the alleged closure of the revolutionary horizon, a rupture in historical memory expressed in various ideologies of “transition” and the “end of history”, which separates our time from that of the AFŽ? In such a balance of forces, thinking the AFŽ would mean using the old language in new circumstances to rewrite and imagine anew the possibility of action, a space where, to begin with, we could, by ourselves, once again think our own history. This is exactly why we will proceed from the question posed by Daniel Bensaïd: “What conceivable politics is there without history…and what imaginable history without a political invention of the possible.”1 If there is no politics without history, then neither is there any history without politics, and standing between them is precisely the space of the possible. How to rise up and endure after the experience of defeat, which the alleged end of history proclaims as the beginning and the end of every thought of possible utopias and/or strategies? Contemporary historiography, in the wake of a wave of historical revisionism lasting already more than fifty years, routinely minimizes and negates any experience that offers even a shred of political resistance to the dominant revisionist image of the age.

This is where problem areas appear and this is what I want to consider here in relation to the history of the AFŽ in Yugoslavia and today. In other words, to avoid the monumental and antiquarian2 portrayal of our own history, we need to think Yugoslavia critically, which means that, as feminists, we must speak of the first and the second death of the AFŽ. Writing about these two deaths does not mean facing up to the past, as the revisionists of today demand – nor does it mean imprisoning oneself in the past, since our relation to the past is always anchored in place, time and, in Foucauldian terms, the body from which we write: thus it is mediated by both accumulated experience and interpretations of the past, and equally by the burden of the present. Writing about the two deaths of the AFŽ simply means reading the past not from the resignation of the present moment - the misery and despair of a transition where the desire to see a better tomorrow, in the midst of today’s poverty, is read back into the past – but from tomorrow’s future. To read the AFŽ’s past in this manner means not denying its emancipatory character or doing away with its utopian impulse. It means to recognize it, embrace it, and precisely to act from a present that gazes towards the future.

Eppur si muove - despite repression, hopelessness, and poverty. I write the following pages in the belief that the only trace worth following is precisely the “principle of hope.” To paraphrase Ernst Bloch, I would like read the AFŽ archive as the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous (die Ungleichzeitigkeit). However, this sort of reading entails certain consequences. Namely, it must necessarily proceed from an analysis of the contradictions inherent to the Yugoslav conception of the ‘woman question’ if it is ever to arrive at the problems and contradictions of today. In this sense, the specter haunting this work is the specter of Marxism. All of our analyses on the post-Yugoslavia left/lefts have failed miserably in the attempt to apply basic Marxist categories of production and reproduction to Yugoslavia, while at the same time we are taught to list all the institutions of the Yugoslav welfare state, as if they represented the socialization of family and everyday life, without making clear that we are not dealing with the same things. More importantly, we do not emphasize that social services were paid for on the basis of value produced on the market, and paid twice over: by male and female workers who serviced the market. That is why the dissolution of the AFŽ should be seen as Yugoslavia’s failure to establish a socialist-communist social order, despite proclaiming socialism as the ruling and foundational idea of society. The first death of the AFŽ already occurred in Yugoslavia, not only with its formal “self-abolition” in 1953, but also much earlier, in 1944, as Lydia Sklevicky suggests. The second death occurred after 1989, drowned by a wave of historical revisionism in which women’s history could only be rewritten/erased through an “invention of tradition,” where there was and is no place either for the figure of the afežeovka (member and activist of the AFŽ) or that of the partizanka (women Partisan soldiers). For these reasons, the left should not take the assumptions imposed by historical revisionism as the starting point of its own historical understanding. It should not be a mirror image of revisionism. Enzo Traverso states that we must resist “the temptation…of certain communists, historians, and political scientists [specifically, Domenico Losurdo] who turn [Ernst] Nolte’s revisionist scheme on its head and represent Stalinism as a product of a grave fascist threat: exaggerated and pitiable, criminal in its final outcome, but nevertheless derivative and reactive.”3 In this sense, Daniel Bensaïd warns us to reject the juridical (“tribunalization”) function of history, without renouncing historical judgment.4

This essay is greatly inspired by Darko Suvin’s last book, Splendour, Misery and Possibilities, An X-Ray of Socialist Yugoslavia, but with two important additions: the first being that it continues exactly where Suvin left off – from the problem of the organization and position of women. I share Suvin’s opinion that “there existed a strong emancipatory sense…although always threatened and later betrayed.”5. The second is that I date this betrayal to a somewhat earlier period than Suvin. Additionally, but no less importantly, I would like to emphasize that I rely on the pioneering studies of the work and activities of the AFŽ written by Lydia Sklevicky, Gordana Stojaković, and Renata Jambrešić-Kirin, women responsible for some of the most important steps in this field, and this work is a contribution to the critique they commenced. It is impossible to fully acknowledge the profound impact of their work on mine. Reading them, I have come to the conclusion that history of the AFŽ sections of the different federal republics can be taken pars pro toto. Hence, I focus on other elements, which, through their work, opened up the space for mine. I refer the reader to their work should they wish to learn something of their own (women’s) history.

There are three important issues in understanding the history and then the dissolution, i.e. the so-called self-abolition of the AFŽ: a) the historical forgetting of some political continuities, especially on the left; b) the relations the public and private in postwar Yugoslavia; c) the issue of market reform and the relationship between production, subsistence, and reproduction in relation to the family and household. When it comes to the family, my views on patriarchy are to an extent influenced by Göran Therborn6 and his understanding of the dynamics of family relations. Namely, he shows that the family in and of itself does not have any internal dynamic of change until it is influenced by external factors. These external factors are the subject of this text.

2. On the Prehistory of the AFŽ

Attempts to think the AFŽ historically are often characterized precisely by a lack of historical consciousness. The AFŽ is mostly portrayed, especially on the left, as an organisation that came into existence without any prior influences, as something sui generis. Such a view is part of a general historical forgetting – present in an especially questionable form on the post-Yugoslav left – where we remember the past either selectively or reactively. Historical amnesia has disastrous consequences. One of the most disastrous is an ahistorical understanding of what became of ‘the woman question’ and the position of women in the first, and then in the second Yugoslavia. Bearing in mind that the AFŽ was a unique and unprecedented organization, but by no means the first women’s revolutionary movement in Yugoslavia, it is necessary to recall forgotten and forbidden models. A minimum of historical consciousness and intellectual honesty demands that we do not forget the activities of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) between the two world wars, or the activities of the women’s civic associations and movements preceding the AFŽ. This is necessary if we are not to “read our own history as a mistaken footnote” 7. Not reading our “own history as a mistaken footnote” in the case of AFŽ means talking about some continuities in women’s organizing. Precisely for this reason, I would like to offer one possible historical analogy, fully aware of the dangers of reasoning by analogy. By way of analogy, to the extent that it allows, I will follow the development of the AFŽ in section 2.3, indicating some important differences in comparison with the Soviet Zhenotdel, and thus, if nothing else, open a space for future thought and research.

The aim of the following section is precisely, in opposition to historical forgetting, to establish a theoretical framework which considers the formation of the AFŽ as the final outcome of at least three sources, currents, and tendencies preceding it. We are referring primarily to women’s organizing within the Socialist and subsequently Communist Party of Yugoslavia, to women’s and feminist movements between the two world wars, to the youth sections of the women’s movements which played a crucial role in the subsequent front politics of the CPY, and finally, to the Zhenotdel as a forbidden model.

2.1. Women’s Organization within the Workers’ Movement

The women’s sections of the communist movement, the methods and goals of their work, are the direct heritage of the Second International (the Socialist International, 1889–1916) and particularly of the decisive role of Clara Zetkin in imposing the practice of the women’s organization of the Social Democratic Party of Germany on the entire International. Clara Zetkin is responsible for two fundamental innovations.8 The first is related not only to questions of politics but also to those of the organization: the woman question cannot be separated from the question of class. The second is even more important: the idea that women, although exploited as workers, are subjected to a specific type of oppression which implies specific, historically conditioned methods of organization and political activity of women and women workers. Following the resolutions of the Second International, every socialist (then known as social-democratic) party was obliged to incorporate women’s sections and committees in its work, and publish magazines covering women and women’s issues. Thus, in years preceding the formal establishment of the AFŽ, the activity of the pre-World War I socialist movement in the region, and thus that of the later CPY, was directed towards organizing women workers and founding women’s sections and committees. Although few in number, women socialists (and communists) organized activities within their ranks. Thus, to take one of many examples, in March 1919 the Regional Secretariat of Women Socialists of Bosnia and Herzegovina organized literacy and other classes for women.9 In April of that same year, the Unification Congress of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Yugoslavia (Communists) was held in Belgrade, where a Central Secretariat of Women Socialists (Communists) was elected. Its statute states that the Secretariat “considers itself a part of the Party whole…rules out any separate women’s organization, and considers itself a technical-executive committee for agitation and organizing women.”10 The relationship between the women’s secretariat and the Central Party Council was such that “according to instructions issued by the Central Party Council of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Yugoslavia, the Central Secretariat of Women Socialists (Communists) issues directives for women’s activities in general.”11 The “Theses on methods and forms of work of the Communist Parties among women” adopted in 1921 at the Third Congress of the Comintern (the Communist International, 1919–1943), later also adopted by the CPY, arguably did not represent a significant innovation in existing socialist practice other than in the fact of demanding, in more explicit terms, the involvement of women as equal members in the work of communist parties and other proletarian organizations. This continuity was embodied by Clara Zetkin, the former Secretary of the International Women’s Bureau of the Second International, who in 1920 became Secretary of the International Women’s Secretariat of the Communist International.

The second part of the Statute of Women Socialists (Communists), adopted at the Belgrade Unification Congress in 1919, states that work with youth is one of the special tasks of the women’s movement: “because women are, by nature, the most suited for and competent in this work […] and it should be carried out according to contemporary pedagogical principles and, from a purely practical point of view, lead to an overall education.”12 The purpose of the work was to prepare the youth to be “loyal members of the proletarian movement.”13 In those days, rarely did any socialist movement question the fundamental and primary social role of women, that is, the role of women as mothers and primary carers responsible for the education and upbringing of new generations. Later on we will see that Tito, like Stalin, insisted that the primary task of the “new woman” was bound up with her specific biological function as mother, but we will also see how Alexandra Kollontai, and the avant-garde of the Bolshevik Revolution, maintained that the socialist revolution had to grow over into a sexual one. Thinking the AFŽ historically enables us to once again question different models of women’s emancipation on the left, bearing in mind its importance for us today. On the one hand, we have the model of economic emancipation which follows the argument that economic independence will necessarily, by mathematical progression, result in the emancipation of women through wage-labor. On the other hand, there is the model of Alexandra Kollontai and the Zhenotdel, for whom the socialisation of care work is not merely the first prerequisite for women’s entry into wage-labor, but is considered an end in itself, one of the objectives of communism as the self-management of the direct producers.

While CPY leaders, from Tito to Vida Tomšić, Mitra Mitrović, and Cana Babović, also affirmed a certain continuity of work among women as the foundation for the later activity of the AFŽ, from an historical point of view it is also important to insist on specific ruptures. It is necessary to differentiate periods of activity and the political perspectives that conditioned them. In the so-called “revolutionary period”, i.e. the period of the painful birth of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, characterized by strikes, peasant uprisings, and nationalist guerilla resistance to Belgrade, the women’s work of the Party came down to organising working women. Following the so-called “Proclamation” of 30 December 1920, the CPY was formally proscribed, but operated under various semi-legal fronts, and work with women was transferred to the trade unions. From the 30s onwards, there was a tendency to extend the influence of the CPY to mass organisations like the women’s movements. In 1935, with the definitive imposition of the Comintern policy of the Popular Front in the struggle against fascism, the final rupture occurred.14 From that point onwards, participation and entrism in bourgeois women’s organizations, in order to form special (front) organizations, became the starting point and model for creating an all-class women’s alliance in a progressive struggle for the equality of women, against war and fascism. This approach represents a break with the model of Clara Zetkin, who refused any kind of cooperation between the labor movement and “bourgeois feminists” (Frauenrechtlerinnen or ‘women’s righters’), for example in the struggle for female suffrage, or civil rights and equality, as well as with her opposition to the creation of separate non-party women’s organizations. This example shows us how the Yugoslav communist movement reshaped itself according to Stalinist models in the direction of limiting the struggle for the emancipation of women to a democratic phase whose key task was defeating fascism and defending the Soviet Union. From the beginning of the Second World War, the struggle to realize the democratic perspective of national liberation and women’s equality collided with a political problem, i.e. a barrier: the alliance between Stalin and the Allies. Although we cannot discuss this policy in detail here, it is important to emphasize that Yugoslavia and China were the only states in which the revolutionary and democratic forces managed to overcome these barriers, unite the people in antifascist struggle against the ancien régime, and open up the horizon of social revolution. From revolutionary Spain to the French Popular Front, to the Italian and Greek resistance movements, blind obedience to Stalin’s dictate meant the downfall of the revolution. Historically, we would also have to take into consideration the presence of a paradoxical and creative synthesis and enrichment of bourgeois feminism and Yugoslav communism, the organizational, moral, and political precondition for one of the biggest mass movements of women ever seen in Europe: the AFŽ.

Nardina Zubanović, Technical pen drawing

2.2. “Elective Affinities”: the Women’s Movement and Communism in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia

The feminist and women’s civic associations of Yugoslavia initiated some of the first campaigns for women’s literacy, gave literacy classes, worked on raising consciousness of the woman question and women’s rights, and engaged in propaganda work by publishing newspapers. From the 1920s right up to the end of the 1930s, one of the most important of these was the Feminist Alliance, which in 1926 changed its name to the Alliance of Women’s Movements. In Notes on the feminist history of the city of Zagreb, 1919–1940, Gordana Stojaković lists the long-forgotten names of all the important representatives of the feminist and women’s movements of the day, whose personal commitment and agitation represented first steps enabling women to come out of the invisibility of the private sphere into the public realm.15 Although these were all women from rich families, literate, often university educated, their demands aimed at the equality of all women. In her history, The Woman Question in Serbia in the 19th and 20th Centuries, written more than half a century after the dissolution of the AFŽ and in the teeth of the bloody collapse of the second Yugoslavia, Neda Božinović, a former activist in the Serbian section of the AFŽ, goes out of her way to underline and reaffirm the legacy of the pre-1945 women’s movement in which she was formed:

[…] already from the time - before the Second World War – I became involved in the women’s movement, I was impressed by the women who founded and developed it. I have no less regard for the women of my generation who, especially during the war, did not spare themselves, but laid down their lives, giving their all to realize the fundamental preconditions for women’s liberation. It is my profound belief that women of all generations, in their own times, with all its and their own limitations, did all that could be done. This work is […] an attempt to present in one place the history of the women’s movement in Serbia, to point out the efforts and the resolve of women themselves to contribute to change, to transform their status, and both the support and resistance they encountered. For they are largely forgotten – history has hardly anything to say about them.16

For this reason, it is not enough to simply say that we need to take into consideration the historical context, and all the limitations and obstacles that feminists encountered, to grasp just how progressive their demands were. In fact, a revolution and a further 20 years were needed for these demands to be met, and even then only partially! Neda Božinović confirms that the feminist programs of the interwar period were not only adopted by socialist Yugoslavia, but also served as the basis for its laws and legislative practice all the way up to the mid-1960s.17 It is worth underlining the two most important contributions (innovations) of the feminist and women’s movement, which were of paramount importance for the later development of the woman question. One of the most important demands was for the reform of civil law and the unification of all the legal codes valid in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

In fact, it is often forgotten today that there was no uniform legal system in the Kingdom. According to the Alliance magazine Ženski pokret (Women’s Movement), there were six legal territories with six different codes of civil law.18 But one thing they all shared: women were in a legally subordinate position, completely dependent, both physically and materially, on male family members. The Alliance put forward two highly important reforms to civil law: a) the jurisdiction of secular, civil courts in all matters, the abolition of the father’s and husband’s authority, b) the recognition of the equal rights of women to dispose of themselves and their property, introducing the concept of acquired property and equal right to inheritance. The second element refers to social legislation where the Alliance offered the following solutions:

[that] employers strictly enforce the ban on night shifts for women, on women working before and after childbirth, make sure to provide children’s shelters according to their legal obligations, where children would be looked after by trained female personnel, to ensure hygienic conditions at work, especially proper ventilation, setting up kitchens, separate washrooms for men and women, changing rooms etc.; with a view to establishing the most effective maternity protection for women employed in industry, crafts, the home and in agriculture, we propose: that the Employee Insurance Act be extended to cover the agricultural workforce; that the 1922 Employee Insurance Act be amended to regulate the insurance period for obtaining the right to maternity allowance, the duration of maternity leave, the right to maternity support, child accessories and breastfeeding support […].19

The Alliance of Women’s Movements also called for the introduction of female labor inspectors to enforce the implementation of both the above demands and already existing laws. The same demands are to be found in the socialist women’s journal Equality (Die Gleichheit, 1892–1923), founded and edited by Clara Zetkin. The claim of the historian Lidia Sklevicky that the AFŽ “was and remains the only legitimate heir of this movement.”20

Although the majority of histories present narrative accounts of the women’s movement, or concern themselves with prominent figures, conference resolutions, or descriptions of organizations, thus far not a single comprehensive social history of women in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia has been written. In the absence of such a history, I would like to emphasize a few important elements. The emergence and proliferation of prominent and important women’s movements, from the left-leaning to the religious and charitable, is the result of what, in Bloch’s terms, we could call the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous, or more simply, in Lenin’s words, uneven development. Whilst from a legal perspective, women basically remained minors, immature, and subordinated principally to the authority of elder men, and secondarily to their sons, while every second woman was illiterate, the inter-war period was nevertheless, according to the anthropologist Vera Erlich, “a time of crisis […] of general unrest and conflict in the family.”21 The traditional forms of the patriarchal family (the extended family, zadruga, and multigenerational households) began to disintegrate – but not in Macedonia or among Muslim populations – with the further penetration of the money economy into subsistence agriculture. Fathers could no longer command in the old way, and the relations between young men and women became freer. Losing the real protection of patriarchal custom, peasant women found themselves caught between, on the one hand, the patriarchal legal order, and on the other, the freedom of unlimited exploitation in the market.

Women’s employment trends, often meaning in reality the replacement of male workers by women and children, were conditioned not only by male deaths in the First World War, but also by the sharp demographic changes that followed. For example, in 1921, 40% of the population of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was under the age of 14.22 In addition, the fragmentation of landholdings continued in the already impoverished countryside, increasingly forcing the rural population to seek additional sources of income. The rising class of worker-peasants, and of female and child labor, represented a reserve army of the unemployed, enabling employers to reduce both the cost of labor and wages.
The new era of total war, with its erasure of boundaries between front and rear, also called into question the gendered boundaries between the private and the public. Thus, it was during the First World War that, due to the absence of men, women were able to occupy important social functions, which they managed to keep (at least in the cities) even after demobilization.23

In the cities, under the influence of Western trends, women attended schools, universities and fought for greater political rights. Around 20% of the overall university population were women, who under the strong influence of liberal and socialist ideas of gender equality turned against sexual double standards. It was not simply a question of rejecting of outmoded customs, but also, according to the Youth Section of the Women’s Movement of Serbia, of the fact that the “dictatorship and its reactionary forces […] had implemented their regressive measures against women and threatened them with taking away the few rights they have acquired.”24

The above processes were decisive as they conditioned and enabled the formation of a CPY core and AFŽ cadre on the very eve of war. The cadre mostly consisted of a young group of female village school teachers and workers who, having acquired education or work experience in the cities, brought back liberal and progressive ideas to the countryside, and university-educated, young bourgeois women, who under the influence of communist ideals, in a Turgenevian drama of mothers and daughters, clashed with the “ladies” from the feminist movement. By the mid-1930s a new generation of young women, female students and female workers joined the existing women’s and feminist organizations. Faced with the menacing shadows of war and fascism, the youth sections of the women’s movement strove, under communist influence, to unite the feminist with the antifascist movements. For example, in the struggle for the right to vote in 1939 in Serbia, “for the first time a broad social movement accepted the idea that freedom and democracy could be applied to the oppressed half of society – women.”25 In 1941, following the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, former members of youth sections of the women’s movement, members of the Movement of University-Educated Women and other women’s organizations all participated in preparations for an armed uprising, and spontaneously founded women’s antifascist committees – the forerunners of the AFŽ.

A national pre-congress conference of the CPY held in May 1939, on the eve of war, debated the incorporation of women as equal members in the activities of the Party and other labor organisations, an issue that had been on the party agenda since its very foundation two decades before. Fearing that mobilization and repression would decimate the party leadership, Tito now saw women as potential leading cadre that was “unknown to the class enemy”. This was precisely the source of the idea that “there must not be a single forum without female members. If the majority of members have thus far underestimated the importance of involving women in the CP – they must now realize that forming female Party cadre is our most important organizational task.”26 If the chronic habit of male comrades to consider work with women as women’s work was roundly criticized then, in the wake of the moral collapse of the leadership of the women’s movement in the face war and repression, feminism was the greater danger. As Vida Tomšič argued in 1940, in a speech delivered to the party congress: “Feminism presents the common demands of women of all classes separate from the demands of working people. By emphasizing the common demands of women, in opposition to and in struggle against men, feminism hides the class basis of the woman question, and in so doing, deflects the female masses from fighting capitalism and class society in general.”27 This could have been said, and with equal justice, by Clara Zetkin circa 1890. But the party, under the auspices of the Popular Front, was itself separating general democratic questions from the struggle against capital: it was the hour of the democratic antifascist alliance.

2.3. The AFŽ as a Revolutionary Movement

According to official figures, some two million women participated in the People’s Liberation Struggle (henceforth NOB), certainly one of the largest organized movements of women anywhere during the Second World War. 100,000 women fought as partizanke, while 2000 achieved officer’s rank. 25,000 partizanke were killed and over 40,000 were wounded in battle. If we remember the all-embracing conditions of fascist terror and genocide, inter-communal massacres orchestrated by collaborationist forces, and the total collapse of social and economic life, then the achievement of the AFŽ, the organized, multinational, mass antifascist movement of peasant women, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

From the very beginning of the uprising, with the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army (NOV) and expansion of liberated territories, elections were held to the new organs of revolutionary struggle, the People’s Liberation Committees (henceforth NOO), in which all citizens over the age of 18, regardless of religion, gender or nationality, could vote. Women’s suffrage was born of their participation in the struggle for a new constituent power, the People’s Liberation Movement (NOP). The AFŽ mobilized women to vote in the first elections based on universal suffrage in the Yugoslav lands and encouraged them to put themselves forward as candidates for election. By the end of the war, 3000 women had been elected to village and municipal NOOs in Bosnia alone. However, as in the CPY, far fewer women were elected to higher bodies. Five women were elected to the revolutionary government of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the State Antifascist Council for the People’s Liberation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ZAVNOBIH), four times fewer than to the equivalent State Antifascist Council for the People’s Liberation of Croatia (ZAVNOH), where the AFŽ section was by far the strongest. There was only one woman delegate to the historic first session of the Antifascist Council for the People’s Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) in Jajce, where the NOOs declared themselves the legitimate and sovereign government of Yugoslavia – Kata Pejnović, President of the Central Committee of the AFŽ, who was elected to the Presidency of AVNOJ. At the second session of AVNOJ in Bihać, female delegates made up only 4% of the total, and only two women were elected to the Presidency, Spasenija Babović and Maca Gržetić, both members of the Central Committee of the AFŽ.

One of the first founding documents of the AFŽ, in which the objectives and methods of the organization are outlined, is Circular Letter number 4 of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Croatia of 1941. The letter speaks of the formation of the AFŽ and its role in ““activating and connecting the broad layers of women and involving them in the People’s Liberation Struggle”; it was to include “all women…regardless of their political, national, or religious affiliation.” The AFŽ’s future organizational structure was first sketched here. Like the Party, it too was territorial and electoral, rising from a series of neighborhood, city, county and regional groups up to the Republican Committee; and centralized, with lower committees being subordinated to higher ones. The AFŽ’s primary task was to ensure support for the Partisan units, and the AFŽ itself became a component of the People’s Front (Narodni Front, henceforth NF).28 The struggle for equality between the sexes appears in a list of further political tasks. It was to become the second core concern of the AFŽ.29

At the First Congress of the AFŽ in Bosananski Petrovac in 1942, the organizational continuity of the AFŽ was confirmed by Tito himself: “and finally I would also like to say that the AFŽ, which exists for some time now, and has finally obtained its organizational form, is truly one of the organizations that have sprung up from below.”30 Two other important documents from the First Congress attest to the fact that the AFŽ is a women’s organization but not separate from other organizations of the NOB. These are the reports given by Cana Babović and Mitra Mitrović, who was the Secretary of the Youth section of the Women’s Movement of Serbia and one of the leading women in the Party.31

They give an overview of the prewar work of the organization and confirm that its formation was the result of many years of activity and struggle by the women of Yugoslavia for a more just world. Both should be read as programmatic, especially given the fact the AFŽ adopted its statutes much later, but also because the CPY is presented as the bearer of the struggle against fascism and for the equality of all. The emphasis on the importance of the CPY represents a subtle shift from the politics of the Popular Front, which once again confirms the aforementioned fact that the CPY at the same time followed but also deviated from the hard line of the Popular Front.

From the very beginning, the CPY understood that (to paraphrase Mitra Mitrović) it was waging a struggle and war in which the distinction between front and rear had been erased. It was no longer possible to consider the front as male and the rear as female domains. Hence, without the support of women and total mobilization the popular uprising could not have grown over into a nation-wide struggle and insurrection. Women had to be mobilized for the struggle, but more importantly for the work in the rear, vital for supplying the army and the NF, for relaying messages, and facilitating communication between higher- and lower-level committees of the Party, as well as between the AFŽ committees. The peasantry represented a major problem in this regard. Since peasants made up the majority of the population, the course of the struggle depended on the degree of their mobilization into Partisan ranks. Just as important was the proclamation of equality between men and women, the promise of a better future and social justice on which the entire revolutionary undertaking rested: destroying the old and creating the new.

The struggle of the Partisans drew upon guerilla strategies, but also on the local traditions of peasant rebels, the uskoks and the hajduks, the First and the Second Serbian Uprisings (1804–1817), the 19th century peasant revolts against the Ottoman Empire in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Women’s Revolutionary Army Committees of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) which participated in the Ilinden Uprising of 1903, the women guerilla fighters of the Montenegrin resistance to Austro-Hungarian occupation from 1916 to 1918, as well as other insurgencies against earlier occupiers. In his memoirs, Milovan Djilas recalls that the Party consciously used „ancient traditions and myths“ in order to present the NOB as the continuation of “the centuries-old struggle of our freedom-loving peoples.”32 Jelena Batinić33 shows how the CPY constructed the figure of a new woman, linking it to epic figures of South Slav folklore. Partisan femininity rested on two pillars: the noble heroine who proves her honor and worth (i.e. equality) in battle, and the mother demanding that her dead children be avenged. The embodiment of the latter was Kata Pejnović, known among the people as “Mother Kata”, who called for revenge at the First National Congress of the AFŽ. The first figure is comparable to the role of young peasant women as fighters and nurses, and the second with the role of older peasant women, mothers who carried out traditional women’s jobs in the rear. Together, they had an enormous mobilising potential among the peasantry since they contained elements of tradition that aroused patriotic feelings and prompted people to join the fight.

These figures of the new woman were united on front cover of the very first issue of Žena u Borbi (Woman in Struggle), the journal of the AFŽ Croatia, in the image of a woman, babe in arm, gun in hand. Fusing the traditional with the new and modern, the CPY took an entirely legitimate step, creating the conditions for a possibility of a revolutionary overthrow. Although neither Chetniks nor Ustashas underestimated the importance of women, in their propaganda women remained inferior and were tied to church, home, and children.34 Clearly differentiating itself on this issue, the CPY gained a strategic advantage over the forces of occupation and collaboration.

In her Report on the Organizational Question, Cana Babović emphasized that the struggle the AFŽ was leading was the struggle of the CPY, hence the main task that lay before the movement was “total support for our army.” She fiercely attacked “bourgeois” feminist movements to drive home the point that the goal of equality was subordinate to the general aims of the NOB.

The second important task was publishing magazines to help mobilize women and thus also assist the army. The magazines were supposed to promote the political education of women, which was also stated as one of the aims of the organization itself. Internal party and archive documents repeatedly complain that women, even many AFŽ activists, were ignorant not only of their role in the NOB, but even that this struggle was being fought for their own rights. Only through the political education of women was it possible to ensure that all women understood the importance of the struggle and the necessity of uniting all women antifascists (regardless of class, religion, and nationality) for the struggle against fascism. But in order to “raise [political] consciousness”, the overwhelming illiteracy of peasant women first had to be eradicated, and so literacy classes, covering also hygiene, housekeeping, and the political objectives of the NOB were organized on liberated territories by the Party cadres that led the AFŽ.

The third important element was activities in the liberated territories aimed at strengthening the people’s government and supporting the People’s Committees. Mitra Mitrović posed the aim of equality within these broader objectives, stating in her report that “orphanages and kindergartens are being built in the liberated territories”. One of the points of interest of her speech is the description of the way women transformed themselves in struggle and through struggle, taking on the same positions as men. Women proudly pointed out how they took over men’s roles and proved their “heroism, courage, and competence” in the struggle. And while one of the most important contributions was undoubtedly that, in a moment of crisis, women - as Partisans - through a transgression of traditional gender roles - were at all allowed to enter the political arena, this act of joining the struggle for a more just society never in essence questioned gender relations and norms, but rather repeated and perpetuated them (which is also confirmed by both congress reports).

Although CPY strategy largely depended on successfully mobilizing women into the movement and struggle, the mobilization of women into the AFŽ coexisted with traditional attitudes, and the women who contributed to the Partisan cause did so, as a rule, by performing traditional women’s tasks and chores: cleaning, washing, looking after and caring for others. Thus, from the outset, the work of the AFŽ was conceived strictly as women’s work, largely resting on the traditional model of “feminine” nature and “female” qualities. And while this strategic concession brought the Partisans a significant advantage during the war and enabled women to also affirm themselves as revolutionary subjects, in the postwar period the contradictions of gender roles took on a different trajectory.

Problems in the work of the AFŽ already arose in its initial phase. Although Lydia Sklevicky35 speaks of the initial phase as the phase of autonomy, basing herself on Mitra Mitrović’s report to the First Congress of the AFŽ, I do not find any evidence of it there. It is more likely that she confused the reports of Cana Babović and Mitra Mitrović, because the former explicitly states that the “Central Committee of the AFŽ will strive to make our organizations independent over time.” On the basis of the available archival evidence, I conclude that these strivings remained on paper. The AFŽ never was nor did it ever become an autonomous organization. From the outset, the work of the AFŽ was subordinated to the NF, and the latter was directly subordinated to the CPY. Although the AFŽ had limited operational autonomy, it never had full organizational autonomy. Operational autonomy was more prevalent in the occupied territories; since the flow of the information from the CC CPY and the NF to the committees of the AFŽ was much more difficult, it meant that AFŽ committee members had to find a way to act on their own. Therefore, I consider the repeated claims on the left concerning the autonomy of the AFŽ to be completely unjustified, as is demonstrated by numerous archive documents. To attribute the AFŽ the autonomy it never had means not to historicize but rather to mythologize it. The main aim of the autonomy myth is to legitimize the liberal or second wave feminist thesis that the women’s movement should be politically and organisationally independent of the left. From this follows a metaphysical dualism, first posited in the work of Sklevicky, between a largely heroic phase of the AFŽ and a diabolic phase of increasing subordination to the Party, culminating in dissolution in 1953. But, even if this were true, it would not explain the limits to women’s emancipation either during or after the war. The autonomy thesis evacuates the central political stakes, that is, the question of political strategy in relation to the general goals of the revolution and to the meaning of emancipation: the conflict noted above between the model of economic emancipation and that of the abolition and withering away of the family, classes and the state in communism, which will be dealt with later.

The Central Committee of the CPY’s letter of January 1944 represents the first step towards an even greater centralization of the AFŽ, is confirmed as policy at the Fifth Congress of the CPY when a second redistribution of tasks between the NF and the AFŽ occurred, and the AFŽ becomes an administrative organ of the NF and is no longer concerned with the political education of women. The archives also testify to problems that surfaced after the war. Internal reports repeatedly mention that wives of the officials and members of the People’s Front did not participate at all in the work of the AFŽ.36 This presented a problem for many women, and some took it as a sign that they too should not participate in the work of the committees. The reports also state that male comrades did not allow female comrades to attend courses or that the wives of officials “proudly stated” that they did not want to work in the organization.37 It would not be wrong to say that in the midst of the revolution the very idea that women were equal to men was revolutionary. The very idea had already met with resistance from the outset, and it was precisely because of this that women had to find ways to prove they were not backward and ignorant. All this affected the AFŽ’s work. Thirty years later, Dušanka Kovačević, one of the leading members of the AFŽ of Bosnia and Herzegovina, described it thus:

by turning their back on tradition, which weighed them down, women became […] morally, physically, and psychologically different, not in the sense that they acquired male traits as it is often thought, but that they were becoming what was necessary for the freedom of the people and the revolution. Women and girls found their place in the revolution, which is more important than the personal destiny written in the history of women, but they instinctively sought to escape the fate of their mothers and grandmothers. Perhaps for the first time in history, women were creating their own ideal of womanhood, regardless of what men wanted. That ideal was built on the standard of revolution and triumph over the enemy. Values such as loyalty to the people, courage, knowledge, and initiative suppressed the age-old standards that required women be obedient, not interfere in the affairs of men, to stay at home, etc. Men changed less. Many of them accepted this new woman, a comrade, as a necessary, but also temporary feature of the war, part of the harsh realities of war.38

However, in the existing archive documents the struggle of the CPY is nowhere bound up with the struggle against capitalism, which is a function of the aforementioned question of revolutionary strategy and greatly conditioned the reaction that in turn largely shaped the later policy of the CPY. The fact that from 1935 onwards the program of the CPY balanced between an independent revolutionary policy and the politics of the Popular Front, produced two significant results: on the one hand, the revolutionary policy secured the opening of the revolutionary field and created conditions for the possibility of revolution; but on the other, pursuing the politics of the Popular Front prevented the CPY from relating the struggle against fascism, which was its number one goal, to the struggle against capital and capitalism. This is especially important for understanding the position of women in Yugoslavia and the relationship between production and reproduction, as well as the form this relation took in the 1950s, as can be seen in the archive documents.

2.4. Of what is “Zhenotdel” [not] the name?

I have stated above that I will try to examine the limits of a possible historical analogy. In the AFŽ archive, in later female Partisan biographies, and in most of the works of Yugoslav historiography dealing with “the woman question”, one sees something that for the purposes of this paper I will call a symptomatic absence. Namely, the literature on the Yugoslav communist movement and the AFŽ does not even mention the Soviet Zhenotdel (Женотдел), or its main protagonists Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Konkordiya Samoilova, and Klavdiia Nikolayeva. Even a random Google search barely provides any results in Serbo-Croatian, and the few positive results are connected solely with the name of Alexandra Kollontai. The fact that there is barely any mention of the Zhenotdel is surely the result of the erasure of its history – firstly from Soviet, and then necessarily from all the other Eastern Bloc historiographies, including the Yugoslav. This absence necessarily gives rise to the following questions: at the time of the formal establishment of AFŽ was it forbidden to speak in Yugoslavia of the Zhenotdel, which by then had ceased to exist? Was the model of the Zhenotdel one that had to be forgotten and was not to be referred to or remembered? And finally, the main question: what is the difference between the AFŽ and the Zhenotdel? The structure of the AFŽ greatly – but not entirely – imitated that of the Zhenotdel.39 This alone is enough to talk about the Zhenotdel as an absent model, and – in the period of the AFŽ’s formal establishment – also as a forbidden model, since Yugoslavia at that time entirely followed Stalin’s politics of the Popular Front.40

Today, it is a commonplace in Soviet historiography that the October Revolution introduced one of the most progressive bodies of legislation ever to be enacted. It is a well-known fact that the February Revolution of 1917 – led by women demanding an end to a war that deprived them of the most basic necessities – was a catalyst and a trigger for later revolutionary events. Shortly after February, and after a great deal of pressure and demonstrations led by women and supported by Bolshevik and bourgeois feminist agitation, the Provisional government granted universal suffrage. Following the establishment of the first Soviet government in December 1917, divorce was legalized, marriages and civil partnerships were made equal in the eyes of the law, thereby recognizing the rights of children regardless of whether born in or out of wedlock. In November 1920, abortion was legalized for the first time in history, while backstreet abortions now carried heavy sentences. This was followed (on 30 December 1922) by the New Land Code, which represented the most profound and systematic legislative attempt to break traditional patriarchal, cultural and legal-property relations and norms.

The attempt to change traditional patriarchal relations, affecting the greatest part of the population, was obliged to grasp the problem at its root and hence caused the most resistance. This law made possible the equality of men and women in the Dvor [the peasant homestead]; the management of the household became equally the affair and obligation of both partners, and women were granted equal inheritance rights to the property of the Dvor.41 All the above laws were the outcome of the drive and determination of Alexandra Kollontai, who after the revolution became People’s Commissar for Social Welfare.42 The abolition of the family, inconceivable without a complete and radical overturning of gender and patriarchal norms, was one of the key characteristics of Bolshevik revolutionary theory which drew “upon accepted Marxist theory (Engels, Bebel) and on the work of native Russian Marxists, such as Kollontai and Krupskaya.”43

The conception of gender roles as fluid and fluctuating is one of the basic ideas behind the idea of communal living, the attempts (only partially successful) to fulfill the utopian dream of creating institutions for the socialization of housework, the sharing of household chores and obligations, and the “withering away” of the family as a unit of social reproduction, together with the state and classes.44 The ideas that guided the leaders of the October Revolution represent the only attempt thus far to realize communism not only in the ownership of the means of production but also in the abolition of the family, which they considered no less a part of the revolutionary transformation of society. By deconstructing and overturning the rigidity of gender markers and categories, which had held women in a subordinate position for centuries and bound them to housework - which, in the words of Lenin, “dulls, stultifies and enslaves”45 - they strove to realize these ideals. That is precisely why, as early as 1905 and 1909 respectively, Kollontai and Krupskaya voiced the importance and necessity of organizing proletarian and peasant women through special groups, committees, or sections. However, the idea of founding a separate women’s organization within the party remained unrealized until 1917. In that year, the prewar Bolshevik newspaper for women workers, Rabotnica,46 was revived, serving as one of the main propaganda tools for agitation and work amongst women. The story of the Zhenotdel is a story of how a specifically women’s organisation was formed despite internal Party resistance. The diversity of positions amongst the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution is perhaps best portrayed by the fact that both male and female party members opposed its foundation. On this basis a conflict arose between Alexandra Kollontai and Klaudia Nikolaeva47 during the First Conference of Petrograd Women Workers held on 6 November 1917, where Nikolaeva along with Konkordiya Samoilova opposed the formation of a women’s section within the Party.48 At the Seventh All-Russian Congress of Bolsheviks held in April 1917, Alexandra Kollontai motioned that a meeting of female delegates be held to form a women’s department within the Bolshevik Party. In September that same year a women’s section was established, but it would only obtain the status of a Party department (otdel) in 1919 after considerable political pressure and mobilization.

The decisive event was the First All-Russian Congress of Working Women organized by Kollontai and Armand in November 1918 with the help of workers, peasants and other delegates from all over Russia who came to Moscow in the teeth of the perils and hardships of the civil war. Carol E. Hayden points out that the organization of women in a separate department (Zhen-otdel) in the midst of civil war was all the more significant because it was necessary to defend and consolidate the revolutionary government to enable the enactment of its laws and decrees. The Bolsheviks thus found themselves in the contradictory position of having to “appeal to women as a separate group in order to convince them that they were not a separate group.”49 In its work, the Party was acutely aware of both the inadequacy of formal legal equality and the pressing need to strengthen and enforce the law.

Armand and Kollontai worked to the limits of endurance, traveling all over the country, organizing women factory workers and peasants, involving them in the work of the Zhenotdel and the revolutionary wave in general. They agitated not only among women factory workers and peasants, but also the unemployed, wives of military personnel, etc. It is in this particular context that Carol E. Hayden talks about an important principle of the Zhenotdel, “agitation by deeds, not words,” while Richard Stites points out that the true context of the Zhenotdel is that the “formal, legislative program of emancipation (the only one usually noted by historians) had to be given meaning in the social revolution from below.”50 One of the main mechanisms for accomplishing “agitation by deeds” was the system of delegates (delegatki). The essence of this system was that the women workers and peasants elected delegates who would spend three to six months as apprentices (praktikantki) at Zhenotdel headquarters, visit and acquaint themselves with the work of courts, Party departments, hospitals, and other institutions, getting to know their rights in order to be able to expose irregularities in the application of laws and regulations in their factories, homes, and villages. According to Stites, the delegatki “as a rule, saw much, and reported honestly”. The goal was clear: training female personnel to achieve more thorough and comprehensive changes in everyday life and the socialization of housework. Wendy Zeva Goldman remarks that membership in the Zhenotdel forever changed the lives of thousands of women workers, peasants, housewives, and domestic servants who gained experience through the apprenticeship system and passed it on to others.51 In spite of its enormous influence, and importance for the daily lives of hundreds of thousands of women, the work of the Zhenotdel was from the start weighed down with prejudice and problems. Male and female party members of all ranks opposed the establishment and work of the Zhenotdel, accusing it of feminist deviations, forcing its female members to constantly justify themselves and explain that their work had nothing to do with such deviations. Conflicts broke out, with presidents of provincial committees in Central Asia committing acts of violence against women involved in the work of the Zhenotdel, and there was even a case of a Zhenotdel office being burned down, as well as cases of domestic violence where husbands beat their wives for daring to go to “women’s” meetings.52. In a letter from 1920, Konkordiya Samoilova wrote that their colleagues gave them sexist nicknames such as ‘granny center’ (Tsentro-baba) or ‘commissariat of grannies’ (bab-kom). Many high-ranking female members of the Party refused to work in the Zhenotdel, considering it inferior and unbecoming, and sought recognition in the affairs of men 53 Enormous problems arose in the work of the Zhenotdel in the aftermath of the Civil War, with the demobilization of the Red Army and the introduction of the market mechanisms of the New Economic Policy. Soviet enterprises were obliged to adhere to profit criteria and women bore the brunt of the resulting wave of layoffs. In 1922, although representing approximately a quarter of the labor force women accounted for some 60% of the unemployed. There was less and less money in the budget for the Zhenotdel and its tasks while the mass unemployment of men and women merely exacerbated the financial squeeze on the organization.

After the death of Inessa Armand, the first director of the Zhenotdel, and the removal of Alexandra Kollontai (who joined the Workers’ Opposition against the emerging one-party state), there followed a series of female directors whose work became more and more difficult under the glare of the Stalinist apparatus. From 1924 and the doctrine of “socialism in one country”, little by little the Stalinist counterrevolution began to hollow out the heritage of the October Revolution. In 1930 the Zhenotdel was abolished by Party decree under the pretext that equality between men and women had been achieved, “that women had been ‘advanced’ to the level of men,”54 and the activities of the Zhenotdel were transferred to the AgitProp section of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the CPSU. In 1936, the counterrevolution was finally able to deliver the coup de grâce to the cultural gains of the revolution, reinstating tsarist laws against abortion and homosexuality, and making divorce practically impossible through various legal impediments. In this way the emancipatory potential of the October Revolution was erased, and the idea of the abolition (withering away) of the family and the elimination of patriarchal and gender roles and norms was forever thrown into the dustbin of history.

We have seen that the Zhenotdel arose from the previous revolutionary mobilization of women in order to defend the Soviet government and the achievements of the revolution from counterrevolutionary attack during the Civil War, while the AFŽ, even before the fascist invasion and occupation of Yugoslavia, was conceived as an organization for mobilizing women for a war of national liberation, based on alliances with both the Yugoslav Government in Exile and the Allies. If we compare the Zhenotdel and the AFŽ as women’s organizations in countries where revolutionary overthrows took place, one of the most important differences lies in the fact that in the case of the Zhenotdel the function of political mobilization became more important over time, while in the case of the AFŽ less so. The AFŽ focused less and less on political mobilization and more on the distribution of goods, the work of the mother-child section and social issues in general. These two organizations faced similar, if not exactly the same, difficulties, ones necessarily faced by any attempt to change centuries-old relations, traditions and beliefs. Both the Zhenotdel and the AFŽ radically changed the lives of the women who participated in their work. However, the fact remains that different means were used for different ends. Namely, the Bolsheviks, and therewith also the Zhenotdel, fought against capitalism from the outset, and therefore against the bourgeois form of the family. In the case of the CPY and the AFŽ, the struggle against capitalism, for communism, was not a constituent part of the struggle, but was presented as the real objective only after the CPY assumed power. Because of this, the Yugoslav revolution never declared, even for a moment, the abolition of the family. Today the aspirations of the Zhenotdel exist only in a specialized historical literature, and no longer have a name or a place. The abolition of the family, the specter announced in the Communist Manifesto, no longer haunts anyone or anything.55

3. From Revolutionary Subjects to the Productive Subject

By the 30s, the Soviet model of women’s emancipation came down, as Barbara Clements wittily puts it, to the „emancipated worker and the happy homemaker.”56 For Stalin, they formed the two pillars of the female productive subject: “women make up half the population of our country […] they constitute a great army of labor and are fit to raise our children.”57 In theory, the economic independence of women in a socialist economy would lead to their full emancipation. Eric Hobsbawm notes:
For while major changes, such as the massive entry of married women into the labor market might be expected to produce concomitant or consequential changes, they need not do so - as witness the USSR where (after the initial utopian-revolutionary aspirations of the 1920s had been abandoned) married women generally found themselves carrying the double load of old household responsibilities and new wage earning responsibilities without any change in relations between the sexes or in the public or private spheres.58

In all economies based on free wage-labor, the status of the “emancipated female worker” is subordinate to her social function of mother. Such a vision of the new woman was also present in Yugoslav practice. At the Third Congress of the AFŽ in 1950, Tito declared: “I think, comrades, that you should primarily carry out, with all your strength and enthusiasm, duties proper to your specific obligations, such as, for example, caring for women, mothers, caring for children’s hygiene and for children in general, health, and the education of women in Yugoslavia”.59.
We find no evidence in the archives that the idea of abolishing the family ever existed in Yugoslavia, as we saw by contrast in the case of the Russian revolution.

No such steps were ever taken in Yugoslavia. During the war, the AFŽ journal, Žena u Borbi (Woman in Struggle), proselytized the Soviet formula of wage-labor and motherhood, introducing its readers to a new productive subject, “the free and equal citizen of a socialist country”, whose achievements as tractor driver, shock worker and chemist were commended as models to be emulated. Hence we should not be surprised that the first constitution of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (1946) was almost identical to that of the USSR of 1936. For example, abortion continued to be illegal under the new constitution, it was only later (in the early 60s) that it was liberalized, and made legal by the Constitution of 1974. Where Yugoslav and Soviet practice were to differ was in the degree to which the new woman depended on mechanisms of state or market accumulation for her reproduction.
All revolutions may be essentially defined by their approach to women. In form, they can be modernizing-emancipatory or patriarchal. The difference is that the former aim at the emancipation of women, emphasizing equality, while the latter bind women to the family and emphasize sex (therefore also gender) differences.60 All great revolutions proclaimed a new type of woman. Yugoslavia, as we have seen, was no exception. If we know that “the position of women in any society depends on how that society organizes basic human functions, such as reproduction, subsistence and production”61 then it is important to examine all the contradictions present from the outset in the manner in which the organization of these basic functions is approached. Here, when we address the Yugoslav past and future, we must discuss the mutual interpenetration of the modernizing-emancipatory and the patriarchal conceptions of the position and role of women in revolution, or more precisely in the post-revolutionary period. To talk about this interpenetration is precisely to remain true to the AFŽ, i.e. to understand the historical trajectory of its development and dissolution as deeply antagonistic. Only in this way can we understand the fundamental antagonism that existed and exists when it comes to the position of women in society.

While in the context of postwar Yugoslavia the creation of a new woman was, on the one hand, rhetorically emphasized as one of the main goals and tasks of the new government, on the other hand, we can observe how the reality became divorced from the militant ideals in which women had confirmed themselves as subjects of revolutionary struggle. The end of the war meant a fresh start in building a new country and new society. The old order was demolished and the new one was on the agenda, which required the unification of all available forces and resources for the renovation and reconstruction of the country, but also the introduction of a whole series of political-legal acts and new mobilizing strategies.

Maxine Molyneux62 points out that one of the main tasks of every post-revolutionary government in Third World countries or those ruled by an ancien régime is the progressive replacement of the old by the new, for the sake of accelerated economic development and social change. This entails “creating a centralized, secular, and more egalitarian social order”. Creating such an order depends on implementing laws that are also valid in rural areas where customary law predominates. Following the adoption of the 1946 Constitution, a gradual enactment of new, standardized legal regulations followed.63 One of the most important achievements for women was the abolition of legal differences existing in the six legal territories of the former Kingdom. For instance, Susan Woodward64 points out that the authority of fathers in Yugoslavia was substituted by the authority of the state, which did indeed displace the predominantly patriarchal and patrilocal structure of society. With the 1946 Constitution,65 the CPY took the first step in creating the conditions for bettering the lot of women. Subsequently, uniform legislation and civil court jurisdiction were introduced in matters of marital, family, labor and criminal law, thus fulfilling the demands of the women’s movement from the 1930s. In this way, what women had achieved by force of arms was given formal legal sanction.

But what had they achieved by force of arms? Equality or equality of rights, to use Marx’s distinction? Already in the first (wartime) phase of the AFŽ’s activities, there was mostly talk of “equal civil and social rights”, but not of equality. If equality was mentioned, it was in the context of equality with men, which once again brings back to equal rights and making men’s and women’s rights equal. The unquestionable, enormous, and indescribable historical merit of the CPY remains that, for the first time in history, women in Yugoslavia became, legally speaking, persons. That is, as Ivana Pantelić66 splendidly observes, women became citizens – which the archival documents confirm. Women fought for and won the right to vote, to education, employment, and equal pay for equal work (at least nominally); there was a public healthcare system, maternity and child protection, maternity leave, etc. This overturning of a patriarchal legal order of rule by fathers shook social relations from top to bottom and ensured a greater degree of autonomy and independence for women. Even today, exposed as we are to ever more powerful and violent assaults by conservative and neoliberal policies, we stand on the ground and heritage of these victories.

Many feminists and theorists67 have already pointed out that the Yugoslav political project ran into problems as early as the late 1940s and early 1950s. All these writers recognize that the revolutionary heroine, the new woman, had to remain her old self, i.e. the question of general social emancipation (and with it the emancipation of women) was increasingly seen as secondary. Since Yugoslav politics was conditioned by both internal and external factors, which in turn determined the trajectory of social and economic relations, this primarily affected the aforementioned organization of production, reproduction, and subsistence. What interests me here is, taking Marxist and feminist analyses into consideration and following the archival evidence, to show how these conditions affected the position of women.

To understand this it is first necessary to grasp the incommensurability of the concepts of modernity and of revolution – revolution as the destruction of a state order and the establishment of a new one. These concepts are not identical although they both imply a radical rupture with the past, the idea of historical progress, and a vision of the future as open horizon. Moreover they are radically opposed to one another. As Perry Anderson reminds us, each has a distinct temporality: “The characteristic time of ‘modernity’ is continuous, and all encompassing, like the process of industrialization itself: at its most extended, nothing less than the totality of the epoch itself. The time of revolution is discontinuous, and delimited: a finite rupture in the reproduction of the established order, by definition starting at one conjuncture and ending at another.”68 Modernity is characterized by Benjamin’s empty, linear time “in which each moment is perpetually different from every other by virtue of being next, but – by the same token – is also the same, as an interchangeable unit in a process of indefinite recurrence.”69 The time of capitalist reproduction is a time that finds its purest ideological expression in the teleological concept of modernization. By contrast, the act of revolution is broken, discontinuous, a moment of condensed political transformations that opens up a revolutionary space. But this also necessarily means opening a new, different temporality, which cannot be reduced to the linear time and linear unfolding of events characteristic of the capitalist mode of production, i.e. the endless production of commodity relations.
Socialist revolutions entail three discontinuous and contradictory conjugations of the revolutionary event and processes in time: a sudden transition from democratic to social revolution, a prolonged transition from political revolution (transformation of the legal-political order) to cultural revolution (transformation of customs), and finally a transition from national to world revolution.70 Thus, we have here discontinuities, broken and differential temporalities and rhythms of class struggle, i.e. revolution and counterrevolution, economic experiment, cultural revolution, and social emancipation, in which neither events nor processes in time proceed in a straight line; we cannot know them in advance, nor can we be sure of the outcome. It is precisely for this reason that Antonio Gramsci emphasized that we should not confuse “the explosion of political passions […] with cultural transformations which are slow and gradual” because “changes in ways of thinking do not occur through fast, simultaneous, and generalized explosions.”71

Thus we see the defeat of the utopian and fragmented temporality opened up by the Russian Revolution, the defeat of the time of the Zhenotdel, of the revolution in everyday life (byt) and the abolition of the family, and their replacement by the temporality of the “Soviet new class”, “socialism in one country”, “Thermidor in the family”, and the formation of the modern, nuclear family. And I think it is precisely here that we should look for the reasons and causes of the slowing down of the emancipation process in Yugoslavia. If patriarchy is more than just a set of social values but also has something to do with the mode of production, then we can say that in the Yugoslav case modernization as the reproduction of market relations is precisely the key element bridging the reproduction of patriarchy. The moment a gradual self-limitation set in there also appeared an apologetics that denied the existence of relations of domination and subordination, their systemic causes, and the fact that – precisely because they are systemic – they reproduce themselves automatically over time. The reproduction of patriarchy takes the form of modernity through the legal and political division between the private and the public and is best seen in the distinction between equality of rights and equality. Therefore, following the young Marx, we will distinguish between equality of rights and equality.72 From the perspective of the Marxist theory of emancipation as disalienation, and of demands for (radical) equality, these concepts should not be reduced to one another. As the young Marx already demonstrated, equality of rights does not imply equality, other than in the formal sense. Formal, i.e. juridical equality presents real social relations in a mystified form, concealing the real material inequalities existing between formally free and equal citizens. At the same time, the separation of economic from political power represents their production as two separate spheres, the “economic” and the “political”, i.e., the sphere of civil society as a sphere of free, private contracts between owners-possessors, and the sphere of the political as one in which we, as citizens, enjoy universal legal-political rights. As G.M. Tamás reminds us, the very production of the private-public distinction means precisely that the sphere of free exchange between free owners of labor-power is also the sphere of limitless domination and exploitation of wage-labor. The freedom peculiar to free labor also tells us something about the formal equality of gendered labor. Within the modern, nuclear family there is no exchange of values, and men and women enter into contract as free and equal in order to reproduce their own labor-power and the labor-power of future generations.

Since the woman is responsible for social reproduction, her free choice to enter into family relations is an expression of the fact that owners of labor-power can access the means of subsistence only through the market. Given that the market continues to value private labor as socially necessary labor, the formal equality of the male and the female worker is the precondition for the division of the bourgeois subject into bourgeois and citizen, male and female genders, the private and the public, the economic and the political, and all other possible separations and alienations characteristic of commodity fetishism.

Thus we can also apply Marx’s critique of formal equality to the contradictions which, immediately after the war, led to the first difficulties in realizing socialist ideals in Yugoslavia. From subjects of revolution and revolutionary subjects, women became citizen-owners (of their own labor-power). With this, the revolution was effectively stopped, processes of general social emancipation slowed down, and the question of the emancipation of women was postponed to some distant future time.

The majority of documents in the archives from this period testify to the emancipation of women being increasingly understood exclusively as an economic category, to an insistence on the greater usage of female labor (with the constant problem of a lack of institutions that would socialize the burden of reproduction, especially conspicuous in less developed areas/republics), thereby reducing emancipation to the contractual, wage-labor form.

In the archives we find testimonies to the new progressive measures whose goal was to increase the participation of women in public life, production processes, and economic activities, but we also find field reports that tell a somewhat different story. It is logical to ask why and how was it possible that after the revolution, despite legal equality and exceptionally progressive laws, women still remained unequal. The answer is offered by the aforementioned distinction between the private and the public, based on the Marxian category of free wage-labor. According to Maxine Molyneux, it is often overlooked, although it is of the utmost importance, that the formal equality (equal of rights) obtained by women only after revolution, and the fact that women sometimes perform “non-female” work, in no way contradict a persistent sexual-gender division of labor, and the failure to diminish or eradicate the burden of housework and responsibility between the sexes.73 In what follows, relying on documentary evidence, I will try to demonstrate how these contradictions were manifested in the Socialist Federal Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SRBiH), but also in Yugoslavia as a whole.

In the first postwar years, the AFŽ entered a phase oriented, in the words of Gordana Stojaković74 toward “consolidation, renovation, and reconstruction”. In addition, it was important that other structures, like the NF, continue their work unhindered. Hamdija Čemerlić, representing the NF, stated at the Congress of the AFŽ of Bosnia and Herzegovina (AFŽBIH) on 8 June 1945:

Through their efforts and accomplishments, our women have forever earned their political rights and forever become equal to our men. There is no sowing and no harvest without the great efforts of our women. Caring for invalids, tending our wounded soldiers, looking after orphans – these are all your achievements. This is what you have done until now, and this is what you will continue to do.75

This example illustrates the tendency to expect women to accept the “biological and natural” roles they had played throughout history, but now under new circumstances – as equals enjoying all rights attached to the status of formal-legal equality. In this phase, the AFŽ’s work was organized through the work of sections: mother-child, cultural-educational, and social-health. The archives contain detailed information about the extent of women’s involvement in the renovation and reconstruction of the country; in organizing and preparing elections, constructing infrastructure and new buildings, painting walls, running literacy courses in villages and hamlets, running lectures on domestic science, housekeeping, hygiene, prevention of infectious diseases, approved methods of childcare and upkeep of the home, superstition, and midwifery courses, etc.76 They prove that the tasks assigned to AFŽ members were nearly always related to their biological perception as women, mothers, sisters, and comrades, who were expected to fulfil all norms and requirements inherent in their “natural” roles.

The plenary session of the Republican Committee of the AFŽBiH in 1946 reaffirmed these tasks, as well as the importance of voting.77 However, it quickly become clear that the AFŽ’s work in the second phase was linked to modernization – mass shock working, construction and industrialization – together with all the other obligations arising from the gender division of labor and its perpetuation. After political work was transferred to the NF, the AFŽ became an organization with exclusively social functions, in cooperation with the Front and the ministries.

The year 1948 was a turning point: the break with Stalin and conflict with the Cominform, the turn toward market mechanisms, and accordingly, with the introduction of self-management, the first economic reforms. Fearing attack and invasion, the state initially mobilized the masses for labor and non-stop production. After 1949 and Yugoslaviaʼs admission to the UN Security Council the threat of war receded. Yugoslavia turned to self-management, which was, in its first phase, supposed to increase profitability in investments and production, thus accelerating the accumulation of capital. Under the logic of production, women became the first “suspects”. In the words of Vida Tomšić, the first postwar president of the AFŽ, “they were regarded as unprofitable labor due to maternity.”78 However her argument nevertheless assumes that women, as free and autonomous wage-laborers, were in reality labor-power that produced value and surplus value.

Field reports preserved in the archives illustrate how the country turned to the market and how this affected women and the AFŽ’s work. This period would prove to be paradigmatic since it conditioned the later approach toward women and the system of social production, reproduction, and subsistence. With the coming to power and gradual demobilization of the mass antifascist movement, the AFŽ became less and less a revolutionary organization, and more and more an administrative body of the NF. The AFŽ performed background functions related to the social preconditions for the mass entry of peasant women into the industrial workforce, while at the time of (failed) collectivization one of its tasks was to organize the entry of women into the cooperatives. We find numerous reports describing the organization of 8th March Women’s Day celebrations, which always culminated in competitions between women workers from different counties to see who could fulfill production norms “more closely, better, faster” and produce more goods.

Although cooperatives and agro-industrial combines were introduced after 1945, the state never fully carried through the formal expropriation of landed property, so the category of rural private ownership never disappeared. Susan Woodward79 argues that the progressive laws explicitly relating to the protection of women, children, and family, taken separately, are merely logical means to an end. However, as she notes with such brilliance, we only see the real picture when all these laws are taken as a whole:

in fact the new policies prepared what was a compromise between the commitment to prohibit wholesale all those customs and laws seen to demean women on the one hand, and the need for families to take responsibility for tasks the government was not ready to assume, on the other, with a vision of relations between men and women as equal, nurturing, voluntary, and free (that is “private”).80

In other words, Susan Woodward observes the same thing in Yugoslavia as does G. M. Tamás in the case of the Soviet Bloc, namely that the distinction characteristic of market society between the private and the public persists despite the fact that the East Bloc countries were indeed more egalitarian. Tamás emphasizes that truly socialist societies are societies in transition to a social order without wage-labor, the production of commodities, money, a strict gender division of labor, material, social and cultural inequalities, without a state in the sense of superiority, institutions of the repressive state apparatus like the army, the police, prisons, camps, churches, compulsory doctrines, and oppressions of all kinds.81 Taking into account the discontinuous and unequal temporality of revolutionary change noted above, this is the measure of Yugoslav and any other possible and imaginable socialism (let alone communism) – this, and not the greater equality that existed in Yugoslavia and other Eastern Bloc societies.

Tamásʼs analysis is outstanding because it shows that what is posited by classical liberal philosophy – labor as a private act entered into of one’s own (private, autonomous) will, which therefore does not belong to the public, political sphere – also survived in really-existing socialism. Therefore, in ‘really-existing socialism’ (and this also applies to Yugoslav socialism), labor is in its essence free wage-labor which, regardless of the institutions of workers’ self-management and associated labor, falls within the rule of exchange value. Given that the nature of labor remained private, so remained the reproduction of systemic exploitation and domination, i.e. market exchange motivated by profit, leading to what we find in the archives from 1950 onwards: mass layoffs of women workers, pregnant women, and female labor in general (despite legal prohibitions and extremely progressive measures protecting mothers and children).82 In other words, the moment when respecting the law became too expensive, and profit had to be made, women were the first to suffer. Thus, reports from the field contradicted the laws adopted the year before and AFŽ members were evidently deeply disorientated. In a memo to the Information Department of the Central Committee of the CPBiH, the Republican Committee of the AFŽ wrote:83 “credits worth 1,700,000 dinars were earmarked for the construction of a kindergarten in Brezničani, but nothing so far has been done about this […] out of a total of 75 workers, the enterprises have sacked 50 women, some of whom are on sick leave and some pregnant.” With the introduction of self-management, reports come back with a mass of information regarding layoffs of women, budget cuts, a lack of crèches and nurseries, and hence the impossibility for women to advance themselves politically because they had no one to whom they could leave their children. All this hit women in more ways than one, so that the decisions adopted by a consultation meeting of leaders of county and regional branches of the AFŽBiH84 state as one of the main tasks of the organization: “In addition to carrying out agitation for the involvement of women in the economy, our organization has to provide housing for women, oversee the living and working conditions of women in the economy. To make sure that firms do not reduce the number of workers at the expense of pregnant women and women with children.”

If we place this in a wider perspective, it becomes clearer that the emancipation of women was increasingly thought of as the “emancipation from the constraints of the traditional social order, rather than the broader meaning of liberation from all forms of oppression.”85 Consequently, the 1950s generally represent a regression in relation to the proclaimed equality. The dominant role of women was increasingly bound up with motherhood, a virtually Fordist model of the nuclear family was promoted, together with monogamous relationships and the consolidation of the gender division of labor in both the home and industry. Women’s employment now began to decline, the trend continuing in the following decades. Barbara Jančar-Webster points out that the process of industrialization already entailed the feminization of certain sectors and professions in the inter-war period, and the same trend persisted in the second Yugoslavia.86 In the Kingdom, industry (textile, tobacco, services) employed approximately 200,000 women workers, while in 1939 domestic servants comprised the largest group of workers outside agriculture. In the second Yugoslavia, women also constituted a less skilled workforce: they were employed in industrial sectors with lower pay, were generally more likely to be unemployed and represented a reserve army of labor. In my opinion, Susan Woodward has successfully exploded the myths of women’s equality in Yugoslavia, which have today attained the status of legend:

[T]he pressures on women to enter the labor force that are familiar in the rest of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were never present in Yugoslavia. The share of women in the social sector labor force actually declined during the 1950s and has grown only gradually since 1957 to reach, by the late 1970s, those levels associated with Western European averages (about 33 percent), rather than those of high participation countries of Scandinavia or Eastern Europe. On the other hand, women have been disproportionately subject to unemployment since the government began gathering unemployment data in the early 1950s.87

Only on the basis of uneven market development can we understand the astonishing data presented by Tea Petrin and Jane Humphries: „the share of women workers in the total active labor force and the gross female labor force participation rate are little different in the post-war period as compared with the 1920s and 1930s. Especially egregious is the fact that in 1931 women represented 33.5% of the total labor force, and the number barely rose to 36% in 1971.”88 From the 1950s, documents in the archives display what in later years and decades would become and remain a chronic problem for Bosnia and Herzegovina, only worsening over time due to increasing inequality between the federal republics. Thus we read that, “the budget did not approve the building of day care centers”;89 while a woman from the Ukrina enterprise stated that, “the company needs a daycare facility, but there is no building to house one. Women with young children are sent home to feed them, while other women leave their children with their neighbors because there is nowhere else to leave them.”90
 Self-management gave enterprises and economic actors greater freedom to decide about their work, while the consequences of market-based decision-making only exacerbated the position of women as a whole. All the problems observed in the capitalist West at the time were also present in Yugoslavia: the feminization of certain industries and professions, which is to say that women always worked in low pay sectors, there was a gender pay gap, almost no women in managerial positions, whilst in the Yugoslav case the gender pay gap in the poorer republics stood out even more due to structural differences. The end result for poorer parts of the country, like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, could only be even greater inequalities in development. Thus, from 1959 to 1979 the coverage (of children up to seven years of age) of nurseries and kindergartens rose from 2.4% to 10% in Yugoslavia as a whole. Of course, they were mostly children of skilled and semi-skilled workers, with a large number of middle class children as well. This followed the same trend as in the West: middle class parents benefited most from the institutions of the welfare state. However, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, between 1959 and 1979 the number of crèches, kindergartens and nurseries reached 137, but only 3.2% of children found places. If we compare this to Slovenia, the most developed republic, where 616 such institutions were established in the same period, covering 27.7% of children, the consequences of unequal market development are crystal clear.91

4. After the End, a Beginning instead of a Conclusion

It was my intention in this work to reconstruct a historical event and through such a reconstruction trace the history of the AFŽ. The AFŽ was formally dissolved in 1953 and its then President, Vida Tomšić, gave the reason that, “we have fulfilled one of our tasks to a considerable degree, if such a thing can be said of a country […] in a certain sense, in some parts of our country, and especially in the cities, we have achieved equality.”92 In this, she was merely repeating what was said in the Soviet Union when the Zhenotdel was dissolved in 1930. But the fact that in Serbia, for instance, a law on equal inheritance was only adopted in 195593 is sufficient proof that her claim was plainly false. At the point of the dissolution of the AFŽ, many laws that were gradually implemented in the 1960s and 1970s had not yet been adopted, so we cannot even speak of equal civil rights. Already by the mid-1950s, the narrative of the AFŽ disintegrated and was dissolved into that of the NOB, which became the centerpiece and the ideological pillar of the state apparatus. The AFŽ collective was supplanted by individual heroines who had their very own names and surnames, words and deeds. Thus was the history of the AFŽ first revized and the division between the private and the public institutionalized. If Svetlana Slapšak94 in her analysis of the film Slavica (1947), talked of the death of the figure of the partizanka, perhaps we should say that it was preceded by the death of the afežeovka, even though the AFŽ was only officially dissolved five years later. In death, the partizanka lives on and recedes into a glorious past, becoming a symbol of postwar socialist Yugoslavia. She is the subject of officially sanctioned historical memory as promoted by state commemorations, historiography, and memorials. She becomes part of the glorious past, while female citizens as productive subjects become figures of the present and the future.

The fact that there is no historical overview of the engagement of Yugoslav women as a whole in the AFŽ, while there exist many histories of women’s participation in the NOB, suggests that the AFŽ started to disappear from public memory as early as the mid-1950s when the first, Croatian work on the role of women in the NOB was published. It would take three whole decades after the end of the war for the first Bosnian work to appear. In that time much had changed. The memories of the AFŽ survivors, the very nature of the revolution, the country and its laws – all were changed. But, one thing remained the same. Women were still unequal and did not enjoy equal rights. That is why Lydia Sklevicky’s gender analysis of school textbooks is timeless. Women became or remained invisible citizens, while references to horses and men continued to govern the dominant historical and educational narratives.95 It is impossible to see Vida Tomšićʼs statement that women “turned to fashion and antiquated modes of behavior […] as witnessed in the daily newspapers”, as anything other than moralizing because it completely disregards the class differences which started to appear in Yugoslav society, not just between classes, but also within the working class. They started to appear due to the denial of the simple fact that the division between the public and the private, the economic and the political, still existed. Women still produced labor-power, yet the burden of reproduction remained in the private sphere. The peculiarity of labor-power is that it not only produces value but is also the only commodity that is not produced in the direct process of production. Since the private reproduction of labor-power in the family does not produce value, i.e. it produces it only indirectly, it has as such no exchange value. Hence female labor-power has less value on the market because it is considered, more or less, as a temporary supplement to family income. Such was also the case in Yugoslavia. The progressive measures implemented by the state in fact shifted responsibilities from traditionally male preserves and professions, so that from the outset a growing burden of private and privatized reproduction fell to women. That is precisely why women oscillated between “profitable” and “non-profitable” labor-power – and that is why the end of the AFŽ initiates the forgetting of the fact that without the socialisation of the burden of reproduction there can be no socialist society. Today, when formal rights and freedoms – won through hard struggle – collapse like a house of cards under the onslaught of political reaction and its economic assaults, the domination of the market (and fathers, priests, and leaders) becomes increasingly without limit. The entire burden of social reproduction is transferred to the working class in general and to women in particular.

What then would the AFŽ mean today? What political lessons can we draw? First and foremost, the left’s response to contemporary historical revisionism cannot and must not be revisionist. The second lesson has already been indicated: Marx and Fourierʼs claim that the position of women is the measure of humanity’s progress, meaning here that the defeat of women’s emancipation was at the same time necessarily the defeat of the revolution. As Lenin used to say, the longevity of a revolution depends on the extent to which women are actively involved. The third, but no less important lesson is that the halting of the revolution does not mean it is impossible. On the contrary, the AFŽ demonstrates that although we cannot repeat the past we can learn from it that only through joint political struggle – which is also always a struggle for (but not only for) rights – can we emancipate ourselves and the conditions in which we live. Emancipation can only come from collective effort, which, paraphrasing Bensaïd, must never abandon itself to the idea that revolution is impossible. That is the final and most important lesson of the history of the AFŽ and of Yugoslavia.

—Translated by Tijana Okić


1 Bensaïd, Daniel. Éloge de la politique profane. Paris: Albin Michel, 2008. p. 355
2 Nietzsche, Friedrich. O koristi i šteti istorije za život. Belgrade: Grafos, 1977.
3 Traverso, Enzo, De l’anticommunisme. L’histoire du xxe siecle relue par Nolte, Furet et Courtois, L’Homme et la société, 2001/2: 169–194, p.189.
4 Bensaïd, Daniel, Qui est le juge? Pour en finir avec le tribunal de l’Histoire. Paris: Fayard, 1999, p. 127
5 Suvin, Darko, Samo jednom se ljubi. Radiografija SFR Jugoslavije. Beograd: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2014, p. 23. ; English edition: Splendour, Misery, and Potentialities: An X-Ray of Socialist Yugoslavia. Leiden: Brill, 2016, p. 11.
6 Therborn, Göran, Between Sex and Power, Family in the World 1900–2000. London: Routledge, 2004.
7 Adriana Zaharijević, Fusnota u globalnoj istoriji: kako se može čitati istorija jugoslovenskog feminizma. “Sociologija” Vol. LVII: 72-89, 2015. p. 86
8 What follows is my reading of Zetkin’s articles collected in the edited volume Clara Zetkin, Selected Writings, New York: International Publishers. Ed. Philip S. Foner, foreword by Angela Davis. I would like to thank Ajla Demiragić for this book.
9 Kecman, Jovanka, Žene Jugoslavije u radničkom pokretu i ženskim organizacijama 1918-1941. Belgrade: Modern History Institute, 1978, p. 93.
10 Historijski Arhiv KPJ, Vol. 2, Kongresi i Zemaljske konferencije 1919-1937. Belgrade: History department of the CPY, 1949, pp. 24–26.
11 Ibid., p. 25.
12 Ibid. p. 26.
13 Ibid. p. 26
14 Sklevicky, Lydia, Organizirana djelatnost žena Hrvatske za vrijeme NOB-e 1941-1945. Available at:
15 The text is available at:
16 Ženski pokret, January/February, 1937, pp. 5–6. I am thankful to Gordana Stojaković for forwarding me these two issues of the review.
17 Božinović, Neda, Žensko pitanje u Srbiji u XIX i XX veku, Beograd: Žene u crnom, 1996. p. 262.
18 Ženski pokret, op.cit.
19 Ibid.
20 Sklevicky, p. 81.concurs with that of the former AFŽ militant Neda Božinović.
21 Erlich, Vera S. “Das Erschutternd Gleichgewicht in der Familie, aus eine Jugoslawischen Studie”. Quoted in: Holm Sundhaussen, Historija Srbije od 19. do 21. veka, p. 296. Belgrade: Clio, 2009.
22 Čalić, Žanin-Mari. Socijalna istorija Srbije 1815-1941. Belgrade: Clio, 2004, pp. 253–254.
23 Čalić, Žanin-Mari. Historija Jugoslavije u XX veku. Belgrade: Clio, 2013, p. 123.
24 Bilten “Ženski pokret kroz omladinsku sekciju”, izveštaj br. 2. Januar 1940, in: Bosa Cvetić (ed.), Žene Srbije u NOB-i, pp. 56-9.
25 Božinović, Neda, Položaj Žene u Srbiji u XiX i XX veku, Belgrade: Žene u crnom, 1996, p. 260.
26 See: Proleter, no. 1–2, January/February, 1940, p. 6.
27 Vida Tomšić, quoted in: Šolja Marija (ed.), Žene Hrvatske u NOB-u, Vol. I, pp. 1–8.
28 Bakarić-Šoljan, Marija (ed.), Žene Hrvatske u NOB-u, Vol I, str. 57.
29 Ibid., p. 57.
30 ‘Tito to Women of Yugoslavia, available at:
31 Cana Babović, Organizaciono pitanje AFŽ-a, available at Mitra Mitrović, Antifašistički pokret žena u okviru Narodno-oslobodilačke-borbe, available at:
32 Đilas, Milovan, Wartime. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, p. 227.
33 Batinić, Jelena, Women and Yugoslav Partisans. A history of World War II Resistance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
34 On women and the Ustashas, see: Bitunjac, Martina, Le donne e il movimento ustascia. Rome: Edizioni Nuova Cultura, 2013; Jambrešić-Kirin, Renata and Senjković, Reana, Puno puta bi vas bili…, Narodna umjetnost, 42/2, 2005, pp. 109–126.
35 Sklevicky, Organizirana djelatnost žena Hrvatske za vrijeme NOB-e 1941-1945, p. 108.
36 Republican Committee of the AFŽ Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dopis sreskog odbor AFŽ-a Velika Kladuša, Archive of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
37 For instance: Glavni Odbor AFŽ-a BiH, Zapisnik plenarnog sastanka Sreskog odbora AFŽ- održan 26.9.1948. godine” Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, Kutija 5, 84/48, 1948. Oblasni Odbor, “Zapisnik Plenarnog sastanka AFŽ-a u Bihaću održanog u prostorijama u vjećnici G.N.O dana 9.2.1950. godine”, p. 2. Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, Kutija 9, 1061/5, 1950. Oblasni Odbor AFŽ-a, “Zapisnik sa sastanka sekretarijata Oblasnog odbora za oblast sarajevsku koji se održaje 10.1.1950. godine”, Arhiv BiH, Kutija 9, 1053/4, 1950.
38 Žene BiH u NOB-u, Svjetlost, Sarajevo, 1977, pp. 38–38, my emphasis.
39 See: Stites, Richard, “Zhenotdel: Bolshevism and Russian Women, 1917-1930,” Russian History, Vol. 3, no. 2, p. 182.
40 Supplementary evidence that Soviet models were never far from the minds of the leaders of the AFŽ may be seen in the frequent use of Soviet jargon, for example the significant reference to besprizorniki, that is, the millions of orphans of the Civil War whose care and accommodation were given over to the Zhenotdel. See: Glavni Odbor AFŽ-a BiH, Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, Kutija 2, 149–147, as well as “Zapisnik sa održanog savjetovanja žena iz grada i sreza Zenice po pitanju formiranja raznih društava a u vezi zaključka sjednice Izvršnog odbora C.O. AFŽ-a”
41 On the laws of the early post-revolutionary period, as well as later Stalinist counter-revolutionary measures see: Schlesinger, Rudolf (ed.), The Family in the U.S.S.R., Documents and Readings, Routledge, 2000.
42 While historians disagree as to the precise contribution of Alexandra Kollontai to drafting Soviet family law and the formation of the Zhenotdel, Carol Eubanks Hayden is convinced that without her individual efforts many things would have remained on paper. See her doctoral dissertation: Feminism and Bolshevism: The Zhenotdel and the Politics of Women’s Emancipation in Russia 1917–1930. University of California, Berkeley, 1979.
43 Carol Eubanks Hayden, The Zhenotdel and the Bolshevik Party, Russian History, Vol, no. 2, 1976, pp.150–173.
44 Stites, Richard, Revolutionary Dreams. Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1989. It is interesting that Stites dates these aspirations to the period from 1917 to 1930, which coincides with the establishment and the activities of the Zhenotdel.
45 Lenin gave unreserved support to the work and activities of the Zhenotdel and spoke on several occasions at women’s congresses organized by the Zhenotdel. See: Stites, 1989, op. cit.; Hayden, 1976 op. cit.
46 See Hayden, 1976, op. cit.; Stites, 1976, op. cit. It is important to note that Rabotnica was launched following the International Socialist Women’s Congresses held concurrently with the conferences of the Second International in Stuttgart in 1907 and Copenhagen in 1910.
47 Nikolaevna would later become the director of the Zhenotdel
48 Hayden, 1976, op. cit.
49 Ibid.
50 Stites, 1976, op. cit., p. 176.
51 Goldman, Wendy Zeva, Women, the State and Revolution, Soviet Family Policy and Social Life 1917–1936. Cambridge University Press, 1993. On the changes the Zhenotdel brought about, see also: Stites, Richard: Did the Bolshevik Revolution Improve the Lives of Soviet Women – available at:
52 Hayden, 1976, op. cit., p. 161.
53 Clements, Evans, Barbara, The Bolshevik Women, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
54 Wood, Elizabeth A., The Baba and the Comrade. Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. Although Elizabeth Wood’s research is extraordinary, I disagree with her (revisionist) assessment that women were “the reserve army of the revolution, a group to be drawn to the labor pool and into the political struggle when needed and to be dismissed when no longer needed”. It is precisely the Zhenotdel, the subject of her book, that embodies the attempt to make the struggle universal, because without the joint efforts of both women and men there could be no material realization of revolutionary principles. For the same reasons, I disagree with the analysis of Jelena Batinić, who follows Wood and sees Soviet politics as undifferentiated top-down emancipation.
55 Marx, Karl, Engels, Friedrich, Manifest komunističke partije (Manifesto of the Communist Party), available at:
56 Clements, E. Barbara, A History of Women in Russia, from the Earliest Times to the Present, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012, p. 429.
57 Cited in: Filipova, Jelena, Iz USSR, Šta je dala ženi velika Oktobarska socijalistička revolucija, in Nova žena, year 2, no. 20, November, 1946, p. 20.
58 Hobsbawm, Eric, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, London: Abacus, p.313
59 From Tito’s speech at the Third Congress of the Women’s Antifascist Front of Yugoslavia, 1950., available at:
60 Mogadham, Valentine M., Gender and Revolutionary Transformation, Iran 1979 and Eastern Central Europe 1989, Gender & Society, June 1995, pp. 328–356.
61 Woodward, Susan L., “The Rights of Women: Ideology, Policy and Social Change in Yugoslavia,” in: Susan L. Wolchik and Alfred G. Mayer (eds.), Women, State and Party in Eastern Europe, Duke University Press, Durham. 1985, pp. 576–636.
62 Molyneux, Maxine, “Socialist Societies Old and New: Progress Towards Women’s Emancipation,” Feminist Review, Summer 1981, pp. 1–34.
63 Božinović, 1996, op- cit., pp. 157–158.
64 Woodward, 1985, op. cit.
65 The AFŽ was mobilized in discussing the issues of the Constitution, as seen in for example: Centralni Odbor AFŽ-a Jugoslavije, Glavni Odbor AFŽ BiH, 10. Decembar 1945, and Glavni Odbor AFŽ-a BiH, Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, Sarajevo, Kutija, , 1/ 135, 1945
66 Pantelić, Ivana, Partizanke, građanke, Beograd: Institut za savremenu istoriju, Evoluta, 2011.
67 For instance: Lydia Sklevicky, Gordana Stojaković, Renata Jambrešić-Kirin, Susan Woodward, and Svetlana Slapšak.
68 Anderson, Perry, A Zone of Engagement, London: Verso, 1992. pp. 46–47.
69 Ibid., p. 30.
70 Bensaïd, Daniel, Le pari mélancolique, Paris: Fayard, 1997. p. 73.
71 Gramsci, Antonio, Quaderno 24, Giornalismo, §3, in: Quaderni del carcere, Vol III, Torino: Einaudi, 1975, p.2269; cited in: Anderson, 1992, op., cit.
72 Marx, Karl, Prilog kritici Hegelove filozofije prava, Beograd: Kultura, 1957.
73 Molyneux, 1981, op. cit.
74 Gordana Stojaković argues that there were three phases of AFŽ activity. Although her focus is the AFŽ of Vojvodina, the same argument can be applied to the AFŽBiH. The first phase of supporting the NOB lasted from 1942–1945; the second phase, in which the remit was expanded to post-war consolidation, renovation and reconstruction, lasted from 1946–1949; and the third phase of dissolution, involving a shift to the provision of social services and care work, lasted from 1949–1953. See: Partizanke, žene u narodno-oslobodilačkoj borbi, in: Duško Milinović and Zoran Petakov (eds.), Partizanke, žene u narodno-oslobodilačkoj borbi, Novi Sad: Cenzura, 2010, p. 13.
75 Welcoming speech of dr. Hamdije Čemerlića at the First Congress of the AFŽ BiH on June 8, 1945, Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, Glavni Odbor AFŽ-a BiH, 1945, Kutija 1, available at:
76 For instance: Glavni Odbor AFŽBiH, Glavni odbor AFŽ-a BiH, “Sreski izvještaj AFŽ-a za srez sarajevski Glavnom odboru AFŽ-a BiH (elections, building a children’s summer camp, national education, literacy courses), Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, Kutija 4, 1137/48, 1948. Glavni odbor AFŽ-a BiH, “Dopis Sreskog odbora AFŽ-a Doboj Glavnom odboru AFŽ-a za BiH, 7.2.1947. godine” (report on the work of the health section, literacy courses) Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, Kutija 2, 199/47, 1947. Glavni odbor AFŽ-a BiH, Sreski Odbor AFŽ-a Bijeljina, Zapisnik sa sastanka Sekretarijata Zemaljskom odboru AFŽ-a BiH (organising women for construction of the Bijeljina-Rača railway). Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, Kutija 5, 1182, 1948.
77 Glavni Odbor AFŽ-a BiH,“Zapisnik sa plenuma Glavnog odbora AFŽ-a BiH održanog 05. i 06.06.1946.” Arhiv Bosne I Hercegovine, Sarajevo, 116/46, 1946. Available at:
78 Quoted in: Stojaković, Gordana: “Vida Tomšič – zašto je ukinut AFŽ”, 2014b; available at:
79 Woodward speaks of the feminization of agricultural labor, one of the consequences of introducing market mechanisms. See Woodward, 1985, op. cit.
80 Ibid., p.430–431.
81 G. M. Tamás, Normative orders; available at:
82 Glavni Odbor AFŽ-a BiH, Izvještaj Centralnog odbora Beograd sa sastanka socijalno-zdravstvenog saveta pri Komitetu za socijalno staranje pri Vladi FNRJ Glavnom odboru AFŽ-a BiH, Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, Kutija 3, no. 1124-47, 1947: A set of laws and directives on the protection of pregnant women and mothers with newborn babies was adopted, giving women in employment the right to maternal leave six weeks prior to and six weeks after childbirth. These laws entitled them to take breaks from work in order to breastfeed every three hours during the first six months after childbirth. In 1949 these directives were amended to include additional relief for mothers and came as the result of more favorable economic conditions in the country as a whole. The new amendments granted shorter working hours to pregnant women and mothers who lived far from their place of work. For these women, the working day was 4 hours long during the first six months after childbirth, and this particular arrangement could be prolonged for up to three years if there was valid reason. During that time, the mother received 75% of her salary for six months, 50% after that. Women were entitled to a vacation after three months of maternity leave. The directives prohibited assigning pregnant woman tasks that required overtime work, night shifts, and provided for the transfer of women to easier jobs. The directive on establishing crèches and kindergartens obliged every company with over 200 female employees (there were over 100 such companies in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) to open a crèche with their own funds to provide working mothers with a place for their children. In the journal Ženski pokret (Women’s Movement) from 1937 we read almost identical proposals for the protection of pregnant women and maternity rights as were to become law in socialist Yugoslavia. See: Ženski pokret, 1937, op. cit., pp. 10–11.
83 Oblasni odbor AFŽ-a Sarajevo, “Dopis glavnog odbora AFŽ CK KP BiH, Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine”, Kutija 9, 497/50, 1950.
84 Oblasni odbor AFŽ-a Sarajevo, Zaključci sa savjetovanja rukovodilaca sreskih i oblasnih organizacija AFŽ-a Arhiv BiH, Kutija 9, 422/50; Oblasni odbor AFŽ-a Sarajevo, Zapisnik plenuma oblasnog odbora AFŽ-a za Mostarsku oblast održanog 18.5.1950. godine, Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, 1071/6, 1950. The information in this document also points to the same trend. In a meeting between activists from Sarajevo and Mostar, Ševala Tanović, a committee member from Gacko, stated: “The entire work of our organization relies on full-timers. Women are opposed to kindergartens. Three heavily pregnant comrades were fired a month ago. The Secretariat of the AFŽ asked for them to be rehired, pointing to the improper attitude toward pregnant women. The effort to have them rehired failed. When an explanation was requested as to why they were not fit for work, the following was stated of one of the female comrades: she has three children, and is about to have a fourth. We do not need that kind of employee, and in her place we will hire a man.” (My emphasis.) The mass layoffs of the 50s are also documented by Ivana Pantelić, she discusses Serbia: see, Pantelić, 2011, op. cit.
85 Molyneux, Maxine, Family Reform in Socialist States: a Hidden Agenda, Feminist Review, 1985, 47–64, p. 52.
86 Jančar-Webster, Barbara, Women and Revolution in Yugoslavia 1941-1945. Arden Press: Colorado, 1990, p. 17, 165.
87 Woodward, 1985, op.cit., p. 549. See also: Tea Petrin and Jane Humphries, Women in the Self-Managed Economy of Yugoslavia, Economic Analyses and Workers’ Managment, 1, XIV, 1980, p. 77.
88 Petrin and Humphries, 1980, op. cit., pp. 71–73.
89 Glavni odbor AFŽ-a BiH, Zapisnik sa savjetovanja s rukovodiocima srezova održanog 24. i 25. januara 1950.” Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, str. 2 Kutija 8, no. of document unknown 1950
90 Oblasni odbor AFŽ-a Sarajevo, „Zapisnik sa OOAFŽ-a održanog u Tuzli 14.2.1950.” Arhiv Bosne i Hercegovine, Kutija 9, 276, 1949-1950
91 Milić, Anđelka, Berković, Eva and Petrović Ruža, Domaćinstvo, porodica i brak u Jugoslaviji. Belgrade: Institute for Sociological Research of the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade, 1981, p. 102. The data contained in this work confirms that the same trends existed in Yugoslavia as in the Western countries at the time, and, more importantly, that since the 1950s we can observe greater inequalities between poorer and richer republics and their consequences for the structure of education, healthcare, and society in general.
92 Cited in: Stojaković, 2014b, op. cit.
93 Gudac-Dodić, Vera, Under the Aegis of Family, Women in Serbia, The Journal of International Social Research, Vol. 3 no. 13, 2010. p. 112.
94 Slapšak, Svetlana. Ženske ikone XX veka. Belgrade: Biblioteka XX vek, 2001
95 Sklevicky shows that references to horses (and men) far supercede references to women in school textbooks. See: Konji, žene, ratovi (Horses, women, wars), op.cit.

Author of the article

was born in Sarajevo in 1986. She read philosophy and sociology and obtained a Master’s degree in philosophy in Sarajevo, where she subsequently worked as an assistant lecturer-instructor. Since 2015 she is enrolled in PhD program in philosophy at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy. She is one of the editors of the volume The Lost Revolution: AFŽ between Myth and Forgetting (Sarajevo, 2016.). She has published several philosophical texts and translations. Tijana organized and participated in the Plenums after the 2014 riots in Sarajevo. She is a contributing editor of Viewpoint magazine. She translates from several languages, enjoys poetry and fiction. She currently lives between Sarajevo and Pisa.