A Chain Smokin’, Lady Teachin’, Son Of A Gun – Nedelya Petkova

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Typing ‘Bulgarian women’ into Google is a bad idea. Whilst typing ‘famous Bulgarian women’ gets you a showreel of professional athletes (with Hristo Stoičkov second, curiously enough), removing ‘famous’ from that search simply gives you links such as ’11 Reasons You Should Never Date A Bulgarian Woman’, ‘Bulgarian Women: Dark, Mysterious, More Balkan Than Slavic’ and the miserably regrettable related search of ‘bulgarian women easy?’. No list of scientists, revolutionaries and poets to be found, just streams of objectification.

Because the miserable truth is that Bulgarian history hasn’t been kind to its females. Things have improved ever so slightly in the modern age, but at the time of writing only 20% of Bulgaria’s parliament was made up of women. Saying that, only 19% of the US equivalent and 9.5% of the Japanese are made up of women, so I should probably check that fact at the door. The gender pay gap is also lower than the EU average, and even as far back as the 1970s Bulgarian had the highest percentage of working women in the world.

So maybe this isn’t a Bulgarian thing at all, and is generally more evidence to the historical kicking that men have forced upon women. Still, we’re talking about Bulgarian here, so let’s focus. If we trawl back some 200 years Bulgarian women weren’t being educated and were still considered to be vessels for creating more humans and not a whole lot else. It took a heavy-smoking widowed mother of five to change this, with a mixture of sheer belligerence and ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude. She was known as Baba Nedelya.

Born Nedelya Petkova in 1826, she was lucky enough to gain something approaching an education herself at a monastery school in the town of Sopot (not to be confused with the Polish coastal town or a piedmont in Antarctica), not too far from Plovdiv. At the age of 33, with her husband lost to death, Nedelya began to teach girls throughout the region. She began in Sofia, spreading to Samokov, Prilep, Ohrid and Veles. She was a true tour de force, a freak of nature that was ploughing through whatever obstacles the authorities put in front of her.

And they weren’t exactly shy in making life hard for her. She was arrested on a number of occasions, her home searched for questionable literature over and over and over. Petkova was frequently put on trial, although these trials ended up being total wastes of time due to the complete lack of evidence. She was unceremoniously fired from her job in Prilep, the official reason for her removal being ‘her extremely free behaviour, clothing, and her smoking’. She took women on frequent jaunts to the countryside, something which angered their husbands and increased the intensity of the authorities’ microscope over her.

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Baba Nedelya’s biggest crime was that she dared to be not only an educator of Bulgarian women, but an emancipated one at that. It was almost as if she took the patriarchal system on her shoulders, loudly said ‘fuck this’, lit a cigarette and dragged all the women along with her. She was treated with open hostility as a result, but most likely responded with a middle finger and some other sort of obscene gesture before getting down to go some good old education. She died in 1894.

Baba Nedelya isn’t alone in the box titled ‘Back In The Day Bulgarian Women Bad-Asses’ though. Dimitrana Ivanova was an education reformer and lawyer who became the first female to study education and philosophy at the University of Zurich in 1897. At this point women were allowed to listen to lectures at the University of Sofia (an honour granted to them in 1896), but weren’t allowed to be regular students until 1901. Dimitrana returned to Bulgaria in 1900 to become a teacher (the only profession open to women at the time, although married women were banned from teaching until 1904). Dimitrana came to the fore within the women’s rights movement in the 1920s, bringing attention to women’s right to suffrage.

Before Ivanova there was Eugenia Kisimova, a young lady from a wealthy family in Veliko Tarnovo who founded the first women’s organisation in Bulgaria (Ženska Obščina, or loosely ‘Women’s Community’). She helped to finance many women who wished to study abroad, before such possibilities were open to them in Bulgaria. She also organised funds for nurses and medical care during the Russian-Turkish War in 1877/78.

What of Theodora Noeva, pioneer of gender equality who co-founded and edited the first Bulgarian women’s magazine (‘Žensky Svyat’ – ‘Women’s World’) in 1893? Or Vela Blagoeva, who organised the first socialist women’s organisation and conference in the country? She also co-founded the Bulgarian Women’s Union, along with (among others) Anna Karima, the daughter of a wheat farmer who campaigned for women’s education and was exiled for her troubles in the 1920s.

Over the last 200 years numerous women have put their neck on the line to improve the lot of females within the borders of Bulgaria, and it all started with a bad-ass mofo who smoked 20 a day (possibly) and didn’t give a toss what you thought of her desire to educate women.

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8 thoughts on “A Chain Smokin’, Lady Teachin’, Son Of A Gun – Nedelya Petkova

    • Macedonia’s history is all sorts of confusing, unfortunately. Bulgaria claims some of the history, Serbia others, Greece others etc. By ‘Bulgarian lands of Macedonia’ we meant the parts of the modern FYROM state that were inhabited by folk who some consider ethnic Bulgarians. Does that make sense?

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      • Gosh, now it’s FYROM… the history sure is a mess, however it is disappointing for me to see one of my favourite blogs this biased. I would like to see this section revised. Also, as far as I am informed, in the mentioned period Bulgaria does have aspirations, but not official political power in, for example, Ohrid. Again I might be wrong because I am not in history and because of the mentioned mess.
        Anyway, your blog is so amusing, useful and witty I love reading it.

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      • Thanks for reading, all such things are appreciated. We try to be as unbiased as possible, but this doesn’t always come across. This entry isn’t really about any political aspirations, more a tribute to individuals in the region at the time. In truth the aspirations of states themselves isn’t of great interest to us, we’re more interested in trailblazers, scientists and individuals. We’re the same as you really, history is so open to interpretation and such a serious subject that we try to avoid it, as silly as that seems for a somewhat history-based blog.

        Even so, we’ll revise parts of this entry and will edit the book accordingly ahead of the release next year. Thank you once again!

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      • I’ve been thinking how courageous and astute you must be, choosing a so complicated topic for your blog, me trembling even by writing a comment 😀 this just came up in my feed: https://theculturetrip.com/asia/india/articles/the-10-oldest-languages-still-spoken-in-the-world-today/ the formulation around Macedonia is acceptable to me 😉 best of luck with your book. They say here in Serbia the man who hasn’t built a house or written a book, doesn’t know the meaning of the word hard 🙂

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  1. All the same, the importance placed by a significant number of 19th-century Bulgarians on educating girls was unique in the region. In 1841, Anastasia Dimitrova founded the first secular school for girls just six years after one had been founded for boys. Approximately 90 secular primary schools for girls were established in the nearly four decades leading up to the 1878 liberation. This is not to say that 19th-century Bulgarian society as a whole offered equality to women. However the National Revival flowering then was an intellectual movement promoting nationalism that was expansive and progressive. Just as today developed countries consider the education of women as key to the progress of the entire community, 19th century Bulgarian intellectuals considered women’s education key to the country’s ability to become a strong and independent nation. In her chapter on Bulgaria in “Girls’ Secondary Education in the Western World: From the 18th to the 20th Century,” Krassimira Daskalova highlights Anastasia Tosheva, founder of an early secondary school, who said “that if Bulgarians wanted progress and prosperity they had to educate their daughters.” The result was a far higher literacy rate for Bulgarians, women and men, at the beginning of the 20th century than elsewhere in the Balkans.

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