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.
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.