The Bulgarian Association of University Women

Who we are

Bulgarian women who had received university education formed an organization of their own – Druzhestvo na bulgarkite s visshe obrazovanie (Association of Bulgarian Women University Graduates, ABWUG, also known as Bulgarian Association of University Women, BAUW). The idea for the creation of this Association came from Ekaterina Zlatoustova (1881-1952). She had studied history in Russia, and subsequently worked as a secondary school teacher and as senior officer in the Ministry of Education. The BAUW was founded on 29 May 1924. The members were women from several generations, who associated feminism with various concepts – predominantly liberal. Most of the founders were teachers, lecturers at Sofia University, medical doctors, and lawyers, representing the entire intellectual and scientific elite in the capital. On 28 July 1925 the BAUW became a member of the International Federation of University Women (IFUW). The IFUW had been founded in New York in 1919 as part of the organizations associated with the League of Nations, and was a member of the Union of Intellectual Workers. In time, the IFUW became a mouthpiece for women university graduates, who wanted further qualification and professional career. The members were provided with travel grants and scholarships for scientific research.

The Bulgarian Association of University Women (originally named Association of Bulgarian Women University Graduates) was headed by an almost unchanged team for 28 years. The leadership sought balance among professions and generations. Several figures stood out in the BAUW leadership in the course of time. Over a few years four sections were formed within its framework: those of Women Lawyers, Women Artists, Women Writers, and Women Students. The BAUW followed the Anglo-American model of initially establishing a national organisation, and subsequently its sections.The BAUW united several hundred women. About 15 % of them had been educated abroad – mainly in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria-Hungary. Most of the members had received their education in Bulgaria: at Sofia University, at the Arts Academy or at the Music Academy. One third of the members had a doctoral degree; most of them knew foreign languages and sustained intensive contacts with women activists and intellectuals abroad. About 60 % of the members were married, the rest were single, widowed, or divorced. The organization worked to provide favorable conditions for professional women in Bulgaria. Its representatives participated in the meetings of the International Federation of Women with University Education. In July 1926, for example, Zhivka Dragneva participated as a delegate in the Federation’s Fourth Congress, held in Amsterdam. Members of the Australian Association of Women with University Education visited Bulgaria in 1926. Two years later, in 1928, Prof. Gledich – the then chairwoman of the International Federation of University Women, was a guest of the Bulgarian branch. She had several meetings with professors at Sofia University and with state officials from the Ministry of Education.

The Lawyers’ Section was formed first, in 1928. It turned into the biggest corporate organization of the Bulgarian women’s elite, with about a hundred and fifty members during the 1940s. The Section built up its own structures in the country. The interest in it was great, particularly in the 1930s, because of the difficulties for Bulgarian women to pursue a career in law. Women students had been admitted to the Law Department at Sofia University in the academic year 1902/1903 (and 507 women graduated until 1946), but women lawyers were not allowed to appear as defense lawyers or judges before the communist regime took over (1945). Similarly to the situation with suffrage, it was not the Constitution or court law that barred women from practicing the legal profession, but rather patriarchal tradition and men’s strong material interests. The Lawyers’ Section was run by authoritative and internationally recognised jurists. Over the years it was presided by Maria Girginova – a jurist elected in 1930 as a member of the Council of the International Federation of Women Magistrates, Barristers and Members of Other Branches of the Legal Professions at Paris; Velisslava Radulova, who had specialised in commercial law in Italy and was a delegate in the Italian-Bulgarian Mixed Arbitration Court in Rome, and who was also elected to the board of the International Federation of Women Jurists in 1936 and nominated to the Committee on the Status of Women with the League of Nations in 1938. The Section’s third chairwoman was Fany Kesyakova, whose career was typical of Bulgarian female jurists. She had graduated in law from Sofia University, and worked as a secretary in private companies and in foreign diplomatic missions.

The professional and political rights of Bulgarian women jurists were the main focus of this Section. The stubborn efforts of some women lawyers – Dimitrana Ivanova, leader of the Bulgarian Women’s Union in the inter-war period, and Vera Zlatareva, one of the leaders of the lawyers’ section of the BAUW – to enter the juridical profession are exciting examples of women’s activism. The International Federation of Women Jurists provided support on this issue as early as 1929. Bulgarian women repeatedly alerted their colleagues at the Federation congresses, but the Federation was powerless to interfere because the problem was not related to labour issues, but rather to constitutional law – as argued by the powerful male politicians of the day. For this reason, at firs, the Section of Lawyers directed its efforts towards a judicial dispute of the Lawyers’ Act, and sought simultaneously political support to amend the Legal Structure Act. After the establishment of the authoritarian regime in Bulgaria (1934) the Ministers of Justice refused to discuss this case with the BAUW. Then the Section sought another strategy, namely, demanding women’s suffrage. If they would become full citizens, women could also hold positions in legislature. This is how another element of political feminism was added to the agenda of the BAUW. It had its analogues in Bulgaria prior to 1919 – the above-mentioned small suffragist formation Ravnopravie (Equal Rights Union) and the Bulgarian Women’s Union. The Lawyers’ Section sharply criticised the electoral bills of the authoritarian regime (1937-1938), which for the first time stipulated partial suffrage for ‘legally married mothers’. They argued that it was inappropriate to make civil status dependent on such criteria as ‘marriage’ and ‘maternity,’ and to deprive of active suffrage adoptive mothers, women with children born out of wedlock, childless, and single women. The acts were enforced, but in reality did not enable women lawyers to practice law, married women even. For instance, the Supreme Council of Lawyers and the Supreme Cassation Court revoked the permit for length of service, which Sofia Council of Lawyers had given to the Lawyers’ Section secretary, Dr. Vera Zlatareva (1938) in response to the professional rights acquired by her. During the next year, at the order of the Police, Zlatareva was removed from the Section of Lawyers under the pretext that she was connected to the banned Communist Party. The lawyers’ rights campaign remained in deadlock during the Second World War. On the eve of World War II, Bulgaria and Albania were the only countries in the Balkans, where women graduates from law schools were not allowed to serve as judges and lawyers for the defense (Greek women lawyers received this right in 1926, Yugoslav women in 1927, Turkish women in 1928, and Romanian women in 1929).

Women artists and women architects had to fight for recognition, too. Similar to the situation elsewhere, Bulgarian women artists, who studied at the Arts Academy, were not allowed initially to attend “evening act” classes (that is, nude-body drawing classes). Because Bulgarian art institutions were established much later, women’s exclusion did not last as long as in the West; after protests of some students, by the late 1890s women enrolled in such classes. The second BAUW Section was that of Women Artists, also founded in 1928. Its main goal was to nourish the professional career development of educated Bulgarian women artists. The artistic sphere in Bulgaria was not open to women, even though actresses and female musicians were abundant, and despite the fact that women had been admitted to the Art School ever since its establishment in 1896. A great part of women graduates rarely exhibited their works in independent and international exhibitions; they were seldom members of professional organisations, some of them turned into parlour artists, working at home and for themselves. After the First World War some Bulgarian women artists specialised abroad, participated in exhibitions and in new societies of artists. Their creative work, however, had no recognition in Bulgarian society: they were not admitted to art societies’ boards or as lecturers in the Academy of Fine Arts, and they did not participate in commissions buying pictures at exhibitions.

The Section of Women Artists was not numerous, but it engaged almost all professionally active women artists in Bulgaria. Three generations of women – working in various genres and styles, participated in annual BAUW exhibitions (1928-1943), which attracted a lot of visitors and provoked a debate concerning ‘women’s creative work’. Sexist critics described women’s work as picturesque, imitative of men’s art, and of low quality. Regardless of the critics’ opinion, the Section stimulated young women artists, rendered assistance to the ill and poor, and exported Bulgarian women’s art work abroad. In 1937 and 1938 a BAUW exhibition visited Belgrade and Zagreb, and had a remarkable success there. The Section also motivated women artists to hold independent exhibitions in Bulgaria and abroad, as well as to participate in general art exhibitions and those of individual societies.

The third BAUW section was the Club of Bulgarian Women Writers, founded in 1930. About forty of the most renowned and recognised female poets and writers were members of BAUW. Its leaders were authoritative and enterprising women: Evgenia Mars – a playwright and writer, creator of a literary salon; Elissaveta Bagryana – a leading modern Bulgarian poetess from the inter-war period, and Fani Popova-Mutafova – a writer of highly popular historical novels and novellas, and a translator with right-wing views regarding gender roles.

Most of the Club members had university education. They were famous journalists and translators, active in the public sphere, and members of charity and cultural societies. They were united by the desire (the Club’s goal, too) to gain a prominent role in the male-dominated sphere of literature as well as equal rights in publishing and payment. For this purpose they organised literary readings, lectures, celebrations, and book launches in the capital and other parts of the country. The Club published several collections of women’s writings as well as dozens of articles in the feminist press. It established contacts abroad, paid mutual visits to similar women’s societies in Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece, Hungary, and Slovakia, and exchanged with the latter translated works in the respective languages; it also worked in collaboration with the PEN, whose Bulgarian section was managed by the poetess and Club member Dora Gabe. The Club had notable public prestige; some of the members gave their opinions on cultural legislation; it co-operated with public organisations; and was financially stable. It was not accidental that in 1934 it left the BAUW and continued its independent existence. Unlike the situation of women artists, the professional activities of women writers were broadly accepted in Bulgarian society, and they did not need BAUW support.

The fourth BAUW Section was that of Women Students, formed in 1937. It was created in response to the growing number of female law students in the BAUW, though the Association had kept a watchful eye on them for many years, and through a special commission they created a girls’ hostel (1939) in the capital. Soon the Section’s members were confronted with the Communist women’s movement, which wanted to overtake the Section. Probably this was the reason why the Students’ Section had a very brief life (up to 1945). Its main activities were protests against the limitations to women’s admission to some faculties at Sofia University, implemented by the university administration under the pressure of the government in 1939-1941.

As early as September 1944 the head of the Fatherland Front (Tsola Dragojcheva) and the Chairman of the Communist Party (Georgi Dimitrov) decided that women’s organisations in Bulgaria had to open up to the masses and become subordinated to the state. Thus women’s organisations were placed under the control of two Zhenski otdeli (women’s departments) controlled by the communists. Under their instructions, women members of the Communist Party and the coalition parties were obliged to replace the leadership bodies of all feminist organisations, the BAUW included. The BAUW changed its board very soon – in November 1944.

Organisational life was also politicised and gradually declined. Lectures turned into propaganda meetings, with leading women communists speaking about Stalin, women and science in the USSR, and so on. These meetings were scarcely attended, they were monitored by agents of the Political Police, who drew up dossiers (now kept in the Central State Archive) with ‘compromising facts’ about past activity, marital status and families, health, beliefs etc. of most of the active members. However, the destruction of the BAUW by the Bulgarian authorities continued: in 1948 the property of the Association was confiscated, its archives were scattered, and its organisational life came to an end. In the middle of 1950 the organisation was closed down and only the members of the older generation informally discussed the idea of transforming the BAUW into a Women’s Section with the Bulgarian Academy of Science, which proved to be illusionary. The BAUW was restored in 1990.