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Júlia Pintír: The “Woman Question”

May 13, 2010

Beautiful, fashionable Júlia Pintír (my great, great grandmother), age 16, about 1886

Since the soul of man is the microcosm, and great men are those who live entirely in and through their souls, the whole universe thus having its being in them, the female must be described as absolutely without the quality of genius. . . . There is no female genius, and there never has been one . . . and there never can be one. Those who are in favour of laxity in these matters, and are anxious to extend and enlarge the idea of genius in order to make it possible to include women, would simply by such action destroy the concept of genius. . . . How could a soulless being possess genius? The possession of genius is identical with profundity; and if any one were to try to combine woman and profundity as subject and predicate, he would be contradicted on all sides. A female genius is a contradiction in terms, for genius is simply intensified, perfectly developed, universally conscious maleness.

Otto Weininger, 1880-1903. Otto was an Austrian writer who committed suicide in 1903, at the age of 23, after receiving lukewarm reviews for his latest book. He killed himself in the same house Beethoven, his genius hero, died in (I would not be surprised if a woman killed Otto).  After his death, Otto’s book became a best seller, and his ideas about genius, females and Jews were, incredibly, embraced with zeal across the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Quoted from his book, Sex and Character, 1903

Maria Mihalic (my great, grandmother) and her two teenage friends in Bjelina, Bosnia, 1898

As you may surmise from the quote above, women in the Austro-Hungarian Empire around the turn of the century were not thought of too highly.  While the Magyars suppressed Slovak speech, writing and teachings, they also suppressed the education of nearly all women past the age of 12.  Why waste a perfectly good education on a woman, was the current thinking at the time.

Júlia Pintír had the sorry fortune then, of being born in 1870, in Pivnice, Vojvodina, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Forbidden from speaking her native tongue outside the home and restricted from learning much beyond reading and writing in Hungarian as a child, she was a typical Slovak village female teenager who was destined to marry young, bare children and care for her family.

Júlia had a choice after the age of 12; she could choose to work, or she could choose to marry, but she could not do both, according to the law.  Her job opportunities, back in the 1880’s, were of course severely limited; there was not much an uneducated young Slovak woman could do. It was not until 1919 that Slovak women could both teach and marry, and 1926 before they could perform any other government job and be married.   She couldn’t vote until 1946.

Maria Mihalic and friends, 1898

Júlia and her young friends would gather in one another’s homes in the evenings in informal “besidky” meetings, educational gatherings of women who would teach each other Slovak reading, writing, household work skills and needlework, exchange recipes and discuss current events.  These meetings would form the basis of their education, and provided their sole link to the outside world.

Often Slovak marriages were arranged, so even the choice of husband was taken from women.  Society was extremely conservative, and it was believed that a woman’s place was in the home, nurturing her family, and there was no need for higher education.  Júlia lived with her parents and attended elementary school, then helped her parents with household chores until she married at the age of 16 to Jan Suster, who was three years older than her.  By the time she was 18, she had had her first child, Juliana, born on June 21, 1888 and two years after that, she had a son Michal, on August 28, 1890 (my great grandfather).

At the end of the 19th century, the birth rate in the Austro-Hungarian Empire had started to decline. High infant mortality rates and government controlled smaller plots of land on which to grow food had driven families like that of Júlia and Jan to have fewer children; most Slovak villagers simply couldn’t afford to have more children.  In the 1890’s, Júlia was content with raising her daughter and son, and set about her domestic life as the dutiful wife and mother.

Jan Suster and his grandson, Jerry, about 1933

Jan, on the other hand, was a typical Austro-Hungarian rural husband of his time, indoctrinated by current societal views that women were the possession of men who could be treated as somewhat less than human.  And so Jan beat  Júlia.

Otto Weininger expressed a common view of women from this era, claiming in his 1903 best seller that the “woman question,” that is, the role of woman, was only as the object of man’s desires, as the “plaything of husband and child”.  Woman was “devoted wholly … to the spheres of sexual intercourse, begetting, reproduction”, and “her relations with husband and children complete her life … ”  Jan apparently took this to heart.

Júlia turned to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pivnice for comfort and solace.  She confided in her pastor about the abuse she suffered at home at the hand of Jan, and the pastor gave her these words of advice: have more children.  The pastor, too, apparently shared Otto’s views.

Evangelical Church, Pivnice

And so, when Juliana was 14 and Michal was 12, Júlia had Karolina, born in 1902.  Karolina would grow up to be the first Shuster girl in history (and only the second Slovak girl ever from Vojvodina, population over 200,000) to attend school past the age of 12, and was sent hours away during WWI to Dolny Kubin to attend business school in an all-boy school. Karolina had to have been incredibly brave to do something that was so highly frowned upon by society, and very resilient to put up with years of ridicule and rejection.  I suspect that Júlia, fearing that her daughter Karolina was destined to have a life like hers, encouraged her to pursue higher education.

Two years later, Júlia had Jan in 1904, followed by Pavel in 1906, Jozef in 1910 and Katarina in 1912. Her last one, Stefan, was born in 1914 when Júlia was 44 years old.   Miraculously, all survived childhood.  Jan and Júlia were fortunate enough to own extensive property in Pivnice, and were prosperous with their hops and hay fields, so were able to afford eight children.

The Suster Family, 1929 at a family picnic along the Danube River. Branko, the baby below the X, is Julia's grandson, Karolina's son. Julia's husband, Jan Suster, is in the suit holding the drink.

By the latter half of the 19th century, a few faint womens’ voices could be heard in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, despite the strong national sentiment of women as distant second class citizens.  Some Czech women, more urban and wealthier than their Slovak counterparts, began to express their views on educational and career opportunities, lead protests, started clandestine womens’ schools called lyceums, and activity centers for women called gymnasia.  And they began to write and speak out.  They often changed their names, or disguised themselves as men, such as the female writer George Sand, in order to protect themselves; Otto sited these as examples of how women were incapable of genius on their own.

These strong female activists and writers were not silenced by Otto and his female trash talk, however.  They include Božena Slančíková, who wrote under the pseudonym Timrava (1867 – 1951), Eliska Krasnohorska, the founder of the gymnasium Minerva and a writer remembered today mostly for her poetry and translation work; and Bozena Nemcova, who wrote as early as1846:

“So many times I heard that there was no need for a woman to know how to write; as long as she knows how to read a bit, that’s just enough! I must give my personal opinion on this matter. It is true that in the larger picture there are more women who do not need to pick up a pen the whole year round, but, on the other hand, there are many who either lead some sort of business or have to assist their husbands. They do need to know how to write properly. I know that it is still impossible to ask that a girl should know, besides writing, reading, and counting, also something else, because to date we do not have any institutions for such purpose.”
Bozena Nemcova in 1846

Julia Suster, 1930's, with grandson Igor Suster

Tomas Masyrk, the professor at Charles University in Prague who would later become the first president of Czechoslovakia in 1918, made this radical statement, at the urging of his wife Charlotte:

“It is strange that while worrying about schools we forget about half of the human society, about women. Woman should be educated better, because she herself is the educator … and thus secondary schools and universities should be open for women. And that is what I ask for.”
T G Masaryk in the Austrian parliament, June 1891

As Czech and Slovak nationalism swept the Austro-Hungarian Empire, women’s rights became wrapped into human rights. Women’s rights activists loved to use some of Masaryk’s famous quotes as their own: “There is no woman’s question, only the human question”, and “Democracy is, first of all, the equality of woman and man, of mother and father, of sister and brother.”  Finally, after 1000 years of oppression, when the Czechs and Slovaks gained their independence from Austria and Hungary after the end of WWI in 1918, life for these Slavic women began to change for the better.   Julia’s daughters and granddaughters were now free to attend school like their brothers, work outside the home, and speak freely.  Otto was finally put to rest.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan permalink
    May 13, 2010 9:12 am

    Amazing stories, Julia and Karolina were indeed pioneers, and yet there remain advanced democracies that have failed to acknowledge equality of women. Whereas the UK, Germany, Israel, India, Pakistan and others have elected great women leaders in Presidents and Prime Ministers, this remains one of the most significant barriers to electing a woman President in the USA.

    • May 13, 2010 11:34 am

      Yes, it stuns me to see the level of inequality that still exists in the US today. It is difficult to stand up to it, both back then and today. You are made to feel inferior and insignificant, and are faced with both disgust at confronting it, and ridicule for the audacity for even trying.

      It is also hard for women still today with the level of objectification that exists – how they should look, dress and act in order to be attractive, and trying to overcome that to be taken for what is in our brains and for what we have to offer otherwise. Way too much emphasis is placed on looks.

  2. May 13, 2010 12:09 pm

    There was indeed a great deal of barbarism in the treatment of women in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (not to mention in the rest of Europe and America, too). But your use of Otto Weininger to make this point is opportunistic and misleading.

    You selectively quote what was already a bad translation of Sex and Character. What Weininger meant by “genius” is not what many women admired then or would now. It was an imperative to increase moral consciousness to the point of, and beyond, death. The genius transcends life, the world of objects and things. Being a genius is about the moral courage to negate life itself if it stands in the way of truth. And, for Weininger, it did.

    Yes, Weininger did think that women should be educated. In fact, only by educating them, just like men, could they be saved, he believed.

    No, a woman’s purpose was not to serve the desires of men. Maybe that is how many men saw them, but certainly not Weininger. Quite the opposite: he demanded complete celibacy. In the sex act, he argued, a man cannot help but see a woman as an object and that was the essence of immorality—his, not hers.

    So, needless to say, he could not have shared your Lutheran pastor’s opinion about women needing to have more children.

    Weininger did repeat a lot of misogynist cliches about women but his purpose in doing so was to point out the moral degradation of women for which men were chiefly responsible but in which women were largely complicit. He was describing how women were, not how they should be. Women were morally problematic for this reason, that’s what he meant by “the woman problem.”

    No doubt, regardless of Weininger’s intentions, not many people then or now get past these old saws about women. He made a name for himself as the “the world’s greatest misogynist” so I can hardly blame you for repeating the misconceptions about Weininger that abound both on the Internet and even among some academics (who should know better). Your use of Weininger is not remarkable in that way and wouldn’t be worth comment but for the business about your Lutheran pastor. That takes the cake. But then your site is about cooking.

    There is real misogyny in the world. We don’t need to impute it where it isn’t.

    • May 13, 2010 5:25 pm

      I greatly appreciate your comments, and you have certainly caused me to go back and re-read Weininger. Perhaps I am reading a poor English translation – as according to this translation of his book, Otto definitely seems to think women are inferior.

      Perhaps his book simply reflects the views of his time, and perhaps what he meant and what was interpreted are two different things. What people thought about his views back in 1903 certainly seems to be along the same lines as my article. And in re-reading Sex and Character this afternoon, I don’t see him advocating for higher education for women, at least not in the earlier chapters. In fact, he seems to argue that it is not necessary, except for a few women with “masculine tendencies.” He also argues that for most women, higher education will simply lead to women asserting themselves against their husbands.

      Later in the book, he does claim that in order for women to truly be emancipated, they must no longer be sexual objects of man, but he goes on to blame women for that objectification. He also states some pretty big generalities about women that I find hard to swallow (about their views on men, virginity and older unmarried women, for example).

      Maybe you can point me to a better English translation; the one I am reading is the one released in 1906. I also took a look at your blog – pretty amazing.

      • May 15, 2010 2:31 pm

        Inferior

        Weininger does speak of women as inferior in many ways, always explicitly assuming a masculine set of values to measure the inferiority. It’s a bit like saying that oranges are inferior apples. Women indeed are inferior men. What they might be as women or as human beings are other questions entirely, ones that he helped to clear the way for asking by spelling out what women were clearly not. I think many feminist thinkers have been busy since Weininger’s time doing for the feminine what he did for the masculine: get clear what it is and isn’t. For a glaring example of the difference the incommensurability between men and women makes consider their respective relationships to morality. Weininger noticed that women were practically amoral (not to be confused with immoral) by his classic male standards. The relation of women to rules, which is how males conceive morality, is more fluid and less burdened with concern for the letter than the spirit. Men, Weininger claimed, alone could be moral. By which he implied only men could be immoral. That is, only in men is this rule-following aspect of their character central to their worth or lack of it. And if only men could be moral in the sense in question only men needed to be. This explains why the vast majority of evil done in the world is done by men. Almost 95% of people in jail in the United States are male. But that number has never been appreciably different in any place and time on earth where records have been kept. How often do you read headlines like these: “man shoots wife and children and then himself.” or “man walks into a work place or school and shoots people at random”? Who are the big white collar criminals who collapse economies by engaging in behavior moved not by a need for money but from the joy in wielding it? Who starts wars?… And when a woman commits a major crime (or even a minor one) she gets disproportionate attention because it is actually news. Men killing, raping and pillaging is not. June Stephenson published a book about male criminality in 1995 called Men Are Not Cost-Effective in which she presents a convincing case for a tax on the head of every male in society simply for being male. The tax would go to defray the massive social costs to society of having males in it. The seed of that idea can be traced back to Weininger’s notion that there is a profound moral difference between women and men that makes a mockery of all shallow attempts at asserting equality between them.

        The bottom line is that men—and not women—are under an obligation to justify their very existence. Asserting that obligation is what Weininger meant by genius. It’s the only excuse for having men around at all, assuming they take the duty seriously—a very big assumption. Now that women typically don’t see what all the fuss is about, cannot see why life has to be so heroic, so do or die… can be seen as an indication that they are somehow lacking, inferior, if you will. Or it might be just that nature has seen fit to endow them with a little sense. After all, Weininger also wrote, “Woman is never so stupid as a man can be.”

        The notion of equality as applied to women and men is a slippery term. But under whatever meaning it has been given it has been abused. To the extent it implies interchangeability and a one size fits all scale of values it has led to some gross injustices. The way women are treated in prisons, for instance. We have a legal system which does not discriminate on the basis of sex when in fact it should. What drives men to crime is not at all like what does it for women. Weininger had the answer: men are always on the edge of being criminal. That’s why their education and ideals must be so very different from that of women. It is why he felt compelled to exhort men to a skyscraping morality—an idea which must seem mystifying to women.

        But people, especially in our time, are afraid not to use the word “equality” in this context because to do so would imply difference. And differences have been historically used to justify all manner of atrocity. But now we tolerate atrocity under the banner of “equality”: women in prisons. Or we are hypocritical about it and take account of sex differences but pretend that we don’t: women in dangerous jobs, in combat, etc.

        Education

        Read part ii, chapter xiv. The education that women were getting at the time and which Weininger objected to was that geared toward being a wife and mother—and they were getting this education largely from their own mothers. Women with this sort of education were bound to be handicapped at grasping the higher reaches of culture Weininger thought were so necessary to civilization—one created by and for those who desperately needed it to keep from sinking to the subhuman: men. At the very end of his book Weininger wondered whether, if women were ever to realize the masculine ideal, that is, become “equal” to men, they might not be unhappy. Happiness, ones own or anyone elses, is very far from inclusion as a pure masculine goal to judge as much by what men do as by what they say. Most women must think differently or they would have ceased giving birth long ago.

        Weininger

        In the preface to Sex and Character, Weininger expressed his fear that his work would be taken to support the oppression of women. And, of course, that is exactly what happened. Rather he intended to subvert a corrupt masculine culture that he perceived had lost a sense of its mission on earth. He needed to do this by reminding us of just how degraded women had become and the male responsibility for it. While the feminine itself was not evil (it is neither good nor evil) it can become so when used by men as an excuse for shirking their duty, which is what he saw happening in the culture surrounding him. So the feminine, as it inhered in men, was his principle target.

        Weininger’s big mistake—he was only 22 at the time he wrote Sex and Character—was that he was not cynical enough to imagine how he would be read.

        Translation

        The standard translation of Sex and Character now is that by Ladislaus Löb (Indiana University Press, 2005).

        You might want to read Stephenson’s book side by side with Weininger’s. And perhaps also Sylviane Agacinski’s recent attack on the current notions of sexual equality entitled Parity of the Sexes. Neither of these women cites Weininger but their ideas nicely complement his.

  3. Henock Zewdie permalink
    May 13, 2010 12:36 pm

    Otto must have had a mommy issue.

  4. Mary Milec permalink
    May 13, 2010 4:42 pm

    Tonya, can you point out which one is Maria Mihalic in the first 2 pictures?
    Thanks,
    Mary

    • May 13, 2010 4:50 pm

      Yes, she is the one standing at the back in the first one, and the one on the left in the second one.

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