Júlia Pintír: The “Woman Question”
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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
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.