Curious Personalities – Best Known Croatian Women

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I announced this podcast would occasionally contain stories about curious historical personalities. You know what? It’s been a week since International Women’s Day. And this particular Women’s Day, my Facebook timeline was full of inspiring quotes and remembrance of interesting women. I even personally received several “Happy Women’s Day” notices and had an extra urge to send some, too. I don’t know if it’s just me, because, if I understood well from the Netflix’s “Social Dilemma”, you get the kind of timeline you agree with… but it sure felt that this Women’s Day was by far the most marked one in Croatia since Croatia left Yugoslavia. Red carnation flowers are still not fully back in business, because they’re probably still too associated with the socialist times, but more and more initiatives are claiming them back. After all, they are the original symbol of gender equality since the first International Women’s Day.

Back to my question: you know what? It’s been a week since the Women’s Day! And nobody. Talks. About women. Anymore. That’s why, in the first Croatia Underrated episode dedicated to curious historical personalities,  I’m going to talk about “the B-side of history”, and that’s herstory: about Croatian women. After all, I started this podcast in March – female history month – so it’s only fair to talk about women.

Beware, tough, because I will keep mentioning them throughout the year, just as well.

In this episode, I want to mention specifically two women who are very idolised throughout Croatia. Before I say something about them, I’d like you to think about  two important women for your country.

I know, it’s not always easy to remember as much as two nationally recognised women at first glance. Which only proves how important it is to mention them over and over again.

However, I would dare to guess that you could think of some Croatian women, if you would think about it for a while?

Take our previous president – Kolinda Grabar Kitarović. During the time of Kolinda’s presidency, we weren’t as impressed as most of the observers from outside of the country. But throughout her mandate, I didn’t get a single guest on my tours that wasn’t completely amazed by our presidentess, if I might use a female word. She won over the world with her  cheering for the football team in her red-and-white shirt, completely breaking the protocols during the matches!

Oh, no, does every conversation in Croatia need to come down to football/soccer? If you really want to talk about football, let’s talk about Maca Maradona. That’s the nickname of the talented footballer Marija Matuzić. Even for most feminists, football seems off-topic. But when I worked for the football club, I was so saddened by the lack of chances the women face in that world when many girls are equally inspired by Luka Modrić as boys. That’s why I’m eager to mention a Croatian 1500-times-scorer, still playing in her sixties! – that happens to be a woman, Marija Matuzić.

Forget about football for once and switch to winter sports. You might be familiar with Croatian wonder-woman Janica Kostelić, a skier who won 4 Olympic golds and, throughout her career outran all the Canadians, Americans, and overall anyone who was born and raised around ski resorts. Croatia is known for its natural beauty and diversity, but Alps or true ski resorts are not a part of it. The woman literally beat all the odds to become the best female skier.

If you are my contemporary, there is a chance you might have heard about two Croatian women – Kolinda and Janica. But if you lived a century ago, there would be a very good chance you’d know about another Croatian woman. Especially if you were a member of the upper class, nobility, or you were simply a party animal (read: opera fan). There is no way in this world you wouldn’t know about a very unique woman from Croatia

No Tosca can compare to her Tosca, said Puccini, the author of Tosca.

Munich opera – she landed a job. Of a primadona. And stayed there for 15 years.

New York, London, Paris? You name it, she sang there. And owned the stages.

If you ever visited the mesmerising Plitvice Lakes national park in Croatia, you have seen waterfalls named after her.

Difficult Wagnerian operas – say no more, she’s got it covered.

Actually, she was such a great performer of Wagner’s operas….that rumor has it: a Swiss chocolate producer and Wagner aficionado named his new chocolate “Milka” after that absolute 19th century rockstar of Croatian origin – Milka Trnina.

Even with all these superstars, I think that if there was a survey asking Croatian people to choose two most famous women from our history, two different women would be the first ones to come to mind.

One of them is Ivana Brlić Mažuranić. She was a writer, most famous for her children books. Yup, everyone likes to cherish this mental picture about one of the greatest Croatian storytellers, somewhat of a great mum of all of the Croatian children who are all brought up on her books. To adults, she means even more as she was a passionate collector of Slavic legends that she turned into her fairytales. Her archaic language, her mythical characters, her giants and fairies, underground creatures and witches, they all feel like they’re unlocking the path to the ancient truths of the tribes that lived in this part of Europe centuries ago.

An old 1920s translation of her book Croatian Tales of Long Ago (Priče iz davnine) is available as a free ebook online.

This shows that she was acclaimed internationally. But we don’t think about that much. We are not as proud with her being widely recognised, as much as we feel pride when we think about her literature. There is some invisible connection, I would almost think of it as the books were written for each of us personally. It might be because she is an inseparable part of each person’s childhood, but the truth is – I can’t really explain how we feel about her. We idolise her and she’s symbolic for Croatia.

I would love to hear how you feel about her tales? Remember, Croatian Tales of Long Ago.

The other iconic female personality is Marija Jurić Zagorka, one of the most popular personalities of Zagreb. Probably the most popular one. I haven’t really done a survey, but I’ve seen the looks on the faces of people when I start talking about her (if they’re not from Croatia and didn’t know about her before) or when I mention her at all (if they are from Croatia). I especially love the fact that whenever people talk about her, nobody even thinks about her private life. Was she married? Did she have any kids? People don’t really care, they want to hear about her. I’m not going to bother to answer those questions either at this time.

But I’m still going to be perfectly unfair to her, and only mention that she was the first woman political reporter in Croatia, one of the founders of Croatian journalistic society, a bestselling writer, an activist and an empowerer. The main characters of her novels were women. And sometimes, people asked her: how did she even get the inspiration, where did she find the inspiration for such characters?

She responded: “All you need to do is look around you and you will find an army of unknown heroines on each path of life.”

There’s so much to tell about Zagorka. She was the town’s most cherished badass. I feel like there is a special kind of respect for her because she never feared to stand up for what she felt was right. Or to challenge anyone who was – fake, to simplify it. The integrity of that woman is what keeps us inspired to this day. The integrity and the deep understanding of weaknesses of others. That’s at least how I see her. If tolerance was a person, it would be Zagorka. Also, if fighting for what you believe in was a person, it would be Zagorka. You probably know that it’s hard to combine those two. But it’s really hard to find, when you read about her, any hatred in her writings. Only strong challenging thought-provoking words.

I’m saying I’m unfair to her because it’s not fair only to mention her like this. I should be talking about her a whole lot more.

Zagorka is definitely one of those people who is an inseparable part of a city, in this case Zagreb. Representing Zagreb without bringing up Zagorka would simply not be true. It makes me kind of proud to be living in a city, story of which can not be told without – a woman. There are still not many cities like that in the world, unfortunately.  

Both Ivana and Marija lived in my hometown of Zagreb for a while. Ivana spent a part of childhood and her last years in Zagreb. Marija lived in Zagreb most of her life. This is just my opinion, but I have a hunch, if there was a survey (another fictional survey) of the most relateble and popular personalities in Croatian history, not just women, that the two of them would be very high on the list.

Women can do anything, Croatia proves that and so does, probably, your country. But the anything comes with a tag. “Hot”, “c**t”, “stupid”, “trash”, “hysteric”, are just a few derogatory words the above mentioned women had to deal with. Well, let’s add to that count the word “badass”. You might have noticed that I’m quite passionate about this topic and, quite conveniently, I run a walking tour called Badass Women of Zagreb as a part of my Secret Zagreb program. It’s not a tour about bank robbers or gang members that I’m sure would be badass, too. It’s a tour that shares stories about a number of women who stood up for what they believed in and moved on, even if it was a tiny step ahead of the society of the time, thus making way for the rest of us.

The Women’s Day is behind us, the female history month is still here and the World Storytelling Day is just around the corner on March 20 with a topic of New Beginnings.

Isn’t it cool that Croatia cherishes the memory of its two female storytellers Ivana and Marija so fondly? And wouldn’t a new beginning be finally recognising all the great women, breaking the glass ceiling once and for all and reaching that equality?

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