History’s Hall of Fame is reserved for the most brilliant and amazing people ever to have walked the earth. At a time of patriarchy, which in the Balkans ruled supreme up until only a century ago, to be a woman and get into a school, let alone history, required strength, wisdom, courage and stamina – and only then, achievement. So, as an inspiration for the year ahead of us, we selected some of the ladies whose vision and audacity cleared the path we walk today.
Helen of Anjou (approx. 1236 – 1314)
Wife of King Uroš I Nemanjić, the only woman whose life was described in a biography at the time, a queen with a halo, is probably one of the most intriguing queens in Serbian history. Historians have long speculated about her origins. There are sources claiming she was related to Charles I of Anjou, King of Naples and Sicily, as well as documents claiming her to be the grand-daughter of the sister of the Latin emperor Baldwin II.
She ruled the country of Queen Jelena on her own, under the title Jelena Queen of Serbia, Duklja, Albania, Hum, Dalmatia and Coastal Regions. This confirmed title was especially emphasized in European countries, in Latin.
The legend of her first meeting with Uroš I inscribed the world history of romance. To woo his future wife, King Uroš planted lilacs along kilometres of road from the coast to the capital – the entire road Helen of Anjou travelled, from the moment she disembarked her ship and set foot on Serbian soil, to the moment she first met King Uroš I. The King embellished the wild landscape of Serbia with lilacs, it is believed, to remind Helen of Anjou of Provence.
Helen of Anjou was certainly a woman ahead of her times, worthy of all the attention the King devoted to her. She founded the first school for noble-born girls in Serbia, organized the copying of books which she later gave away as gifts, and in her court in Brnjaci, in the North of Metohija, she had a library and a special school for impoverished girls. Her most famous legacy is the wonderous monastery of Gradac, where she was buried.
Milunka Savić (1890–1973)
Serbian heroine of the Balkan Wars and World War I, sergeant in the Second Regiment „Knjaz Mihailo“, had a life reminiscent of a movie script. Under the name of Milun Savić, she enlisted at one of the mobilisation points in Belgrade to go to the front, during a massive response to a mobilisation call. Even though she was a very beautiful girl, she was not interested in getting married. She fought dressed as a man in the Balkan Wars for almost a year, until she was wounded at the Battle of Bregalnica, when the medical staff discovered her true gender.
After a very brief time of peace, World War I started and Milunka re-enlisted as a volunteer. She was a member of the „Iron Regiment“ and a sergeant in the elite Second Regiment of the Serbian Army „Knjaz Mihailo“. After the Battle of Kolubara, where she also proved herself an excellent bomber, she was decorated with two French Legions of Honour and a „Miloš Obilić“ medal, and is the only woman decorated with the French Croix du Guerre with the Golden Palm. As she was a woman of immeasurable courage and military ability and, at the same time, the woman with most decorations in the history of warfare, the French called Milunka Savić „Serbian Joan of Arc“.
After the war, she spent her working years as a cleaner, declining offers to move to France and live the life of a war heroine. Surrounded by grandchildren and friends, also war veterans, she lived to an old age in her home in Voždovac, in Belgrade.
Nadežda Petrović (1873–1915)
The most important Serbian artist from the beginning of the 20th century introduced expressionism into Serbian art and with it, brought Serbian it in line with the trends of contemporary European art. As she developed as an artist, Nadežda Petrović was educated in Europe and visited the European painting centres. Experience acquired in Europe and her sensibility merged in her work, marked by traditional Serbian scenes. Thus, her paintings can be classified as belonging to Munich Period, Serbian Period, Parisian Period and War Period. Her most significant and striking paintings are characterized by vast surfaces, which suited her especially well. In terms of themes, she preferred portraits and landscapes. In line with the modern tendencies of her age, she was fascinated with intense colours and colouristic vortices which can be seen in her canvases, with emphasis on red and its complementary colour, green. The connection Nadežda Petrović felt with Serbia marked her art, through which she often painted the people and landscapes of Serbia. Her love for her country was also expressed through brave humanitarian work. She was one of the founders of the humanitarian organisation Kolo Srpskih Sestara, founded in 1903 as a response to the exile of Christians after the Ilinden uprising. During the Balkan Wars and World War I, she took up a camera and was remembered as the first woman – war photographer in this region.
Mileva Marić Einstein (1895–1948)
Serbian mathematician, wife and associate of Albert Einstein. She was educated in Zurich, where she met Einstein, fell in love with him and then married him, after a series of tumultuous events caused by the resistance of Albert’s family to their marriage. From their student days, the spouses shared their scientific ideas and cooperated in their research. She was an exemplary student, so she was offered the position of an assistant, which she gave up – because Albert was not offered a place due to his conflict with his professors. Throughout her scientific career, Mileva tried not to outshine Albert. She remained in his shadow for the rest of her days, but not in the shadows of science history. The marriage that started as a fairy tale ended in a divorce, which was very painful for Mileva, after which Albert Einstein moved to the United States.
As the theory of relativity was conceived prior to Albert and Mileva’s divorce, the scientific public speculated about her role in Einstein’s scientific achievements. These speculations intensified after Einstein was awarded a Nobel Prize which he then decided to give to his ex-wife as a gift. Mileva Marić’s scientific contribution would remain hidden under a veil of speculation, primarily because she always strove to hide them. Still, she is recorded in the world history of science not only as the wife, but also as probably the closest associate of one of the greatest minds in world history.
Jelisaveta Načić (1878–1955)
The first woman architect in Serbia managed to break down all the barriers of patriarchy and win the battles for permits and large projects, of which some are still notable landmarks that the Serbian capital is famous for. She was the only woman employed in the Division of Architecture and Engineering in Belgrade Municipality.
Probably the most monumental project designed by Jelisaveta Načić was the Primary School next to the Central Cathedral in Belgrade, now named after King Petar I. She participated in the works on Kalemegdan embellishment, in line with the design of the famous architect Dimitrije T. Lek. The small staircase in neo-baroque style, leading from Savska Aleja in Kalemegdan to Pariska Street was her design, as was the fence of the Sava promenade, which was built with styled vases on stone pedestals in the spirit of the Secession. The fence was demolished in World War I. The cult project of dividing Terazije in Belgrade into two parts and placing the sculpture of the „Victor“ by Ivan Meštrović in the middle, was the project of none other than Jelisaveta Načić. However, the statue was too liberal for Belgrade at the beginning of the 20th century, when it was unthinkable that a naked man should stand in the middle of the key pedestrian zone. The concept was abandoned and the Victor of Belgrade was placed in Kalemegdan, where it still stands as Belgrade’s most prominent landmark.
Still, to commemorate the return of the Serbian Army from the Balkan Wars, in 1913, Jelisaveta Načić erected an arc in Terazije, with the words „There are still Serbs to liberate“ written on it. This interrupted her career, which had been unbelievable for the times, in 1916, when she was sent to an internment camp in Hungary. It was here that she met her future husband, the intellectual Luka Lukaj, with whom she later had a daughter.
By: Miljana Nešković