Semiotic power of Her story

Ana Pavlic


Ana Pavlić (MA in Political Science) works as a Project Manager in The Marija Jurić Zagorka Memorial Apartment, governed by the Centre for Women’s Studies in Zagreb, Croatia. From 2014 she has been organising Marija Jurić Zagorka’s Days – literary and scientific symposium in her honour.

Giving up my pen means giving up my life.

Marija Jurić Zagorka, The Stone on the Road [1]


Birth of the feminist icon

Zagorka was the first professional political journalist in Croatia and South East Europe, a women’s rights’ advocate, one of the most widely-read Croatian writers ever, a co-founder of the Croatian Journalists Association, a novelist, a playwright, a screenwriter, one of the early pioneers of science fiction, the founder of the first women’s trade union organization in Croatia, and the list could continue. This is what makes Marija Jurić Zagorka a true feminist icon.

Born on March 2, 1873 and raised in a wealthy family, Zagorka was well educated but in the end married a Hungarian railway chief more than a decade her senior. After spending three unhappy years in Hungary, she finally escaped her destiny to become a wife and a “guardian of the hearth” and returned to Croatia to begin her career as a journalist. Her contribution to the narrative of women as citizens is enormous and in many ways unique. Low visibility of Zagorka’s work in world literature, journalism and historiography must be corrected due to her female standpoint and the politics and policies she advocated for. Her importance in contemporary writing and critical thinking is most valuable.

Her past became my future and my story and her story began to merge (Vujnovic, 2009) is a sentence that perfectly describes women’s position back in Zagorka’s time and today alike – the position heavily marked by gender inequality. If we want to investigate the reasons behind the growth of the women’s liberation movements and culture, we must go back to the Interwar era in all of its interplay between modernity and the challenges towards the same, (that) offered another historical opportunity to challenge the traditional(…) (Roberts in Vujnovic, 2009). A new class of working women marked the era as a large number of women entered the labour market, women who challenged both gender and sexual taboos. The new woman was born!

Woman with an iron pen

The recommendation and support of Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer gave Zagorka the opportunity to work as a politically engaged journalist. Her first article Egy Percz (One moment) was published in 1896 in the journal Obzor (Horizon), as an instance of political and social revolt against Hungarization. She reported about political events from the common Budapest Parliament and was a correspondent from Budapest and Vienna.[2] But as it was hard to imagine a woman working in this traditional male profession at the time, she worked hidden in a separate attic room, behind the curtain. As a writer, she could not allow herself the luxury of being discouraged, instead, her situation gave her feminist activism a boost!

Her participation in political struggles resulted in organizing the first women’s protest in Zagreb in 1903. During the political persecution of the two editors of Obzor, she edited the journal herself without recognition from, and despite the political will of, the formal authorities. At the same time, she gave lectures on women in politics, solidarity and the national struggle for women. In 1925, she launched Ženski list (Female paper), the first women’s magazine in Croatia, and edited it. In 1938, after leaving Ženski list, she founded Hrvatica (Croatian woman) – a feminist newspaper that she invested all her assets in.

Zagorka worked from her home at Dolac 8, where she had the most wonderful view of the market. She wrote polemical texts that advocated gender equality and women’s rights (women’s suffrage, the right to education, the right to property and profession). Her assets were confiscated during WWII and during the censorship era Hrvatica stopped being published. She survived the resulting poverty thanks to the help of her subscribers and admirers. She died in her flat in 1957 and was buried in the arcades of the Mirogoj cemetery.

Today, her heritage is preserved in the Marija Jurić Zagorka Memorial Apartment [3] at the same location where she edited Hrvatica. Still, there are many women following her footsteps.

(Re)reading Zagorka[4]

Even 143 years after she was born, Zagorka’s body of work—comprising comedies, novels, one-act plays and satires—remains contemporary. Her subversive potential is evident in each move of her quill pen and is widely (re)read in contemporary pop culture in Croatia, as well as in women’s history and écriture féminine. In her literary, journalistic and activist work she takes into consideration the relationship between work and gender, seeing women’s right to work as an important factor in pursuing (economic) freedom. Women’s work (in teaching and writing) represents a way of resistance of the heroines she created – resistance to imposed marriage and a door to liberation (Dremel, 2014).

Her characters are heroines from different social classes and she especially shows solidarity with working class women, which makes her a contemporary thinker, aware that the labour division is an indicator of sex/gender roles in society. As intersectional changes in economic, family and cultural spheres taking place in the process of modernization evoked different political answers which only declaratively implied gender equality (Walby in Dremel 2014), it is nowadays important to critically investigate these factors and their meaning.

Subjugation of women was an important part of Zagorka’s intimate life. She was mistreated in her childhood and harassed during her professional life but instead of being the martyr she was critical towards the status of women and she (re)gained her power through knowledge, authorship and most importantly – work. Therefore, she created the characters of strong women, clever and sly, determined and courageous, advocating for human rights, always active – the subjects of historical events.

Zagorka’s most widely read novel Grička vještica (Witch from Grič) introduces the female character  countess Nera, who is a modern superhero with a special power for saving women from witch-hunts. Her character and the characters of the “witches” from the novel were based on historical persons, documents and events. Women labelled as witches were peasant women, bakers, beautiful young women who refused sexual offers from men of power or were competition to men on the entrepreneurial labour market.

In her novel Mala revolucionarka (Young revolutionary) the main character Zlatica is political, autonomous, actively involved in the national movement during 1903. Noble Dorja is a traveller and fugitive under inquisition in Plameni inkvizitori (Flaming inquisition). In Magjari o Strossmayeru (Hungarians about Strossmayer) a housewife gives her guest a lesson about the importance of women’s roles in society. Manduša, a character from Kći Lotršćaka (The daughter of Lotršćak) grew up in a society where she was raised to be married, but unfortunately because of her “wrong breed” she was excommunicated from that same society. In spite of the society, she marries an unknown robber to save him from the death penalty. Jadranka, the main character from the novel Jadranka advocates for women’s right to work, for occupation as a source of economic independence.   


Zagorka’s legacy 

Being independent and living restlessly, Zagorka was a “thorn in one’s side” of different political systems. According to Vujnović (2009), “Zagorka had tried to understand the power of the growing mass culture during the times when Croatia was undergoing transitions from feudal to capitalistic society and during the transition from one multinational and imperial state (Austria-Hungary) to another multinational and heavily centralized state, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.”  Zagreb, where Zagorka lived, was the most developed city at the time. Being a female journalist, and especially sassy and straightforward as she was, meant experiencing professional and political degradation from male journalists, editors and the political establishment. Luckily, her voice was supported from the most prominent intellectuals at the time. Interestingly enough, her 10th anniversary of journalistic work was publicly celebrated during the 1907 Congress of Journalists in Budapest among her male colleagues, and her work was honoured in foreign media for her 30th anniversary.

For her journalistic work she was offered money and positions from German and Hungarian media owners for keeping the status quo, but instead, during the Interwar Period, she founded female/feminist magazines in order to defend national language and promote women’s rights. Debates on gender and class were brought to the public sphere because she was brave enough for this solitary life.  Women in the Interwar Period were not equal to men, “they were not allowed to be judges, but discriminatory treatment also existed on the levels of civil society and the economy… Women living in different geographical areas of the new state were experiencing significantly different legal, social, economic and cultural conditions… Most of the regulations on women’s lives were subsumed under marriage laws… Domaće ognjiše (Home Fires), the professional magazine for women teachers published in Croatia, initiated a public discussion about the 1888 Austria-Hungarian law that had installed celibacy for women teachers. This law regulated employment practices until 1929 Law on regulation of public education was passed. However, in 1937, an amendment that suggested that all women teachers who entered marriage would be released from their position as teachers evoked the 1888 Austria-Hungary law“ (Vujnovic, 2009).

Throughout her literary work, Zagorka wrote about historical events and persons and advocated for everything she believed in: women’s right to education, work, economic independence, the right to vote and equality between men and women. Even though her work is sometimes referred to as trivial, the consumption of her literary works was an empowering endeavour to bring women out of the bedroom and kitchen – to the public domain. This remains her legacy.




[1] Marija Jurić Zagorka, The Stone on the Road, Zagreb, Školska knjiga, 2008.

[2] She was the only female political journalist in the South East European region that reported from the Budapest Parliament within the Austro-Hungarian Empire that Croatia was a part of, due to her critical thinking, objective reasoning and knowledge of Hungarian and Croatian and was the only journalist that interviewed Heinrich Friedjung during the Friedjung trial.

[3] The Marija Jurić Zagorka Memorial Apartment is governed by the Centre for Women’s Studies.  Founded in 1995 by a group of theoreticians and scientists, feminists, peace activists and artists, the Centre fosters multi and interdisciplinary studies of women’s issues in Croatia and is the place of academic discourse, activism, and artistic practices, organized through education, research, publishing, library activities, cultural events, advocacy of gender equality and women’s studies.

[4] Marija Jurić Zagorka’s Days – literary and scientific symposium organized in her honour from 2007.


Sources and further reading

Dremel A. 2014. (ur.) Što žena umije Zagreb: Centar za ženske studije, 7-13.

Grgić, K. 2009. Marija Jurić Zagorka i kanon modernizma. U: Maša Grdešić (ur.). Mala revolucionarka: Zagorka, feminizam i popularna kultura.Zagreb: Centar za ženske studije, 17-35.

Jakobović Fribec, S. 2011. Zagreb in Zagorka’s footsteps. Zagreb. Centre for Women’s Studies.

Kolanović, M. 2008. Zagorkin popularni feminizam u međuprožimanju novinskih tekstova i romansi. U: Maša Grdešić i Slavica Jakobović Fribec (ur.) Neznana junakinja – nova čitanja Zagorke. Zagreb: Centar za ženske studije, 203-220.

Matijašević, Ž. 2008. Jaganjac božji koji pre-uzima grijehe svijeta: identitet u Kamenu na cesti Marije Jurić Zagorke. U: Maša Grdešić i Slavica Jakobović Fribec (ur.) Neznana junakinja – nova čitanja Zagorke. Zagreb: Centar za ženske studije, 343-356.

Šakić,T.2008. Zagorka i počeci hrvatske znanstvene fantastike. U: Maša Grdešić i Slavica Jakobović Fribec (ur.) Neznana junakinja – nova čitanja Zagorke. Zagreb: Centar za ženske studije, 181-202.

Vujnović, M. 2008. The emergence of Ženski list in the context of interwar Croatia and the Bubikopf debate. U: Maša Grdešić i Slavica Jakobović Fribec (ur.) Neznana junakinja – nova čitanja Zagorke. Zagreb: Centar za ženske studije, 237-256.

Vujnović, M. 2009. Forging the Bubikopf Nation. New York. Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.