Lithuanian Culture Institute

100 Years in One Month: 17 February

Lithuanian Culture Institute
Photo of woman

Aleksandras Jurašaitis, Vilnius theatre actor Elena Kasperskaitė-Rucevičienė in a costume symbolising Lithuanian culture, Vilnius, 1912, silver print, Lithuanian Theatre, Music and Film Museum.

On 17 February 1918 women gathered at a protest in Kaunas. The signatories of the Act of Independence had betrayed them – not a single woman had been invited on to the Council of Lithuania, even though here had been discussions to that effect. Hardened by the struggle, the female participants in the movement for national revival already knew that they could not back down, and they knew how to act. Shortly afterwards they presented the Council with a petition signed by 20,000 inhabitants of Lithuania.

Three decades earlier the men themselves had brought women into political activities. The Tsarist authorities persecuted the male distributors of the banned Lithuanian press, but paid no attention to women, and for this reason they were able to take the place of the men. In short time, the educated noblewomen began to band together in organisations, which set themselves a double goal: not only to strive for national freedom, but also equal rights with men.

One of the most active of these women – Felicija Povickaitė-Bortkevičienė – edited the Workers’ Party’s newspaper Lietuvos ūkininkas (The Lithuanian Farmer), while the writer Gabrielė Petkevičaitė-Bitė edited its acerbic feminist supplement Žibutė (The Violet). The Lithuanian Catholic women’s association in its publication Lietuvaitė (The Lithuanian Young Woman) promoted the image of the ideal type of women-Catholic-intellectuals. United together, women of different political views managed to have the right to vote included in the Temporary Constitution passed in November 1918 – earlier than in the majority of the countries in the world.

Although, with the beginning of the battles for independence, women were not allowed to join the military, they made good scouts, organised help to the armed forces and courses for nurses, wrote letters to the Holy Father, urging him ‘to advise the Poles to stop attacking Lithuania’. Women made up 3 to 5 per cent of the members of the Seimas and consistently supported laws supporting equal rights. However, in 1926 the Nationalists who took power in a coup pushed women out of politics. A campaign was begun of ‘returning women to the family’, which became particularly strong during the years of the global economic crisis. While not daring to openly violate the principle of equality enshrined in the constitution, the authoritarian government ordered that spouses earning less money be dismissed from the civil service – and these most often were women. It was announced that women were less mature to undertake responsibility and ‘to resist alien influences’. The later authoritarian and generally speaking not particularly democratic election law was adjusted so that persons who did not control property or businesses – and those were mainly women – could not vote. Having lost the opportunity to work, women hurried to undertake courses of study – out of 23 countries Lithuania held the fifth place in the number of educated women. Besides that, their associations cared for the poor, set up charitable and care institutions, as well as children’s nurseries, and raised the question of the return of Vilnius in international women’s organisations. The feminist vision of Lithuania was passed down to the next generation. In 1927, parents who sent in photographs of their children to the Children’s Beauty Contest announced in the periodical Naujas žodis (The New Word) hoped that their daughters would become more than just good housewives. A five-year-old, posed like Eduard Manet’s Olympia, would have ‘to be of strong character, a good daughter of the nation, a democratic friend of the people and a fighter for women’s rights’.

Agnė Narušytė