Rousse Regional Museum of History
"All that I experienced afterwards had already been in Roustchouk". Elias Canetti
The Women’s Associations in Rousse
from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century

Reneta Roshkeva, Curator at the “History of Bulgaria 15th-19th century” Department

In the traditional Bulgarian society of the second quarter of the 19th century the women were in a better position in comparison to the Muslim women. This comes mostly from their engagement to the agrarian labor, as well as to religion. Despite that the Bulgarian women also remained within the private family space with their education continuing to be considered unnecessary and inappropriate for their nature. However, with the strengthening of the national propensities the opinions for the education of the female gender are brought in front with the argument that thus the women will be able to execute better their responsibilities (“duties”) of housewives and mothers. A women’s association was founded in Rousse (“Stopanka”, December 1869), whose aims were the enlightenment, the support of women’s education, and charity. Generally, these were the tasks of most of the women’s organizations prior to the Liberation, and even after that many of the associations continued to deal with the same problems within the new conditions of liberated Bulgaria.

"Stopanka" (meaning “Housewife”) existed for 8 years (December 1869 – 1878) with 208 women being members in it. Three times a week two supervisors, chosen each week by the trusteeship, toured around the girls’ schools in town and looked for troubles and their appropriate functioning. This engagement and the good work of the women was the occasion for the Bulgarian town municipality to vote in 1874 confidence to the association and to decide “to elect a trusteeship of the girls’ schools by the women’s association”. Funds were gathered, except by membership dues, also through donations, lotteries, the support of all of the concerned sides was required in order to improve the girls’ education in town. Thanks to the women’s association in 1872 was opened the new building of the Varosh Girls’ School, and finances were gained for two neighborhood schools as well. Funds, clothes and textbooks for poor girls, scholarships for continuing their education in an upper class – these were the main activities of the association. Talks were given, a library was organized, as well as a Sunday school for women. “Stopanka” also joined into the work of the public library and supported the implementation of theatrical performances. Charity, typical for the women’s associations, was also manifested at the support for the participants of the liberation movement (through funding Grandmother Tonka, collecting money, clothes and shoes for the suffered during the April Uprising and of the Russo-Turkish Liberation War in 1877-1878).

After the Liberation, in 1882 the activity of the women’s association in town was renewed, but now gaining the name of “Dobrodetel” (meaning “Virtue”). Its activity in the period prior to the 1890s was not so large (there is information for charity, related to the Serbian-Bulgarian War of 1885), but in the last decade of the century it stated its claims for a leading role among the Rousse women. As early as 1892 it funded the construction of a building and opened the first nursery in town. From 1895 to 1945 it supported the Girls’ Professional School, where specialized education in tailoring of many girls, and thus granting them the opportunity to find an occupation of their own. In 1907 the association opened a Orphanage, where a lot of orphans from refugee families from Southern Thrace received accommodation during the Balkan Wars. Here a shelter was granted to 80 children per year. In 1926 the Orphanage was granted, along with its entire inventory, to the state. In 1924 “Dobrodetel”, together with the Christian association “Benevolence-Joseph I”, opened and jointly maintained up to the middle of the century a home for old people for around 20 men and women at an age over 60 years. Starting in 1928 the association had a free soup-kitchen for schoolgirls and schoolboys, with around 70 to 110 children eating there every day. In 1938 was opened the Housewives-maternal school, where girls who have not finished their education, received additional skills for the family and at the same time they took care of socially disadvantaged children: at the kindergarten and in mangers at the school. The “Dobrodetel” Association existed during the entire period after the Liberation: it was a member of the Bulgarian Women’s Union in 1901, in the Bulgarian section of the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom. It had its own youth cultural-education organization, called “Pchelichki” (meaning “Little Bees”), headed by Tonka Obretenova-Prosenichkova. It took active participation in all of the charity initiatives in town, in the work of the Rousse branch of the “Red Cross” association and of the Union for the Protection of Children. Chairwomen of the association were Nedyalka Gateva, Dimitrana Ivanova (later chairwomen of the Bulgarian Women’s Union), Maria Biserova, Despina Nacheva.

The second in popularity women’s association in the period between the wars is “Zakrila” (meaning “Protection”), founded in 1929 with the aim of “material and moral protection of girls and women”, which are forced to continue their education in Rousse or to look for work here. This is a work of a group of pedagogues, headed by the former teacher of the Girls’ High School Zdravka Kancheva, which was also its chairwoman for many years. Some of her substitutes were Zdrava Stoycheva, Radka Sharankova, Svoboda Tincheva. The association arranged a home-boarding school with the name “Zakrila” for girls, and from 1933 – for boys. It conducted education activities, gathered finances for scholarships and gave free lunches and dinners. With an eye on the ease of the working women during the summer vacation months, “Zakrila” opened and maintained three summer playgrounds – in the center, behind the “St. George” Cinema and behind the “Bratya Miladinovi” School (1930-1935), where the children were playing during the whole day under the care of prepared tutors. Since the beginning of the century in Rousse, in parallel to other large towns, the servant-ship was shaped as a social class, which also turned out to be one of the weakest issues of the then society. The protection of the association was also spread over the girls, who have arrived from their villages to look for work, and in 1932 it opened a Servant’s Bureau (existed up to 1935), which mediated between them and their hirers. There was also a dormitory for the work candidates. For several years the association also arranged summer colonies (camps) for socially disadvantaged girls at the “St. Marina” holy spring.

Another women’s organization in town (founded in 1926) is the Rousse branch of the Union “Lyubov kam rodinata” (meaning “Love to the Motherland”). Its activity is subdued to patriotism as a founding virtue and to the slogan “Work only for Bulgaria!”. The woman is presented with the “great mission” – the continuation of the Bulgarian nation, as well as with the requirement to educate in patriotism, modesty and honesty; to be perfect in her assignment as a mother, wife, daughter and a Bulgarian. Of course, the traditional charity is also present here, but it is more or less subdued to patriotism in the characteristics of the organization. From 1936 the association supports a school for “children who are late in their development”, responding to the necessity of such a facility in town. Chairwomen – Evgenia Konstantinova and Boyana Ivanova.

The Women’s Cooperative Society in Rousse united the “cooperating women and the contributors to cooperatives” and was a member of the Union of Cooperative Women in Bulgaria with a seat in Sofia. The aim of the Rousse women’s cooperative group, as well as of the other such societies, was to “raise the cooperative consciousness of the woman and to win her for the cooperative deeds”. In general, it is an education organization. The main activity was to give talks, meetings, where the problems of the cooperative work are to be discussed, celebrating the main activists. In parallel, this society took moral and material care for the young gifted people of Rousse from the sphere of music – it settled their concerts and the gathered finances were transferred for finishing their education (Rayna Getsova, Otto Libich). The society was headed by Tonka Pobornikova.

Since February 1934 in Rousse also existed a women’s cultural-educational charity association “Dobrudzha”. It dealt with problems of Bulgarian refugee-women from Southern Dobrudzha, who have left their birthplaces (with its annexation by Romania as a result of the peace treaty of Neuilly after the first World War) with their material and spiritual support. The association developed a wide charity activity: a Sunday school for illiterate women, summer camps, delivering clothes and food to the people in need, support for the sick, for orphans. Chairwoman – Anastasia Bozhkova.

The Interwar period saw an increased establishment of various association, who took care of part of the social problems in the society. Within the system of the charity organizations were also included these of the different ethnicities in town. The “Milostiv krast” (Katotyan hach, meaning Mercifull Cross) organization was a member of the Union for the Protection of Children in Bulgaria and of the “Public Support” Union, as well most of the organizations, listed above. It took responsibility for the support of a school soup-kitchen at the Armenian school “Mesrobyan” in town. Winter actions were also organized for gathering shoes, clothes, as well as fuel, food, money, medicines, healthcare for the people in need from the community. The association also supported the existence of a kindergarten at the church. In the last years of its existence, the association was chaired by Mannik Vartanyan.

Within the examined period the Jewish community supported three women’s associations, among which “Etz Chaim”, founded in 1899, had the aim of supporting the poor sick members of the Jewish “Sephardic” community. Chairwomen were Mrs. M. Salonikio, Mrs. Benvenisti, Mrs. M. Ventura. With an underlined nationalistic program was the Women’s International Zionistic Organization “Wizo”, founded after 1926, chaired after 1933 by Fani Dr. Kapon. Its place within the community also had the Women’s Bene-Berith Association “Bet Yakob”, headed by Rashel Iskovich.

The women-workers in most of the cases consider that the full equality of rights of women is impossible within the frames of the Bulgarian bourgeois society and could only be achieved after the victory of the considered to be more progressive communist public order. Thus, they did not join to the other women’s associations, but became part of the workers’ organizations. After the First World War a women’s group (Women’s Education Social-democratic group, chaired by Zlata Tokusheva) was established by the Social-democrats of Rousse, whose aim was the Marxist education and propaganda among the women.
The enlightenment was at the basis of the Women’s Railway Society founded in Rousse in 1940, as a section of the organization of the Bulgarian railway workers and seamen in the District of Rousse. Its task was the improvement in terms of culture and healthcare of the families of this part of the Bulgarian workers.

For a certain period of time through the years other women’s associations existed as well. A Macedonian Women’s Association, called “Ekaterina Simitchieva” in the beginning of the 20th century was the second largest in town after “Dobrodetel”. It dealt exclusively with charity in favour of the Bulgarian population in Macedonia. The associations of “Rila” and “Radost” are also mentioned, there is no evidence for them.

The image of the women’s activity, outlined like that, for a century showed a presence of large-scale charity, education in patriotic and patriarchal spirit, support of the women-mothers and their children, and at the case of “Dobrodetel” – requests for civic equality of rights of the women in Bulgaria after the Liberation.