Our Sisters: A selection of female Latvian fairy tales

In cooperation with the Satori.lv magazine, we present another of the pieces which appeared in the final installment of the Centenary Magazine, paid for by the Culture Ministry. This piece by journalist Santa Remere sketches out the ascent of women's suffrage in Latvia and offers a selection of feminist fairy tales relating the stories of powerful Latvian women. 

This year, along with the centenary of the state we can theoretically mark a hundred years since Latvian women gained the right to vote. Women’s suffrage became effective together with the proclamation of the Latvian state [1] and was first exercised in the 1920 Latvian Constitutional Assembly election. Even though, unlike the French, the English or other westerners, we can’t take pride in having a suffrage movement of our own, Latvia adopted a ready-made, progressive and liberal model of government, like many other new countries that arose after the First World War. We can be proud of the educated and open society which was ready to accept this model.

The fact that there was no heated debate over the matter of giving women equal rights shows that, within the society of the time, the role of women in matters both domestic and public seemed self-evident.

To a great degree this was thanks to the level of education among both sexes and the efforts of early female public and culture workers.

It is worth noting that all adult inhabitants of Latvia’s territory could vote in the election of municipal delegates in the 1905 elections, held during the revolution, no matter what their sex or ethnicity.

In early Latvia, the right to vote did not mean equal rights, but it was a solid basis for further development. Of the 164 deputees elected in the Constitutional Assembly, six were women. First and foremost they tried developing civil equality of rights for women, so that a married woman is not only an equal party but also gains respect in the eyes of her husband and the public. They championed law amendments that would extend the legal capacities of women, including the right to go to court, manage their own property, work a salaried job, and in separate cases to disobey the “head of the family”.

An understanding of the identity of Latvian women arose together with the Latvian state and the Latvian national and state identity. In the interwar period, the works of Lilija Brante, Zenta Mauriņa, Angelika Gailīte, Milda Palēviča were published, as well as the culture magazine, A Latvian Woman, discussing female contributions to literature, art, and politics and the need for greater female involvement.

Over the last hundred years, the situation of women’s rights has improved positively both in Latvia and across the world.

Our laws stipulate that men and women are to have equal rights and opportunities, but these laws are not put to practice in all areas. In the 12th Saeima, 16 out of 100 MPs were women; women’s pay is still lower than men’s; and in many households women still experience violence.

These indications make one think that changes in legislation are not enough to achieve an equal attitude towards both sexes; culture and upbringing should change too.

That’s the goal with which Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s book Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls was published. It was translated into Latvian this year and introduces our youngest readers with notable women throughout world history. Their biographies are reduced to pithy 10-sentence tales, sketching out their personality, their main achievements and the efforts they’ve made. The simple form of the tales makes it easily observable that no matter what the century, social status or geographical location, the path to growth for all but every heroine has a similar scenario: it’s a thorny world with countless obstacles and stereotypes that young girls and women have had to overcome not only to develop their talents in art, science and on the stage, or gain their political and social goals but also to show, first of all, that they have the right to do it. 

Despite that many geniuses of this world have often went against the grain, finding a source of strength in opposing forces, there are many significant differences between the biographies of men and women. What has been seen a matter of honour or a human failing for a man – be it a spiteful character, bohemian ways, a criminal past, or creative failings – has caused shaming or condemnation for women, even from the people closest to them. This has made them make tough choices.

Historically, the public has expected women to be exemplary, motherly and domestically adept – not heroic. Therefore, we find very few heroines and female geniuses in encyclopaedias, anthologies, and school and picture books, or even when we Google something.

Women disappear in the portrait galleries of male doctors, scientists, sculptors, inventors, and athletes, and therefore a myth is indirectly cultivated, namely, the one that you have to be born a man to achieve success.

Nowadays, having voting rights and an equal legal standing is not enough. The life stories of women have to be emphasized and written down to correct the mistakes of the past and to make it so that little boys and girls don’t continue the false preconception that genius/talent/abilities/a fierce character/perseverance equals “masculinity”. These are characteristic of both sexes, and girls need inspirational examples from their own milieu and their own sex; and boys need these examples, too, so that they judge women and girls they meet according to their abilities, not some sort of genetic predestination. All the greatest people of the world have grown out of boys and girls around us and inside us. As I read my children the book about the greatest women in the world, I decided to write other good night stories – it’s never too late to start writing them down and to add to their number.

ELZA

A hundred and fifty years ago, a girl was born into a prosperous Latvian family. She was given a long German name – Johanna Emilija Lizete. She did not like it and when she grew up she changed it to short and sweet Elza. To the girl, it seemed that, just like her name, she could decide and change many other things in her life, but it was not easy to do it in the 19th century.

Starting from her early days, Elza wanted to star in the theatre, but her parents objected, as they thought being an actress is too vulgar. A priest once visited their house, and he had this to say about the smart, energetic and curious girl: „It’s a shame you weren’t born a man. Good things would have come from you!” Elza wanted to prove him wrong.

Not only did she read and study a lot. She could also write down her ideas and feelings in beautiful words. Literature became her chance to change the world. And even though the “mischievous tease”, as she would call herself, never got to play in the theatre, she wrote wonderful poems and plays with fiery and independent heroines that could defend their opinions and choices, just like she would.

Not only did she become the most prominent female writer of 20th-century Latvia, but also one of the first women in Latvia to defend the right of women to go to university, and choose their own profession and people to marry. She did not graduate from the gymnasium as she was married to someone named Wilhelm against her will. After a long and difficult process in court and in church, she was able to divorce her unwanted husband.

Elza used her experience to change the divorce law, allowing both man and wife to end a marriage if it does not work and there is no love involved. „We must say no to the church and patriarchal guardianship! Marriage has been hitherto based on men’s supremacy, even though all the weight of life in a natural environment was put wherever a woman was with her child and she was respected as such,” Elza would declaim from the podium. She later married Jānis – someone who felt and saw the world like she did, and her passionate heart belonged to him.

ANNA

Anna was the youngest child in a farm-hand family. Each year, her parents would go serve another master. Even though she could study at a local school thanks to her father, she would rarely have the chance to speak her thoughts loudly at the household table. As they moved each year, she could not find friends, and therefore she was left to silently ponder all her impressions, thoughts and acute observations about country life on her own.

She was an avid reader and taught herself to become a private tutor, continuing the ways of her parents, working in the families of strangers and silently observing their lives. She would write her first stories only about other people, as if she weren’t present and her voice and opinion were of no consequence. But she had not only a voice but also a strong foundation of moral values. Through hardships, she had learned perseverance and developed a love of mankind.

Once, before Chirstmas, a Latvian director asked Anna to find and translate a German play for children, but she could not find anything fitting so, in nine days, she wrote a play about Sprīdītis, a little boy who would not put up with the way the world is and stands against it. Anna could finally admit that she really has a writing talent, an ability to understand the way children see the world and feel the inner world of any human being.

Even when she was already recognised as one of the greatest Latvian writers, she never wanted to be the centre of attention. Her sister Līza was married to a man she did not love, and she later died in childbirth. Anna could not bear this and did not want to repeat this tragic fate. With her valuable work life she proved that women, like everyone else, can choose to shape their own personality and destiny.

MARGARITA

Margarita was a girl who could play for hours, lost in the revelries of her imagination, not seeing or hearing what surrounds her. Most of all, she liked to watch insects and make little toddlers out of things found in nature. Margarita’s father had wanted to become an artist himself, and that’s why he praised her talent and supported her when she wanted to study at the Art Academy of Latvia, where she perfected a unique, bright, colourful and detailed style you cannot mistake for anyone else’s.

It so happened that at an international study camp young Margarita met a Dutch boy named Gerrit. They fell in love and could not live without one another. But they did not get married, as for Margarita this would mean moving to Holland and cede her painting success that she could pursue only in Latvia. You can say she sacrificed her personal happiness so that she could dedicate her life to painting embroidered toddlers.

Margarita lived at a difficult time, when the Soviet power determined what you could draw and write in books. She chose to pursue the supposedly childish and less valuable craft of fairy tales and illustrating children’s books, which gave her creative freedom, and she would perfect this ability to mastery, working for sixty years.

When Margarita was a grandmother and a famous, acknowledged artist, the Soviet state ceased to be and she could finally meet the Gerrit, the love of her youth. They even married at an old age, like in a happy fairy tale. Twice as happy – we can only guess whether she was happier to become a wife or for her little readers and international recognition. No matter how you look at her art and style, Margarita was a true artist, as through all the difficulties she did not lose confidence that she is doing her only and true work.

Regīna                                                                           

Teachers saw Regīna as a gifted but complicated girl with a stingy language and an unfettered imagination whose answers when she was called to the front of class sometimes turned into vivid performances full of quotations. Small wonder that, from all her classmates it was she who decided to study journalism and become a writer.

But writing demands everything from a human being – it requires silence, being alone and moments of self-awareness. As one of her predecessors would say, „a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. But she had neither. Not in her childhood, when she lived with four of her relatives in a cramped working class apartment in Rīga, not in her youth and student years, as she had become the mother of three little daughters by the age of 26.

Living without holidays, without sufficient sleep and with no one to help her, without the chance to read books and improve herself, the young writer and mother learned to treasure every moment she could dedicate to her calling, and that’s why later in life she would never waste her time on any other offices or obligations that would interfere with her writing. 

„Every time I have to decide between a manuscript and a dust rag, I will prefer the first,” she dared to say publicly at a time when women were still expected to take care of the household.

To become a writer, Regīna had to cultivate not only her own writing style but also her lifestyle, sometimes breaking the norms accepted in society.

She found her „room of one’s own” in walks with the dog, in which, following the drive towards solitude, she said she walked tens of thousands of kilometres. Walking through the woods on her own, with her own wind and a silent partner beside her has allowed Regīna to write twenty books and become one of the brightest representatives of psychological prose in Latvian literature. Sometimes, the Author herself appears in Regīna’s stories and novels, in which dreams and visions – and the overlap between the fantastic and the real – play a large role. And with the Author comes a dizzying spirit of freedom.

UĻJANA

Once upon a time, a girl lived in Latgale’s faraway Medumi village. She grew very fast. The village children made fun of her when she would appear at the end of a field: is that a stallion running across the field, or is it Uļjana digging up the potatoes? But the girl did not mind, she was warm and industrious and simply kept on growing. Like everyone in her family, Uļjana liked skiing, paddling and playing ball. She was very sad when she could not make it to competition as she had to work on the fields.

At thirteen, Uļjana was 6’2, having outgrown everyone else in Medumi. There was no place for her to grow anymore. Her heart nearly broke when she had to go to Rīga, where she was invited to study at the Basketball school, and two years later the girl already had made it into the leading female basketball team TTT Rīga. But not just her height contributed to her growth, it was mostly her perseverance and a will to fight. 

As part of TTT, Uļjana, now at 6’11, she outgrew Rīga and outgrew Latvia, which back then was part of the Soviet Union. Her team soon scored gold medals at the USSR championship and repeated the success 20 times, also winning the European cup 18 times – a success that has been written into The Guinness Book of World Records. Her efficiency rating was almost twice as large as that of any other player. In the 70s and 80s she grew into the world’s leading basketball player, a two-time Olympic, three-time world and 11-times European champion as part of the USSR team.

Uļjana is the first European female player to make it into the US basketball hall of fame. As she received the award, Uļjana said, „I love this game”, which became the motto of the National Basketball Association and the entire world basketball. That is why she is not just one of the tallest but also one of the greatest basketball players in the world.

VAIRA

When Vaira was a little girl, the world went to war and her family was pressed to move away from Latvia, becoming refugees. Vaira ended up at refugee camps in Germany, and then they went to Morocco and later to Canada. In each country, Vaira learned a language, and she could speak five when she grew up. But it was not enough. She wanted to learn more, to understand the world and the way the human mind, memory and language works. She became a psychologist, a scientist and professor, proving herself in many leading offices.

But what Vaira loved most was researching Latvian folk songs and preserving their value, because her most treasured memories were related to them. She thought that when you sing folk songs and fairytales to a child, they become part of a human being, just like they had become a part of her.

Vaira returned to Latvia after more than half a century had passed. Dressed in a blouse adorned with folk signs and sporting a belt of Lielvārde, she came into the Latvian parliament and was elected the Latvian president. She quickly became the most colourful leader in Eastern Europe, the Iron Lady of the Baltics, and Latvia’s inhabitants approved her. She was especially focused on foreign policy a lot, so that Latvia becomes part of the European Union and NATO. She became popular in the world for her explanations of Latvian 20th-century history, and she was even nominated to become Secretary General of the United Nations.

As she spoke to the people, saying „We are strong. We are mighty”, president Vaira asked every inhabitant, no matter what their ethnicity, sex or social standing to actively work for their own and the state’s prosperity.

She wanted people to let go of the role of being life’s outcasts and to stand by the other nations of the world with dignity. She especially stressed that women have to participate in the economy, becoming educated and setting up their own businesses. She thought that women don’t have to choose between being a scientist or a mother. She also proved that no office, including a leading role in politics, should make women to give up their femaleness.

INGA

When Inga went to study at school, women could already work in the most different of industries. Latvia had become an independent country and it had its own Academy of Culture. Even more – academy representatives came to Inga’s classroom in person, asking her to study writing.

Inga was a shy and awkward girl, who had trouble speaking her mind. It seemed that whenever she said something important to her, an awkward silence set in, and that’s why the girl often chose not to speak. She was studious, had good grades and did not tell anyone anything, even when others hurt her.

Sometimes Inga succeeded in formulating her feelings into poems, but she was not sure if they are good enough until others said so. She wanted to learn to write better, but her parents thought that she should study economics as you could only make money that way. Being an obedient daughter, she started studying economics, but the desire to write did not go away. After repeated effort, her first book of poetry was released, and she wrote her first plays which were staged, and Inga started to believe in herself.

To prove her parents she could make ends meet as a writer, Inga took up different jobs, but it was difficult to do several things at once. When Inga worked on her book, her day job suffered as a result and she had to change it. When her daughter was born, she realised she does not have time to write anymore. Even though there were two parents, she was the one expected to take care of the girl instead of the responsibility being divided equally. By that time Inga had become a respected poet, and she did not agree to become a housewife. That’s why she stood up and said: „It’s not okay! Women aren’t intended for men. Women are intended for themselves. And grown-up women set their limits for themselves.”

Each month, she leads female stand-ups where women stand up and allow themselves to be funny, rude and open. They share stories and female problems that have hitherto been either unsaid or considered isolated cases not characteristic of the group. Inga is a feminist – someone who stands for women’s rights in the 21st century as well. For the right not to pretend and for the right to be unpleasant to someone. For equal opportunities in all areas and that everyone’s abilities and opinions are respected regardless of their sex.

[1] The Russian Provisional Government was quick to introduce them in 1917, but the newly-established Latvian state followed this example from the very start.

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