Women and Industry in the Balkans: The Rise and Fall of the Yugoslav Textile Sector (IB Tauris) is now available!
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Women's emancipation through productive labour was a key tenet of socialist politics in post-World War II Yugoslavia. Mass industrialisation under Tito led many young women to join traditionally 'feminised' sectors, and as a consequence the textile sector grew rapidly, fast becoming a gendered symbol of industrialisation, consumption and socialist modernity. By the 1980s Yugoslavia was one of the world's leading producers of textiles and garments. The break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991, however, resulted in factory closures, bankruptcy and layoffs, forcing thousands of garment industry workers into precarious and often exploitative private-sector jobs. Drawing on more than 60 oral history interviews with former and current garment workers, as well as workplace periodicals and contemporary press material collected across Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia, Women and Industry in the Balkans charts the rise and fall of the Yugoslav textile sector, as well as the implications of this post-socialist transition, for the first time.
In the process, the book explores broader questions about memories of socialism, lingering feelings of attachment to the socialist welfare system and the complexity of the post-socialist era. This is important reading for all scholars working on the history and politics of Yugoslavia and the Balkans, oral history, memory studies and gender studies.
I am currently a Lecturer in Gender & Women’s Studies at University College Cork, where I also coordinate the one-year interdisciplinary Masters in Women’s Studies (www.ucc.ie/en/womensstudies).
I hold a BA in Political Sciences from the University of Bologna, and an MA and PhD from the Graduate Gender Programme at the University of Utrecht (www.genderstudies.nl), where I defended my dissertation titled: Revolutionary Networks. Women’s political and social activism in Cold War Italy and Yugoslavia, 1945-1957.
Between 2012 and 2014, I was based at the School of Law of the University of Edinburgh, first as a research fellow and then as a NWO Rubicon post-doctoral fellow with a project titled Women’s citizenship in South-East Europe, within the framework of the CITSEE project on ‘The Europeanisation of Citizenship in the Successor States of the Former Yugoslavia’ (www.citsee.eu; www.citsee.ed.ac.uk).
Between 2015 and 2017, I worked as a NEWFELPRO post-doctoral fellow within the Centre for Cultural and Historical Research of Socialism (CKPIS), at the University of Pula (www.visio.unipu.hr/ckpis/en), pursuing the research project titled Weaving socialism: an oral history of the garment industry in Croatia, from post-war industrialisation to post-socialist deindustrialisation. I continue to cooperate with the CKPIS within the framework of the project ‘Microstructures of Yugoslav Socialism: Croatia 1970-1990’ (2018-2022) funded by the Croatian Science Foundation (HRZZ).
In 2016/2017, I was awarded a EURIAS Junior Fellowship at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna (www.iwm.at), where I completed my monograph, Women and Industry in the Balkans: The Rise and Fall of the Yugoslav Textile Sector.
In 2018/2019, I was awarded a Research Support Grant by the Arthur and Elisabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe College, Harvard University, to pursue a research project titled Women’s Transnational Activism and Cold War Imaginaries of Citizenship (www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library).
In the past decade I have been working extensively on transnational women’s, gender and feminist history, adopting an intersectional approach and combining archival research with qualitative methods. My historical research has been focusing in particular on Italy and the Balkans from the Cold War to the present, combining archival sources with oral history interviews. My articles and essays have been published in a variety of academic journals, such as Gender & History, Women’s Studies International Forum, Feminist Review, Aspasia and Contemporary South Eastern Europe (See list of Publications).
In my widely cited MA dissertation (https://dspace.library.uu.nl/), I studied the international conference “Comrade Woman, The Woman’s Question. A new approach?” which was held at Belgrade’s Student Cultural Center in October 1978, and the way it marked the beginnings of the feminist second wave in Yugoslavia.
The conference included Yugoslav and international participants, mainly from Western Europe (Italy, France and the UK). Conference participants included sociologists, philosophers, art curators, writers, engineers, doctors, university students, feminist and communist activists. Discussions addressed the status of women and the family in socialist and in capitalist countries. The Yugoslav organizers were part of a generation of highly educated women located in the urban spaces of Zagreb, Belgrade and Sarajevo, who critically intervened as intellectuals in the Yugoslav public space, where certain margins of pluralism and limited forms of dissidence existed. Many of them still play an important role in public and intellectual debates within post-Yugoslav successor states. The Western European guests were generally established feminist activists and authors, and included well-known figures such as Dacia Maraini, Alice Schwarzer and Christine Delphy. The different temporalities in feminist movements meant that international guests did not fully understand the socialist context of Yugoslavia, or the critical discourse of Yugoslav organizers.
In my dissertation I focused on the multi-layered legacy of the conference, on the memories of its participants, and later on the translation practices that occurred during transnational encounters and in their aftermath (see notably my article, “Feminist translations in a socialist context: the case of Yugoslavia”).
I am currently cooperating with former conference organizer and writer Jasmina Tesanović and with activists and scholars in Belgrade who are curating an edited collection of original videos from the conference.
My doctoral dissertation, titled Revolutionary Networks. Women's Political and Social Activism in Cold War Italy and Yugoslavia (1945-1957), aimed to counter the widespread assumption that early Cold War times were characterised by gender conservatism, and challenged the idea that socialist and communist activists were manipulated by their respective party leaders.
Despite their lack of political autonomy, internationalist female leaders in Cold War Italy and Yugoslavia had a crucial role in the establishment of women’s new political, economic and social rights after 1945. The dissertation studied notably the Union of Italian Women (UDI), federating communist and socialist women, and the communist-led Antifascist Women’s Front of Yugoslavia (AFŽ), and their activities in relation to wider Cold War disputes such as the Italo-Yugoslav border settlement and the Soviet-Yugoslav split. It also took into account the activities of the Union of Italo-Slovene Antifascist Women (UDAIS) in the contested border city of Trieste.
Revolutionary networks relied on extensive fieldwork research in Italian and former Yugoslav archives. Oral history interviews and autobiographies represented a crucial complement to the archival research. Archival documents, and excerpts from oral history interviews and autobiographies in Italian, Serbo-Croatian and French were translated and organized into a single historical narrative, which demonstrated the entangled history of women’s antifascist organizations in Italy and Yugoslavia after 1945. By writing this entangled history, I showed that women established transnational connections across the Italo-Yugoslav border, and across Cold War borders. I explored the bilateral and multilateral relations of the UDI, AFŽ and UDAIS, and their shifting position towards the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), a global left-wing anti-imperialist organization founded in Paris in 1945 and relocated in East Berlin in 1954, of which both the UDI and the AFŽ were founding members.
The history and legacy of the WIDF has been recently rediscovered by scholars, after years of neglect due to anti-communist discourses which excluded this organization from the Western and transnational feminist canon. Besides my dissertation, I have been contributing to the rediscovery of the “middle wave” of Cold War women’s activism in a number of articles (“Women’s Political and Social Activism in the Early Cold War Era: The Case of Yugoslavia” and “Red Girls’ Revolutionary Tales. Antifascist Women’s Autobiographies in Italy”) and book chapters (“Cold War Gendered Imaginaries of Citizenship and Transnational Women’s Activism: The Case of the Movie Die Windrose (1957)” and “Cold War Internationalisms, Nationalisms and the Yugoslav – Soviet Split: the Union of Italian Women and the Antifascist Women’s Front of Yugoslavia Before and After 1948”)
I continue working on the history and legacy of the Antifascist Women’s Front, which is increasingly explored by scholars and artists in the post-Yugoslav space, as shown in the edited volume (in BCS) http://afzarhiv.org/... and special issue of Viewpoint Magazine (in English) https://www.viewpointmag.com/... edited by Tijana Okić and Andreja Dugandžić.
I am also part of a wider network of scholars engaged in rediscovering the history and legacy of the WIDF: https://www.globalsocialistfeminism.com/
Transnational connections established between East, West and the ‘Third World’ during the Cold War era remain a prominent research interest. Specifically, I have been exploring such connections through the archival holdings of Vida Tomšič, hosted in Ljubljana.
Slovenian politician Vida Tomšič (1913-1998), a former partisan and communist activist, trained as a lawyer, had a fundamental role in building women’s internationalist connections and discussions during the global Cold War. Tomšič was a prolific writer and a sought-after expert on issues of women’s labour, welfare, and reproductive rights. She represented Yugoslavia on the Commission for Social Development of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) (1960–1963; 1971–1974) and chaired the commission in 1963. She was also a prominent actor during the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985), and contributed to the 1978 foundation of the INSTRAW, the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women based in Santo Domingo. She was also strongly involved in the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and its Yugoslav branch.
I have been working on the biography of Tomšič for some time now, discussing the issue of her political agency in my contribution to the Aspasia forum “Ten Years After: Communism and Feminism Revisited”, then reconstructing her participation to the UN Women’s Mexico City conference in the article “The First UN world Conference on Women (1975) as a Cold War Encounter: Recovering Anti-imperialist, Non-Aligned and Socialist genealogies” and finally focusing on the exchanges between Yugoslav and Indian women’s organizations, and particularly between Vida Tomšič and Indian feminist pioneer Vina Mazumdar in a new paper, recently submitted to Nationalities Papers for a special issue on Yugoslav internationalism. I have been also working on the representations of women from Non-Aligned and decolonized countries in Yugoslav women’s magazines, notably Žena u Borbi/Žena in Croatia. I am currently envisaging a monograph titled Vida’s Vision: Women, Non-Alignment and the Global Cold War.
As a spin-off of my article “Cold War Gendered Imaginaries of Citizenship and Transnational Women’s Activism: The Case of the Movie Die Windrose (1957)”, which investigated the ways in which gendered imaginaries of citizenship circulated across borders during the Cold War, I made use of a Research Support Grant by the Arthur and Elisabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe College, Harvard University, to research their incredible collections, and to explore how state socialist women’s organizations as well as feminist activists intervened in global geopolitics and in the Cold War competition waged on the terrain of women’s rights and women’s emancipation.
I examined notably the production materials of the Sisterhood is Global anthology edited by Robin Morgan (1984), as well as the collections of notable activists such as Betty Friedan, Gerda Lerner, Ana Livia Cordero and Shirley Graham Du Bois, who all intervened on different sides and in different ways in the production of Cold discourses and in the circulation of gendered imaginaries of citizenship across borders. I am hoping to write a few articles based on the collected materials in the near future.
In parallel with my research on Cold War women’s and feminist activism, in the past seven years I have been researching gender and labour history in socialist Yugoslavia and in post-socialist, post-Yugoslav states with a specific focus on women’s work in the garment industry.
My forthcoming monograph, Women and Industry in the Balkans: The Rise and Fall of the Yugoslav Textile Sector is available here. The book builds upon over 60 oral history interviews that I have been collecting in Croatia (Pula, Varaždin, Zagreb and Osijek), Slovenia (Celje and Murska Sobota), Serbia (Leskovac), Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosanski Novi/Novi Grad) and Macedonia (Štip) with former and current workers in the garment industry, as well as on archive material, including photographs of formerly thriving and now bankrupt or abandoned textile factories. In socialist Yugoslavia, the textile and garment sector thrived, covering approximately 12% of total manufacturing. Textile factories functioned as socialist microcosms, providing workers with welfare services, leisure and housing. Working women received a variety of welfare services as part of the “working mother” gender contract. After the break-up of Yugoslavia and after the transition from market socialism to capitalism, however, privatisation and deindustrialisation deeply affected the textile sector, leading to multiple factory closures, precarious work and widespread unemployment across the region. The book’s main thesis is that workers’ industrial structure of feeling developed during socialism – which was also profoundly gendered - lingers on in the post-socialist present and across the post-Yugoslav region, giving rise to demands for social justice and better welfare and labour conditions.
Next to my new book, to get a taste of former workers’ testimonies and of the state of formerly successful factory, you can also watch this video-essay I authored in 2013 during my fellowship at the University of Edinburgh, or have a look at my Weaving Socialism blog, which stems from my research at the University of Pula. You can also read these previous articles, “Gendered Citizenship in the Global European Periphery: Textile Workers in Post-Yugoslav States” and “Gender, Labour and Precarity in the South East European Periphery: the Case of Textile Workers in Štip”. A new article on the case of the Arena knitwear factory in Pula is forthcoming in the journal Labor History.
Within the framework of the project ‘Microstructures of Yugoslav Socialism: Croatia 1970-1990’ (2018-2022) funded by the Croatian Science Foundation (HRZZ https://ckpis.unipu.hr/ckpis/..., I continue to cooperate with the Centre for Cultural and Historical Research of Socialism (CKPIS) at the University of Pula, researching in particular state socialist women’s organizations in 1970s and 1980s Croatia.
In the decentralized Yugoslav system, the local women’s societies federated by the Conference for the Social Activity of Women (KDAŽ) were a stable presence within factories and municipal councils, and took part in numerous expert meetings and discussions over women’s productive and reproductive labour, tackling various issues affecting female workers and society more generally, such as the vexing question of local resource allocation for childcare facilities. The local KDAŽ archives represent a veritable goldmine to understand the ambivalences and variations of the ‘working mother’ gender contract, which aimed to combine women’s entry into the productive sphere with the socialisation of women’s reproductive tasks as mothers and caretakers, something I also discuss in my new book.
This film tells the tale of textile workers in post-Yugoslav states. The garment industry was very successful in socialist times, and employed thousands of workers, particularly women. After the Yugoslav break-up and post-socialist transition, however, the industry underwent a process of economic decline and deindustrialisation. Textile workers in the former Yugoslavia faced factory closures, job losses and exploitative working conditions, thus losing the social security and social rights experienced during socialism.
Written and narrated by Chiara Bonfiglioli
Directed and post-produced by Yorgos Karagiannakis, PitchDarkProductions
Produced by CITSEE
Chiara Bonfiglioli in Ljubljana, 10.11.2018, at ERC Eirene project workshop, titled "Women and Post-War Transitions: Politics". Her presentation was titled "The Antifascist Women’s Front (AFŽ) and the Reconfiguration of Women’s Citizenship Rights in Early Socialist Yugoslavia (1945-1953)".
Reflections On Capitalism, 22-27 June, 2015, Round Table – Politics of History in Eastern Europe, Cultural Centre of Belgrade, Chair: Adriana Zaharijević (Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, Belgrade), Participants: Kristen Ghodsee (Bowdoin College, Brunswick), Chiara Bonfiglioli (Juraj Dobrila University of Pula), Danijela Majstorović (University of Banja Luka), Tanja Petrović (Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana), Ljubica Spaskovska (University of Exeter)
Florian Bieber (University of Graz) interviews Chiara Bonfiglioli (University of Edinburgh) about her research article "Gender, Labour and Precarity in the South East European Periphery: the Case of Textile Workers in Štip" published in Contemporary Southeastern Europe 2014, 1(2), 7-23