Zofka Kveder was a woman ahead of her time. Even though she grew up in a society that was still conservative, staunchly Catholic, and hostile to female intellectuals, she became a leading writer – and one of Slovenia’s first feminists.
Kveder was born in 1878 in Ljubljana, but her family moved frequently when she was a child. She ended up attending a school run by nuns. As a young woman, she continued her itinerant ways. She spent time in major European cultural centers such as Berne and Prague. In Berne, she enrolled in the local university, but had to drop out because of insufficient funds.
In a deeply conservative age, her lifestyle was almost scandalous. She had numerous partners; her marriage was short lived, and her numerous affairs became the subject of gossip.
But it was her work that really set Kveder apart. In her twenties, she began to write short stories that either focused on women’s issues or were written form a distinctively female perspective – at a time when women writers were rare, and female subject-matter was rarely encountered in literature. Portrayals of prostitutes and brave, emancipated women were particularly shocking to many readers.
Her writings also reflected her distinctively cosmopolitan spirit. She wrote many of her works in German or Croatian. In fact, her debut novel, titled Her Life and published in 1914, was also her last major work written in Slovenian, but she continued to translate texts into her native language. All the while, she maintained strong links with leading feminists throughout Central Europe.
The pain of motherhood was a frequent theme in her writings. She portrayed motherhood without romanticism – very different from how the subject had traditionally been portrayed in Slovenian literature. Kveder authored numerous articles that advocated women’s rights, from the right to vote to education for girls. The title character of her novel Hanka, for example, is a traditional woman at first, but becomes liberated after separating from her husband.
Kveder was also a passionate editor. In Prague, she edited a journal that, among other accomplishments, introduced Slovenian writers to a wider audience. When she moved to Zagreb after World War I, she edited a magazine devoted to the issues faced by Yugoslav women.
And Kveder had plenty of issues in her own life. One of her daughters died during World War I. After the war, her relationship with Juraj Demetrović, a Croatian politician whom she had met a decade earlier, ended abruptly when he decided to leave her. Kveder was so upset that she tried to commit suicide, unsuccessfully at first.
Kveder died on November 21, 1926. Her death certificate attributed a heart attack at the cause, but her friends insisted that she had killed herself by drinking poison.
The woman who blazed the path for several generations of Slovenian feminists – and whose literary work is now a part of the Slovenian canon – was just 48 years old.