Gender question in late-19th- century Estonian journalism and Lilli Suburg’s “new woman”

Eve Annuk

The article analyses the representation of the gender question in late-19th-century Estonian journalism, comparing it to the gendered beliefs articulated in the texts of Lilli Suburg (1841‒1923), Estonia’s first feminist, writer, journalist and educator. The question of women’s emancipation had become topical in Estonia in the second half of the 19th century. It was covered in Estonian-language journalism with emphasis on women’s education. The related discussion highlighted different attitudes towards women’s role and position in society and the domestic sphere. In general the discussion stayed within the framework of the gender ideology of the period, relying on the belief in the different natural roles of women and men that are reflected in social arrangements: the woman was seen in the context of the private sphere, man in the context of the public sphere. As a result, it was believed that women’s education was to prepare her for taking care of the household and children, but to give only limited skills that would have enabled her to work outside of the home. This attitude was also shared by the leaders of Estonian national movement like Carl Robert Jakobson and Jakob Hurt. 

Lilli Suburg offered a different approach to the gender question. In her texts she attempted to break the dominant gender ideology by opposing its basis, biological determinism. Suburg’s “new woman” was a free individual equal to man, who could determine her own needs and aspirations. Women’s liberation meant both giving women better educational opportunities and recognizing women’s right to self-determination. Suburg also called for a change in the masculine gender role, so that the man would be an understanding husband and participant in the raising of children. Built on Enlightenment thought, Suburg’s approach to emancipation included moral questions, liberation from limiting (gendered) prejudices and national liberation – the right to be an Estonian without any sense of inferiority. Suburg’s ideas were based on rational arguments and logic, confuting the era’s patterns of belief and stereotypes. 

Suburg’s ideas were ahead of her time as the general level of development of Estonian society was behind that of Western Europe and there was not enough of an educated readership who would have been able to understand Suburg’s ideas. The question of emancipation found a more responsive audience at the beginning of the 20th c., in the context of the revolutionary movements of 1905 when, in addition to women’s education, attention also shifted to women’s civil rights.