Women's Voices in Ukrainian Literature

Nataliya Kobrynska

Nataliya Kobrynska (1855-1920)
Biographical Sketch

Nataliya Kobrynska was born in 1855 (1851 in some sources) in Western Ukraine—a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Both her paternal grandfather and her father were priests who participated actively in the development of Ukrainian literature, the former through his involvement in Ukrainian theatre, and the latter by translating and writing poetry and plays. On her mother's side, Nataliya's younger cousin, Sofiya Okunevska-Morachevska—who studied in Zurich, Switzerland and, in 1894, became the first female physician in Austro-Hungary—wrote under the pseudonym of Yarena.

In her era, women in the Austro-Hungarian Empire were barred from completing more than an elementary level of education; therefore, Nataliya was educated at home. She learned German, French, Polish, and Russian from her father, and immersed herself in world literature by reading books her brothers brought home from institutions of higher learning.

At the age of twenty, Nataliya married her intellectual soul-mate, a young seminarian, Theofil Kobrynsky. A talented musician and avid folklorist, he actively supported his young wife's feminist and literary aspirations. The couple decided to forego raising a family, formally identified themselves as feminists, and dedicated their lives to ameliorating the position of women in society Unfortunately, Kobrynsky died a few years after they were married, and Nataliya, left without any means of support, had to return to her parents' home.

After her husband's death, Kobrynska traveled to Vienna with her father, an elected member of the Austrian Parliament. While there, she made the acquaintance of Ukrainian activists who recognised her literary talent and put her in contact with Ivan Franko, Ukraine's leading man of letters. She also traveled to Switzerland, where she met Olena Pchilka's brother, Mykhaylo Drahomanov, the famous Ukrainian scholar, historian, and political publicist who encouraged her to devote herself to the task of raising the social and political consciousness of Ukrainian women.

Under Ivan Franko's mentorship, she became deeply involved in organising a women's movement. In her articles and speeches she discussed the deplorable social and economic status of women within the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, and encouraged women to attain equality with men.

In the absence of opportunities for formal education for women, Kobrynska firmly believed that literature was the most effective vehicle for convincing women of the need for change. With this goal in mind, she formed a women's association in 1884, which, through an active program of cultural and educational enlightenment, fostered reading circles and promoted an informed discussion of women's rights.

A leading theoretician of feminist thought, her approach to real-life issues, conceptualized within a socialist framework, was pragmatic, and attempted to reconcile radical and conservative points of view. Her concerns cut across what she saw as the artificial and divisive boundaries of social class. In her view, it was only by banding together into secular women's organizations that all women could improve their lot in life.

While actively developing, refining, and propagating these views, Kobrynska continued writing. In her first work, The Spirit of the Times, which appeared in 1884, she recognized both the inevitability of change and the upheaval it caused in human lives. In 1887, together with Olena Pchilka, she edited and published Pershy vinok (The First Garland), a groundbreaking almanac of writings by women authors, poets, and publicists from both Eastern and Western Ukraine. It was one of the first such collections in Europe to be produced by women.

In 1890, she headed a delegation of women from Western Ukraine that petitioned the Minister of Education to allow women to enroll in university studies, a move viewed by some of her opponents as an attack on the sanctity of the family. A year later, she organised a women's conference that called for the establishment of high schools for girls. Between 1893-1896, she published three issues of a women's almanac called Nasha dolya (Our Fate).

At this time Kobrynska tried to establish village day care centres and communal kitchens, urging women from the intelligentsia to convince peasant women of the desirability and possibility of social change. Unfortunately, her ideas, including her advocacy of universal suffrage, were ahead of her time, and her efforts were not always appreciated, even by the women she wished to help. Alienated from much of society because of her strongly held views, she spent the last years of her life in her native village, where she died in 1920. In keeping with her wishes, her final statement to the world was inscribed on her tombstone: "My heart no longer aches."

Kobrynska is acclaimed as a talented writer and a pioneer in the women's movement in Ukraine. Her short stories, written primarily about events that transpired within her family and circle of friends, present a poignantly accurate picture of the social conditions of her day and their devastating effect on women.

©1998 Language Lanterns Publications
ISBN 0-9683899-0-2

Sketch by Roma Franko; Edited by Sonia Morris

Volumes this author appears in:

The Spirit of the Times

Warm the Children, O Sun


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