a book for everywoman

A book that deserves to be the first to be written about is a legendary edition known to everyone who grew up in Yugoslavia or the countries formed after the disintegration of it; a book that is a mixture of humor, old fashion-ess, useful advice and instructions on how to life life – The book for every woman (in the original Knjiga za svaku ženu). Knjiga za svaku ženu is that kind of a manual that most households posses, somewhere at back of the bookshelf together with maybe a Croatian-Hungarian dictionary and/or “The art of knitting” and a moldy forgotten greatgrandmothers “tabletić” (see photo below for the approximation of a “tabletić”). It was first published in 1952 and has since then been refurbished, refreshed and republished 18 times by Nakladni zavod Znanje (Publishing house Knowledge – the oldest and still one of the biggest publishing houses in Croatia).

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A bedspread made of million small “tabletićs”.

I found this edition at the Britanac (British Square) Flohmarkt, a well know antiquities and general bizareness market in Zagreb. It is the hunting ground for a lot of antiques dealers but also a place where you could sometimes go and feel the current cultural and ideological pulse of Hrvati (Croatian people) – noticing for example which sides’ WW II medals are currently on display (if you know what I mean and you probably do know what I mean). The Knjiga was actually a second choice – the first choice was also a manual, an edition from the 1940 s intended for men called “The types of girls you should not marry” (“Djevojke kakve ne treba ženiti” originally translated and published in 1923 in Belgrade). The books were displayed side by side I presume to highlight the irony. The manual for boys seemed more interesting, especially since being a girl and a feminist you are curious and (very) clueless on the subject of un-marriable women. An interesting and an educational book. However, as it often happens in life, what decided was not fate but finance – deciding not to go into debt for this strange obsession and suppressing the desire to be educated, Knjiga za svaku ženu ended up being book of choice that day from Britanac.

This particular edition was from 1981 – a time when Yugoslavia was still a country, clinging together for the last decade of feverish cultural activity, crippling inflation and rising nationalist tensions. An intense and contradictory time indeed, something that is also reflected in this manual. Each of the editions was updated introducing new technologies, new laws and new trends in domestic life. The book is divided into large subjects – the woman and the home, the woman homemaker, the mother, the woman and health, woman the educator, woman fashion and sport, woman and her rights – and sub-chapters on everything from using hair products properly to sex and sexual health to learning how to replace an electrical socket.

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Women DoItYourself – toilet unclogging.

There is here, apart from a general culture of DIY, a hint of socialist state propaganda – propagating the ideal of a proactive and involved member of the building-everything-anew-&-together socialist society. Or maybe it is just the spirit of the DIY pre-Internet culture where in order to create/do/repair something, previous thoughtful preparation and learning were necessary. In an interesting text on Popular Science on the disappearance of the user manual the author Mark Svenvold writes: “(In the beginning) These books, filled with ingenious methods, offered something new and relatively democratic: agency, skill, and command for anyone who could read.” However “Change is the way of the universe, but what does it say that most of us now live our lives using tools that are, practically speaking, beyond our understanding or ability to fix? Have we traded away something important, perhaps even defining, about ourselves—a sense of our own autonomy and control over our tools—for the dubious benefit of convenience?” Check out the article on this link here.

The entire premise of the book is to have a universal reference point for women to find advice on all subjects. Some elements do stand out – primarily the DIY subjects, texts written by over 40 contributing authors. The Woman with capital W subjects – the ways female health, social position and legal rights are treated. And finally, the humor, a mixture of old fashioned expressions and frankly quite bizarre no-nonsense solutions to problems. A little teaser – if an older child sucks its thumb the parents tend to threaten it with expressions such as “I’ll cut off your finger!” or “I’ll stitch up your mouth!” (no they don’t). Or they dip the finger in paprika or salt (no they don’t). The solution according the Knjiga – parents just don’t do it. There you go.

The DIY and the humour

In the Knjiga everything is important – from changing drapes to learning how to rear poultry to fixing TV/radio antennae. The texts are accompanied by lovely illustrations by artists Saša Forenbacher and Ninoslav Kunc.

Advice for every situation can be found – we are told if we have ants in the house their path should be tracked and then underlined with white chalk. Apparently the ants will not cross the line. But it is nevertheless better to buy ant killer in the store (thus rendering the whole advice unnecessary! found on pg 85). Carpets should – surprisingly – be rolled and tied up when one is moving. (pg 94)

The best part and something that makes this book especially charming is the unintentional humour that springs up in some instructions. Reasons for this could be multiple – maybe the distance from the time when it was written, the cultural gap this time has opened or the recent simplification of the online how-to discourse. In the Knjiga the strangest and the most mundane of problems are treated seriously and with a formal discourse. No subject (as we will see particularly in the sections on female health and sexuality) is taboo or trivial. In the “Woman the educator” section foreign objects and children are treated in detail. If a pea is stuck in a child’s orifice one should go to the hospital. However if it is in the nose one can easily remove it with tweezers.

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Good table manners – it is impolite to use a toothpick at the table, illustrations by Saša Forenbacher and Ninoslav Kunc.

We are not only given advice on dealing with children, sawing wood but also on aesthetics. In a section on jewllery (pg 554) we are told: ” It is not tasteful to see a hand adorned with a lot of rings picking out and going through potatoes.” One should always be elegant and dignified (and apparently never combine jewllery with agriculture). Aesthetics is very important in a child’s development also. Because “the parents need to know that a kitschy toy, a non-artistic painting and bad music doesn’t contribute to the development of a sense of beauty”. Rules of good behaviour are as expected the most old fashioned section (both in terms of content and language). We are instructed not to wear a hat in the theater, how to walk up & down the stairs (when one is a lady one walks down the stairs first and up the stairs last), not to whisper in company and how to converse and how to eat (one never sneezes out loud, hunches over the plate or reads the newspapers while eating). Surprisingly according to the Knjiga nobody says “bon apetit nowadays” – fashions obviously come and go. And there are 6 ways of eating eggs. A punctual person is a person you can rely on in life. A good guest eats everything that is put in front of him or her. And most charmingly “a smile is often a ray of sunshine for the sad” (pg 556). As is this book.

The (every)Woman

Like any book/manual/edition this one testifies to its particular time, culture and general context. Sometimes the first thing that catches the eye (and the brain) is the language or the silly photos or the design. The book for every woman is above all a book written and compiled for women and as such it shows a lot about the position and the perception of women at the time. The spirit and intention is to cover all possible (and impossible) subjects that are considered useful to women – education, sports, fashion, children, health etc. In the absence of a “book for every man” one is inclined to think the woman of every-woman is actually a super-woman – the fixer, the carer, the mother, the educator, the worker. Some things have not changed. But let’s keep the optimism alive and look at some things that do maketh the Knjiga a witness of (maybe) a slightly progressive past time.

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Rude: a large hat in a theater.

In the most interesting section for this topic “Woman and health”, an openness towards the subjects of sex, marriage, abortion and reproductive health is notable. Women are discouraged to get married only because it is “the right thing to do” or they are pregnant (pg 297). The child should not be and is not a reason to stay in a marriage that doesn’t function (pg 303). Your parents or the parents of your partner are not automatically your friends. Equality in a marriage is the most important thing. The female health is also treated in detail – topics of possible diseases, reproductive health, sexual activity. Abortion is presented in detail, the medical procedure, the possible medical and mental consequences. An appeal is made for responsible contraception. Very refreshingly non judgmental and informative. And at the end of the Knjiga that most precious information is given to the every woman – the legal rights of women as citizens presented and explained. Knowledge really is power.

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The only thing treated as meat in this book is the actual meat.

Some books go out of fashion, some grow obsolete with time. Some are pushed into oblivion with developments in technology. Manuals such as this one have only became now witnesses to a point in time of a culture. The Internet, which has taken on this function of finding advice, and was hailed as the great equalizer, has divided & subdivided & specialized & algorithm-ed & personalized all information in such a way that we are no longer sure how or where to find advice. A simple query leads you down a rabbit hole where you always seem to end up watching a video of a cat watching you having a panic attack because it is late and you still don’t know how to fix whatever you were trying to fix.

What is then the role of these books such as Knjiga za svaku ženu when they have lost their primary function? Maybe to remind us that there was a time when TVs had antennae, children played with things that could get stuck up their noses or ears, when it was important to know how to play an instrument and when maybe women’s citizen’s and reproductive rights were not brought into question. Well – žene, women, ladies – good night. And good luck.

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