Notable women in Croatian history (Part 2)

Vesna Kesic
Vesna Kesić at the One Voice Festival – festival of activist choirs in Zagreb, Image by Benjamin Strike

Croatia is lucky to have a bunch of ladies of whom it can be proud. They are strong, brave, and persistent visionaries who never gave up on winning in life. Some are famous, and others have flown under the radar. All of them influenced the development of Croatian society.

This is the second post in our series on notable women from Croatian history – you can read the first one here. In each edition, we feature 10 women with different interests and fields of work. It was extremely difficult to boil down what makes them special into just a few paragraphs, as each deserves their own stage.

This post serves as merely an introduction to these incredible women who helped shape Croatia. If you want to know more about any of them, let us know.

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The female facts are these…

Notable women in Croatian history (Part 2)

#1 Ana Rukavina (1977 – 2006), journalist

Ana Rukavina Erceg was a young journalist who substantially contributed to leukemia treatment in Croatia. In 2005, Ana began to feel constant fatigue, and soon after was diagnosed with leukemia. The treatment was successful initially, but the illness returned stronger than before. She needed transplantation of bone marrow, but there were no stem cell donors. The only solution was to obtain treatment in the US, which was very expensive.

Eighteen days before she died, Ana wrote a touching open letter. Read it in English here. She explained her situation and concluded the letter in two words: Želim život (I want life). The letter was shared all over the media. As a result, approximately 358.570 euros were raised for her treatment.

Unfortunately, Ana didn’t make it and she died at the age of 29. Ana’s mother and sister immediately initiated the establishment of Zaklada Ana Rukavina (Ana Rukavina Foundation), which helps those diagnosed with leukemia. The money was donated to the foundation.

Ana was a brave person who significantly impacted Croatia. Thanks to her, the foundation currently has 62.000 potential bone marrow donors and 61.900 typed donors. More than 150 transplantations were done.

Every year, the foundation organizes the humanitarian action Želim život. They collect funds for further expansion of the registry of donors and training of young doctors in the field of hematology. You can watch the documentary about Ana and the foundation’s work below.

#2 Anđela Horvat (1911 – 1985), art historian

Anđela Horvat was an art historian and conservator who worked on important sites in continental Croatia, carrying out exhaustive fieldwork and performing a systematic review of archival materials.

She was one of the pioneers of art history and conservation in Croatia. In 1979, she was awarded the State Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 40 years, Anđela researched 2.800 monuments originating from the early Middle Ages to the early 20th century. She is the author of many scientific papers, reviews, studies, and topographic reviews. We may say that she opened the doors for future generations of Croatian researchers.

In addition to science, she worked as a professor and research associate at the Croatian State Conservation Institute in Zagreb.

#3 Dora Pejačević (1885 – 1923), composer

Dora Pejačević was the first Croatian composer. She began composing miniatures for piano and violin when she was 12. Dora was the daughter of Croatian count Teodor Pejačević and Hungarian baroness Lille Vay de Vaya.

She attended a private music school, but only for a short period. She had a natural artistic talent and was self-taught.

Dora contributed to the establishment of contemporary Croatian music and new compositional standards. While she was inspired by artists like R. M. Rilke, Alice Ripper, and Clara Rilke-Westhoff inspired her, she nurtured her own refined musical style. She read Ibsen, Wilde, Dostojevski, Mann, and Nietzsche.

Dora composed chamber and orchestral music, the first Croatian piano concert, and the first modern Croatian symphony. Her opus consists of 57 registered works, and it was often performed abroad during her life.

#4 Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić (1874 – 1938), writer

Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić is one of the most prominent Croatian writers, often called “Croatian Andersen” (which references Hans Christian Andersen). She wrote novels, poems, short stories, fables, fairy tales, essays, and articles.

Ivana was also engaged in translation and editorial work. Ivana is the author of the first Croatian children’s novel Čudnovate zgode šegrta Hlapića (The Brave Adventures of Hlapitch).

Ivana had noble roots – her grandfather was ban Ivan Mažuranić. She attended private lessons in literature, music, and language from an early age. Although she had seven children, which was standard at the time, she continued to write, especially after they grew up.

Through her work, Ivana broke down prejudices about women’s authors common among men. She was nominated for the Nobel prize four times and was the first female correspondent member of the JAZU (Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts).

[Read: Most significant Croatian children’s books including Čudnovate zgode šegrta Hlapića]

#5 Janica Kostelić (1982 -), skier

Janica Kostelić is one of the most successful skiers ever and the most outstanding female ski racer. She won the World Cup 3 times, 7 small crystal globes in slalom and combined, and 4 gold and 2 silver Olympic medals. She has 30 overall wins in the World Cup, including 20 in slalom, 6 in combined, 2 in giant slalom, 1 in super-G, and 1 in downhill.

Janica started skiing when she was 5, and her talent was evident from the very beginning. Her father Ante was a ski coach to her and her brother Ivica Kostelić, who was also a prominent Croatian skier. They didn’t have enough money, so they managed in alternative ways – by sleeping in a car or a tent and eating cheap food like garlic and bacon to survive the cold.

At the age of 15, Janica had already won in all 22 races she participated in. In 2006, she became the first alpine skier to win Sportswoman of the Year for her victories. Janica announced retirement in 2007 due to the persistent pain from her injuries.

#6 Katarina Matanović Kulenović (1913 – 2003), pilot

Katarina Matanović Kulenović was the first Croatian female pilot and parachute jumper. Although she had a trade education, she showed interest in sports, including skiing and race cars since childhood.

In 1935, she enrolled in the newly opened pilot school in Zagreb, earned a sports pilot diploma, and became a member of the Zagreb Aeroclub.

In 1938, Katarina participated in a group parachute jump from 1.500 meters and became the first female jumper in this part of Europe. She founded a female pilot section under the Zagreb Aeroclub. The goal was to popularize female aviation and enable women’s education for pilots, sailors, mechanics, parachuting, aviation medical service, and air support.

During World War II, Katarina became a lieutenant of the First airport in Zagreb, where she transported mail, documents, medicines, wounded people, and military commanders. Soon after her husband died in an air accident, she stopped flying because of the injury she got during the bombing of the airport.

#7 Lidija Colombo (1922 – 2015), physicist

Lidija Colombo was a mathematician and the first female Doctor of Physics in Croatia. She was an expert in molecular spectroscopy and the founder of the laboratory for molecular physics at the Ruđer Bošković Institute in Zagreb. Lidija constructed the first laser in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Lidija was one of the most significant Croatian scientists of the 20th century. In addition to research, she worked as a professor, editor of the mathematical-physical magazine, and a writer of scientific articles. She promoted natural sciences and was an inspiration to young researchers.

#8 Marija Monterisi (1900 – 1983), entrepreneur

Marija Monterisi was one of the first female entrepreneurs in Split who owned two perfumeries. She opened the first perfumery on Šubićeva street in the middle of the 1920s. Soon after, she opened the remarkable perfumery called Monterisi on Bosanska street.

People appreciated her for her elegance, kindness, and professionality – she knew how to please her clients.

In 1940, she became a widow. Although she supported the national liberation movement and everyone who needed help, her perfumeries were confiscated in 1946.

She moved to Trieste to work as a merchant and married the shop owner. Her second husband also died, so she opened a jewelry store in Trieste. Marija was an entrepreneur her whole life until she died in Padova in 1983.

#9 Vesna Kesić (1948 – 2020), activist

Vesna Kesić was a Croatian journalist and activist with a diploma in psychology and sociology. She was a journalist in Croatian and Yugoslavian media, focusing more on activism in the 90s. One of her fundamental values was the fight against gender ideology and patriarchy. She got a master’s degree on the topic of gender and ethnicity constructions in the Yugoslavian wars and their impact on the motivation for war violence at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Vesna was the initiator and co-founder of numerous foundations and initiatives including the Civic initiative for freedom of public speech, Center for women victims of war, Women’s human rights group, and B.a.B.e. [Read: Shelters and Counseling Centers in Croatia including B.a.B.e.]

She also wrote for alternative publications, including various non-profit media web sites. Vesna was active in feminist movements for more than 40 years. She is known as a veteran of Croatian feminism.

#10 Zinka Kunc (1906 – 1989), soprano

Zinka Kunc Milanov was a Croatian soprano singer whose dramatic voice is one of the most beautiful voices of the 20th century. Zinka was influenced by the most famous Croatian opera singer Milka Trnina and was considered her heiress. Zinka is also one of the most prominent Croatian opera singers.

In addition to various operas, Zinka performed Verdi, Wagner, Strauss, Ponchielli, Mozart, Puccini, and Bellini. While performing Croatian authors, she always pointed out her love for Croatia. She was an often guest in Prague and New York and was awarded a special medal as one of 87 prominent foreigners who contributed to the New York and the US.

View our other women’s posts

Povijest feminizma na jugu: Slavne žene Dalmacije by Nacional
Umrla novinarka i aktivistica Vesna Kesić by HND

Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.

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