Lessons of History: Public Activism of Armenian Women in 19th and early 20th Century

Lessons of History: Public Activism of Armenian Women in 19th and early 20th Century

EMERGENCE OF WOMAN'S QUESTION IN ARMENIAN SOCIETY: 19TH TO AND EARLY 20TH CENTURIES

19th century was marked by the phenomenon of women public activism, and the emergence and development of women’s social organizations. Women entered the public sphere in a triumphal procession, and the impact they left on the Armenian culture is undeniable. In 19th and early 20th centuries Armenian women established dozens of schools in the capital cities and provinces, supported many other schools, trained teachers, founded libraries, put the foundation of preschool education, provided shelter and care to hundreds of orphans, supported the destitute children, provided help to the hungry, the sick and the poor, assisted the refugees and soldiers, created jobs for poor women, laid the foundation of women’s periodical publication and contributed to the development of children's journals.

A number of factors triggered these events. The national identity and need for consolidation, the national liberation movement, the economic development, the growing cultural relations between the two parts of Armenia, the spread of European culture and ideas, the development of means of communication and humanitarian traditions all played an essential role for these events.  However, two of the most important and crucial factors were the national mentality and the public demand informed by national ideology.  

Scholars, including historians, archeologists, specialists of folklore, ethnographers, legal experts, etc., have arrived at the conclusion that from ancient to medieval times, women enjoyed high status in the Armenian society and the principle of gender solidarity was accepted among Armenians.[1]

The Armenian women took part in significant public events, celebrations, festivities and funeral ceremonies.  They organized banquets and receptions in their castles and sat at the heads of the tables as hostesses. They were honored with the same titles as their husbands.  The Armenian women were depicted with their husbands in high relieves at temples and in manuscript illustrations.  They concluded transactions, made donations, issued tax exemptions, became members of monastic orders, purchased manuscripts and donated them to churches, ordered new manuscripts and engaged in upbringing and education of children.  The Armenian women provided humanitarian aid and shelter to the needy and treated the sick.  They especially beamed with their patronage to the foundation and construction of churches, hotels, hospitals, libraries, bridges, water channels, fortresses and towers, as well as in writing, arts and crafts.  In the event the throne was vacant they ruled the country, handled foreign relations through participating and concluding treaties with other countries, diplomatic missions, surrendering hostages, etc.

However, in the early 19th century, the Armenian woman was isolated from the public life and was shut away in the houses.  Several decades later she found herself at the center of social and political life and was actively engaged in public and educational activism.  This fact allows for the conclusion that the isolation of Armenian woman during the preceding several centuries had not affected the Armenian mentality, and the harmony in gender relations, women’s freedom and high social status that were common to the Armenian society, reached 19th century through intergenerational transmission.  

 

WOMAN’S QUESTION AS COMPONENT OF NATIONAL AGENDA

Armenian women’s movement of the 19th century has a number of peculiarities.  Firstly, notable is that the movement was brought to life not by women, but rather, men.  At the initial phase and almost up to the end of the century, men raised the Woman’s Question and consistently advanced it.  Secondly, as much as the movement was inspired by women’s movements and ideology in the West, the feminist ideology did not find grounds in the Armenian society because Armenian women’s movement did not emerge as women’s struggle for political and civil rights.  Rather, it was women’s participation in the national agenda, for common national goals, and as such, it was a prolific participation.  Women’s right to education, paid labor, a worthy place in social life and participation in public were not gained in a fierce struggle.  It was men, with few exceptions, that pushed women into the public sphere.  This was not a manifestation of men’s chivalry or magnanimity, but, more precisely, their invitation to women to share responsibility.  The responsibilities reserved for women were to lead to the recognition of women’s rights. 

It should be recalled that Armenia did not have statehood at the time under discussion, and the Armenian nation had a crucially important goal of identity preservation and liberation.  Under the circumstances, the women’s movement apparently could not manifest itself in the political arena but was to anchor in the spiritual and moral values.  The freedom and rights were to emerge with the national liberation and establishment of an independent state.  Women’s rights were perceived in the general context of independence and rights of the whole nation.  

The Woman’s Question emerged in the Armenian society concurrently with the conception and development of the national agenda.  The time and problems that the nation faced required national consolidation, and the consolidation in turn required national self-awareness and self-consciousness.  These goals were impossible to achieve due to widespread illiteracy.  This gave rise to the idea of universal enlightenment.  Regardless of their political affiliation, whether conservatives, liberals, democrats or revolutionaries, the 19th century Armenian thinkers and activists were ardent advocates of education.  Education was dictated by longing for consolidation, and education became the focal point for solidarity among all groups. 

The task of education presupposed the adoption of ashkharabar (vernacular Armenian), and establishment of a national school and education.  This was the dictate of the time, and this was the strategy that the reformers adopted.  Moreover, the national agenda was not limited to liberation only.   Liberation was to be a starting point for development and the need for education was further emphasized in this picture.

The second important issue was the Woman’s Question, particularly the question of their education and public activism.  This approach rested pragmatically on the logic that women were to ensure the upbringing of their nationals.  Therefore, the establishment of schools for girls was of priority for national upbringing and education.  This required strenuous advocacy efforts as the ingrained prejudices and stereotypes were to be broken down for everyone to be convinced of the urgency of women’s rights for education. This was not an easy task.  It is practically impossible to find any 19th century periodical or public figure that did not address this issue.

Time proved the beliefs of the national public figures to be realistic.  The growing advocacy and discursive quest resulted in practical undertakings. Very few girls’ schools existed prior to 1860-70s, among them the Hripsimiats School in Yerevan (1850), Hripsimiats School in Smyrna (1840) and Nuneh School in Tiflis.  However, starting 1970s, women’s education started to grow which was marked not only by quantity of schools, but also by the fact that many of the existing schools were upgraded to higher levels, thus turning into incomplete secondary or secondary schools.

Why women’s education?  What role and responsibility and what scope of action did that right entail?  Were women to be education merely to be good mothers and housewives or were they to also enter the public sphere and contribute to the national progress?  These inescapable questions brought about divergences in opinions.  The conservatives continued to limit women’s sphere to the domain of family.  The liberals and democrats, on the other hand, could not envision a future without women in the public sphere.  Mikael Nalbandian wrote, “Armenian women!  Gone are the times when men looked down upon women as slaves… In this humanistic age, the enlightened world regards women as human beings.”[2] Thus, in their studies Nalbandian and thinkers like him did not confine themselves to women’s functions in the family and matters of education.  They dwelt on the questions of women’s equal legal status, of their being full-fledged members of the society and effective participants in the struggle for liberation.  This issue required more extensive and enthusiastic efforts which gradually drew these thinkers into a never-ending dispute and resulted in the formation of a distinctive segment in the Armenian journalistic writing on social and political issues.  There is no doubt that at no time in the history of Armenia were so much efforts and energy dedicated to the discussion of women’s rights and opportunities, to the scrutiny of women’s problems and to the search of ways for their solution as it was the case in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.     

The Armenian literati carefully studied the situation and inner life of women of different social groups and locations.  Women became an object of research for cultural anthropologists, historians, economists, psychologists, as well as reporters in provinces.  In the periodical press of the time information and stories of various characters related to women’s lives became an indispensable part of the chronicles.  The columns on social and political issues covered profound and extensive discussions of issues related to women. Raffi’s study entitled “The Armenian Woman” and published in Mshak newspaper (volumes 34-39 and 42-43, 1879)[3] undoubtedly stands out among other publications of this character for its comprehensiveness, depth, sharpness, detailed observations and insightful generalizations. 

Raffi studied women of all social classes in villages, provincial towns and Tiflis, and gave descriptions of their lifestyles, customs, psychology and intellectual development.  With unmatched insightfulness he identified the national/traditional and socio-economic factors that accounted for a grave situation of women.  He arrived at a conclusion that women’s basic education and development informed with national values was the solution. 

The issue of national values was of worry to other literati as well.  Earlier, Stephan Voskan voiced his concern in his newspaper Arevmutk (The West) writing that European influences could not be absorbed without basic education about them, and their external splendor should not be adopted without awareness of its significance.[4]

Thus, the task of the Armenian literati was to let in those influences that were necessary for the Armenian society, and that could merge with the national traditions.  In other words, there was an imperative to create one’s own philosophy.  This was why the public figures and literati of the time paid close attention to European women’s movement and its ideology.  Literature in foreign languages was studied, assessed, discussed and translated with an undivided attention and at an amazing speed.  This material was later not only published in the periodical press, but also printed as separate volumes.   Almost no information on European women’s progress was left out from the chronicles of Armenian periodical press.  This information was skillfully used as a tool for building up and sustaining advocacy. 

From this perspective noteworthy is the article by Avetik Araskhanian, editor of Murj (Hammer) newspaper, entitled “Woman in Society” which due to its fairly accurate emphasis and cognate arguments has not lost its validity even today.[5]  

Avetik Araskhanian was one of the rare thinkers that transferred the issue of women’s emancipation, or so-called Woman’s Question, to the human rights plane.  He regarded Woman’s Question as an individual’s right to development rather than a gender issue. Secondly, he considered women’s advancement as a vital precondition for the progress of the nation, state, public and humanity at large.  This was a very significant stance.  In Araskhanian’s view, it boiled down to the country’s development, not to the availability of women’s potential or the effectiveness of their struggle.  If the country and society had future, were forward-oriented and pursued the goal of progress, then women’s potential would by default come to the forefront and their rights would be recognized.  The author noted that it was not incidental that in societies where women were deprived of mobility and rights, the nation and state at large were static too.  The Armenian society, as shown above, proves this conclusion true.  The society set an objective of elevation and progress, and those in pursuit of these objectives raised the issue of women’s advancement.  

Grigor Artsruni and Srbuhi Dussap, both of who have left a deep and unique trace in the discussion of Woman’s Question, are the two figures that allow for getting a holistic picture of the Armenian society in the 19th century.

Grigor Artsruni and his newspaper Mshak remain unsurpassed in the history of Armenian periodical press as far as Woman’s Question is concerned by pioneering the field, by quantity, content, depth and comprehensiveness of the material published, and by consistency with which the cause was advanced.  

Grigor Artsruni took an interest in women’s issues at an early stage in his literary career when his first articles started to appear on the pages of Meghu (Bee) and Haykakan Ashkhar (Armenian World) during his university years in St. Petersburg. In his first article Artsruni criticized the educational system of the time, namely, the school and the family.  By examining the contemporary family with all its vulnerable features, he stressed that women were deprived of rights.  The very first demand that he naturally put forth was women’s right to education.[6]  His second article was dedicated to advocacy of women’s education. He analyzed the inadequate level of women’s education, examined girls’ upbringing and women’s situation in the family in detail.  He boldly published his convictions on the matter and stood by his beliefs over years, namely, that a society could not develop and prosper as long as women remained uneducated or received foreign education. [7]

According to Artsruni, justice and equality could prevail only in a civilized society because the more enlightened the society was, the more it strived for justice and equal rights for all.  The fate of enlightenment depended on women’s right for education.  This belief was one of the main pillars of his paper Mshak.

Mshak periodically published leading articles on the Woman’s Question, essays, reports on women’s situation in provinces, news, enlightening information on women’s movements in the West, reprints from Russian and European press, book reviews, translation of accounts of foreign scholars and travelers on Armenian women, etc.  Thanks to Grigor Artsruni, Mshak became the rallying point for literati that took interest in the Woman’s Question.  Serious and large-scale studies were conducted.  Most notably, articles written by women started to appear on the pages of Mshak.  Scanning through the pages of the paper, one can form an idea about the progress made by the Armenian women in that particular period.   

Women’s education, women and politics, women’s emancipation, women’s rights, women’s public activities, women’s impact on enlightenment, women’s paid employment were among the topics regularly published on the pages of Mshak.  Both Artsruni and the reporters of Mshak considered education as the first precondition for women’s emancipation and continuously put forth arguments for women’s basic education, acquisition of professional skills, and need for university education abroad.  The authors considered earning independently, financial independence and foundation of organizations and associations as the second precondition for women’s progress.      

“Women are a tremendous power in a society,” Artsruni stated.  “History shows that if a woman is opposed to an idea, that idea is a lost case.  If women are indifferent to a cause, an idea, a phenomenon, that cause, that idea, and that phenomenon will remain frozen.  And, on the contrary, when women declare themselves as supporter and advocates of an idea, it can be stated undoubtedly that that idea will by all means will overcome all obstacles on its way…”   This statement was followed by an address to Armenian women. “Armenian women, we are appealing to you, and reiterating that we expect you to lead the cause of moral and intellectual renewal of the Armenian nation…   Without you we are nothing.” [8]

 Clear logic tempered with emotions and passion which was typical of Artsruni’s writings in general, was particularly expressive in publications devoted to the Woman’s Question.  These statements were very contagious.  And indeed they were affecting people.  The public activism of Armenian women in Tiflis was an ample proof for that.  Artsruni did not just urge, stimulate and encourage.  He recorded with satisfaction Armenian women’s success and progress.  

The situation was different in the case of Western Armenians.  Under the Turkish rule, liberal thoughts in general and women’s emancipation in particular had no grounds.  In addition, opposition of conservatives was much stronger.  Therefore, raising the issue of women’s emancipation by women themselves took tremendous courage.  Srbuhi Dussap was to take the lead in this story of courage.  In the initial phase, similar to other thinkers, she reviewed women’s issues in the context of national progress limiting her arguments to the adoption of vernacular language and women’s education.   However, later on women’s right to paid labor became the pillar of her public discussions and literary works.  Dussap believed that women’s independence and all other rights would come with women’s right to paid employment.

She urged women to shatter prejudices, and start to work, first of all, to save their families from poverty and destruction, and secondly, to live a dignified and independent life, fully using their own moral and intellectual capacity. [9]

Thus, the preparatory stage outlined by Raffi had become a reality.  Efforts to organize women’s education had yielded results.  A generation of educated women had emerged that was taking a lead in the search for ways to solve women’s issues, and in the process, through their own actions confirming the validity of ideas for women’s space and role in society. 

 

WOMEN’S PUBLIC ACTIVISM IN WESTERN ARMENIAN SOCIETY

In 19th century Constantinople was the largest cultural center for Western Armenians.  The greater part of writers, publicists, publishers, educators and artists lived and worked here.  This is where the Armenian women’s public activism emerged and matured.

 In 1860s, dozens of organizations were founded in various neighborhoods of Constantinople.  This can be described as an absolute ignition or sudden rise of women’s public activism.  Although the first women’s organization in Constantinople was founded in 1847, women’s collective activism emerged and developed in 1860s.  Organizations founded in this period were predominantly of educational and cultural character and aimed at supporting women’s schools in various neighborhoods of the capital city.  These were small organizations with a limited scope of operation and existed as an auxiliary to a larger organization. For the most part they were short-lived.  However, these very organizations consolidated the existing forces and shaped an environment of healthy competition that brought about self-improvement and development, accumulation of experience and a higher starting point for future endeavors.  These were the initiatives that paved the way for nationwide activities in their scope and goals. 

These organizations pursued either educational and cultural or charitable goals.  In fact, it is not always easy to see a clear divide between the two types of activities.

By late 1870s, the time was ripe for enthusiastic women in Constantinople to engage in national wide undertakings.  A generation had emerged that felt prepared, and especially obliged to carry out the mission of national revival in all Armenian provinces.  The idea of educating all Western Armenians had circulated for some time already among the educated young men and women.  This was the demand of society because a generation of enthusiastic and educated young women had emerged which did not want and could not refrain from the implementation of nationally important issues. 

In 1879 almost simultaneously two organizations were founded, Azganver Hayouhats Enkeroutioun (Armenian Patriotic Women’s Society) and Dprotsaser Tiknants Enkeroutioun (School-Loving Ladies’ Society), April 11, and May 1 respectively, which were to become the largest and longest-lived female organizations among the Western Armenians and which were to have a tremendous impact on the Armenian history of late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The Patriotic Women’s Society was founded in Uskudar, Constantinople, by 16-year-old Zabel Khanjian (later Zabel Asatur, Sybil) and her eight classmates, with the support of her mother and aunt on the father’s side.  150 women and girls participated in the second meeting of the Society. 

The firstling of the Patriotic Women’s Society was a middle school for girls that opened with the funding from the United Society on December 1, 1880, in the small town of Gassapa in Kghie Province.  At the time of opening the school had 93 female students.  The school gave its first two graduates in 1884. In 1885, the Society opened its fifth school in the small town of Berrie in Charsanchag Province.  The middle schools provided three or four years of instruction in subjects such as Armenian (reading and writing), religion, history, geography, home economics, arithmetic, ethics, needlework, drawing, physical training and singing.  The students that excelled in their studies were awarded silver crosses, and the graduates were hired by the local schools, or schools of the Society.

Fr. Yeprem Poghossian, referring to Zhanamak newspaper (Time, #1796, 1914), provides evidence that during the first phase of its operation, 1879-1894, the Society founded ten schools in the provinces.  In the second phase falling between 1908-1914, 39 schools were opened. M. Adanalyan, citing the study entitled  Temoignages Inedits Sur les Atrocites Turques Commises en Arménie”(Paris, 1920), illustrates that in 1908 the Society had 50 schools with 3,000 students.  In 1912, the teacher-training school in Karin gave its first graduates, 21 in number.  Eight of them the same year were hired by the schools of the Society.  This productive operation of the Society, however, was interrupted in 1915.

The School-Loving Ladies’ Society that was to become the second largest and long-lived women’s organization among the Western Armenians, was founded in another district of Constantinople, Mijagyough (Ortakoy).   The founders of the Society were again graduates of a girl’s middle school, the Hripsimiats Girls’ School in Ortakoy, among them Nourik Simonian, Tagouhi Baltazarian and Armaveni Minassian (nee Sahakian). The goal of the Society was to promote education of girls and train teachers for the provinces.  To that end, a task was set to open private schools where Armenian girls could get tuition-free education.  As we can see, founded at the same time with the Armenian Patriotic Women’s Society, the School-Loving Ladies’ Society did not replicate the latter’s functions, but rather, came to complement it.  If the former strived to open schools in the provinces, the latter aimed at securing a smooth and effective operation for those schools by staffing them with qualified teachers.  This fact accounts for the co-existence and longevity of the two large Societies. 

At the initial years the Society’s reputation was greatly boosted by the active involvement of venerable Nazleh Vahan, and later of her daughter Srbuhi Dussap who held the position of a Chairperson of the General Meeting for several years and played a particularly important role in raising funds for the Society’s activities. 

By 1892, the number of students at the Society had reached 110 of whom 60 studied tuition free. Twelve of the 60 students were in the boarding school and all their costs were covered by the Society.  The Society had trained 22 female teachers that taught at schools in Constantinople, Kghie, Balu, Adana, Hachen, Ruschak, Mush, Van, Filipeh, Varna, Brussia, Karin, Akn, Yerznka and elsewhere. 

During the calamitous massacres by Sultan Abdulhamid in 1895-1896, the School-Loving Armenian Ladies’ Society terminated its operation along with other organizations. The Society resumed operation in 1908, after 13 years of interruption.  Those were extremely hard years.  The number of students went up dramatically owing to the tragic events.  The middle school had to provide shelter to orphans that had barely escaped the massacres and harems, and “orphans that had miraculously survived on their sisters’ corpses, had been thrown into the desert Der Zor and into wells…”  After the war, the Care-Giving Council of Constantinople (Khnamatarakan handznazhoghov) placed 350 orphans under the care of the Society some of whom had even forgotten their mother tongue.  

On March 30, 1919, the Society solemnly launched its orphanage were 250 orphans were sheltered.  In 1923, they transferred the orphans to Salonika, Greece, and later to Marseille, France.   In 1927, the Society permanently moved to Le Raincy, Paris.  The middle school changed its status to a lycee in 1948. 

In 1880s many small-sized organizations were founded along with the Armenian Patriotic Women’s Society and School-Loving Ladies’ Society. The main focus of their operation was similarly education and charity.  In 1890s, during the hard years of Abdulhamid’s massacres, the development of women’s organizations was interrupted for obvious reasons, and revived after the restoration of Constitution.    

It should be noted that in early 20th century, in parallel to the course of traditional charity and educational/cultural concerns, new trends, new goals and objectives were emerging.  For example, the aim of the Union of Armenian Alumnae (Hay Sanouhineri Mioutioun) founded in 1918, was to establish contact with the American and the British civic groups and "familiarize them with the [Armenian] nation with honor and all sides of it." It is also notable that attempts were made by the youth organizations to create mixed-gender organizations.  The Armenian women were no longer pleased with occasional membership to male organizations and sought to co-establish unions with them, and thus emphasize their equal status in the organization’s name.  A youth organization founded in 1919, for example, adopted the name Young Women’s and Men’s Union (Aghjkats yev yeritasardats mioutioun)to carry out orphan-relief activities. 

Established in 1919, the Armenian Women’s Association or Armenian Women’s League (Hay kanants enkeraktsioutioun or Hay kanants Liga) was perhaps the largest and most productive among organizations founded in this period.  It aimed at contributing to Armenian women’s moral, intellectual, material and physical development, establish collaboration among all Armenian women and to be the mouthpiece of Armenian women’s social and political aspirations, defend their rights, use the potential of Armenian women for the Armenian Cause, and contribute to the restoration of the Motherland.

In the postwar years, women were involved not only in orphan-care, but also founded workshops to help Armenian women earn their living and support the orphaned girls to get on their feet. Notable in this respect is the Girls’ Workshop of Pera (Berayi Hay Aghjkats Arhestanots, Chair Marie Stambolian and Inspector Satenik Beylikchian) where hundreds of orphans learned crafts and were able to earn their living.  Significant was also the Meghu (Bee) workshop established in 1920.

The new tendencies that emerged in the second decade of 20th century could have brought about interesting developments had the public life evolved in a natural way.  However, the course of history had been irreversibly changed.  Constantinople stopped being the cultural center for Western Armenians and the center of Western Armenian women’s social activities moved to the Diaspora. 

The public activism of Armenian women in Constantinople was massive enough to be defined as women’s movement.  Women’s public activism was real.  It had grown into a component of the Armenian culture, and it could not confine itself to the capital city only.  The enthusiasm displayed in Constantinople triggered a feeling of competition and spread onto Armenian-populated provinces and towns.  Organizations were mushrooming in the locations where Armenian schools existed and Armenian periodical press was published, pursuing the same objectives as their counterparts in Constantinople.  These organizations were established either for educational purposes to benefit the local girls’ school, or for charity purposes to care for the local poor.   This was the logic of the time.  There seemed to be an unwritten agreement between the individual and the society, according to which the society was obliged to take care of the education of an individual, and the individual had to pay back through the only means possible, that is contribution to the education of the next generation.  This was how education was reproduced and continuity ensured.

Overall, 100 organizations were founded and operated between 19th and early 20th centuries among the Western Armenians. 

WOMEN’S PUBLIC ACTIVISM AMONG EASTERN ARMENIANS

Among Eastern Armenians, the first girls’ school with solid foundation was the Mariamian Girl’s School established in 1864 in the town of Shushi.  The first women’s organizations also appeared in Shushi.  These facts are explained by the presence of Perj Proshian in Shushi who worked there during these years.  He inspired Mariam Hakhoumian, the wife of wealthy local Armenian Hambartsoum Hakhoumian, to establish a women’s organization for the purpose of opening a girls’ school.  

Nonetheless, among Eastern Armenians Tiflis, the largest Armenian-populated cultural centers in the South Caucasus, was the host of main public activities of women.  Moreover, in quantitative terms the Western Eastern experience greatly differs from Eastern Armenian experience.  In the Western Armenian case, dozens of small organizations were founded whose experience later was used to establish one or two large organizations.  In case of Eastern Armenians, a total of seven or eight organizations operated, usually with great impact.  These organizations, in fact, based their experience on the large mix-gender organization of the time, and were greatly inspired by the endeavors and success of Western Armenian women’s organizations, and learned from their experience.

Year 1880 should be regarded as the beginning of formation of women’s public organizations among Eastern Armenians.  The year marked the foundation of the Froebel Society which was to initiate and spread pre-school education among Eastern Armenians, and Armenian Women’s Charitable Society of Tiflis (Tiflisi hayouhyats baregortsakan enkeroutioun).  

The Armenian Women’s Charitable Society of Tiflis was the largest and longest-lived organization among Eastern Armenians.  According to the Charter of the Society, which after many rounds of editing was finally approved in 1881 by Duke Loris-Meklikov, Acting Viceroy and General, the organization’s goal was to promote women’s education (a) by opening and sustaining female private schools and (b) by supporting parochial schools for females with its own funds, as well as those who wanted to be trained as teachers for these schools. The average annual constituency of the Society was 140-150 members.  Apart from Tiflis, the Society had members in Baku, Moscow, Yerevan, Vladikavkaz, Tabriz, Batumi, Kars and many other places.  In addition to membership fees, donations and proceeds from various events, revenues from the Society’s school also added to the Society’s capital.

On December 11, 1883, the Society initiated the opening of St. Nshan parochial school for girls in a private home near the St. Nshan Church.  The school opened with 22 female students and eight teachers.  The operation of the school was suspended in spring of 1885, along with other Armenian schools.  The school reopened in October 1886 in a one-and-a-half storied building with comfortable and bright classrooms which was built with the funds of the Society and parishioners, as well as donations received.  The St. Nshan Girl’s parochial school was a four-year elementary school with three sections.  Forty to sixty students studied there per year.  On May 29, 1888, the school held the first graduate ceremony for its eleven female graduates. 

In 1888 the Armenian Women’s Charitable Society of Tiflis opened a crafts school. 

The Society financially supported the First Conference of Armenian Teachers, Mariamian Girls’ School in Havlabar, and Mariamian Schools in Tsghnet village (Tiflis Province), Kars, and Norashen, as well as parochial schools in Tskhinvali (Gori Province) and Chekhar (Koutaisi Province) villages.

The new state regulations of 1899 banned public organizations from engaging in educational activities, and the operation of the Charitable Society was terminated.  However, it is evident from the Society’s reports of 1900s that the former Sewing School was presented under the name of a workshop.  In these workshops intended to teach dress-making, stocking-making and hat-making, female students took a four-year educational program to acquire basic knowledge in addition to mastering one of the crafts. 

In 1906 two other women's organizations were established in Tiflis. The first one, Tiflis (the South Caucasus) Armenian Women’s Society for Orphan Care (Tiflisi hayouhats vorbakhnam enkeroutioun), had education and care of orphaned and semi-orphaned children as its goal.  The second organization, Meghu Society (Bee) had a unique role and place in the history of women’s public activism in late and 19th and early 20th centuries in that it dedicated itself to solving women’s unemployment issues.   All women’s organizations that had been established earlier focused primarily on two issues, education and poor relief.  Meghu set it as its goal not to merely eliminate the consequences of poverty like its predecessors, but to eradicate it by fighting women’s unemployment.  According to the Society’s leaders, the real charity was eradication of poverty. "Work, not mercy" motto was the cornerstone of the company.

The charter of the Society was approved on August 24, 1906. The same year, in the month of November, the Society opened Meghu House of Work.

The Committee of Armenian Women of Tiflis (Tiflisi hay kanants komite) was founded in response to an emergency situation.  It was hastily established in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I when wartime calamities befell the Armenian nation. The war gave rise to a new huge wave of refugees.  Many families found themselves in a grave economic situation as their breadwinners joined voluntary units.  In addition, the volunteers and the wounded needed care.  The situation required strenuous efforts and consolidation, as well as flexible and prompt action.  The Armenian women demonstrated that they were experienced enough to deal with the situation.

Other small organizations or groups with narrower focus of activities also operated in Tiflis.  Among them were the Mutual Aid Society of Female Teachers and Instructors of Tiflis (Tiflisi varzhouhineri yev usoutschouhineri pokhadardz ognoutian enkeroutioun), a group organizing the soup kitchens in Sololak, Women's Printing House and School named Cheknagh (Marvelous), and a Children's World Club.  However, only vague assumptions could be made about the nature, duration of operation and accomplishments of these groups and organizations as scanty information from the press is the only available source. 

It should be noted that Armenian women's public activism was not limited to women's organizations only.  Many women were involved in non-gendered social groups and many others became prominent as individuals through their independent initiatives.  Among them were Srbuhi Yeritsian and Sophia Arghoutian who were also members of the Armenian Charitable Society of the Caucasus; Katarineh Yevangulian was also a member of the Publishing Society; Haykanush Martirosian was a member of Ethnographic Society, etc..  In this respect, Princess Mariam Toumanian was exceptional.  Even today, one hundred years later, she arouses admiration for her enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit, free-thinking, broad-mindedness and other virtues.

Women's organizations were not established in other cities and towns of Eastern Armenia.   Women were either involved in mixed-gender organizations or they acted without rounding an organization. 

 

WOMEN'S PUBLIC ACTIVISM IN COMMUNITIES OF ARMENIAN DIASPORA

Women's public organizations were founded almost in all large communities of the Armenian Diaspora.  In 1881, in Nor Nakhijevan the Armenian Women's Care-Giving Society (Nor Nakhijevani hayouhats khnamatar enkeroutioun) was founded.  In Astrakhan, the Armenian Women's Care-Giving Society of Astrakhan (Astrakhani hayouhats khnamatar enkeroutioun) operated since 1890.  The Armenian Women's Union of Batumi (Batoumi hay kanants mioutioun) was founded in Batumi in 1917, and the Armenian Women's Committee of Simferopole (Simferopoli hay kanants komite) was established in Crimea in 1915.  

 In 1890, Women's Charitable Society was founded in Tabriz which supported the Girls' School, took care of refugees, provided relief to the poor, opened a kindergarten, and allocated allowances to local schools. The Society also established a carpet-weaving factory to provide jobs for women. It opened six schools in the villages where library work was also given a start. It should be noted that most of its honorable members were men who provided tremendous support to increase the Society's budget.

Almost within the same timeframe, the Women’s Charitable Society of Atropatene carried out almost a similar program (1895).

In 1901, heeding the calls of society, these two organizations merged into the Armenian Women’s United Charitable Society of Tabriz (Tavrizi hayouhats baregortsakan miatsial enkeroutioun).  Thanks to this union, the Society had 12 institutions, among them two kindergartens, two dress-making workshop and eight schools in the villages. A latter addition was a library/reading hall in Tabriz which marked the emergence of the concept of “women’s library.”  Between 1906 and 1907, the Society had 14 institutions, among them 11 school in provinces (girls’ schools, boys’ schools and mixed schools), and a library/reading hall.

In New Julfa, Armenian Women’s Charitable Society (Hayouhats baregortsakan enkeroutioun), founded in 1892, aimed at taking care of moral and material needs of socially vulnerable female students by providing them with clothes and stationary.  Eventually the Society’s scope of activities expanded beyond the school, and it contributed to the cultural and humanitarian activities throughout the entire community.   

In 1905 Women’s Charitable Society of Tehran was founded in Tehran (Tehrani kanants baregortsakan enkeroutioun), Iran, which established the local Armenian kindergarten in 1918.   In 1910 Care-Giving Society of Young Women (Oriordats khnamatar enkeroutioun) was founded with the purpose of opening dress-making workshops and orphanages for Armenian children.  In 1915, the Red Cross Union of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation  (Dashnaktsutyun) was founded which was later renamed to Armenian Women’s Charitable Union of New Julfa (Nor Joughayi hay kanants gtoutian mioutioun).

Armenian women’s societies operated in Suchava, Bukovina (Armenian Ladies’ Union), London, England (Armenian Women’s Union), Paris, France (Armenian Ladies’ Union of Paris), in various communities in USA, Egypt (Armenian Women’s Union of Cairo), Aleppo, Syria (Mariam Society of Women), Rangoon, Burma (Ladies' Union).  The activities of these organizations mainly aimed at preserving the Armenian identity and supporting immigrating Armenians.  Prominent were the activities of Armenian Ladies Union of Paris (Parisi hay tiknants mioutioun) which was founded in 1913 and aimed at protecting the orphans, allocating financial aid to students, supporting needy refugees, and providing medical aid to the poor sick.  Four branches functioned within the Union each carrying out one of the four mission. 

 

LESSONS FROM WOMEN PUBLIC ACTIVISTS OF 19TH AND EARLY 20TH CENTURIES

Thus, in 19th and early 20th centuries, the Armenian women entered the public sphere silently, without having to fight for a place in society and they operated in an extremely favorable environment, in gender harmony, and with the feeling of being in demand.  They entered the public with the mission to bring enlightenment and to mitigate the social pains.  They never pursued narrow gender interests.  They limited their concerns for women’s rights to theoretical discussions and always responded to national problems and needs.     

They adhered to the principles of healthy competition and were able to collaborate not only amongst themselves, but also with other organizations.  Moreover, they included men in their programs when needed.  They founded viable organizations, developed detailed charters, clearly defined their rights and obligations, regulated both external and internal relations and adhered to the rules of letters. The organizations were founded by outstanding women but they did not take possession of them.  The democratic principles of formation of governing bodies, especially the principle of rotation, and correct organization of elections gave each member the opportunity for promotion, and self-realization. The transparent operation and system of publicizing reports greatly boosted confidence toward these organizations.

Finally, the flexibility of women’s organizations and their ability to react to a situation and work within the defined timeframe, were particularly appealing.  Tangible results of their initiatives became the warrantee of success of their future undertakings and growing public confidence and support.

 

Notes and Bibliography:

[1] See, V. Hatsuni, The Armenian Woman in History [Հայուհին պատմության առջև], (Venice: St. Lazar, 1936), p. 471; S. G. Barghudarian, “The Armenian Woman in Middle Ages” ([<<Հայ կնոջ իրավական վիճակը միջին դարերում>>], Patma-banasirakan Handes 2 (1966), A. Nikoghossian, “Gender Discourse of History: A Special Course (Yerevan, 2003); S. Tumanyan, “Issues of Men’s and Women’s Equality in Legends ‘David of Sasoun’ Epic.”  Gender Studies 3 (Yerevan, 2001), p. 79-86;  A. Sahakyan, “Women in Mythological System of Thinking.” Gender Studies 3 (Yerevan, 2001) pp.  86 – 117;  G. Grigoryan, “Issues of Gender Culture in History of Armenian Legal-Political Thought.” Gender Studies 6 (Yerevan, 2001), pp. 52-55, etc.

[2] Mikael Nalbandian, Complete Works. Volume 1. (Yerevan, 1945), p. 457.

[3] Raffi, “The Armenian Woman.” Collection of Works. V. 11 (Yerevan: 1990), pp. 99-199:

[4] “Arevmutk,” (1859), p. 141.

[5] «Murj», (1891):2, pp. 677-87.

[6] “Significance of National Sciences for Education.” Meghu (1865): 13-14.

[7] “Two Words on Girls’ Education.”  Meghu (1865): 23.

[8] Grigor Artsruni, “Women are with us.” Mshak (1877):29

[9] “A Few Words on Unemployment of Women.” Arevelian Mamul (Smyrna, 1881), pp. 345-50.

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