On the last day of Women's History Month, I want to tell a personal story. This is the story of my great-great-grandmother, Gana Naidenova Stoilova.
You'll need to know a bit of Bulgarian history first. From the late 14th/early 15th century onwards, Bulgaria fell under the rule of the Ottoman empire. Bulgarian institutions, national identity, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were all practically obliterated and assimilated into the structures of the Sultanate. This had a devastating impact on the Bulgarian population. Historians estimate that at the end of the 14th century there were around 1.3 million Bulgarians - a similar number to the populations of countries like Germany, France, or England at the time. 100 years into Ottoman rule, that number had dwindled to just 260,000. This population impact can be seen right through to today: whereas countries with a comparable 14th-century population now have populations upwards of 50 million, there are barely 10 million Bulgarians.
Bulgarian women were particularly harshly affected by the Ottoman occupation. They were already oppressed: subservient to their husbands, their activity pretty much limited to their own homes, with no social role outside the home. Domestic violence was wide-spread. What Ottoman rule added to this was the constant threat of violence from locally stationed Turkish soldiers or administrators, frequent abductions of Bulgarian women - either to be sold into slavery or forcibly converted to Islam, abductions of their children, especially boys who were converted to Islam and trained to fight in some of the most vicious units of the Empire's army. Bulgarian folklore is full of tales and songs about young women suffering terrible torture or even choosing to die rather than convert to Islam. One story, which I read when I was ten years old and which still sticks in my mind, is of 100 girls abducted into slavery who instead chose to braid their hair together and jump off the cliffs into the sea.
After 400 years of Ottoman rule, by the start of the 19th century economic and political conditions had changed sufficiently to allow for the beginning of a Bulgarian "National Revival" movement within the weakening Empire. There were two catalysts in particular: the first was a strong push for independence of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church; the second was increased levels of education and especially the teaching of the Bulgarian language in semi-religious and newly-established public schools. Women in particular had a pivotal role to play in the latter as the vast majority of teachers were women.
As the pace of the national revival picked up, with a small Bulgarian middle class beginning to emerge, so did the demands for political autonomy and self-government. Eventually, these demands culminated in the April Uprising, an armed revolt in the Balkan mountains in April 1876. For a number of reasons, the uprising wasn't as well prepared and didn't have the reach the organisers were hoping for. It was brutally crushed by the Ottoman army, and an estimated 15,000 Bulgarians - including women and children, sometimes whole towns - were killed in the process. This indirectly led to the establishment of an autonomous Bulgaria two years later.
Back to my great-great-grandmother...
Gana was born in Sopot in 1850. The town had had a reputation for resisting the Ottoman occupation since the very beginning in the 15th century, when it was completely destroyed in revenge for such resistance. As a young woman Gana moved to the town of Klisura where she became a teacher and became involved in the organisation of the April Uprising there.
Gana sewed and embroidered the flag for the uprising in Klisura. With money set aside from her teaching wages over five years, she bought fabric and sewed clothes for the fighters. The uprising found her in Klisura, and when the town was overrun by the Turks, she actually found herself fighting. She was captured, tortured (they cut off one of her breasts - I can't imagine her not being raped), escaped to Koprivshtitsa, and survived. She had seven or eight children, lived to see her country liberated, lived into the 20th century. A single photo of Gana survives (that my family is aware of). In it, she wears a medal she was awarded for her bravery and contribution to the uprising. Proud as I am to have her as my great-great-grandmother, Gana was not an exception. Bulgarian women contributed time, money, skills, and their lives to the uprising. They played a vital role in the national revival as teachers. They fought bravely, a lot of them died bravely.
Gana is the basis of the female lead character Rada in one of Bulgaria's greatest works of literature, Ivan Vazov's "Under the Yoke". I have a number of issues with the portrayal of Rada as a simpering love interest, as my great-great-grandmother clearly was neither of these things, but I am happy that some of her story is read by every Bulgarian school child to this day.
Gana's story brings me back to the theme I talked about at the start of Women's History Month: the way we as a society have historically restricted opportunities for women, and the way we value women's contributions to our history. I find Gana's story inspiring because she managed to overcome those obstacles in her own way. Her first contribution to the April Uprising was strictly within the sphere reserved for women: she made clothing and a flag. But when the time came to fight, she did, and did so bravely.
Do I wish she had lived in a time and place where her life was not characterised by violence? Yes. But in her time, in her place, this woman made a significant mark on the world. I don't generally believe that I can or should be proud of things I have not achieved myself. But I am proud of having Gana Naidenova Stoilova, freedom fighter, for a great-great-grandmother, and I am proud to tell her story.