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Discourses of the Body and Sexuality in Polish-Jewish Women’s Literature from 1890-1918

In 1913 Aniela Korngutówna in her novel The Prodigal Daughters showed that Jewish rituals concerning marriage were extremely oppressive for women. One character even referred to the wedding night as “solemnly sanctioned rape.” In the character’s eyes, a woman’s body does not belong to her, but to society. The custom of cutting the bride’s hair appears in the novel as an act of barbarism against the heroine, who can no longer control her own body. According to the author, even theoretically safe interactions with men, such as a visit to the doctor, can prove dangerous and insulting, as the woman is often seen as sexual prey. Korngutówna was not the only Polish-Jewish writer (Polish-Jewish literature is considered to be that created in Polish by Jewish authors identifying with Jewish culture) who described sexual abuse. In fact, most Polish-Jewish nineteenth-century literary works were created by women, and many of them discussed topics related to the so-called “women’s question.” Some, such as Czesława Endelmanowa-Rosenblattowa’s The Youth of Hanna Turska, even portrayed female protagonists who sought to live up to male standards and be financially independent and, above all, enjoy sexual relations. The main thesis of the project is that the discourse on female sexuality and carnality present in nineteenth-century Polish-Jewish literature was unique in comparison to Polish and Jewish (that is, texts written in other European languages, Hebrew and Yiddish) literature of the period. The aim of the project is therefore to examine approaches to sexuality and the female body not only in literary works, but also in the press, ethnographic research, private correspondence and memoirs of Jewish women writing in Polish between 1890 and 1918. The project’s timeframe opens with a decade of important and key events in the Jewish world (the establishment of the Bund, a Jewish socialist-democratic party, in 1897; establishment, in the same year, of the first Zionist Congress in Basel) and in the women’s world (Congress of Jewish Women in Chicago in 1893, admission of the first women to university (3 women were admitted to the Jagiellonian University in 1894, but the Jagiellonian University was officially opened to women three years later, when women were also allowed to study at the Jan Kazimierz University in Lvov). The end date is when women gained the right to vote in 1918 in an already free Poland.

The project assumes further development of research on nineteenth-century Polish-Jewish literature, expanding its scope to new scholarly fields. Studies of non-literary works by Polish-Jewish authors will shed light on the not-obvious relations between Polish and Jewish feminists. The flow of ideas between different cultural centers will also be examined. An analysis of the sources will show whether this was an exclusively literary phenomenon or whether the theme was present in other cultural texts. Clearly, these themes were related to the women’s emancipation movement, as both Polish and Jewish feminists fought against prostitution, human trafficking and double standards for women.

The proposed project is highly innovative in that it examines material largely ignored in Jewish studies, and above all, it focuses on previously unknown aspects of Polish-Jewish cultural heritage. Therefore, the results of the project will significantly broaden the existing knowledge not only on the history and culture of Polish Jews, but also on the history of women in Polish lands at the turn of the 20th century. The project will present unknown names of Jewish women because they did not belong to Jewish organizations and did not write in Hebrew or Yiddish, languages more accessible to foreign researchers. The project involves the use of various research methods applied in different disciplines, including history, gender studies, cultural studies, Polish philology, anthropology and sociology. The project aims to show the broad context in which Jewish women living in Polish lands between 1890 and 1918 functioned, to present the relations between Jewish and non-Jewish women, and above all to explore the complex topic of sexuality and the female body.