Sunday, August 17, 2008

Aspazija (1868-1943): A Voice for Women

Published in Her Circle Ezine
April 15, 2008

by Zinta Aistars

Several Latvian women writers stand out as offering insight into the earliest seeds of feminism—Latvian style, if you will—or, simply, what it meant, and means, to be a woman with a voice. Few, if any, are better known than Aspazija.

It was only in the latter part of the 19th century that Latvian literature found its own riverbed, and as if a dam had opened, a literary culture was fast taking its developmental course, pouring forth with a rush of new literary voices. Prior to this time, although the Latvian language and culture are among the oldest in existence today, the tiny Baltic country was under the heel of one occupying power after another. During that span of centuries, Latvians were not allowed to pursue an education and were forced to live as peasants and serfs, often coming to identify themselves culturally with the current ruler. Nearing the end of the 19th century, that ruling power would have been the German influence, and it wasn’t until a revolution of national identity took place that Latvians finally began to take some pride in being who they were—Latvians.

Aspazija’s voice entered the flow of new Latvian literature during that time, still a girl in high school when she began to write with a more serious intent (her first efforts at poetry was a collection written at age 14 in the German language). Until then, she had been Elza Rozenberga, but now she took a pen name, adopted from the Hammerling novel, Aspasia. The character of Aspasia was a woman of strength and beauty, and young Aspazija set her as a role model, adopting her name as her own. Critical acclaim soon followed, along with an invitation to work in Latvian theater in the capital city of Riga. Aspazija’s talent was recognized in drama, journalism, and as a literary critic.

Her beauty, meanwhile, caught the eye of another, equally fast rising Latvian literary star: Rainis. Not without recognition for the young woman’s literary prowess. The two were married in 1897 (Aspazija’s second marriage, as her first lasted but a short while and seemed mostly fodder for plays she wrote about a woman’s right to live according to her personal sense of life, following her own heart), and Aspazija and Rainis (pen name for Janis Plieksans) became a literary force to be reckoned with on an individual basis as well as a team. Aspazija was widely seen, and not just by Rainis, as being his muse, and the young editor of a Riga newspaper gained fame as a poet and playwright as well as a political influence. In the minds of many Latvians, even today, it is difficult to separate the two. One inspired the other, one’s works were often translated into other languages by the other, and it seems reasonable to imagine, each was the other’s irreplaceable “second pair of editorial eyes.” It is doubtful either would have achieved the level of literary acclaim or even political influence they enjoyed in Latvian society without the support of the other.

Yet to enjoy a strong and mutually satisfying relationship does not detract from a feminist voice. The couple was exiled to Russia and later to Switzerland, but were allowed to return to Latvia when the country regained its independence following World War I. Back in her own land, Aspazija continued to write in a feminist voice, becoming active in the Latvian feminist movement. A strain of rebellion, even when sometimes good-natured and humorous, threaded through many of her works, and her plays, Simple Rights and Unattained Goals, protested a society ruled by men. Her poetry often tended toward more romantic themes.

Aspazija was a member of the Parliament of Latvia from 1920 to 1934 as a representative of the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party. Her contribution in Latvia’s government was her continued strong voice for women’s rights.

A book was later published of collected correspondence between Aspazija and Rainis, titled Life and Art: A Correspondence, and in it Aspazija wrote:

“With my deep love for my entire nation, I offer the entirety of two people’s lives, regardless of any protests, or threats, into the hands of our nation, so that it may, as a loving mother her children, who have suffered greatly, sometimes losing their way, punish or caress us—such will be our spiritual legacy.”

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