The Invisible Women of Hungary – A “National” Pantheon In Szeged (For The Love of Hungary Part 36)

The architecture and design of Dom ter was exhilarating to the point of distraction. One that almost caused me to forget the first thing I noticed after entering the square. Inside the arcades that surrounded Dom ter were a series of 80 mounted busts. They featured a wide range of famous Hungarians in what was termed the National Pantheon. These included everything from physicians to musicians, poets and politicians. At first glance, the National Pantheon was a seemingly exhaustive one with the likes of Kodaly, Kos and Keleman, Bercsenyi, Bathhyany and Bathory, Ady and Arany. As I walked from bust to bust, a troubling feeling began to creep over me. While these Hungarians came from an array of backgrounds and disparate occupations, they all had one thing in common, each person represented was male.

The Old Boys Club - The National Pantheon in Szeged

The Old Boys Club – The National Pantheon in Szeged (Credit: Wikipedia)

Willful Ignorance – A Celebration Of Chauvinism
Finding a female in the National Pantheon was an exercise in futility. I searched in vain for a famous Hungarian woman. If the idea of the pantheon was to bring together the greatest contributors to Hungarian history, politics and culture than a large percentage of the population had been left with no representation. Not a single female was to be found among the eighty. The National Pantheon was a closed shop. A men’s only club, that oddly enough was not totally limited to Hungarian men. In a couple of cases there were even foreign men, Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef and engineer of the Chain Bridge, Scotsman Adam Clark.

There was no room in the exhibit for Franz Josef’s much more famous wife Queen Elisabeth (Empress Elisabeth of Austria or Sisi), a beloved figure for Hungarians. I have heard Elisabeth referred to as “our Queen” by more than a few Hungarians. She is rightfully exalted in Hungarian circles for her love of the people. She would have been a much better choice than her husband who imposed martial law on Hungary after the 1848 Revolution. While this was but one example, it was a particularly glaring omission. The fact that Elisabeth had been overlooked was a symptom of the overall problem, the National Pantheon was as much a celebration of chauvinism as it was of the nation’s favorite sons. Favorite daughters were nowhere to be found.

The fact that not a single woman was represented made the exhibit both alarming and irritating. It meant that half the population had been willfully ignored. From what I would later learn, the National Pantheon had been installed at the behest of Hungarian Culture Minister Kuno Klebelsburg in 1930. Klebelsburg was a virulent nationalist and anti-semite, who most have had little to no regard for the achievements of Hungarian women. Considering the time period when Klebelsburg held office, his views were not that surprising. More alarming was the fact that in the past eighty years not a single woman had been added to the Pantheon. This was an astonishing oversight, one that was either deliberate or more likely revealing. It was a not so subtle expression of the power of men and the anonymity of women in Hungary.

The Arcaded Way - Dom ter in Szeged

The Arcaded Way – Dom ter in Szeged (Credit: Berosz)

Femme Fatale – Heroines Are Hard To Find
If the National Pantheon was meant to be symbolic than the message was clear, no females need apply. I must grudgingly admit that the exhibit was effective on at least one level, it caused me to think back across my travels in the country, searching my memory for the famous females either in statuary, sculpture or naming conventions. I was struck by how few I could recall. If love is blindness than my romantic view of Hungary was blind to the reality that women were marginalized to the point of invisibility. Heroines rather than heroes were hard to find in Hungary. I had stumbled upon the original sin of omission in the country, one that left me searching for signs of famous females while asking myself exactly who should join the feted figures to round out the National Pantheon.

Right off hand, I could name only three famous Hungarian women. The folk singer Marta Sebestyen, the author Magda Szabo and the most famous Hungarian woman of all time, the infamous Elizabeth Bathory. The latter is a litmus test for power and controversy when it comes to Hungarian women. Anytime, a reputed serial killer is a nation’s most famous woman that says something about the way powerful females are viewed in that country. What many have overlooked in the hysteria surrounding Bathory’s exploits (which were grossly exaggerated) was her role as one of the most powerful people in Hungarian history, male or female. She held fortunes in land, villages and other property that were greater than that of the Habsburg emperor.

After Lady Bathory’s husband, the vaunted military commander Ferenc Nadasdy died, Bathory was left widowed and at the less than tender mercies of the male powers that be. The Habsburg King Matthias and Hungarian Palatine Gyorgy Thurzo had a vested interest in having her scandalous behavior brought to light. That is just what happened, with Bathory spending the rest of her life imprisoned and losing all of her property in the process. Did Bathory contribute enough to Hungary that she should be included in a national pantheon? Due to her murderous crimes the answer must be no. Nonetheless, she was resolutely opposed to the Turks and supported Hungarian interests at a time that they were threatened from both within and without. Not to mention the fact that Bathory had more effect on Hungary’s direction than any number of figures represented in the National Pantheon.

Invisible Woman - Rosika Schwimmer

Invisible Woman – Rosika Schwimmer (Credit: Lackner,Vienna)

Silent Voices – A Study In The Exclusionary
No other female comes close to Bathory’s fame or infamy, but other women have certainly left a lasting mark on Hungary. Take for instance, the noted feminist, suffragette and internationalist Rosika Schiwmmer. The daughter of a Budapest produce merchant, she was a pacifist at a time when war was all the rage. Schwimmer was appointed Hungarian ambassador to Switzerland following World War I. Her efforts helped Hungarian women gain limited suffrage in 1918. The communists and fascists vehemently disagreed on just about everything, except for their universal loathing of Schwimmer, which says something remarkable about her principles. She was forced into exile, but continued to fight for various causes. In 1947 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is not so much surprising as it is sad that Schwimmer is not a member of the National Pantheon.

The irony of the National Pantheon is that much of it is attached to buildings that belong to the University of Szeged, an institution whose student body is majority female. Do the women studying at the University realize their marginalization is being openly presented to the public right in front of them? What are their thoughts about the impact that famous Hungarian women have had on the nation’s history, politics and culture? What females would they recommend for inclusion in the Pantheon? These questions have never been answered, let alone asked. The voices that need to speak the loudest continue to remain silent.

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