UCL Hebrew & Jewish Studies


Discourses on Body and Sexuality in Polish-Jewish Female Writing between 1890 and 1918

In 1913 Aniela Korngutówna in her novel Córki marnotrawne (The Prodigal Daughters) described Jewish rituals around marriage as extremely oppressive for women. In the eyes of one of the heroines, a woman’s body does not belong to her, but to society. Korngutówna was not the only Polish-Jewish writer to describe what we would today consider sexual abuse. In fact, numerous nineteenth-century Polish-Jewish literary texts discussed such issues in the context of the so called ‘woman’s question’. The main hypothesis of this exploration is that the discourse on women’s sexuality and body in in literature written by Jewish women in the Polish language is at variance from other Polish and Jewish (that is written in other European languages, Yiddish and Hebrew) literatures of the time. The project is funded by the National Science Centre of Poland (choose OPUS for funding scheme and choose panel HS3, project no. 14).

Our objective is to examine the approach to sexuality and female body beyond literary texts, and to also look at press articles, ethnographic studies, private correspondence and memoirs by Jewish women who wrote in Polish between 1890 and 1918. The time frame adopted begins with a decade of important and iconic moments for the Jewish world and for women. The period covered ends with the year when women were granted voting rights in independent Poland. 

The research will examine the flow of ideas between different cultural centres. The analysis will show whether it was only a literary phenomenon or an issue present in other discourses. It seems obvious that the theme was related to the first feminist movement and its struggle against prostitution and women’s trafficking – the so-called White Slavery –, as well as double standards applied to women. The aim of the project is to reflect on the broader cultural context in which Jewish women lived in the Polish lands between the 1890s and 1918, and how it impacted on perceptions of sexuality and the body. Its objective is to engage with non-obvious relations between Jewish and non-Jewish women and most of all to examine the complex notions around the female body and sexuality. 

This research project goes back to primary investigator's earlier research on “Polish-Jewish Literature between 1861 and 1918” at the Jagiellonian University (Kraków). She realised that more women than men had contributed to this corpus of texts and started to think about the reasons for this discrepancy, and also whether texts written by women differed from those written by men. In 2017 she had a chance to share ideas with François Guesnet. Many debates and an unsuccessful grant application later, a new project idea emerged: “Discourses on Body and Sexuality in Polish-Jewish Female Writing between 1890 and 1918”.

The project is funded by the National Science Centre in Poland (the Polish equivalent to the AHRC) and it will be conducted in the University of Warsaw Institute of History in collaboration with François Guesnet and potentially other HJS academics.

Zuzanna Kołodziejska-Smagała will be based in the Hebrew and Jewish Studies department in May and June 2020, in May 2021, and again in December 2021, and looks forward to further discussions, events, and inspiration. 

Primary Investigator: Zuzanna Kołodziejska-Smagała

Co-Investigator: François Guesnet