The Forgotten Half of Novo Mesto

Ilka Vašte (detail). Collection of portrait photographs of famous Slovenians (1997), National and University Library, Ljubljana

The Forgotten Half of Novo Mesto project rekindles the memory of Marta Mušič Slapar, Ivana Oblak, Ilka Vašte and other outstanding women who have made a lasting mark on the capital of the Dolenjska region.

The economic and cultural centre of south-east Slovenia, founded as a city already in the distant year 1365, bears imprints by literary artists, linguists, painters, musicians, film directors, scientists, and innovators. However, until recent discoveries, none of the mentioned names were women. Almost 700 years after the first mention of this city, in 2016, a working group was formed in Novo Mesto to rekindle the memory of women forgotten by history. In line with the spirit of the book Pozabljena polovica (The Forgotten Half, 2007), featuring 130 portraits of Slovenian women from the 19th and 20th centuries, the group members named their study The Forgotten Half of Novo Mesto.

The first list of names contained 70 suggestions, out of which the final selection chose 13 women active in the period from late 19th to mid-20th century. In front of the City Hall at Glavni trg 7, there are pillars set with busts of men. A few are still empty, awaiting their “heads”, so the group members filled one of the pedestals with a temporary installation: a photograph of woman writer Ilka Vašte.

Later, they drafted a suggestion to erect monuments of historically important women on thirteen locations. Three circular tracks along the footpaths and streets of the city have been traced with the goal of marking them with the monuments in the future. The city circle goes through the wider city centre; the water circle takes us along the right bank of the Krka River; while the wood circle reveals medieval connections of Novo Mesto in a shaded tree-lined avenue of chestnuts.

The Forgotten Half of Novo Mesto wants to rekindle the memory of women forgotten by history.

Among the chosen 13, the most outstanding contributions to local and wider economic development are those of Marta Mušič Slapar, pharmacist and economist, as well as co-founder of the Novo Mesto pharmaceutical company which is importantly shaping the international market today. After its founding in 1954, the original, only 6-member collective grew into one of the most powerful Slovenian enterprises also thanks to her. However, although Marta Mušič Slapar was the one who launched production, looked for medicinal recipes, and employed pharmacists and chemists, she herself, as the general manager’s assistant, remained in his shadow.

Sister Ivana Oblak also stands out, a Notre-Dame nun and the first Slovenian teacher to deaf and mute girls, who was head of the first Carniolan school or deaf and mute girls in Šmihel near Novo Mesto between 1886 and 1904. The school operated within the private girls’ school as an adapted programme section and is the earliest start of Slovenian surdopedagogy. In the 18 years of its operation, the school used the oral method to provide education to around 100 deaf girl students who were thus trained to live in a society that had before excluded them.  

Among the selected women are also sisters Ervina in Zora Ropas; they were music pedagogues, the former one also an accomplished composer, and the latter an accomplished alto. Then there are literary artists Ilka Vašte, Vera Albreht, and Marica Strnad Cizerlj. From the field of health care, the selection includes the distinguished Dr Marija Masten, the first Slovenian woman surgeon; Agneta Gerzin – Sister Marjeta, the first woman head of a women’s hospital; and Marija Tomšič, the first nurse in the region. The map of Novo Mesto past also showcases translator and literary historian Marjeta Vasič; the first teacher at the Novo Mesto high school Elizabeta Soklič; and partisan and politician Vilma Pirkovič Bebler. These outstanding women will eventually be joined by several more overlooked names. Perhaps next time when you stop in front of the City Hall, you will be greeted, in addition to the busts of famous Novo Mesto men, also by the monuments of women who have left an important mark on the capital of Dolenjska.

TIC Novo Mesto

A map available at the TIC Novo Mesto shows the local Footpaths and Cycle Routes with QR-codes. It features three circular paths with a common name The Forgotten Half of Novo Mesto: the city, water, and wood path. Also available are maps of individual paths as well as a brochure and web site with biographies of thirteen selected women. The paths are not accessible to people with limited mobility.