Feminism in Czech Republic
[This information was contributed by Petra Hanáková.]
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You can read two essays on feminism in the Czech Republic:
[Copyright 1998 Petra Hanáková.]
For somebody observing the situation from outside the country, the history of Czech feminism may seem to be limited to the era after the Velvet Revolution and the subsequent implementation of various Western discourses in the sociocultural milieu of the new democracy. Before 1989, the word "feminism" was almost never used to designate any phenomenon present in Czechoslovakia, it referred to Western ideology which was presented as not applicable to the situation of Czech women'. But this fact is only a question of naming, and even without using the word "feminism", Czech lands have a long tradition of dealing with women's issues, especially in the sphere of education.
As probably every country has its Amazons, if we go far back in Czech mythology, to a collection of Old Czech Legends, we come across a very interesting legend about the Dévín castle (which literally means "The Girls' Castle"). It describes a bloody story about a rebellion of women, who started a vengeful war against men. As the story goes, they were not only capable warriors, they had no mercy and would not hesitate to kill their fathers and brothers. Under the leadership of mighty Vlasta, the "girls" lived in their castle, "Dévín", where they underwent a severe military training. They led the war very successfully, and one day Vlasta came up with an shrewd plan, how to take hostage a famous nobleman, Ctirad. She chose the lovely Sárka from the body (sic!) of her troops and had her tied up to a tree by a road with a horn and a jar of a mead out of her reach, but in her sight. In this state, Sárka was waiting for Ctirad to find her. When he actually really appeared and saw her, she told him a sad story of how the women from Dévín punished her for not following their ideology by tying her to the tree, mockingly putting a jar and a horn (so that she would be always reminded that she is thirsty and helpless) near by. Ctirad, enchanted by the beautiful woman, believed the lure and untied her, and when she handed him the mead, he willingly drunk it. When he was drunk already, she let him blow the horn, which was a signal for the Dévín warriors to capture him. He was then tortured in many horrible ways, at the end of which, his body was woven into a wooden wheel and displayed. This event mobilized the army, which soon afterwards destroyed Dévín. (Very significantly, this legend is the only account of radical feminism in Czech Lands.)
If we turn to the real historiography, we can see that women participated very actively in major events throughout the history of Czech lands, but there are especially two major historical periods that should not escape our attention, because they provide token examples of the position of women in society at the time: the Hussites movement and the Czech National Revival. The Hussites movement is famous for its emphasis on equality and the demand that the Bible should be available in the language of the people (at the time when all Masses were in Latin) and that everyone be educated to read and understand the Word, which addressed both men and women. Their ideals of equality attracted an enormous number of people, without a radical separation of the two sexes. As the Hussites period has always been considered one of the most important events in Czech history, so, many times, the necessity of education for both sexes was taken for granted as vital for the good of the nation(3).
Another very important period in which women had the chance to participate very actively in the forming of the Czech history was the so called Czech National Revival (literally: "Awakening"). By the 19th century, when the Czech lands had been a part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire for almost 300 years (with German as the official language), the Czech language and culture was on the verge of disappearing. Subsequently, the crisis gave rise to a massive cultural movement which in a few decades virtually resuscitated both Czech culture and language (many words had to be reinvented, because there were no Czech equivalents to the German anymore). Again, the role of education was stressed both for men and women. Among the famous revivalists was Bozena Némcová, one of the first women writers. Her poetic book The Grandmother is considered as one of the masterpieces of Czech literature. Significantly, the main character is a woman, who is represents the folk wisdom and the healthy heart of the nation. She is invited to spend her last years with her daughter's family (which belongs to the middle class and faces a lot of German influence) and take care of the children. She raises the kids, especially her niece Barunka, to become aware of the Czech traditions, to respect knowledge and be proud of their own country and the wisdom passed over by generations.
When Czechoslovakia was established as independent country in 1918, its first president, Tomás Gariggue Masaryk, emphasized the importance of education for women and his essays may be considered as the actual beginnings of Czech feminist political writings. Highly influenced by his wife, Charlotte Gariggue, as early as in 1890, he lectured at the university about women's issues(4).
After the war (in which both men and women had to face the oppression side by side) a totalitarian regime took over the country. The dictatorship of the Communist Party officially began with the February Events in 1948. The authorities did not distinguish between men and women: they needed followers, workers, and ideological persuaders so a massive propaganda was launched, aimed on both sexes to enter the workplace and increase production. (When it came to the opponents, neither there a woman would be taken as a less dangerous enemy: Milada Horáková, a woman politician, was executed in the 1950s during the "ideological purges" as one of the token political figures). The regime established a right to work and the subsequent obligation to work for both men and women, repressed any creativity and real competition in the workplace. Men and women often became more like allies than competitors, finding together cunning ways how to avoid their duties imposed by the regime. Many people actually mastered the art of avoiding work and using the regime for their own objectives.
The system introduced, or much more imposed on women, an artificial ideal of emancipation. Based on the model of Russian women, it presented women as capable to work in any field, be politically and socially active and still manage to be a good mother and wife. This led to two major consequently first, women had to face the double load of profession and housework which lead to a lot of stress, and, on the other side, it created a sense of omnipotence in the women. A "normal" Czech woman would boast that she manages to be a specialist at work, cooks two big hot meals a day, raises up two kids, is able to find them Western clothes on the black market, to sew for herself a designer-like dress from a Russian version of Western magazine and get up at 4 a.m. every Thursday to stand in line in front of the bookstore to get a new quality book(5). The logic "I'm a woman. I can manage everything" was prevalent.
This often changed the power structure within families, as a significant part of the economic power and a decent "survival" of the family was dependent on women. The basic saying describing the power situation in the classical Czech family of the time was: 'man is the head of the family and woman is the neck who moves the head". Many men underwent a severe demasculinization in the private sphere, and they were sometimes called the "underslippers" (being under the control of the woman's slipper). Nevertheless, in the public sphere although the forced emancipation put men and women on an equal level in the workplace, men were always presented as leaders and women as their helpers.
The regime never really had a complete trust from the people, and the silent disbelief in the socialist ideology (and subsequent passive resistance) became the prevalent discourse in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. On the surface, it seemed that the position of women improved a great deal: not only every woman had the right to get a job, but there were high quotas for their presence in the government, a powerful association, the League of Women, was very active, even though it was only in the position as "the prolonged hand of the party"(6). What was missing was precisely the right to chose between the to be a worker, politician or a housewife. As Jirina Siklová claims, "if it were economically possible, Czech women would perhaps prefer to stay at home for some period of time and just play the role of hausfrau, of which the West is so scornful"(7).
As femininity in the traditional (Western) sense was not really promoted by the socialist propaganda (the regime promoted the "strength of being a woman"), and special women oriented TV programs and magazines were not available, they became very tempting for many women once the regime fell down. Western feminists do not often understand the appeal of soap operas, cheap women magazines and similar media for many highly, educated women. It is difficult to understand that this sleazy world of cheap sentimentality and pseudo-problems for many highly educated women presents the choice they were forbidden to take.
COPYRIGHT 1999 KRISTIN SWITALA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.