Feminism in Czech Republic
[Copyright 1999 Jirina Sikolvá.]
Does feminism have a chance of being accepted in the Czech Republic? The most succinct answer to that question would probably be something to the effect that no one in this country is interested in feminism and almost no Czech woman describes herself as a feminist. Nevertheless, much has been written on the topic in this country and many people feel the need to denounce feminism as something obnoxious or proudly declare how they disagree with it, even though they don't really know anything about it.
What is feminism?
My 11-year-old grandson asked me the other day, "Granny, are you a feminist?" A little distraught, I responded with some questions of my own, "And what do you think that is? How do feminists act?" The child, perfectly guileless, answered macho style, "Feminists think that they're better than us men and they want to kick us out and live on their own." A perfectly formulated prejudiced response at the age of 11. And this is in a family where my mother was a medical doctor with a private practice, my grandmothers and great-grandmothers on both sides were employed, educated, and emancipated women who made their own money and made important decisions concerning the family, the property, the childrenís education, and their own professions.
While it may be true that the only people who are truly interested in feminism in the West are for the most part university students and intellectuals, the demonstrative disinterest of Czechs in feminism should be a matter of concern for sociologists. Contemporary Western feminism emerged out of the student, civil rights, and New Left movements of the 1960s in Germany, France, and the United States. The theoreticians and activists of those movements -- including people like Martin Luther King, Regis Debray, Franz Fanon, and Herbert Marcuse -- played an important role in setting the stage for feminism. The current wave of feminism broke from these more general human rights movements when women, especially students, realized that their status was similar to that of a minority group and that they were also subjected to "oppression." Under the slogan "women's liberation," they started to formulate their demands for equality in the late 1960s. In the early days of the movement, they were very revolutionary and they used every means available of asserting themselves and their demands. But over the next decade, the feminist movement started to break part into different streams -- from the most radical groups, which asserted that women are the superior gender, to the most moderate, which emphasized the value of the specific role of women in society.
The important thing is that Western feminism emerged out of more general demands for human rights -- demands that were suppressed in the communist countries. The dissidents of Central and Eastern Europe, with their insistence that human rights be respected in their countries, succeeded in acting as spokesmen for people from across the region. But despite the fact that today's feminism emerged out of those same demands for human rights, it has yet to be accepted in the region as an integral element of democratization.
We should certainly not dismiss this fact as simply an interesting phenomenon. It is just as much the task of sociology to examine the reasons behind the absence of a phenomenon as it is to examine the existence of one. The case of feminism is particularly interesting because contemporary Western feminism, which is now in its third or fourth wave of development since its inception, came to this region literally out of nowhere after 1989.
The many faces of feminism
It should be stated from the outset that Czechs are not at all familiar with Western feminism. The general public doesnít know much more about feminism than my 11-year-old grandson. Even those who are otherwise inquisitive donít want to read or even hear anything about feminism. What many Czechs do not understand is that feminism is not a single, unified ideology, it is not a war of women against men. Rather it is a world opinion, a philosophy of life, and perhaps even a manner of self-identification, and not just for women but for men as well. Feminism can be understood as a late 20th century eschatology for a world that has already been conquered, occupied, and violated by human beings and which sees an alternative in the maintenance of that which already exists rather than in an ever greater expansion based on the further plundering of nature. Feminism is also a modern, and perhaps even postmodern, philosophy which accepts the "differentness" of others as a value that should be cultivated. Such a philosophy is particularly appropriate for this era, which is witnessing the end of the eurocentric view of the world. Whether we want to or not, we Czechs will have to get used to living with people of different races, customs, and religions. Perhaps our fear of everything foreign is what makes us insist that the traditional relationship between men and women be maintained within the model of the family. We don't want to face up to the fact that the traditional model of the family is falling apart. In a way, our attitude is not so far from the attitudes of Islamic fundamentalists. Any group that feels threatened tends to hold together and emphasize its "differentness" with the help of various symbols. Religious women in Islamic countries, for instance, claim that when they cover up their faces they feel truly free. They also reject all forms of feminism. However, feminism can also be understood as just an average modern-sounding ideology, the basis of a political movement for a certain social class that is struggling for its share of power. It can also be interpreted as an alternative lifestyle, as an extravagant way for less successful women to attract attention to themselves, as an easy way to start up a political career, or as a pseudoscientific way to resolve personal hangups. Alternatively, feminism can be considered one of the basic branches of sociology and a method for dealing with the problems of society from the viewpoint of the differences between men and women. I support this form of feminism, which is the main form in the Czech Republic. In this country, the Western-style militant feminists -- who justifiably evoke smiles and scandals in the Western media -- are truly rare.
So why is Western feminism so unwelcome in the Czech Republic? In comparison with Western women, Czech women are very emancipated, but they don't want to recognize it. They firmly reject feminist ideology, almost as if they were afraid that if they gave a name to their status, the situation would change. Women in the Czech Republic generally occupy an important position in the family and they have far more responsibility for the family and its finances than men or most feminists in the West. At the same time, however, they accept a seemingly second-class status with a strange form of affected humility. Under socialism, most women more or less managed the dual role of worker-mother. They grumbled about it, but they were also proud of it. When Western feminists try to tell Czech women that the family is not the most important issue facing their gender today, what they are doing is taking the aura of martyrdom away from Czech women. Perhaps that is why feminism is most firmly rejected by middle-aged Czech women, who grew up under socialism and are now involved in business. Such women have attained a higher social status and are now influencing the image of Czech women as a whole.
In contrast, younger Czech women, especially university students, are interested in feminism and want to study it. Perhaps they understand that this country, which used to be very paternalistic, will one day turn into a society in which ownership relations will become paramount. In such a society, men would be even more powerful as property owners or entrepreneurs, and gender discrimination could become a problem. Similar developments in the West led to the birth of the feminist movement.
Most of the qualified criticism of feminism that exists in the Czech Republic is based on our recent experiences with socialism as well as on our experiences with the fight to preserve the Czech nation. Over the past two centuries, Czech men and women had more common interests than their Western counterparts. Over the years, these common interests (or enemies) changed according to surrounding circumstances: in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the fight for the survival of the Czech language in the face of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; during World War II, it was the resistance to the Nazi German occupation; and finally, during the Cold War, it was the resistance to the communist regime. In the latter phase, since everything had been nationalized, women did not feel aversion toward men as owners or employers but rather toward the regime as the sole employer in the country and toward the overbearing Communist Party. Neither of these feelings of aversion were based on gender distinctions.
Sisters and comrades
Czech women who are familiar with Western feminism criticize it for its ideological nature as well as for the manner in which it posits a universal solution for the problems of women all over the world. Slogans like "Sisterhood is international" remind us of the slogans we used to hear about the working class. Years of communism and now postcommunism have convinced us that there is no universal worker whose interests are the same in Beijing, Moscow, Manchester, and Prague. We have also come to understand that dividing people up according to social status (which could also be inherited) did not solve our problems, nor did it bring us happiness. How then could some sort of international sisterhood resolve our problems?
In short, many Western feminists appear too leftist to us and seem to be oriented toward an ideology that we just got rid of. Their criticism of Western democracy makes us uneasy because that is precisely the kind of system we would like to have in our own country. In fact, Czech women tend to be more right wing than their male compatriots. According to surveys conducted by Czech sociologist Marie Cermeková, women in this country tend to vote for right-wing parties more often than men. Furthermore, they have tended to hold on to their jobs. The number of employed women in the Czech Republic has decreased by only 3 percent since 1989.
Some misunderstandings arise from the fact that many Western feminists believe that Soviet-style socialism had resolved the problem of women's equality in Eastern Europe and that its collapse was a setback for women in this region. They criticize us for not fighting for the "gains" of socialism which the former regime bestowed on us. They argue that socialism enabled women to obtain the same level of education and employment as men, thereby proving that women are just as capable as men. They don't understand that in our country, both men and women value the freedom of expression and the free market they have today more than they valued the "security" that the socialist regime offered them. Even though we may not be extremely well-versed in theoretical Marxism, we still donít have any illusions about the "dictatorship of the proletariat" because we know what that means in practice better than any Western feminist. While it is true that Lenin considered the emancipation of women to be an integral part of socialist progress, he also emphasized that the interests of women should be subordinate to the interests of the working class. If women wanted equality, they had to join the ready-made world which consisted of social structures and power relations created by men and mainly for men. The Leninist program told women: "Adjust yourselves to our plan, work, and achieve what we have achieved and then weíll consider you to be equals." No national or racial minority would agree with such demands in this day and age. Anybody who tried to implement such ideas today would be accused of violating basic human rights.
Thus, the ideology of socialism replaced the "patriarchy" of capitalist ownership with the authority of the totalitarian state. Private rule was replaced with so-called public patriarchy. In order to secure control over all its citizens, the socialist state decreased the dependency of individual women on their husbands by introducing state support programs for mothers. For that reason, women in socialist countries were more interested in politics than women in the West at that time. Thanks to quotas established by the Communist Party, women had greater representation in parliament under that regime than they do today (women made up 29 percent of the communist parliament compared with 15 percent today). However, this does not mean that women in the Czech Republic were more involved in politics under the previous regime than they are today. The parliament of the communist era was not engaged in real politics as we understand the term in democratic countries. Perhaps this is why Czech women today are against the establishment of gender quotas for public legislatures.
The fight over quotas
The position of women in politics is another point on which we are criticized by Western feminists and which we have tried to explain both to them and to ourselves. The Western European and North American feminist slogan that "women are the proletariat of the world" has a negative resonance in this country. In a certain sense, the slogan is true. Women in developing countries are the poorest of the poor, their work in the household and in agriculture is not recognized, and they make far less money than men for the exact same kind of work. I recognize that the discrimination of women in the Third World violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that it often amounts to a new form of slavery. All of that is hard to explain to Czechs, however, because we tend to see the world from an exclusively European perspective, and from that perspective, we are the poor ones.
The demands of many Western feminists that women be equally represented in all the important decision-making institutions of society are also problematic. If such demands were actually fulfilled, women would be entering the male-dominated model of society that they themselves criticize.
So what should a rational feminist actually strive for? It would not be advisable to use feminism as a step toward the further diversification of nationalities, races, and social classes -- that would only lead to more divisiveness in the world. Perhaps it would be enough to simply develop feminist attitudes, goals, and concepts within the rules that already exist in a civic and democratic society. If we strive to uphold the principles of the social contracts that come with citizenship as a concept that both the majority and the minority can adhere to, feminists included, we will give women of various races, nationalities, and social groups an opportunity to find themselves and maintain their own identities and thereby ensure the maintenance of a pluralistic society. However, if women strive to participate in the power structures of society in a purely quantitative sense, they will be negating the very principles of feminism itself. Feminism should not be reduced to a struggle for power: feminism is the ability to see and accept the problems of the world -- from another person's perspective and to value alternative solutions.
If women focus their attention on quantitative solutions, they will cease to be "outside" the system and will thereby lose their ability to act as critics of society. They will also lose their ability to influence this imperfect world and guide it away from the principles of aggression and world domination and toward the principles of survival. In the end, the world will be deprived of yet another bit of "differentness."
[Some of this information was contributed by Petra Hanáková.]
Buchler, Alexandra, ed. Allskin and Other Tales by Contemporary Czech Women. Women in Translation, 1998.
Goldfarb, Jeffrey C. "Why There is no Feminism after Communism." Social Research, Vol. 64, No.2 (Summer 1997).
Heitlinger, Alena and Susanna Trnka, ed. Young Women of Prague. 1998. [ISBN 0-333-68367-6]
[Summary provided by Lenka Vytlacilová.]
This book is about the lives of young 'ordinary' Czech women who came of age in the aftermath of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. It is a collection of interviews with 14 women of similar age and education, but varying work, marital and childbearing experiences. Three additional chapters outline the design of the study, the social and historical forces that have shaped tese women's lives, and the common themes emerging out of the interviews, linking them to both legacies of communism and the current postcommunist transition.
Iggers, Wilma Abeles. Women of Prague: Ethnic Diversity and Social Change from the Eighteenth Century to the Present. Berghahn Books.
Renne, Tanya, ed. Ana's Land. Sisterhood in Eastern Europe. Westview Press, 1997. This book contains the following essays referenced in the Introduction (above):
Siklová, Jirina. "Feminism and the Roots of Apathy in the Czech Republic."
Volet-Jeanneret, Helena. La femme bourgeoise à Prague 1860-1895 : de la philantrophie à l'émancipation. Lausanne, 1988.