THE STATUS OF CZECH WOMEN - THEN AND NOW
By Marie Dolansky (USA) and Zora Fricova (Czech Republic), February, 2001
SECOND WINTER SYMPOSIUM, Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, February 10, 2001, San Diego, California.
Czech women have had much in common with other women in the world, namely that they had to fight very hard for their place in the sun. For centuries they were overlooked and considered less valuable and less capable than men. There are interesting legends from prehistoric times in the Czech lands, i.e. the story of Libuse (or Libussa) who was allegedly a beautiful and wise Czech countess who ruled the Czech lands sometime before the 7-th century. She was also a prophetess who occasionally predicted the future of her homeland. The legend inspired artists, writers and musicians alike. For example, the painter Vojtech Hinais painted Libuse on the front curtain of the National Theater in Prague. There she stands on the hill Vysehrad, looking into the distance and seeing the skyline of Prague, predicting that Prague will one day become a very beautiful city, "whose fame will reach the heavens". The composer Bedrich Smetana wrote an opera about her in which we meet the famous countess deciding a dispute between two of her male subjects. The one who had lost got angry and said: "Woe be to men who are ruled by a woman. Women have long hair, but a short brain. We want a male ruler." Libuse was very insulted and and said: "If you feel this way, I will marry a man named Premysl and he will be your ruler", upon which she sent for her friend Premysl who was a landowner. She married him, gave up the throne and thereby made a grave mistake: Ever since, Czech women have been trying to get back into politics against strong male opposition.
There are other legends about Czech women who disliked male dominance, who even formed female armies to fight men and to protect themselves from male domination. There are still ruins of their castles to be found in the Czech and Slovak lands, e.g. the demolished castle Tetin in Bohemia or Devin near Bratislava. The most famous militant women were Kazi, Teta, Vlasta and Sarka (Sharka) Those of you who are familiar with Smetana's work" My Fatherland" will remember that one of the 6 symphonic poems tells about Sharka, a leader of a female army. She had been insulted by her lover and swore vengeance. Realizing that her army might not be strong enough to beat the men, she resorted to deception: She first made sure that her male opponents got drunk and then called upon her women to slaughter them all.
The struggle of women against male dominance has continued throughout Czech history. In general, Czech and Slavic women were better off as compared to women of other European nations. In predominantly agricultural societies (like the Slavic peoples), women were treated more as male partners and equals because they did the same kind of work as men. Christianity gradually brought more protection for women. Women were no longer kidnapped, but married by strict, if not discriminatory rules. Single women had to have their father's permission to get married and had to bring a "dowry" to the marriage. The dowry could be either money or goods such as furniture, bedding, clothes, etc or a combination of both. A kind of prenuptial agreement was drawn up which listed everything the bride brought to the marriage. The husband became the manager of the property, but it was not to be sold or squandered. Sometimes he was even obliged to add at least one third of the value of the dowry to it. If the marriage broke up or the husband died, the wife became the sole proprietor of the entire dowry. Infidelity of the husband in marriage was overlooked, but a wife could be severely punished, sometimes even by death.
In those days it was an advantage to be a widow- the widow had many freedoms and privileges .She could marry whomever she chose, enter into contracts, hold property, be the guardian of her children, bring a suit to court or have legal representation. Women of noble birth and wives of rich merchants were often educated either by private tutors or in convent schools, where they were taught reading and writing, languages, music and home economics. Some convents even took care of abandoned, sick or abused women and thus became social institutions and women shelters.
The religious reformation ( the 14-th to 16-th centuries) brought many positive changes to the status of women. Jan Hus and his followers preached in Czech (not in Latin). Thus religious instruction became available to all. Jan Hus had many followers, particularly among women who supported his reforms wholeheartedly, embraced his moral teachings and even sheltered him in their homes when the Pope persecuted him. The reformation brought very strict morals to everyday life and contributed to the democratization of society. After Jan Hus was murdered, some women even took part in the Hussite wars that followed his death. Many of them received general education and military training in Tabor and other localities and were brought up the same way as boys. Czech Protestantism put great emphasis on education of both sexes. Many outstanding scholars joined the ranks of the Protestants, and some became professors at Charles University in Prague, including Jan Hus. All Protestants- including women- became serious students of the Bible that had been translated into Czech. The wives of many Protestant leaders were often allowed to conduct parts of the church services. The "Hussite King", Jiri of Podebrady (1458-1471) became one of the most respected Czech rulers. He was the first King elected by his contemporaries and proved to be a wise and just man. For his Queen, he chose Johanka of Rozmital, a former commoner. The marriage was very successful and it is said that the King consulted his wife often before making decisions. She fully supported his reforms, and once even lead the Czech army in battle when the King was away on business!
All this progress came to an end in 1620, when the Protestants finally lost in the Battle of the White Mountain, near Prague. The Czech lands fell under the rule of the Austrian Catholic rulers. Women were again told that their place was in the home only. They were only valued as breeders of as many children as possible, especially of boys, who would eventually serve in the ever expanding Austrian army. All citizens had to become Catholic or leave the country. Consequently, the most educated and the best men and women of the land were forced into exile and were lost to the nation. (The Utraquists, the Czech and Moravian Brethren, etc. )Many of their descendants eventually came to the United States and later founded what has become known as the Moravian Church, with the first settlement in Bethlehem, PA. They were primarily concerned with education of the young people- both boys and girls- and founded schools for them in the early 18-th century. From these schools eventually evolved Moravian College).
Many Protestants could not leave the country, especially those who worked the fields. Feudalism was still strong. They had to accept the Catholic religion. Practicing Protestantism was forbidden and persecuted. German became the official language of the land. The rest of the 17-th and most of the 18-th centuries became one of the darkest times in Czech history. The Czech "rebels and heretics" were punished severely and the Czechs were almost eliminated as a nation. The Czech language was kept alive only in the smallest and remotest villages, where it was preserved in folksongs, stories and legends, and in a few books (including the Czech Bible), carefully hidden from the authorities. And here again the women helped to preserve the traditions by teaching children about times gone by, or by practicing the Protestant religion in secret.
The 19-th century brought gradual changes. Some Czech exiles became known and famous outside of their homeland (e.g. Komensky or Comenius). Czech music and musicians gained popularity as exiles all over Europe. Some famous musical families, (for example the Benda or Dusek families) produced several outstanding female singers and musicians. Over the years, the religious animosities lessened and some descendants of the former exiles returned to their homeland and brought along new ideas, especially those concerning nationality, national awareness and human rights. The Czech nation began its revival, which of course culminated during World War I. The fight for women's rights was lead primarily by Czech women writers and poets like Bozena Nemcova, Eliska Krasnohorska, Karolina Svetla, etc. During the second half of the 19-th century, a worldwide movement for women's rights in cultural, economic a social fields took hold, and eventually spread even into the political arena. Czech women worked hard, and with much fervor, in patriotic, social and educational organizations. While they helped in the revival of the nation, they achieved much improvement of their own standing. Unmarried women were allowed to find employment in "women's professions" such as in nursing, teaching, dressmaking, social work, etc. Women became founders of schools for girls. Czech women in particular realized early on the importance of a good education for girls and women in the struggle to gain independence and equality. Up until the end of the 19-th century, women had to attend boys' "academic high schools" (called gymnasiums) to be prepared for possible university studies. Women could attend the universities, but only as "special" students in certain fields. (They were admitted as "regular" students in 1918). The Czech writer, Eliska Krasnohorska, founded the first gymnasium for girls in Prague around the year 1900. It was an excellent school equal in reputation to the boys' schools. It actually was the first school of this kind in middle Europe! Patriotic and educated men supported women's educational work, realizing that women could double their own efforts to resurrect the nation and possibly liberate the country from its dependence on Austria-Hungary. There was another "first" that the Czech women achieved. After a long fight, the Czech Congress (or State Assembly) gave the women the right to vote, and elected the first woman representative in 1912. (B. Vikova-Kuneticka). Therefore, Czech women were the first in Middle Europe to acquire the right to vote.
In W.W. I. women proved to be capable in all fields, often taking over for the men who were fighting in the war. Czech women from middle and lower classes lead the fight for equal human rights, not women from the upper classes as was the case in other countries. Thus women entered many kinds of work and men reluctantly gave them "permission" because there was no other way. After the war, women tried very hard to hold on to the progress they had achieved. The new Czechoslovak Constitution (the first one completed after the war in 1920) guaranteed women the right to vote and all other civic rights, including the right to enter the university as regular students, to earn academic degrees and to practice any profession. The women's celibate was lifted. except for teachers.
The women of the newly created state-Czechoslovakia,- found a great and powerful supporter of their rights in its President, Thomas G. Masaryk. In his teachings and writings about humanism he stressed that a woman is, first and foremost, a human being. "The woman's problem is a human problem. Women and their work deserve respect and consideration. They represent half of the population of our new Republic." In his marriage to Charlotte Garrigue, an American, he practiced what he wrote about marriage: "A true marriage is a unity of minds, bodies and souls." He and his wife studied together, learned from each other, corrected each other's thinking and supported each other. He wrote," How can a man truly love a woman if he considers her a being of lesser value than himself?" Their marriage was a very happy and fruitful one and Charlotte was a very much admired and respected First Lady. She became very heavily involved in the Czech struggle for independence and was active in the women's movement for many years.
The progressive state of Czechoslovakia unfortunately enjoyed freedom for only 20 years and was gradually occupied by Nazi Germany starting in 1938. All progress in all fields was sacrificed to the German quest to rule all of Europe. The Czechs of both sexes lost both their human and civic rights. The universities were closed and students were sent to build roads and work in factories and mines, men and women alike. People could not quit work or move to another location, or travel anywhere. The official language became German and everyone had to learn it and pass exams in German, if he/she wanted to have decent employment. Any opposition was crushed. People were sent to concentration camps, especially students, university professors, leaders of organizations and members of the intelligentsia. Both men and women had to be fully employed wherever needed. Work dodgers were apprehended and sent to work camps.
I was assigned to teach German at a special school for " women's professions" in Vysoke Myto. Today the title of the school sounds ridiculous: yet there were many such schools in the Czech lands. They trained girls in home economics, cooking, dressmaking, nutrition. The highest grades provided education and practical experience for social workers.
The constant presence of the German army and of Nazi leaders in our country was most oppressive. We were not allowed to listen to foreign broadcasts or read any foreign newspapers. Listening to BBC was punishable by death, but we did so anyway, in order to find out what was really going on. We lived in constant fear of being picked up, questioned and possibly jailed for some real or imaginary infraction. There were shortages of everything-food, clothing, etc. Our homes were cold because there was not enough coal or wood. All of us suffered but women often more because they were given the worst jobs. In addition, they had to do all the housework, feed and clothe the family, often buying food on the black market, and stand in long lines for everything. Pregnant women were treated somewhat better. Why? The Nazis wanted the population to increase because the Czechs and other nationals were to be turned into slaves of the "master race" - the Germans - after the final victory. When Germany finally lost the war, freedom and democracy gradually returned to Czechoslovakia after May 1945. Unfortunately, less than 3 years later, Czechoslovakia fell into another slavery-this time as a satellite of the Soviets. Another criminal and cruel regime took over- much worse than the previous one. It divided families and worse- it lasted for 41 years. Women and men were again deprived of their human and civic rights.
The communists called their miserable regime "the socialist people's democracy" a completely nonsensical title. It was not created to benefit people, neither was it a democracy. Only party members occasionally experienced some kind of improvement in living conditions and the leaders lived like kings. People were encouraged to spy on each other and to report any "sins" to the authorities in order to gain "points" with the regime. Although there was no war, shortages of all goods continued because industrialized Czechoslovakia had to now provide the Soviet Union with all the products that they had lacked up to now. The party invented all sorts of slogans and promises for women, but their status did not improve. It was a system of false propaganda, pretense and deception. Women were given jobs that men were not interested in; many women had to work in agriculture with the explanation that"women always did manual work." Of course, they had to do all the housework in addition, and again stand in lines for everything. Children were cared for in day care centers where they often stayed for 12 hours a day. Women still made only about 69% of men's pay! To keep people from rebelling, the government introduced a few "perks" from time to time: Women received a little extra money when they were pregnant, during hospital stays, for baby and child care and of course, all had health insurance mostly paid for by the state. (By American standards, it was and often still is of poor quality.) Mothers were allowed to stay home with each child for up to 3 years, and received a certain percentage of their pay as long as they provided all baby and child care. [The "extra credits" prevail to this day and bring good and bad results-they teach people to be too dependent on the state-compare this to the welfare system in America!] What is good is that the mother gets 3 years work credit for each child, which is important for her pension in retirement.], Czech women experienced a great deal of stress. They were forced to work outside of the home, without having much choice in the matter. That cannot be called emancipation or liberalization. Women aged faster and retired much earlier than women in the west. (Some retired at 50 years of age, many because of serious health problems.)
The whole society carries the results of this dehumanizing regime to this day- the nation became sicker physically and emotionally, more dependent on the state or on some other "benefactor". It is believed that the past era was one of the darkest ones in Czech history. Many citizens lost their lives, families, and property. Thousands were killed in work camps, in uranium mines, and through deprivation. After all, the communists even jailed and murdered their own party members. (Recall the infamous Slansky trials of the 1950's). The government persecuted outstanding men and women. The communist regime has the distinction of being the only one that killed a woman prisoner by hanging her in Prague in 1950. (Milada Horakova). Her crime was: She was an outstanding leader and she criticized the regime. Many people left the country as refugees; many of them were well-known scholars and artists. History repeated itself - same happenings as in the 17-th century.
The post-communist Czech Rep. is not yet a democracy. Two generations grew up under that inhuman system, and most have not much of an idea what democracy is about. Most women again work outside the home because it is economically necessary. One recent article reads: " The employment of women has resulted in higher living standards for families and they have achieved greater independence and liberation."(They do not mention the great unemployment problem). In the Czech Republic, there has always been a shortage of housing. People find it hard to move to where the jobs are because it is generally impossible to find housing in a different location. Girls and women of today are well educated. In general, the girls study harder and about half of them pass the required exams to enter an academic (college preparatory) high school at age 10. Only one third of the boys do so. Czech universities are impacted, and only about 40% of students are women. There is a shortage of classrooms and university professors, since many professors either perished in concentration camps, were dismissed by the former regime, or found other, more lucrative positions. In the past, generally children of party members were allowed to study at the universities and very few of them became outstanding scholars. Men occupy executive positions ten times as often as women do. Why? Housework and childcare is still done mostly by women, although about 80% of men take part in child delivery. And 70% of men do not want women in leading positions. Why? They are afraid, not truly liberated. Consider this statement: A man of QUALITY is not threatened by woman's EQUALITY. Unfortunately, most women also still prefer men in leading positions. It is estimated that women have 40% less leisure time than men. The pay is not always equal, except perhaps in professional positions. In general, women are paid only about 73% of a man's salary.
Are Czech women liberated? Are American women liberated? Some are more so, some less. Housework is easier in the US. Women here have cars, modern appliances, etc. Many Czech women believe that they are "emancipated", because they have some choice of employment and more freedom, and they believe that they are as "free" as women in the West. Czechs in general have a tendency to see the world through "pink colored glasses" and to engage in wishful thinking. Some women even claim that they do not need any "consciousness raising meetings", and make fun of the American women. It is the belief of the writer that Czech women have had to work too hard and too long to have had much time to reflect on their own conditions and that they know too little about other countries, being isolated for so long. Their view on sexual harassment is also strange. "We do not need any laws about that, we can take care of ourselves in the work place and can stop harassment" was a statement expressed recently by a university- educated Czech woman. Another woman said::" We do not reject courteous behavior of men- like opening doors or giving a woman a seat, whereas American women consider such behavior sexual harassment." Really?
The new Czech Constitution contains some progressive laws to protect women, but they are often not fully implemented and applied.. There are a few shelters for abused women and for single mothers in the country, but in their organization and practical experience, they are about at least 10 years behind other countries.
One has to realize that the whole society has to change their thinking, especially men. It all will take time. [Even American women and their conditions have changed in the last 53 years. Gone are the days of having large families, not working outside of the home, spending time on fancy cooking, arts and crafts, making soap, etc.] Czech women generally have 1-2 children only and the population is decreasing. American women have had more time to think through the whole concept of equality between sexes, yet there is still far to go. What is needed for men and women everywhere? Education, and more and better education of all, so that women can fight from a position of strength. It is also necessary to change outmoded attitudes that are non-productive and no longer valid.
Some common "myths":
1) A woman's place is in the home. For all her life? It is the solemn duty of BOTH mother and father to bring up the child. Both have equal responsibility for the family.Both parents need to spend quality time with their children. Just "staying home" does not guarantee "quality time", especially if the caregiver is not happy being there. A person's place is wherever he/she is most useful and happy.
2) Stereotyping: All men like.... or need.....All women like.... and need..... Separating people into two groups is wrong. Every person is an individual, and not all women or men are the same!
3) Women are less stable employees, -The belief that"women are often sick, pregnant, they leave and take care of children, training women does not pay"is wrong. In reality, women live longer and healthier lives; they are often harder workers. (Some men must go through military training that takes them away from the work force.) Besides there is economic necessity for women to work, and after they are over their child-bearing years (say older than 45), and after the children leave home, the women of today often live healthy lives for at least some 30 more years. Longevity has increased. If they don't enjoy babysitting, why waste the contribution that women can make for humanity?
4) Women need less education than men- after all, they will get married. The woman is to help bring up the next generation and she can be an ignoramus?
Is getting married a "job" or some kind of "social security?" Men leave, die, and get sick.
5) Marriage and children make every woman happy. Marriage does not SOLVE people's problems, it only magnifies them. (See #2. Above-Stereotyping)
Whenever any group of people want to gain more respect, they need to stop complaining about how miserably treated they are, but they need to do something about it. Women need to work on building self-respect and self-confidence. The old sex roles are no longer valid. The first step is to get the best education and /or training in some field to be able to earn a living, so that they do not depend on others or on the state. Therefore, the main focus of women should be gaining independence, NOT on getting married. (The reverse is often true.) Fight for equal rights the right way- through petitions or in the courts. Do not undermine the work of other women who are trying to help you to be able to make your own choices. Fight for equal pay, for the right to own your own body. Support laws that fight discrimination in matters of sex, salary, and age. Fight against sexual harassment. Have men fight with you, not against you. A truly liberated and independent woman does not need to spend excessive amounts of money on makeup, overpriced clothes, hair salons, bikini waxing, weight control pills, body mutilation and other superficialities. Beauty is skin deep. She needs to work on her inner beauty( which is hard work!) She focuses on the gains that women achieved in the past century and fights from a position of strength, not as a victim. Also men need first and foremost better education of the head AND the heart! A modern "liberated" man should not focus all his efforts on making lots of money, on physical strength and virility. He realizes that financial responsibility for the family rests on BOTH partners. It is far more important to become a DECENT, SENSITIVE AND CARING human being. It is not shameful to make less money, to show emotions, to cry, to do so-called "women's work". Work does not know gender- it just needs to be done!
There is plenty to do for all of us to make this world a better place. Good luck to all of us!
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