Anna Pammrová, a pioneering Czech feminist who lived “off the grid”

Anna Pammrová, photo: archive of Anna Pammrová Association

Anna Pammrová was an unusual woman in many ways. Influenced by eastern philosophy, she pioneered feminist and environmentalist ideas in an era that had little understanding for such concepts. Unhappily married, she spent over 45 years of her life in seclusion, corresponding with some of the leading thinkers of her time. And her life and work still inspires people today – including her American great-great-granddaughter who only recently found out about her extraordinary ancestor.

Anna Pammrová,  photo: archive of Anna Pammrová Association
If she lived today, Anna Pammrová would still be considered a remarkable woman. But over a century ago, her independence and courage were rare and shocking to many of her contemporaries. The author of the autobiographical novel Anti-Eve and other works exploring the role of women, Anna Pammrová lived her life according to the principles she believed in, regardless of the opinion of others.

After she died in September 1945, Anna Pammrová fell into oblivion. It was only in the 1970s that a young schoolteacher, Vlasta Urbánková, came across Pammrová’s tomb in Zďářec, a village some 40 kilometres northwest of Brno, and began rediscovering her life and work.

“I read the epitaph which made a deep impression on me and I thought this woman was really interesting. I then sent some of my students to Žďárec to find people who knew her. They wrote an article about it, and since then, I have been researching Anna Pammrová’s life, with people bringing me all kinds of material.”

The daughter of a forest keeper, Anna Pammrová developed a deep love for the woods and hills of the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands where, with a few exceptions, she spent all of her life. Nature and people’s relation to it is one of her work’s central themes; she did not like modern technological advances, and warned of the impact they would have on humans.

“Technological progress cannot be stopped but she warned of its harmful consequences. She believed that industrial production which forces mechanical work onto people makes them shallow. They become slaves of the machines, stripping them of feelings that enrich human life. They no longer feel the need to live spiritually, and become just accessories for the machines. She said man’s greatest humiliation was to become a slave of the machine.”

In 1899, at the age of 39, Anna Pammrová made perhaps the most daring decision of her life. She felt she could no longer live in her unhappy marriage; she took her two children and moved out to the woods near Ždárec. At first, they lived in a wooden hut that was only later replaced by a small brick house. Ms Urbánková says this was considered a scandal by most of the locals.

“Those who looked on her favourably were very few. She kept her distance from people and protected her privacy. But she was in touch with the local people; she bought food from them for instance and also went to pick up her mail at the post office. And I also think that many people envied her because she was a close friend of [the poet] Otokar Březina. Some of them might have thought she felt she was better than them.”

Some years later, Pammrová became friends with the Havel family from Prague who built their summer retreat near her house, and who were among the few people she maintained close relations with.

Helena Pernicová is a member of the association devoted to Anna Pammrová and her work. She told me what she finds fascinating about Pammrová’s personality.

“She was a woman who had no problem being alone if she thought it was necessary and if it was in harmony with her beliefs. That’s a strong message. There are of course many people who are not philosophers and writers and who are not famous so she’s not the only one. But she is an example of someone who looks for the best place for themselves, for ways to live their lives authentically.”

The following years were hard. In 1906, Anna Pammrová’s young daughter died and her son, František, moved to the United States in 1914 to avoid having to fight in the First World War. It only recently came to light that he stayed in touch with his mother – but nothing was known of his life oversees.

But a few years ago, Eleaine Eller, a university student from California, was researching her Czech ancestors and got in touch with Anna Pammrová’s followers. It turned out Eleaine was Pammrová’s great-great-great granddaughter. Over the phone from the US, Elaine Eller explains.

“I was searching online in Czech which I don’t understand very much. I didn’t have much clue about what they were saying about her. So I emailed them and told them who I was – but they didn’t believe me at first.

“But then they emailed me back, and we met, and they took me to the little house in the woods which was amazing and I have some amazing pictures of the house. The owners of the house still have some of her original furniture and pictures of her in the house and some of her letters.

“It was an amazing experience, meeting all the wonderful people was great. It was almost surreal.”

Would you say Anna Pammrová is an inspiration for you in any way?

“Yes, she is. I definitely think she was an inspiration at the time. She left her husband which was unheard of at that time. She raised her children and educated them. She is an inspiration for me as a mother. She stood up for herself as a woman when nobody else did.

"Everything was male dominated. Even today, she is not well known expect for the fact she was friends with a male poet, Otokar Březina. But she wrote very powerful books, and from what I have understood of them, she was definitely very radical for her time.”

Today, Anna Pammrová’s ideas live on, studied and published by the association that formed long after her death. Pammrová’s work and life has recently become the subject of a series of magazine articles and TV documentaries, reviving the legacy of an original thinker who lived her life in a way she considered honest and right.