The feminist legacy of Charlotte and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk

In the first of this series we heard the voice of Czechoslovakia’s first President, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. His wife Charlotte was American, and thanks to her influence Tomáš became a champion of feminism. Charlotte went on to inspire many women both within Czechoslovakia and beyond and in this programme we hear some of them, speaking in their own words from the Czech Radio archive.

Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk | Photo: public domain

One of Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk’s closest friends was the American feminist and peace advocate Martha Root. A few years after Charlotte’s death in 1923, she gave a radio talk in memory of her friend and we hear some of her insights into Charlotte’s character and spirit. She concludes that “she knew there is something greater than making a living. It is making a life.“

The programme also features extracts from a radio play, written in London as part of the propaganda effort against Nazi Germany during World War II, by the well-known Czech playwright František Langer. In one scene it tells the story of how Tomáš and Charlotte first met and fell in love in Leipzig.

We also hear from Tomáš and Charlotte’s daughter Alice, who founded and chaired the Czechoslovak branch of the International Red Cross after World War I. She established an annual Easter truce, during which she tried to persuade newspapers and politicians to suspend their political differences for a few days:

“After the Great War, when conditions here were very difficult, the idea came to me that it would help to bring people together if the press of the country put aside party politics and invective for three days and concentrated on a constructive idea. We gained the confidence and cooperation of practically all journalists, so that our ideal of newspapers giving only truthful information, news that was alive but not sensational, was achieved during the three days of the truce. And we do not deny that we hope that what can be achieved in three days will one day become a rule the whole year round. We beg you, who are listening, to work with us for our ideals embodied in our truce. A clean and truthful press that brings us nearer to each other, individuals and nations, in a wholehearted reverence for each eternal soul, without difference of nations, religion or race. Let me say the words which will be pronounced by the speaker of our parliament in a few minutes. The peace of the Red Cross has been proclaimed. Let the peace of the Red Cross be maintained.”

Františka Plamínková

Alice Masaryk knew what it meant to live in unfreedom. During World War I she had been imprisoned in Austria for her support of her exiled father.

The programme features one more member of the family, the Masaryks’ great granddaughter Charlotta Kotík talking about her great-grandparents’ feminism from the perspective of the family today.

One of the most prominent feminists in pre-war Czechoslovakia was the politician and campaigner, Františka Plamínková. In a rare recording were hear her addressing women in America in 1937 about progress in women’s emancipation in Czechoslovakia.

“In Bohemia there was a woman in parliament even before the war [WWI], and after the war the Czechoslovak nation immediately gave women equal rights with men. These rights have been put into practice as well. There are now nine women in the Chamber of Deputies, five in the Senate. There are women judges, women teachers and public officials, all sharing executive power, advancement and remuneration on a basis equal with men.”

Plamínková was a pioneer, and she had been fighting for women’s rights ever since the end of the 19th century. After the foundation of Czechoslovakia she was elected to the upper house of parliament, the Senate, from where she continued to campaign. During the Nazi occupation she was persecuted for her views on democracy and women’s rights. She was arrested twice, and on 30th June 1942 she was shot in Prague. Františka Plamínková is one of the unsung heroes of Czechoslovak 20th century history.

Milada Horáková | Photo: Czech National Film Archive

Milada Horáková was a generation younger than Plamínková, but was already a well known politician and campaigner for women’s rights before World War II. She too was imprisoned by the Nazis in Terezín and various prisons, but she survived. We hear her talking in 1945 about the important role played by women in fighting the Nazis. “Women were everywhere,” she stresses. By a grim irony, Milada Horáková was executed almost exactly five years later, this time after a show trial in the service of another totalitarian regime. We hear the voice of the state prosecutor in her trial, whose rhetoric and tone were eerily evocative of Joseph Goebbels, contrasting with the calm and dignity of her own defence. “I remain on principle firm in my convictions,” she says, and she goes on to appeal to the legacy of President Masaryk and his successor Edvard Beneš, “both of whom were an inspiration to me throughout my life.”

In spite of petitions signed by Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Eleanor Roosevelt, Milada Horáková was hanged on June 27th 1950 at the age of 48.