“First-Brave-Unique”: Stories of pioneering Czech women who made their mark on history

Photo: Brian Kenety

One hundred years ago this February, the fledgling state of Czechoslovakia adopted a constitution guaranteeing equal rights for men and women, including the right to vote. A few years ahead of that watershed anniversary, Jana Renner began compiling the stories of remarkable Czech women from all walks of life with one thing in common: the courage to be the first in their chosen fields.

Book illustrator Silvie Vondřejcová, Jana Renner
Jana Renner studied Czech literature, history, art, and the history of art before launching a career in public relations. Her debut book První-statečné-jedinečné (First-Brave-Unique) profiles thirty exceptional Czech women, some quite famous, others largely forgotten, who made a mark on society.

She started thinking about writing such a book after two key moments: when thumbing through a global history of women and when her young son asked a particularly pointed question.

“I have two daughters and one son. The first moment came when my son was six years old, in preschool, and he asked me, ‘Mom, why can I do everything described in this book, whatever I want, but my sisters cannot?’ In the book there were pilots, inventors, scientists, writers… That was the first moment.”

“And then there appeared an interesting book for children about women from all around the world. I wanted to read it with my children. But there were no women from Czechoslovakia! None! That was the other moment leading to this book, First-Brave-Unique.”

Renner began doing the research for her book several years ago, and originally compiled a list of one hundred women to include, before deciding to focus on those who were pioneers.

Many are household names, such as Božena Němcová, whose early 19th century novel The Grandmother marks the beginning of Czech prose. But how many know, for example, the story of Anna Honzáková, the first Czech woman to practise medicine?

“Anna Honzáková, the first female doctor, in the beginning could attend seminars and lectures but not take the exams. And when that became possible, she wanted to become a surgeon – but they only took men. She had a teacher who was something of a mentor, but when he died it was really not do the exams, the praxis. So, she became a gynaecologist. It was practically the only possibility to practice medicine.”

Renner decided to limit the profiles of such inspiring women to just four pages apiece in her book First-Brave-Unique, which was written with grammar school students in mind – but steers clear of hagiography, biographies that treat the subjects with undue reverence. She made a point of trying to find out and convey what motivated these women, and to write not just of their successes.

Alice Masaryková, photo: Free Domain
Take Alice Masaryková, the eldest daughter of Czechoslovakia’s first president, a graduate of the first girls’ grammar school in Prague, founded by the feminist writer Eliška Krásnohorská (who is also profiled in the book).

She studied medicine at Charles University, established the Czechoslovak branch of the International Red Cross and was a pioneer in the field of social care, but gave up her dream of becoming a doctor. Why?

“Alice Masaryková wanted to become a doctor. So, I was asking myself why she left, what happened. Well, she needed glasses for the practicum in the medical studies, and was shy, thinking she didn’t look good in them.

“So, she left medicine, and went on to study at the Faculty of Arts and was among the first women to get a doctorate. But her interest in medicine was very strong, and through the Czech Red Cross, she returned to do what she had always wanted.”

So, you made a conscious effort to find also to sort of bring these women to life, to show the vulnerable human side?

“Yes, yes. Their emotions, thinking, moments of happiness and disappointment. They were human beings.”

Božena Laglerová, opera singer turned pilot

Božena Laglerová, photo: Public Domain
Then there’s Božena Laglerová, who in 1911 became the first licensed Czech female pilot. At first, she trained to be an opera singer. But she had to abandon that dream after contracting an illness that affected her voice.

“That was one motivation [for starting a new career]. She was studying in Paris and met some aviators there – the airplanes in those days looked like bicycles with wings! She had been disappointed by her first love, and she decided, ‘I will show him!’

“So, sometimes it’s very interesting to see the motivation. She travelled the world, and the story of her life could be a film. It was not so easy to describe such lives in four pages. Sometimes it was really a very hard discipline.”

Lata Brandisová, the ‘Unbreakable’ Countess

Then there are women such as the Countess Marie Immaculata (“Lata”) Brandisová, a great equestrian and the first – and still only – woman to win the Great Pardubice Steeplechase, the most gruelling such horserace in continental Europe.

Her victory over German officers in the horse race became a symbol of Czech resistance against the Hitler’s Third Reich. She is the subject of Richard Askwith’s book Unbreakable: The Woman Who Defied the Nazis in the World’s Most Dangerous Horse Race.

Lata Brandisová, photo: archive of Czech Radio
“Lata Brandisová is the only woman horse-racer to have won the Velká pardubická till today. She won the race in 1937, when Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was dying, so there was an atmosphere of fear.

“I learned about her through a fortunate accident. I met her grandnephew, and he was telling me the story of her life. In it is the story of the Czech nation in the 20th century, practically – there’s the First and Second World War, and the destiny of the aristocratic families. For me, it was unbelievable.”

Brandisová’s aristocratic family became great Czech patriots with the rise of fascism. She joined the Czech Resistance during the war, but after the 1948 Communist coup d’état, moved with her sisters to a cottage in the woods, and lived in obscurity and relative poverty for the last quarter-century of her life.

Hana Podolská, ‘the Czech Coco Channel’

Hana Podolská, photo: Carola, Archives of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague
The equestrian countess’s story is not so well known today because it was supressed by the Communist regime for ideological reasons. Others profiled in the Renner’s book who had their careers cut short (and fruits of their labour seized) include Hana Podolská, who built up a family fashion empire during the First Republic.

“Hana Podolská – there’s an important moment that’s not in the text. Before I had the idea for this book, I was in the Krkonoše Mountains in a private museum that had a dress designed by her, a small black one, with very nice fabric. And I thought, Oh, it’s quite important! I must find out about her.

Because every woman needs a ‘little black dress’…

“Yes, and she’s the ‘Czech Coco Chanel’, you know? A little black dress – malé černé šaty – and it was really so modern, so nice. It was almost a hundred years old, but it was magnificent!”

There is not enough time to highlight all the women profiled in First-Brave-Unique. But I was curious to learn which had most inspired Jana Renner when she was herself a schoolgirl.

Vlasta Kálalová Di Lotti, ‘Albert Schweitzer in a skirt’

Vlasta Kálalová Di Lotti, photo: Public Domain
The first that came to her mind was the physician Vlasta Kálalová Di Lotti, an expert in tropical diseases nicknamed “Albert Schweitzer in a skirt”. She established the Czechoslovak Surgical Institute in Iraq in the early 1920s and was said to have been fluent in over a dozen languages. The other was Martina Navrátilová, one of the best tennis players of all time, with 18 Grand Slam singles titles to her name.

“I remember when I was maybe 14 years old, I was reading a book about Vlasta Kálalová Di Lotti’s life by Ilona Borská – called Doktorka z domu Trubačů – and I remember being so excited.

“She decided in 1919, one hundred years ago, to go to Baghdad, where she established a Czech hospital and specialised in tropical illnesses. But not only this – she was an entomologist as well and did research for the National Museum and established a big collection of insects.

“From my childhood there was this Vlasta Kálalová Di Lotti and in the end Martina Navrátilová. I was reading a book about her at around the same time, and I was very surprised – she was also very brave.

“Navrátilová left Czechoslovakia when she was nineteen. She started from nothing and became one of the most famous tennis players in the world. She was very brave because she told the truth about herself [her sexual orientation], and that it should not be taboo, and that there were many others.”

Jana Renner, currently head of education and public relations the National Pedagogical Museum and Library of J. A. Comenius, wrote First-Brave-Unique with a teenage audience in mind. But she says she has been delighted to learn of a wider readership.

“I found out that the youngest is a two-year-old girl. And the oldest is ninety-three.”