Františka Plamínková: the feminist suffragette who ensured Czechoslovakia’s Constitution of 1920 lived up to the principle of equality

Františka Plamínková, photo: ČT

On the 29th of February 1920, the National Assembly of Czechoslovakia adopted a Constitution formally establishing a democratic republic with guaranteed equal rights for men and women – including the right to vote. We look back at the life’s work of suffragette Františka Plamínková, a feminist teacher and activist turned politician. Together with Milada Horáková (her protégé and eventual successor in the Senate) she helped ensure principles of equality enshrined in the Constitution were actually put into practice.

Františka Plamínková,  photo: ČT

Women’s suffrage had, in fact, been guaranteed in the 1918 “Washington Declaration” of independence, drafted by none other than Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Czechoslovakia’s first president was an outspoken champion of feminism – in no small part thanks to the influence of his American-born wife, a close friend of Plamínková.

The Masaryk couple had met in 1877, in Leipzig, where Tomáš was doing his habilitation in philosophy. They grew close while reading English classics together, including John Stuart Mill’s seminal feminist text The Subjection of Women. They married a year later, and after a stint in Vienna, settled in Prague, where Tomáš taught some of the first women to attend university.

In The Subjection of Women, Mill argues that “the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes – the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power of privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other”– including in a marriage, which he likened to a form of slavery for women, or unpaid labour at best.

Mill’s text, which clearly resonated with both Masaryks, had an enormous influence on early Czech feminists, such as Plamínková, noted Charles University professor Libuše Heczková, in an earlier interview for Radio Prague.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, feminist icon

“Masaryk was a liberal and for him the equality between sexes was extremely important because he, as a philosopher and not only as a politician, saw that man could not be free if he oppressed someone else...

“The head of the Czech emancipation movement during the First Republic, Františka Plamínková and her very close colleague Milada Horáková, were really devoted to the Masarykian Czechoslovak Republic and to Masarykian ideas.”

Photo: Archive of ZŠ Š Brána jazyků / ČRo Hradec Králové
While that is certainly true, Plamínková was a pioneering feminist long before she Masaryk entered politics. She first got involved in the women’s movement when a young school teacher in training. Under Habsburg law, female civil servants – including teachers, clerks and postal workers – she could not have remained in that noble profession had she taken a husband.

Repealing that “celibát” law and others that discriminated against women became Plamínková’s life-long mission, says Rutgers University history professor Melissa Feinberg, author of the book Elusive Equality: Gender, Citizenship and the Limits of Democracy in Czechoslovakia, 1918–1950.

“Women were fired from jobs with the state once they got married, and [such inequality] was certainly a preoccupation that Plamínková had throughout her entire life. She was very involved in questions of women’s employment and, also throughout the inter-war period, was a tireless advocate to get women realise equal rights to work.”

In 1903, when Plamínková was 28 – and still unmarried, unwilling to give up her career – she founded the Czech Women’s Club (Ženský Klub Český), to bring together others interested in feminism. At one meeting, club members met to discuss Mill’s The Subjection of Women, which Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk herself had translated into Czech. The two women became fast friends, and Plamínková would remain close to the Masaryk family for the rest of her life.

In 1905, Plamínková also founded the Committee for Women’s Voting Rights. With the help of her friend and fellow teacher Marie Tůmová, she managed to make universal women’s suffrage a serious public issue in the Czech lands. At the same time, they and other feminists were fervent nationalists, advocating for equality for the nation within the Austro-Hungarian Empire if not outright independence. Prof. Feinberg again:

“Czech women activists like Plamínková were in fact truly dedicated to Czech nationalism – and they saw women’s equality as something tied to at least achieving national autonomy. And they believed that Czech women would have a better, more free, future within a democratic Czech society.”

Photo: National Museum
“Czech nationalism was so closely tied to this ideal of democracy, women activists were able to, in some ways, gain greater visibility in the public sphere because they were able to paint equal rights for women as being something intimately connected with the realisation of a true Czech democracy.”

In 1907, a large-scale Czech campaign did achieve universal suffrage in the Habsburg lands on the imperial level – but only for men. Bitterly disappointed, Plamínková later realised, however, that nothing excluded women from voting or running in Bohemian elections.

And so, in 1908, her Committee ran Marie Tůmová as a candidate, and convinced a few other parties to field female contenders in regional elections. It was not until in 1912 when the tactic resulted in a woman being elected to the Czech diet – Božena Viková-Kunětická, a feminist writer who identified herself as radical nationalist.

A pyrrhic victory for Habsburg law

It was a short-lived victory for the suffragettes, at least in the short term – the Bohemian governor disputed Plamínková’s interpretation of election regulations and declared the result invalid.

But suddenly, supporting female candidate for public office became a means of opposing the Habsburg authorities, part of the battle for the Czech nation’s own rights, its own autonomy. And Plamínková became a figure of national and international renown.

On 28 October 1918, near the close of the First World War, the new sovereign state of Czechoslovakia declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire of which the Czech lands and Slovakia had been a part of for centuries.

Much of that “Washington Declaration” penned by Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk comprises a litany of grievances against the Habsburgs. The latter portion declares a Czechoslovak Republic with a parliamentary political system that respecting the rights of national minorities, universal suffrage, and equal rights for women.

Shortly after, all faculties at Czech universities and technical schools were opened to women, who, with the Czechoslovak Constitution adopted on 29 February 1920, could vote not only in elections to local councils but to both houses of Parliament.

But the battle for equality was far from over, notes Charles University professor Libuše Heczková:

Czechoslovakia’s Constitution and (sexist) Napoleonic law

“Even after the new law of suffrage was passed in Czechoslovakia, in the new Republic, equality in law was achieved, it was very clear that after 10 years, women were once again just pushed back to their homes - they were just losing their position in politics and so on.”

“Women politicians – they were co-opted into the revolutionary parliament; there were 8 women MPs. The country was really quite open and proclaimed its democratic ideals, but the real politics changed during these first years. There were some very interesting women politicians who were really trying very hard to achieve some policy changes in Czechoslovakia. But at the levels of not only parliament politics but also city councils, they were gradually pushed aside, out of politics.”

Františka Plamínková
Františka Plamínková joined the progressive Czech National Socialist Party (ČSNS) in 1918, and served in Prague City Hall until 1925, when she was elected to the Senate. In between, she founded the National Council of Women (ŽNR), an umbrella group of some 50 organisations, which lobbied to ensure equal rights by changing employment and family law.

Working alongside her was Milada Horáková, one of the first Czech women to earn a doctorate in law, in 1926. Together, they lobbied to enforce workforce equality on the basis of Article 106 of the Czechoslovak Constitution of 1920. Under the Habsburg-era Civil Code that was still in effect, husbands could exert control over wives, including managing property and “allowing” or “forbidding” them to work outside the home. Rutgers University history professor Melissa Feinberg again:

“Horáková was involved in the same organisations as Plamínková, and as one of the first Czech female lawyers, was really invaluable to the women’s movement in their battles to achieve equal rights within civil, employment and citizenship law. She and Plamínková developed this long partnership that went from the 1920s through the 1930s.”

‘Would it not be a crime if another war should interrupt it?’

Although Senate chairperson in 1936, Plamínková was unable to push through changes to the family code. The following year, she called out her own party and the entire legislature for failing to recognise women as citizens, instead treating them legally as daughters, mothers and wives.

Those efforts would be abruptly halted following Nazi Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. In 1937, addressing an American audience and speaking in English, Plamínková, warned of the threat posed by Hitler to Czechoslovakia’s democracy and the situation of women in the country:

“Czech women have had among the oldest suffrage in the world. In Bohemia, there was a women in parliament even before the [First World] war. And after the war, the Czechoslovak nation immediately gave its women equal rights with men. These rights have been put into practise as well.“There are now nine women in the chamber of deputies [lower house] and 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. We work side by side with men in all fields, and this cooperation has borne good results.“We’ve abolished legalised prostitution, we have social legislation of the front rank, magnificent health and social institutions for students and workers, for children and adults. Education is on a high level, which naturally reflects our family life.“What a fine development it is! Would it not be a crime if another war should interrupt it?“We all, people and the government, are using every effort in the direction of world peace to bring about the victory of common sense to show that the only lasting peace is the atmosphere that helps all people develop their best, their most human qualities, and makes human happiness possible.”

An open letter to Hitler

Plamínková had written and open letter to Adolf Hitler in September 1938, shortly before the annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, calling out the dictator for his lies and propaganda.

Milada Horáková,  photo: public domain
She wrote another to Emil Hácha, who became president after Edvard Beneš left for London with the government in exile, complaining that there was not a single woman in the 50-member leadership of the only permitted Protectorate party – National Communion.

On 1 September 1939, the day Nazi Germany invaded Poland and World War II began, Plamínková was arrested by the Gestapo, and underwent six weeks of interrogation and abuse, if not outright torture.

Upon her release, she remained under the Gestapo’s constant surveillance, viewed as someone who would could inspire Czechoslovak resistance. Indeed, she had entrusted Horáková to create an underground group to carry the work of the women’s groups she had founded.

Plamínková was executed on 30 June 1942 in the wave of deadly reprisals for the assassination by Czechoslovak paratroopers of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

After the war, Milada Horáková – who would herself be executed, by the Communists in a show trial – took up her seat in the Senate. The torch had been passed.

Photo: National Museum