“Illusions of Redemption” follows the story of Czech feminism from Habsburg Monarchy to Communism

'Illusions of Redemption', photo: Veduta publishing

“Illusions of Redemption” is the title of a new book that looks at the history of Czech feminist thinking in the 19th and 20th centuries. From the ideals of the French Revolution through the 19th century confined lifestyle and the liberal First Republic, to the Communists’ forceful push for a new society, the work follows the struggle of Czech feminists for equality. RP spoke to one of the authors, Libuše Heczková, of Prague’s Charles University, and first asked her what made them decide on that particular name for their book.

'Illusions of Redemption', photo: Veduta publishing
“This is very easy to answer because of course the efforts of women in the 19th and 20th centuries were very high, but the results were very small. The women thought that if they enter politics or the social sphere, they could somehow improve politics, they could help to create a brave new world, or just be something that is a more of a healing power outside the family, but it was not possible to do it like this and it was really difficult to achieve anything outside the family.”

When did the realisation come that it will be much more difficult than it would appear?

“It was just very clear during the whole process of emancipation of women during the 19th and 20th century because after the French Revolution, even during the revolution, there were all these ideas of liberty and brotherhood. It seemed that it could be easy to achieve equality but after crushing the revolution it was very obvious that it’s not possible and the new order was more based on society which was divided into two separate worlds – that of men and women.

“During the 19th century, women were trying very hard to cross the border but it was really very difficult. Even after the new law of suffrage was passed in Czechoslovakia, in the new Republic equality in law was achieved but 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.

But the First Republic as it is known here did see some women politician senators so was there a remarkable surge of women into the public sphere at that time?

“There was but it was only very notable in the first years of the Czechoslovak Republic. The first politicians – 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 changes in the policy of Czechoslovakia but on the levels of not only parliament politics, but also city councils. But they were gradually pushed aside, out of politics.”

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk
When we go back to the 19th century, in your book you say that an important aspect of the women’s movement was the focus of the national idea; working for the nation, joining in with others to promote or defend the Czech nation against its enemies. Is that similar to other Eastern-European nations at the time, or was the women’s movement different in any way?

“The national aspect of the feminist movement is very important in the 19th century everywhere in Europe but of course the realisation of this project was very different in every region. As you know, in the 19th century we had a very different regional situation; we had this big Habsburg Monarchy and other big states. However, even in the Habsburg Monarchy, we are talking about very different movements. But they had this national aspect in common and of course the aspect of specific dealing with power through philanthropy, education and so on.”

The first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Masaryk, is often seen as a supporter of feminism. Is that true or is that an unjust representation?

“No, it’s really very true. 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. Of course it means that women are not some kind of toy or something that the man owns, but that they are separate entities, separate human beings. If I say just a normal being, it means that we have these two beings, man and woman.”

You also mention Communism in the sense that it recognised the issue but that it had other priorities. But did Communism bring any kind of new momentum to the women’s movement? It did pronouncedly reject the bourgeois tradition and the role of the man and the woman – so was that a big influence on the Czech women’s movement?

“It was because at first we have to say that the Communists were following the line of social democratic parties; they opted for sexual equality. With the result of the October Revolution in Russia it was clear that it was possible to just open the public space for women and help them to deal with very deep social problems, for example the problems of big families, procreation, abortion and these kind of aspects. For Communists and the Communist Party, this was a big issue and it was necessary, somehow, to seize them.

Milada Horáková, photo: Czech Television
“The Communist Party created some special new institutions which could solve these kinds of social problems that were part of the feminist movement and the women’s question. For many women it was a very bright idea that they could somehow gain, for example, control over their bodies, this was very important. That’s why there were so many women who were voting for the Communist Party because somehow it seemed in the First Republic that Communism could solve many of their problems.”

It is a very long period but when you look at the Communist period in Czechoslovakia, what role did it play in the feminist movement, of course not just in the movement but in the position of women in society?

“It’s a very sad and problematic issue. The political feminist movement was primarily bourgeois. 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. All Czech women’s organisations were supporting Masaryk institutes and the Republic, however after the war and the communist takeover this was very problematic for the new Communist Party which was just trying to erase these traditions of the democratic institutions. They had their specific women’s policies, they had these specific new social institutions.

“Just after the communist takeover in 1949 they passed a new law, a new social act which really helped women to care for children. They created a new institution, new forms of public care and it really helped, but the problem was, that these new laws were just prepared by these democratic women like Milada Horáková, who was hung in the same year. We have to say that the Communist Republic really helped women to understand themselves, to be equal and to get some new forms of social care for kids, which was very important for women all the time.

“But the whole tradition of these democratic ideas and this institution which was somehow built by the strong efforts of women, just disappeared. Suddenly all these women’s movements and feminist ideas were perceived by the broader public as a kind of communist oppression. That’s why we now have plenty of discussions about feminism in general and there are so many people who are completely denying the whole process. But this is a problem of such powerful implementation of some ideas and the break with the tradition.”