Jaroslava Doležalová - a story of bravery and inequality

Jaroslava Doležalová - receiving honorary citizenship, photo: Vít Pohanka

Jaroslava Doležalová has become an honorary citizen of her home town Žďár nad Sázavou. She hid a little Jewish girl during WW II and probably saved her life, risking her own and her husband's in the process. Hardly anybody knew about it for a very long time and it has only been brought to public attention now, more than seven decades later. So, Mrs. Doležalová in the 93rd year of her life receives well-deserved, even if long-delayed, accolades and praise. But her story also reveals something less praiseworthy about the Czech attitude toward women.

Jaroslava Doležalová - receiving honorary citizenship,  photo: Vít Pohanka
The clock tower of the Old Town Hall in Žďár nad Sázavou marks every full hour with a different melody. Since World War II this historic building has been used only for ceremonial purposes and for decades Jaroslava Doležalová would come here nearly every weekend to officiate baby welcoming ceremonies on behalf of the town council. She recounts:

“I could not tell you how much time I have devoted to this town. I was the chairperson of the citizens‘ affairs committee and I officiated baby-welcoming ceremonies at the town hall. I remember that once a lady spoke to me at one such ceremony. She said she was the grandmother of a little baby girl that I had just welcomed, and she showed me an old photo of me and another baby. ”That was taken when you welcomed my daughter, who is here today as a mother ‘, the lady said. So, I realized I had welcomed two generations of her family!”

Recently, Mrs. Doležalová celebrated her 93rd birthday. And amazingly,it was only last year that not only the town but the whole country learned that she is, in fact, a heroine. At the end of WW II, she hid a 5-year-old Jewish girl and probably saved her life risking her own.

Ambassador Daniel Meron thanking Jaroslava Doležalová in the name of Israel,  photo: Vít Pohanka
The story became public in 2016 when two citizens of the town learned about it and alerted the mayor's office. The Jewish community spread news of the story as did Czech public television. Mrs. Doležalová was thanked by the Israeli ambassador in person. Now, in early 2018, she received honorary citizenship of the town that she had served as a humble lower official for decades after war.

All's well that ends well. But then I came across something that completely changed the perspective of this moving story. As I was going through the list of other honorary citizens, something caught my eye: Mrs. Doležalová is the first woman ever to be awarded this recognition in a town of some twenty thousand inhabitants. I thought it was some local anomaly, but to be sure I checked the websites of other Czech cities and towns and was literally stunned by the reality: honorary citizenship seems to be almost exclusively a male domain. In nearby Jihlava, the male-female ratio is 85 to one, in Pardubice out of 52 honorary citizens only two are women. After 1990, Brno the second biggest city in Czechia awarded this honor to 34 men and one woman and, obviously, you get the same picture across the country. You do not have to be an activist battling for women's rights and gender equality to see that something is seriously wrong. The deputy mayor Josef Klement of the Christian Democratic Party explains why it took the town council so long to award honorary citizenship to a woman:

Jaroslava Doležalová,  photo: Vít Pohanka
“We have never thought about it in gender terms. Nevertheless, I am very glad that it is Mrs. Doležalová, whom we are now honoring. What really matters is the fact that we take notice of what the citizens of our city do, that sometimes they undertook or still undertake extraordinary activities. I am certainly not inclined to give preference to any gender in this respect and I do not think that we should include gender in the criteria on the grounds of which we decide about honorary citizenship. Or that we should, for example, make it a rule that every two or three years we must give this honor to a woman. Don't get me wrong, I hold women in great respect, but I just do not think that some special rules should be introduced to balance artificially the numbers between men and women who get honorary citizenship.”

Jaroslava Doležalová - the woman who broke through the glass ceiling - with family,  photo: Vít Pohanka
To get a balanced and in-depth opinion I went to Prague to see sociologist, journalist and writer Jiřina Šiklová. When it comes to assessing the situation of Czech women, she is a genuine legend. As a dissident, she spent time in communist prisons. When freedom came she had a lion's share in opening a gender studies’ department at Prague Charles University. But do not expect fiery condemnation of how subjugated women in the Czech society are. Jiřina Šiklová offers a wise, long-term view:

“First of all, do not forget that women entered politics and public life only in the last few decades. It would be very hard to find a female mayor before World War II. It just was not customary for women to be in such visible positions. Remember that they started going to work only in the first half of the 20th century. My mother, incidentally, was one of the first women who got a high or secondary school diploma in Prague and she was born in 1902. So, relatively speaking, it is not such a long time ago. What’s more, it was taken for granted that when a woman had children, she would leave her job and stay at home. It would be considered even immoral if she continued working. Simply because there were virtually no pre-school care institutions where to place children. So it was only women who were very poor who would leave their children at home and go to work. Or, on the contrary, women who were wealthy enough to pay for a nanny.”

Jiřina Šiklová | Photo: Alžběta Švarcová,  Czech Radio
In other words, it takes a long time to truly change attitudes in any society and Czech society is no exception. Back in Žďár nad Sázavou Mrs. Jaroslava Doležalová is definitely pleased by the fact that she is historically the first woman ever to become an honorary citizen in her town.

“I root for all the women who make it and advance their careers. Like Angela Merkel who has been chancellor in Germany for so long. Or the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, she was a real star!”

I myself cannot but feel admiration for Jaroslava Doležalová, a very brave woman, who in her own very inconspicuous way managed to break through the proverbial glass ceiling in the community where she spent all her life.