Marie Tumlířová – a pioneering Czech agronomist, feminist and RFE journalist in exile

Marie Tumlířová, photo: archive of Czech Radio

Marie Tumlířová was among the first women ever to graduate from the Czech Technical University, a century ago, a year after equal rights for all were enshrined in the constitution. She earned her doctorate defending a thesis that would serve as an unlikely springboard to a career in politics – poultry farming. Her interests soon turned to rural sociology and women’s emancipation, through education and financial independence.

Marie Tumlířová was born on June 9, 1889 into a solidly middle-class family in Hradec Králové, a city at the confluence of the Elbe and the Orlice rivers, near a mountain range bordering Poland. She came of age during the First World War, beginning her studies in 1917, a year before an independent Czechoslovakia emerged from the crumbling Austro-Hungarian empire.

Marie’s parents recognised her intelligence and ambition but discouraged her from pursuing her dream to become a teacher. Under the so-called “celibát” part of Habsburg law still in place, no female civil servant of any kind could continue to work if they took a husband. Her parents also tried to dissuade her from applying for university, the cost of which she pledged to repay. But she would go on to be a pioneering figure among Czech women, says historian Dana Musilová.

“Marie was born into a typical patriarchal middle-class family. Her father, Matěj Kukla, was a lawyer with thriving practices in two cities – in Hradec Králové, where she was born, and later also in Žamberk. Both of her parents came from farming families, and Marie was the oldest of their six children.

“She was quite interested in foreign languages, especially French, and her father did agree to send her on a six-month course in Lausanne, Switzerland. That would prove to be the start of a professional career. After passing the state exam, she started working at the teacher training institute in Kladno, and then gave private lessons, working independently.”

Marie Tumlířová worked for Czech Radio on broadcasts targeted at women,  photo: archive of Czech Radio

In the latter half of the First World War, from 1916 to 1918, Marie Tumlířová was among the 15 young women admitted to the Czech Technical University, who would graduate in 1921. Just before Christmas that year, she passed the state exam in agricultural engineering with distinction, and later earned a doctorate in technical science, becoming the first Czech woman ever to do so, defending her thesis – on poultry farming.

“She studied at the Czech Technical University in Prague, and chose agriculture, evidently inspired by her farming families’ roots. She met her future husband, Bohuslav Tumlíř – who was seven years younger – during her studies. After they married, they lived together on a farm in Předboj near Prague that he had inherited from his parents. But she was truly exceptional. Technical science doctorates had only been awarded since 1901, so few men had attainted them – let alone women because technical studies were not open to them until 1918.”

Early in her career, Marie Tumlířová worked in a number of state institutions, including the College of Agricultural and Forest Engineering at the Czech Technical University and at the Agricultural Research Institute. All the while, she published her own research – on poultry farming but also on rural sociology, especially the limited opportunities afforded to women. She tried to motivate women to study, says historian Dana Musilová of the University of Hradec Králové.

“She wrote about women who not many people were interested in – women who worked on the family farms of their husbands but were not co-owners. She understood they were disadvantaged and the possibility to earn their own money, for example by selling eggs, could be a means of emancipation. She certainly was not blind or deaf to what was happening around her in the countryside. She understood very well what a difficult life the local women had and tried to improve their situation by raising awareness.”

Dana Musilová,  photo: YouTube

As a member of the Czechoslovak Rural Women’s Union, Marie Tumlířová also took many practical measures to improve working conditions – in the field and in households – propagating the use of electricity to run threshing machines, cutters, mowers, churn machines, centrifuges, waste disposers, dough kneaders and clothes washers.

In 1926, when she was 37, she had their first child, a son named Jan Vladimír, and three years later a daughter, Marie Olga. And then, after years of working for state bodies, and publishing in professional, women’s and political periodicals, Marie Tumlířová decided to run for Parliament.

“She ran on the Agrarian Party ticket but did not win a seat. She fell just short of getting enough votes. It was not until 1934, when Adolf Prokůpek, a senior MP with the party died, that she took his place. The next year, in 1935, she successfully defended that mandate. In the beginning, she focused on the position of women in society and the things she knew best – farming and education – and served on related committees.”

Marie Tumlířová would only serve in Parliament for a few years – her tenure cut short by the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. She was a member of a delegation that a year later negotiated with Emil Hácha, the nominal president of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, about the role of women in the occupied land. But she left the civil service entirely, becoming an involuntarily housewife, keeping a low profile throughout the war.

“I imagine that, as a former MP, she did not want to draw the attention of the Gestapo or other Nazi authorities unnecessarily. … After the war, she did not resume her political career. The Agrarian Party was disbanded, and she did not want to join any other.”

The turning point in Marie Tumlířová’s life, as for so many Czechs, was February 1948, when the Communists seized power. The family was evicted from their farm even before nationalization laws came into force, and they made the agonising decision to leave Czechoslovakia.

RFE studio in Munich,  Germany,  photo: archive of RFE

The family crossed the border in two groups. Only one group made it to freedom. Their son was imprisoned but managed to escape in 1952 and emigrated. They lived at first in France, where Marie’s husband Bohuslav found work as a statistician for the United Nations, and their children began to study. Despite knowing French, she did not find suitable work, until Radio Free Europe came calling. But that meant her relocating to the US broadcaster’s Munich headquarters.

“Marie Tumlířová worked for the radio on broadcasts targeted at women but also returned to her original profession – agriculture. She also played the role of two fictional women talking about what was really happening in Czechoslovakia, behind the Iron Curtain. For security reasons, it was broadcast under the pseudonym of Marie Chaloupecká. There was, of course, a risk that she and her family were under surveillance by the Secret Police, the StB.”

In fact, the StB had been watching Marie Tumlířová for some time. On June 11, 1956, when she was 67, Secret Police agents tried to kidnap her, right outside of Radio Free Europe, striking her from behind in the car park, says historian Dana Musilová.

“It’s quite a remarkable story, remarkable in that she was saved by her hair, which was in a highly combed bun, which softened the first blow. She started screaming, people quickly gathered, and the kidnapping was thwarted.”

The kidnappers were captured and tried in the Federal Republic of Germany. A year later, Marie Tumlířová retired from Radio Free Europe and moved back to Paris to be with her family. They later settled in Switzerland, where she died in 1973 at the age of 84.