The women who stepped out of the shadow of Czechoslovakia’s first president

Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk

At the beginning of this series we heard the voice of the first Czechoslovak President, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. The Masaryk family included several remarkable women, who were also to play their part in 20th century Czech history. Tomáš’s wife Charlotte was American, born in New York in 1850. When the couple married in Brooklyn in 1878, he took on her surname Garrigue as part of his own name, as a gesture of respect. Charlotte went on to devote her life to all things Czech, and she was every bit as energetic in her defence of women’s rights, winning her husband over to the cause. She died in 1923 just five years after the republic was founded. In this archive recording from November 1932 she is remembered by an American friend, the feminist and peace advocate, Martha Root.

Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk
“An outstanding quality of Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk was her loyalty to the Czechoslovak peoples. Some girls would have urged the man they loved to remain in the United States, where certainly, more quickly, he might have come into a great position, but she knew there is something greater than making a living. It is making a life. She felt from the beginning and always through the years that followed, that her husband’s place was in his own land, Bohemia.”

Charlotte and Tomáš Masaryk’s eldest daughter Alice – herself highly educated and emancipated – became a prominent figure in Czechoslovakia between the wars. After the First World War, part of which she spent in an Austrian jail, she founded and chaired the Czechoslovak branch of the International Red Cross. Among other things she established an annual tradition of holding a three-day political truce in Czechoslovakia, when politicians and journalists would suspend their political squabbles. Here she is talking about it for Czechoslovak Radio’s shortwave broadcasts in April 1938.

“After the Great War, when conditions here were very difficult, the idea came to me that it would help to bring people together if the press of the country put aside party politics and invective for three days and concentrated on a constructive idea. We gained the confidence and cooperation of practically all journalists, so that our ideal of newspapers giving only truthful information, news that was alive but not sensational, was achieved during the three days of the truce. And we do not deny that we hope that what can be achieved in three days will one day become a rule the whole year round. We beg you, who are listening, to work with us for our ideals embodied in our truce. A clean and truthful press that brings us nearer to each other, individuals and nations, in a wholehearted reverence for each eternal soul, without difference of nations, religion or race. Let me say the words which will be pronounced by the speaker of our parliament in a few minutes. The peace of the Red Cross has been proclaimed. Let the peace of the Red Cross be maintained.”

It is more than a little ironic to think that these words were spoken less than a year before Nazi troops were to swarm into Prague. Alice Masaryková died in exile in America in 1966, and it was not until after the fall of communism that the Czech Red Cross had her ashes brought home and placed in the Masaryk family grave in Lány.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on December 13, 2007.

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