Looking at Czech society with both eyes open

Czech history features many brave, pioneering women, such as the author Božena Němcová (1820-1862) or the politician Milada Horáková (1901-1950). But Czech society today is still very far from offering equality of opportunity. I met with Eva Kalivodová to discuss the work she does in the field of gender and culture. Eva teaches literature at Charles University, is a scholar of Gender Issues and edits a bi-lingual literary and cultural journal focusing on gender in the Czech context, One Eye Open/Jedním Okem. I first asked Eva if she thought the situation had improved for women twenty years after the end of Communism.

Eva KalivodováEva Kalivodová “I think that the situation has not changed much, and that it’s not very good. It’s the problem of a society that hasn’t experienced any ‘second wave’ of feminism, any other wave of feminism, yet. And I think that the not very satisfying situation for women and the political situation of women in this country is a combination of, still, a sort of backlash against the communist, state-run and proclaimed equality of men and women, which was very ideological, and of course fake, and at the same time this backlash is combined with a sort of indoctrinated notion that there is not any major problem between men and women in this country.”

It’s sad that there are still such conservative ideas about the roles of men and women because the first president of Czechoslovakia, Masaryk, was very enlightened in terms of ideas about gender, certainly compared with modern Czech politicians. Was he very exceptional in having this idea that men and women should share duties equally in the home and in politics?

“He was exceptional, and he was not. He was exceptional because he was such an able politician and such a successful politician who established the independent Czech state and became its first president. But he was still a part of the great tradition of the Czech women’s movement, or rather of the Czech national movement of the nineteenth century in which the Czech women’s movement played an important part, when there were quite a few coalitions between men and women in which men helped the advancement of women in society, and I think that Masaryk inherited this attitude to a degree. Another influence on his thought was his Protestant religious belief, which was very strong, and I think that his democratic principles were inspired by his religious principles. And these were also very much influenced and invigorated by his American wife, Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk, who was also of course a Protestant but also a feminist, a reader of John Stuart Mill, and not only a reader but a translator of his ‘The Subjection of Women’ into Czech at the beginning of the twentieth century. And she became an important figure of the Czech women’s movement at the beginning of the century. So Masaryk as a politician was exceptional in that sense, in that he accepted the influence of his wife and he processed it in his policies. Unlike today’s politicians.”

You have been involved in many ventures and one of the most interesting has been your involvement since the early 90s with the publication of a journal, which doesn’t appear regularly – you’ve called it an ‘unperiodical periodical’ – and I’ve found it a fascinating source of very important views, historical perspectives and often forgotten voices, marginalised voices. Could you tell me a little about the journal, which is called One Eye Open, or Jedním Okem?

“The journal, as you’ve said, is an ‘unperiodical periodical’, and I like to think of it as a sort of underground activity because it’s definitely not a journal that would make a profit. But it started in the early 1990s out of a sort of clash between Czech women who began to be interested in gender issues and the so-called ‘western feminists’ who wanted to enlighten them. And the Czech women were intrigued but also suspicious of the ideological points of this kind of western thought, but on the other hand this western thought, these western women were ridiculed by the Czech mainstream media, so the journal opened as a space for a sort of dialogue between the east and the west on men and women. But then it evolved towards focusing more on Czech society, however it has remained a bi-lingual journal and also a journal open to non-Czech views of Czech society.”

Some of the most interesting projects that you’ve featured have been concerned with history, particularly there was a two-volume issue on gender and historical memory. There was once piece in this I found very moving and I’ll read a short extract from this, a very personal reflection by the academic Marci Shore on the trial of Milada Horáková.

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After your death, no one spoke of you for nearly forty years. Oh, in 1968, when ‘faith’ was being decomposed and reinvented and there were still some who remembered the past or who at least had rediscovered it, dust from the fossils of Masaryk’s humanism floated into Prague. Once again people danced in the streets, like they did on the day after your execution. A young Stalinist wrote about this when he was a young Stalinist no longer:

And knowing full well that the day before in their fair city one woman and one surrealist had been hanged by the neck, the young Czechs went on dancing and dancing, and they danced all the more frantically because the dance was the manifestation of their innocence, the purity that shone forth brilliantly against the black villainy of the two public enemies who betrayed the people and its hopes. (The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera)

When the dancing began again in 1968, your family asked again for your letters. They were refused. Then came the Russian tanks and there was no appeal. Time stopped again for another twenty years.

Then the revolution came. No one believed it would, but it did. And when they repainted the street signs – as they do each time the revolution comes – they named one street after you. It is a big street, ulice Milady Horákové, one of the largest and busiest in Prague and quite close to the castle.

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“I think that Horáková in the twentieth century is really a major figure, signifying in fact the end of the tradition of the Czech women’s movement that started to develop in the first half of the nineteenth century. With Horáková this tradition ended, was destroyed, interrupted brutally by the communist regime. Also it’s true that Milada Horáková is a very strong presence nowadays in public discussion in this country; there are films, documentaries shown on TV, and the papers discuss the show trial. However, it seems to me that all this interest and attention doesn’t actually show the real importance of Milada Horáková for Czech society. She was a feminist, in the sense that she became a very determined, public woman, a lawyer who worked very diligently and hard for a long time on a new family law that would secure rights for women, more social assistance for women in need. This is not mentioned at all in the media. And the paradox that in the same year she was hanged the communists passed the family law she had prepared is not mentioned either.

“I think that the great task for people who are interested in society at large is to become more gender sensitive and to give more prominence not only to voices of women but also to analyses of history that are gender sensitive and that show that history is the history of two genders.”

There is a very interesting article in your journal I liked very much, an interview with the great underground poet, Věra Jirousová, who was very much involved in the whole of this very important cultural movement. For me it was the first time I had ever understood the history of this time from a fuller perspective because otherwise it’s very much been the story of the men, the rock stars.

“This is really a very interesting and I think crucial interview, one of very few that shed light on the dissident scene. However, it seems to me that also what this interview shows is the sad reality of the reiteration of paternalistic, and maybe even macho patterns in culture, even in underground communities. On one hand, what happened in this community was quite charming because it was a community of men doing music, women bearing children, and taking care not only of family units, but of the whole community. However, it’s also quite clear from the interview that women really were not encouraged to take a creative part in what the dissident movement did in music or the arts.”

I’ll read a short extract from this very interesting interview.

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“I’ve always disliked the oppressiveness of the family unit so I considered the whole underground circle pleasant and communicative…

“However, in the 1970s the political repression became progressively worse, and one by one, people with children emigrated. They were the more responsible, realistic, and practical people, who realized that they could hardly do anything at all here, so they left…After that, the underground started to become a bit too wild for me and lost its connection with children, since my friends with children left the country. The ones who stayed didn’t live a particularly family-oriented life.

“I think that the end of the underground in the 1990s was like the last part of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and women no longer had to participate. Or they could not participate. Children were no longer taken to concerts, for instance, whereas during the 1970s and 1980s, many young people took their children to concerts, especially out in the country… Of course at that time we were living as if we were in a war, and parents always took their children with them. Children weren’t left at home alone because there they would not be protected against StB [secret police] officers. I remember when I was a child my parents would take me to the cinema with them, because children weren’t left at home alone in case there was a bomb raid during the war. So we did the same thing. We took our children everywhere with us, so they were never left anywhere alone. But this has all changed of course.”

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The Czech Republic recently passed its equal opportunities legislation, very belatedly, as the last country in the European Union to do so. I wonder if you are optimistic about future developments or think that maybe the younger generation of women can take inspiration from this fantastic tradition of huge personalities, incredibly creative women who were essential parts of the creation of the country.

“Well I can only say that I hope so. I think that there are some signs that young women are trying to re-connect to the tradition of great Czech women’s efforts in the nineteenth century, in the twentieth century. I think that what is really important is to try to introduce gender perspectives into the public consciousness and of course into education. The most recent issue of One Eye Open, for example, was dedicated to Božena Němcová, and especially to a student conference on her that was held in 2005.”

Could you say something about the importance of Božena Němcová?

Božena Němcová - 'The Grandmother'Božena Němcová - 'The Grandmother' “Božena Němcová was the founder of modern Czech fiction in the mid-nineteenth century. She was also a very original personage, a very independent woman in thought and in life. And I think that for Czech gender history she’s the starting point, and not only the starting point, she is omnipresent. In her independence, in her breaking of various patterns of gender expectations, in her courage and in her creative achievements she’s still here with us, and she’s still a role model. I think it’s crucial for Czech gender history to always return to her and it’s great when you see that a Czech doctoral student from London University comes to Česká Skalice, which is Němcová’s birthplace, and gives a paper that compares her masterpiece, The Grandmother, with a novel by a young Czech woman writer, Petra Hůlová, and reveals relations between the two works that are simply interesting for general reflections on women’s lives.”

Thank you very much Eva and I’m glad to say that any interested readers can buy back issues of One Eye Open by connecting with the link – www.kosmas.cz – and so be able to read some of these wonderful articles, interviews and oral histories and get a picture of Czech history with both eyes open.

“Thank you for inviting me for this interview.”

www.kosmas.cz

More information on Milada Horáková - http://www.radio.cz/en/article/109053