Vol 1, No 14
27 September 1999
F E M I N I S M:
Czech Women and Higher Education
Dagmar Kotlandova Koenig
Much has been said and written about the supposedly unexpected failure of feminism in Czech society in the post-Communist 1990s. Some Western feminists, especially those who went to the Czech lands and invested their efforts in attempting to assist local women, were often disappointed and went away with largely unfulfilled expectations. Many Czech women were disappointed as well, because they did not always find the ideas of Western feminists useful or even acceptable. Lately, attempts to explain the differences between the histories, cultures, social norms, expectations and daily realities in the lives of Western European and American women on one hand and Czech women on the other have served to clarify the misunderstanding.
It is important to realize that Czech conditions are different enough to prevent successful importing of feminist ideas from the Western hemisphere into the Czech lands. Keeping in mind the Czech specifics, while pondering women's equality in Czech life makes it possible to perceive satisfaction and even success where it could not be seen otherwise. Actually, what is generally perceived as failure of feminism in Czech society does not necessarily imply ignorance or idleness on the part of Czech women. Individual Czech women often find satisfaction and fulfillment both in their professional and personal lives and are able to combine the two successfully. Czech women as a social group have achieved a high status in their society and gained respect for their accomplishments. One example of a successful accomplishment by Czech women is their upward-bound journey through higher education over the last 100 years.
Why focus on education in order to document Czech women's successful accomplishments? One good reason is the way in which the history of the Czech women's effort to achieve equality in higher education reflects the characteristics of the women's rights movement in the Czech lands. 100 years ago, Czech women were firm but sensible about their demand for access to institutions of higher learning, and a similar moderate, common sense approach accompanied much of the women's rights movement later.
Another reason for concentrating on this issue is that higher education holds a significant position in the history of the Czech women's rights movement precisely because Czech women chose it to be the first field in which they demanded equality. Also, research into this topic has been somewhat scarce, making it both an interesting and a deserving issue. And it is fitting to reflect on Czech women's accomplishments in higher education in the 1990s - about 100 years after the journey began.
A brief sketch of this journey is in order. Of all the ethnic groups in the Austrian Empire, it was the Czech women who founded Minerva, the first gymnasium for girls in Austria. It was also due to Czech women's work that the Austrian government eventually issued two decrees concerning higher education for women. The first decree, issued in 1896, ruled that all women in the Austrian Empire be allowed to study at and graduate from a gymnasium; the second decree, issued in 1897, ruled that women be allowed to enter and graduate from the faculty of philosophy. The first two Czech female students graduated with degrees in philosophy and medicine in 1901 and 1902 respectively. By the academic year 1916 to 1917, there were between 620 and 644 female students at Czech universities.
The founding of the First Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, immediately after the First World War, saw Czech women prepared for further advances in education. Co-education was introduced in all secondary schools, all gymnasia were opened to female students, and women were finally admitted to study at those institutions that had been closed to them prior to the First World War - such as law schools and technical colleges. A whole generation of university-educated professional Czech women matured before the First Czechoslovak Republic came to an end at the end of the 1930s. The Second World War brought a serious setback in education. The hardest blow was the closing of all Czech universities by the Germans for the duration of the war and the sending of Czech students to labor camps. After the war was finally over, the Czechs registered an enormous loss of their intelligentsia, including women's rights activists.
The Communist period, beginning in February 1948, affected the lives of women in new ways. On one hand, Communism gave Czech women equal status with men in all aspects of their lives, as stipulated in the constitution. On the other hand, it failed to bring about changes in people's thinking about gender roles that would help ground gender equality in the daily reality. Thus, Czech women under socialism ended up with the often mentioned "double burden" of full-time employment, household chores and child care. They were given the right and the obligation to be employed, unless on maternity leave, while retaining the full-time responsibility of caring for their children and households, even after their maternity leave was over and they returned to full-time employment.
It is not surprising, with all women working mostly full-time, that Czech women continued to do well in higher education, at least in numbers. Women represented about 18 percent of all Czechoslovak college students in the year 1945 to 1946. In the year 1973 to 1974, close to 63 percent of all secondary school students and almost 40 percent of all college students were women. The numbers have remained high after the end of Communism in 1989. From the year 1989 to 1990, women made up almost 45 percent of all college students in the Czech Republic. A few years later, from 1995 to 1996, this number rose to almost 60 percent. The numbers, however, hide the pattern of some heavily feminized fields, which persist until the present, including especially teaching, health care, law, sales and the service sector.
This eventful history provides a social group of interesting characteristics. Czech women of the 1990s are used to having a high level of personal independence, including financial independence. Their salaries, however, often remain below the level of their male counterparts. They are used to having professional jobs and more of them graduate with college degrees each year. They also strive to get married and start a family immediately after their graduation, while delaying the beginning of their career, which puts them at a disadvantage as compared to their male peer group. They know they are underpaid and at a disadvantage, but they also seem to agree that the price of being mothers and primary homemakers is one they wish to keep paying. It seems that they use the same moderation in approach as their great grandmothers did when they first fought their way into higher education. Simply put, Czech women want both the profession and the family.
In a recently published account of the lives of young women in Prague, the authors conclude that most Czech women "do not find their complete satisfaction either only in work or only in the role of mother and housewife, but attempt the perfect combination of both roles." (p 179, Zivoty mladych prazskych zen [Lives of Young Prague Women], Alena Heitlingerova and Zuzana Trnkova, Sociologicke nakladatelstvi, Prague, 1998. Translation is mine.)
Yet, most Czech women today probably never think about the fact that their current favorable status in higher education is largely the outcome of a steady, progressive women's rights movement in the Czech lands. This movement had causes which explain not only its occurrence but also its nature and the way Czech women regard themselves today. One of these is the recurring struggle for a common cause in Czech history. In the 19th century, Czech women and men were united in a common cause during the period of the Czech National Revival. The strength of the National Revival movement helped women formulate their demands for equality in education, as they made use of the fact that a nation in need of liberation from its oppressors is also in need of educated mothers for its sons and daughters. Similarly, and paradoxically, the Communist period may have also benefited women's equality, as it once again united women and men in a struggle for a common cause. That is not to say that the National Revival or Communism erased gender differences. Rather, these differences were blunted by the presence of priorities that had to do more with a person's opinions and activities than with his or her gender roles.
Another cause was the presence of a high level of tolerance for the women's rights movement and an uninterrupted liberal tradition in Czech society. This receptive and favorable environment resulted, at least partially, from the relative weakness of the Czech patriarchate - as compared to other ethnic groups in the area. A major reason for this relative weakness of the patriarchate may be the rather weak position of Catholicism in Czech society.
Czech women's journey toward equality was also frequently stimulated by economic reasons. Successful social movements usually occur in economically advanced societies, and 100 years ago, Czech women were lucky to live in the most economically developed region of the Austrian Empire. Toward the end of the 19th century, the Czech bourgeoisie was doing well enough that its women had the time and the means to invest into organizing educational activities and to think about the desire for better formal education.
Women's position in the economy was also strengthened by the consequences of wars, when the absence of men drove many women to search for better education and better employment.
Finally, women were not only legally obliged to work under Communism, but there was a necessity for them to do well in their employment, since their salary was needed in order to sustain a family.
Today, 100 years later, Czech women take it for granted that they can enter any field of study and any institution of higher learning, and choose their profession as they please. They often consider themselves strong and individualistic, features that may be a part of the heritage left by their female predecessors, who had to fight their way through the National Revival, two world wars and 40 years of Communism. They most often perceive the concept of women's rights as an inherent part of human rights, one that does not need a separate label. Their well-known dislike for feminism is grounded in the lingering Communist-induced dislike of any "isms" and in the still too fresh memories of the often-hated Communist female officials.
Many Czech women continue to have misleading ideas about Western feminism, also often instilled under Communism. Most of them do not see a reason to fight for women's rights. Instead, driven by the flow of daily life, they quietly continue their ascent in higher education and professional employment, as more and more of them become business managers, entrepreneurs and politicians.
For more information, greater detail and sources on the Czech women's rights movement in higher education, please refer to my MA thesis, Moderate and Sensible: Higher Education and the Czech Women's Rights Movement (Seattle: University of Washington, 1997), published in this issue of CER
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