Elusive Equality

Elusive Equality: Gender, Citizenship, and the Limits of Democracy in Czechoslovokia, 1918-1950

Melissa Feinberg
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 288
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    Elusive Equality
    Book Description:

    When Czechoslovakia became independent in 1918, Czechs embraced democracy, which they saw as particularly suited to their national interests. Politicians enthusiastically supported a constitution that proclaimed all citizens, women as well as men, legally equal. But they soon found themselves split over how to implement this pledge. Some believed democracy required extensive egalitarian legislation. Others contended that any commitment to equality had to bow before other social interests, such as preserving the traditional family.

    On the eve of World War II, Czech leaders jettisoned the young republic for an "authoritarian democracy" that firmly placed their nation, and not the individual citizen, at the center of politics. In 1948, they turned to a Communist-led "people's democracy," which also devalued individual rights.

    By examining specific policy issues, including marriage and family law, civil service regulations, citizenship law, and abortion statutes,Elusive Equalitydemonstrates the relationship between Czechs' ideas about gender roles and their attitudes toward democracy. Gradually, many Czechs became convinced that protecting a traditionally gendered family ideal was more important to their national survival than adhering to constitutionally prescribed standards of equal citizenship. Through extensive original research, Melissa Feinberg assembles a compelling account of how early Czech progress in women's rights, tied to democratic reforms, eventually lost momentum in the face of political transformations and the separation of state and domestic issues. Moreover, Feinberg presents a prism through which our understanding of twentieth-century democracy is deepened, and a cautionary tale for all those who want to make democratic governments work.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-7103-0
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Gender, Rights, and the Limits of Equality in Czechoslovakia
    (pp. 1-10)

    In the summer and fall of 1989, the world was transfixed by the “carnival of revolution” wending its way through Central and Eastern Europe.¹ It was a season in which the impossible became real: the Hungarians rolled back the barbed wire on their western border, Poles elected Solidarity candidates to the Sejm, and Berliners celebrated under the Brandenburg Gate. Equally dramatic was the scene in Prague, where hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Wenceslas Square, shook their keys, and peacefully brought about a democratic revolution. Czechoslovakia’s Communist government melted away, leaving former dissident Václav Havel as the country’s new...

    (pp. 11-40)

    In the Czech lands, women got the vote after only a few years of work. Their rapid success was certainly not typical in Europe. Women’s suffrage activism began in earnest in Great Britain in 1867, during the debate over the Second Reform Bill. John Stuart Mill, philosopher, feminist, and member of the British Parliament, stood up to demand votes for women on an equal basis with men. His proposal did not pass, but it did begin a period of intense, organized women’s suffrage activity in Britain. For the next forty years, British suffragists worked tirelessly for their cause, but still...

    (pp. 41-71)

    After the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918, the legal equality of women was taken as a given in the Czech lands. The provisional National Assembly made women’s rights a priority; admitted women as members, granted suffrage to men and women on an equal basis, and ended discriminatory policies toward women in the educational system and the civil service. Rather remarkably, the Assembly’s decisions concerning women’s rights met with little debate. Acceptance of women’s suffrage was more widespread in the Czech lands than in the world’s most established democracies, including republican France, where women would not get the vote...

  7. 3 ONE FAMILY, ONE NATION: The Problem of Married Women’s Citizenship
    (pp. 72-98)

    Paeans to the virtues of family life such as the one above were constant features of political discourse in the Czechoslovak Republic. These flowery explosions of prose might seem insignificant, merely banal sentiment. But, in the Czech case at least, they graphically illustrate the difficulties feminists faced in achieving civil rights for women. The ideal family required a wife/mother who was willing to sacrifice herself for the good of the other family members. For Zachoval, the primary characteristic of a wife was her selflessness: she was a “helpmate, an advisor and support for her husband.”¹ Ideally, she had no personal...

    (pp. 99-128)

    The ultimately irresolvable conflicts over how to revise Czechoslovak citizenship laws and the civil code showed that for many Czechs “equality” was a rather problematic concept when applied to women. Although they were formally recognized as citizens like any other, women could never simply partake of equality like other individuals in a democracy; they were always women first. As feminists discovered when they attacked inequalities in civil law, democratic ideology was not very effective in helping women to escape the remaining legal limitations of womanhood. Women might have an equal say in the voting booth, but inside their homes they...

    (pp. 129-158)

    At the beginning of the summer of 1932, a diatribe against abortion appeared on the front page ofLidové Listy(The People’s Paper), the newspaper of the People’s Party. It was written by the paper’s editor, Jan Scheinost, who declared, “until last week, it was generally accepted in Czechoslovakia that October 28, 1918, emancipated not only all the Czechoslovak people, but especially its women, to whom it gave suffrage and otherwise essentially placed in public life on a level with men.” According to Scheinost, Czech socialists had suddenly decided that women’s emancipation was not complete and would not be so...

    (pp. 159-189)

    In March 1937, readers of the political-cultural weeklyPřítomnostwere treated to an exposé on the fate of German women under Nazism. The author, Bedřich Pilč, claimed that large numbers of women had initially been drawn to the Nazi Party precisely because Nazi leaders declared they would deprive them of all the rights they had gained under the Weimar regime. These women leapt at the chance to trade equality in public life for the opportunity to be “sovereign queens” in their own domestic realm. However, they soon discovered that they had been tricked into a situation that spiraled rapidly out...

    (pp. 190-222)

    After her arrest in 1942, Františka Plamínková met Milada Horáková once more, in the women’s camp for political prisoners in Terezín. During the days they spent there together, she urged Horáková to continue their struggle for women’s rights, making her promise that she would take the lead in reconstituting the WNC after the war’s end. Horáková assured her friend and mentor that she would never relinquish their common goal of creating a democratic society for both men and women. A few days later, on June 30, 1942, Františka Plamínková was shot in the Prague suburb of Kobylisy. Milada Horáková, however,...

    (pp. 223-230)

    In his book about the European twentieth century, the historian Mark Mazower challenges the contemporary assumption that democracy was somehow destined to succeed in Europe. Europeans, he reminds us, did not “naturally” take to democracy and, in fact, often fought against it with surprising zeal. It was only during the years after the First World War that democracy gained more than a toehold on the European continent, and this initial experiment did not turn out well. After only twenty years, European democracy looked utterly defeated on all fronts.¹ Revived on the Western half of the continent after the end of...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 231-260)
    (pp. 261-270)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 271-276)