Engendering Change

Posted January 13, 2014

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

The Communist governments and the oppositions shared at least one feature in common: they were overwhelmingly male. The leaders of the countries and the members of the Politburos were mostly men. And the dissidents that received all the coverage in the West – Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Victor Orban – were also men. There were exceptions on both sides, of course. Elena Ceausescu in Romania and Mirjana Markovic (the wife of Slobodan Milosevic) in Serbia were powerbrokers in their own right. And a number of women played key roles in the democratic opposition, from Solidarity to the human rights activists in former Yugoslavia.

In Czechoslovakia, most of the signatories of Charter 77 were also men. I talked to several people who told me that their wives would have signed, but they decided that, for the children’s sake, both parents shouldn’t be at risk of imprisonment.

Jirina Siklova had a career and children. She signed anyway. As a result, she lost her job at the philosophy faculty. Like many Charter 77 signers, she had to take whatever job was available – in her case, as a cleaning woman at a hospital. But she kept working for the opposition, writing and witnessing. She was also part of the network established by Jan Kavan in London to smuggle materials in and out of Eastern Europe. Arrested, she spent a year in prison before international appeals by the leaders of France, Austria, and Britain, among others, led to her release.

After 1989, Siklova embarked on a new phase in her career. In 1991, she helped establish the first gender studies program in the region. Her apartment in Prague became a meeting point for feminists from all over the world. The Network for East-West Women — and one of its principal activists, Ann Snitow of the New School for Social Research — provided material assistance to the fledgling program. In an interview with me in her apartment in Prague last February, she recalled the initial gift of books.

“I often repeat this story, about how these women from the West gave me these books and I was not very enthusiastic,” Siklova said. “Ann Snitow asked me, ‘Why are you not satisfied?’ And I said ‘My dear, even if I will be ill for a very long time, never could I read all these books!’ She asked, ‘Then what would you like?’ I said, “I need $200 per month. I will give $100 to one student who will organize the library, and with the second $100 we will buy a typewriter, fax machine, and telephone.” And she said, “Of course it’s possible.”

The Gender Studies program quickly outgrew her apartment. And there are now similar programs throughout the region. These programs have done, among other things, oral histories of women in the region, which have revealed the important roles that women played in all the changes that have swept through East-Central Europe.

We talked about her experience of 1968, her efforts to find a third way between capitalism and communism, and the challenges that women face today in the Czech Republic.


The Interview


Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?


I was in Prague. I was working as a cleaning woman in a factory near here in Prague 7. At this time, I had the possibility, unofficially and very secretly, to send information abroad. I remember when we were informed about the fall of the Wall, the people from Radio Free Europe and Voice of America asked me, “What is going on in Prague?” And I said, “Nothing has happened.”

Before this, Prague was full of people from the GDR. We have a book that documents this, Through Prague To Freedom, with text and photographs.


You didn’t think after the fall of the Berlin Wall that anything would happen here?


We were waiting for something since the summer. But I didn’t think it would happen immediately at this time. I wrote before the changes, in summer 1989, an article entitled “The Gray Zone and the Future of Dissent in Czechoslovakia.” In this, I wrote that maybe the confrontation would begin on December 10, which was the International Day of Human Rights.


But it happened earlier.


Yes. Nobody waited. The first manifestation was organized with the agreement of the Central Committee. At this time, it was not important what our government said, only the Central Committee of the Communist Party. This official manifestation marked the 50th anniversary of the shooting of our students in the Nazi time. Nobody from the dissident movement was present.


When you heard about the student demonstrations, what did you think?


I didn’t just hear, I participated! I was giving information to foreign journalists. If I was going to inform people abroad about this manifestation, I should participate in it. But I thought it would be a normal manifestation, not a demonstration.


When did you first decide that you wanted to look at women’s issue from an analytical point of view as well as from the point of view of advocacy?


This would be my biography!


I’m interested in that first moment.


The first moment? I don’t know. Of course I was informed about women’s issues because my mother at that time was extraordinary. She was a teacher at high school, which was unusual.


Let me ask the question a different way. Of course, rhetorically, women’s issues were a priority for the Communist Party –


This is basic information. Women’s issues were not a priority.


Yes, well, that’s why I said “rhetorically” –


I am teaching this history in the Gender Studies Department for a minimum of six hours. It is very complicated to speak about it and what the attitudes were during the socialist time about the emancipation question from Lenin and Kollantai on.


I’m more interested in when you realized, in your mind, that there was a gap between what the government was saying about women’s issues and what the reality was for women in Communist Czechoslovakia?


It is written very often in articles that in the time of socialism women were able to do work because there were not enough laborers here. Women were cheap and unqualified labor. Their salaries were only part of the income of the family. I remember my mother returning to work in 1953, which was not usual. This changed during the 1960s, and that’s when the discussion of women began.


For you, was there a moment when you took the step into being a dissident? Or was it a gradual process?


I know that this interview is for the newspapers and that it must be superficial. But this is too superficial for me. You skipped over this long period of 20 or 30 years.

I was member of the Communist Party. I was active between 1966 and 1968. I wasn’t a functionary. But in 1968, I was on the committee of the philosophical faculty, for only one year. After that, I was dismissed from the philosophical faculty. I was not alone. Others were also dismissed. Several books about how this happened have been published. At that time, I saw that many people would like to publish their work. So I started to work with Palach Press, which Jan Kavan had organized in London. We sent him copies of books and articles published unofficially here. It was the start of samizdat.

I could do this because I worked in the hospital. Plenty of people could visit me in the hospital, no problem. It was not dangerous. In London they had these specially prepared cars they called camions to transport material to and from England. It was stopped — it’s a long story, and many articles have been written about it — and people were arrested. I was the so-called head of this unofficial transport abroad. I was arrested too. After one year we were dismissed from prison because of the situation in Poland. Bruno Kreisky, Francois Mitterrand, Madame Thatcher all helped us. They wrote articles that we should be released.

When I returned home, I continued my work at the hospital in the department of gerontology. Half the time I worked as a cleaning woman and half the time I provided some statistical help to the doctors.


You were dismissed from the Party in 1968?


In 1969 when Gustav Husak took over, that’s when I left. And then the next year I was dismissed from the faculty.


When the manifestation began in November 1989 and Civic Forum was formed, what did you think would be the impact?


From the point of view of women’s issues?


I will get to the women’s issue second. But first, what did you think would happen generally?


I expected normal changes as they were taking place in other countries. Timothy Garten Ash, in his book on the changes, wrote that what happened in Poland took 10 years, in Hungary 10 months, and here only 10 days. For 20 years, I sent abroad all the materials from the Charter 77 movement. It was unofficial work, but it functioned well. I can show you the three volumes of documents of Charter 77. Even people here didn’t know that 596 documents, only from Charter 77, were written here and published abroad. I was not alone. But I was responsible for sending abroad all these secret documents.


The reason I ask the question is that the changes happened very differently in each of the countries of East-Central Europe.


Yes, of course.


So, I’m curious whether at that moment you thought the process here would more resemble Poland or more -?


More like Poland. We were very near to Poland. We had unofficial contacts with Poland, with Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Adam Michnik. I was very happy that we had the so-called “velvet” revolution here, not like what happened in Romania. It wasn’t so bad in Bulgaria, not so interesting. But in Romania it was brutal.


At what point did women’s issues –


We didn’t publish on women’s issues because we — and now I’m talking about Charter 77 dissidents, although I don’t like that world “dissident” and we never used it – thought that human rights were more important, which are for men and women, and it wasn’t important to organize something special just for women. We didn’t have the time for it. If you can imagine how many materials were prepared and sent and published abroad. And it was possible to write about women’s issues officially because people could do research on it since it was not really connected with the class struggle. During socialism, women received more education than before, and that was positive. They had the possibility to work. Of course they could work before 1945, but now it was a duty. Also, women were accepted into professions where women had not been before. Emancipation was reduced to this: women could do everything like men, and there was nothing specific about women. On the negative side, we lost our specificity. And it was only emancipation from above.


I understand that human rights were the priority before, but I’m wondering when or if women’s issues became an important issue for Civic Forum?


For me, it was not important because I think I was sufficiently emancipated. At this time I returned to the philosophical faculty. I started a new department: applied sociology or social work. I went to Austria and Germany and Netherlands and Long Island to the universities to see how social work was organized. Parallel with this we started Gender Studies here in 1991. We had plenty of books. We started Gender Studies directly in this flat because my children were already adults and out of the house. After two or three years, we received money from the Heinrich Boll Foundation and that was a big help. We organized a big library.


This was the first Gender Studies department in the region?


Yes, of all post-Communist countries. Ann Snitow and Sonia Jaffe Robbins visited, and we received help from the New School for Social Research. I often repeat this story, about how these women from the West gave me these books and I was not very enthusiastic.

Ann Snitow asked me, “Why are you not satisfied?”

And I said “My dear, even if I will be ill for a very long time, never could I read all these books!”

“Then what would you like?”

I said, “I need $200 per month. I will give $100 to one student who will organize the library, and with the second $100 we will buy a typewriter, fax machine, and telephone.”

And she said, “Of course it’s possible.”

At this time there were plenty of students to help and also feminists from Canada and the United States. We were invited to Krakow where we received more information about feminist issues. I was also invited to a conference in the United States, and it was all interesting. I saw that feminism is not just one ideology but that there are different feminisms. We had not been informed about all this because here the Communist government said that all West European or Euro-Atlantic feminism was something negative, against the interests of the working class, just a bourgeois spat between men and women.


Did the various feminisms have a positive connotation or –


You can’t speak so simply. Really, we were not informed about feminism. But we started not with feminist studies or women’s studies but with gender studies — because I am a sociologist and I thought it was important to connect it with social questions. Ann Snitow very often repeated that she thought that in post-Communist countries, the women’s question is a social question. I agree with her.


I ask because in East Germany, the Independent Women’s Association was marginalized within the opposition movement and the word “feminist” had a negative connotation in German.


Here, too, of course. But you need to talk about the differences between East and West Germany. In East Germany, it was a similar development to here.


How was the Gender Studies department received in the academic circles?


Together with other women, I started the Gender Studies department at Charles University here in Prague, and parallel with that other women started a similar department at Masaryk University in Brno. Both universities started gender studies. It is like any other academic discipline. Of course there is some aversion to feminism here as well. Perhaps we were better informed about anti-feminism than feminism. On the one side, we received all this information from the West, and on the other side we received these slogans about emancipation from the Soviet Union. To find our own road was difficult. But it was possible. We published here several books of memoirs of women — oral histories — prepared by Pavla Frydlova.

We had a conference together in Poland at a hotel called Karat so we started the Karat Coalition as a group of women from post-Communist countries. As a member of an NGO, I was at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. Then, after that, we put together this organization of the women. At the beginning, this Karat Coalition included 52 women’s organizations from different post-communist countries. Now, I don’t really know how many belong. I’m not following it because I think it’s important that other women do it. But the cooperation is going well.


I want to ask you about the abortion issue in 1990 –


Abortion here was possible after 1958.


Yes. But I understand that there were forces in 1990 that wanted to restrict access to abortion.


That’s nonsense. Why would they do that?


Well, for religious reasons or –


I don’t know where you are living, but we are not so religious here in the Czech Republic. Yes, there was a law here on abortion in 1958. Legal abortion was connected to very negative attitudes toward women. Women who wanted abortions had to go in front of a commission and explain why they couldn’t have the child. The majority received approval, but thousands of children were born against the mothers’ will. In the last years of socialism, abortion was reduced through mini-abortions, which were done in the ambulance without anesthesia. Abortion here was big because there were not enough contraceptives. In 1990, the pharmaceutical companies provided many different kinds of contraceptives. Artificial abortion is not done so much now because these contraceptives are very effective and not that expensive. I have six grandchildren, and nobody has spoken of any troubles with it. It was very different in Poland because of the influence of the Church. That was the reason why women from Poland, but also from Austria, came to Prague for abortion.


Let me ask you about the impact of the rapid economic reforms.


I’ve written about all these things, but I’ll repeat them for you. In 1990 started here all the big changes. One difference was that men started to become entrepreneurs, but women continued to work in the big factories, in the economy that hadn’t been privatized. “You can take the risk, my dear husband,” the women said. This is the reason why there are not very many women entrepreneurs, maybe only 2 percent of the total. This means that economic changes had a negative influence on the status of women, particularly in the first half of the 1990s when these big companies with low production collapsed and divided into smaller companies. This had a negative impact on women workers. Men were in a different position, and this led to an increase in divorce. The privatization of the state banks began in 1999, under the Social Democrats and Milos Zeman, with the help of foreign capital. And this process too was in the hands of men.


What do you think are the major challenges facing women today in the Czech Republic?


What do you mean?


Well, if you ask me about the main challenges facing women in America today, I would say, for instance, salary differential or –


It’s very complicated to speak about the United States and compare it to other countries. There is a difference in salaries here, but it’s not so big as in the United States. If I compare it to countries that I know, West Germany or Italy, the difference between the salaries has become much smaller. Because here the emancipation of the women started 150 years earlier than, for example, in the United States or Italy. We had here a very important women’s movement that was connected with nationalism. It was the reason why, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the first education and organization for women was here in Prague and Brno. Our women received the support of their husbands because it was connected to nationalism. It was the same with the right to vote.


So, what do you think are the greatest challenges facing women in the Czech Republic today?


We have women with high education who have relatively low salaries compared to men in a similar position. But it is not a question of official discrimination. It’s often connected to the fact that women are not interested in having these positions. There is a tradition here of having children and looking after the household. Also, women are not in leading positions in companies. The issue of quotas for women can be counterproductive. Sometimes our women say, “Yes, but if I’m in the position because of a quota, it reduces my prestige.” You know this discussion. It doesn’t just take place here.

It’s similar in politics. After the changeover, women were very active, and there were plenty of women in politics in the first couple years. But women lost interest in politics. These political parties started, and that’s one of the reasons why they left. Also, women are more oriented to the left. And in 1992 started here a right-wing orientation when Civic Forum split into Vaclav Klaus’s party and the party of the former dissidents. But in 1992 people elected right-wing-oriented parties. And women left parliament. It’s not that somebody said, “You can’t be there.” But they just didn’t have a big interest in it. And the former dissidents, too, lost their positions.


In Eastern Germany, one of the biggest questions right now is the availability of childcare. The availability of childcare makes it possible for women to enter the workforce or remain in the workforce. Is that an issue here?


Yes, of course, it is a problem. If you are in a private company, your maternity leave or parental leave is very complicated. The entrepreneurs are not so interested in supporting you because they think it’s a waste of time, and so on. It is a big handicap, and one of the reasons why women are not in better positions. There are very good statistics on this compiled by the Department of Gender Studies.


Have you rethought any of your positions from the 1990s? Have there been any changes in your worldview or your philosophy?


From which point of view?


I leave it up to you.


I’m happy because I could go back to my work. But of course, I’m not satisfied with many things here. From my point of view, it would be better if we’d found this so-called third way. In one article, I wrote about what we lost here after 1989, which was published in Social Research. We didn’t know what this capitalism really was. At this time, to speak about something between capitalism and socialism, this third way that Tony Blair talked about, was impossible here. People will say, “Why did we jump into this stupid capitalism?” And I say, “My dear, you had the possibility, but you were enthusiastic about Vaclav Klaus’s orientation.” If someone was a social democrat, they were against him and complain about the “influence of the former Communists.” There is a special term for it in Czech — the ’68ers, the people of 1968. These are the people, some of them Communists and some of them not, who were associated with this reform Communism.


Socialism with a human face.


Yes. And with Eurocommunism. Something similar took place in Italy and in France in 1968. I have written this book about the student movement in the West and our criticism of it. This book was published here 43 years after it was written. At the time it was impossible to publish it in 1969. I found the manuscript and a publishing house published it — just as it was written at the time, influenced by the slogans of Marcuse and Rudi Dutschke and Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the West European Communists. They came here at the time, and we had a discussion with them at the university.

Tony Blair could speak about the third way but we couldn’t. Until this time, I was strongly criticized, receiving sometimes hundreds of emails after appearances in the media. I have not been in any political party. I supported, for instance, the Greens and later, during the president election, Karel Schwarzenberg. But the emails often said: You are a former Communist, a 68er.

And now the Social Democratic Party is not really a leftwing party. It’s only words.

Milos Zeman is not left oriented. I was his teacher. He was very clever, but he drinks too much. He never participated in the politics but focused on economic forecasting. Then one part of Civic Forum decided to renew the Social Democratic Party. Zeman was not part of this. At that time, he didn’t know his orientation. Then he decided that he shouldn’t be independent. He joined the party in 1993 and had quite a lot of influence.


Prague, February 15, 2013



  1. One should note that there was a very strong feminist movement in Czechoslovakia in 1930s, however, almost all its figureheads, such as the Senator Františka Plamínková, were killed by the Germans.

    1. Yes, that’s an important point. Jirina Siklova traces the women’s movement in the Czech lands back to the 19th century and the Austro-Hungarian empire.

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