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November 1994, Vol. 117, No. 11
Czech women in transition
Marianne A. Ferber
During the two decades of its independence (1918-38), the Republic of Czechoslovakia was a liberal democracy and had an industrialized economy (particularly in the section that now constitutes the Czech Republic) roughly on a par with those of Western European countries. While by no means equal to that of men, the status of Czech women was better than in most other advanced industrialized countries at the time.1 Women constituted about one-third of the labor force, they had the right to vote and the right to be elected to public office, and they were politically very active. The notion of special protection for women had been quickly rejected,2 and there was a spirited feminist movement. But the liberal democratic Czechoslovak Republic came to an abrupt end at Munich in 1938.
After the Nazi occupation and World War 11, the Communists received a plurality in the 1946 election and took over the government in 1948. Through the subsequent 40 years of Communist domination, women made further progress in some respects. Their legal and political status was, at least formally, equal to that of men. More women received higher degrees, particularly in previously male-dominated fields,3 and their labor force participation rose dramatically, so that by 1989, women made up 47 percent of the labor force.4 Further, women's representation in some nontraditional fields, such as scientific research and the construction industry, increased substantially.5 There is even some evidence that women received greater respect and shared power more equally within the family.6
Progress, however, was very uneven and was tainted by its association with an ideology that was eventually to be despised by the vast majority of the people. Also, the price of this progress was high, and the gains made came to be viewed not as accomplishments, but as "forced emancipation." Now, with the downfall of communism, women may be willing to relinquish many of the gains they have made and return to a more traditional role.
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1 Even then, there were substantial differences in the status of women in the two parts of the country, mainly because Slovakia was poorer and more agricultural than Bohemia and Moravia. (See Marie Cermáková, "Women in Czechoslovakia and Their Reflection of Human Rights," Sociologicky Ustav CSAV (Praha, CSAV, undated); and Eva Hauser, "About the Perspectives of Feminism in Czechoslovakia" (Praha, Curriculum Centre and Library for Gender Studies, undated).)
2 Hana Havelková, "A Few Prefeminist Thoughts," in Nanette Funk and Magda Mueller, eds., Gender Politics and Post-Communism (New York, Routledge, 1993), pp. 62-73.
3 In 1991, women constituted 69.1 percent of university graduates, compared with 20 percent in 1936. The comparable figures were 27.9 percent and 4.1 percent for graduates of technical colleges, 45.6 percent and 15 percent for graduates of agricultural colleges, and 80.9 percent and 38.6 percent for graduates of commercial colleges. (See Statistická Rocenka CSSR, 1989; and Marie Cermáková, "Gender and the Employment of Higher Education Graduates in Czechoslovakia, Working Paper, Institute of Sociology (Praha, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences, 1992).)
4 The labor force participation of women 20 to 24 years and 45 to 49 years was in excess of 80 percent, and that of women 25 to 44 years was more than 90 percent. (See Ludmila Venerová, "Brief Survey of the Situation of Czechoslovakian Women at the Beginning of the Transitional Period from Centrally-Planned to Market Economy," Regional Seminar on the Impact of Economic and Political Reform on the Status of Women in Eastern Europe and the USSR: The Role of National Machinery, Vienna, 199 1).
5 Zdenek Salzmann, "Portrayal of Gender Relations in Contemporary Czech Mass Media," East European Quarterly, January 1990, pp. 399-407.
6 See Alena Heitlinger, "The Impact of the Transition from Communism on the Status of Women in the Czech and Slovak Republics," in Funk and Mueller, eds., Gender Politics, pp. 95-108; and Barbara W. Jancar, Women under Communism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).
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