Nest of Czech Feminism - 30 years of Gender Studies


The non-profit organization Gender Studies is celebrating an incredible 30 years of existence. We wanted to take this opportunity to look back and reflect on what has changed in Czech society from a gender perspective over such a long period of time, as many of the impulses and proposals related to the position of women and men have come from this “nest”.

30 let GS

Download the publication in Czech.

Our publication is intended primarily for a generation that already takes many changes in gender issues for granted. It has not experienced a time when only generic masculine forms were used to address women and men, when job advertisements were commonly worded along the lines of “we are looking for an attractive young woman for the position of secretary”, when domestic violence was seen as a phenomenon that did not exist in our country and was imported from abroad, like women belonging in politics or even in the management of businesses and companies. Even young women and girls who subscribe to feminism know very little about their recent predecessors, their views, motivations and actions from twenty or thirty years ago. This book should give them a glimpse not only into the history of one non-profit organization, but also into the development of Czech feminism after 1989, so that they can see what has been achieved and where further efforts are needed to move towards equality between women and men.

A shift in society's thinking does not happen on its own; it always involves the longterm and systematic efforts of specific individuals. If it were not for the personal commitment of women who devoted a lot of time and energy to the topic of gender studies since the 1990s, Czech society might be even more conservative than it is today, and today's feminists would have nothing to build on.

The main part of the publication is therefore made up of interviews with ten women who were at the birth of Gender Studies or who later shaped the organization. We asked them about their background, motivation, professional and personal development, what they remember most about Gender Studies, how they evaluate the development of Czech society in the field of gender, what has been successful, what has been less so... Through their recollections, a picture emerges of the unique atmosphere that has always surrounded Gender Studies, attracted countless outstanding women, given birth to stormy discussions, and sought new solutions to dozens of problems, many of which are still pressing, as the middle-generation women interviewed bitterly note.

The trend in the early 1990s was to some extent to return to the conditions of the first Czechoslovak Republic. Many politicians at the time claimed that women could finally return to where they belonged - to the family, childcare and the household, because their natural role was to support the man, to be the protector of the family hearth. No one actually consulted those concerned. But the first sociological surveys showed that only a minimal number of Czech women (who were already better educated than men) were interested in such a model, not to mention that it was and is unrealistic from the economic point of view of the Czech family's income.

Behind the Iron Curtain we were not very much in touch with the currents of thought and society in the West, but it was not difficult to quickly discover that the reality there had moved far from a similar idea of the family model (known mainly from American soap operas). We were not familiar with most of the discussions that had taken place in the West in this regard over the past decades, and we needed to educate ourselves, read, study and discuss. In Jiřina Šiklová's apartment, a group of women from various humanities disciplines (sociology, philosophy, psychology, history, journalism, Czech studies, English studies, law, library science, etc.) began to meet and discuss with each other, and also with women, especially from the USA, who came to us at that time for shorter and longer stays, curious about the form of emancipation in our country. In discussions with them, a number of topics and concepts that we had not noticed very much before suddenly took on new shapes and meanings. Reciprocally, women from the West also learned from us.

In November 1991, the Center for Gender Studies was founded, and the library grew rapidly, at first mainly through donations from American universities. The circle of women interested in feminism and gender studies expanded just as quickly. The information and knowledge we had acquired was passed on via discussion evenings, conferences and the first media appearances, which took a good deal of courage; to profess feminism often led to ridicule and contempt. Our activist lecturing activities eventually crystallized into a field of study (first at Charles University, later at Masaryk University), and other non-profit organizations were founded, dealing specifically with topics related to women. Networking with similar women's organizations and centers was important, especially in those countries which, like us, had not had the opportunity to learn about feminism or feminists during the socialist period.

These meetings were made possible by Frauen-Anstiftung and, after its merger with other foundations of the German Greens, by the Heinrich Böll Stiftung (hbs), an organization that has been the main partner of Gender Studies for more than ten years. Their financial support enabled the professionalization of GS, the expansion of its professional library, the organization of seminars, lectures, conferences, and its first publications. The support of the hbs was far from being only financial, it was above all methodological; we learned to discuss, argue, speak in public, and all proposals for our activities (including international ones, mainly made jointly with Slovak and Polish women) were dealt with exclusively at the partnership level. In this sense, hbs and its staff in Prague have a great deal to do with the development of gender issues in Czech society.

During the organization of the GS archive, which took us almost two years, we came across a wealth of contemporary material: invitations, programmes, letters, proclamations, proposals for activities, minutes of meetings and negotiations. Only the letters and faxes (in the 1990s, faxes were mainly used) of Jiřina Šiklová to the Foundation Board, the Board of Trustees or the GS staff would be worthy of a separate publication. She wrote from wherever she was at the time, passing on information, taking notes, assigning tasks - not just making coffee, as she says in the interview, but initiating, mentoring, thanking and scolding.

Although we know from the experience of dozens of oral-historical and biographical interviews that women, unlike men, usually do not feel the need to emphasize the importance of what they do, we became much more conscious of this fact when preparing this publication. For example, let's consider how many women were involved in dissent and how little we know about their activities at that time, because they did not consider themselves heroes. Women do not even think about storing or archiving their activities, there are always more important and more prioritized tasks, it is necessary to move on. Memory is slowly fading, overlaid by a multitude of other events and activities, and memories are inaccurate, not only in terms of the specific years when things happened, but also in terms of the importance of the event at the time it occurred.

Reconstructing all the activities, remembering names, individual events and how they went and what followed on from them, is more than difficult after several decades. To our great surprise, even after years of work by such a significant and important organization as Frauen-Anstiftung (not only an important foundation for starting gender and women's organizations in this country but also in other countries of former Eastern Europe), only a few boxes of unsorted documents remain in the archives of the German Greens.

But then there is nothing to build on, and each generation seems to start anew. Let us remind ourselves here of the broken continuity with the Czech pre-war women's movement! That is why the memories and opinions of the ten interviewees are so important. And that there were many, many more is shown by the list of just some of those who worked in the GS for a long time or collaborated with it.

The second part of the book is a chronological overview of the main stages of the operations of Gender Studies. Creating it was an almost impossible task for all of us who took part in its compilation, given the number of activities. And for many younger colleagues it revealed surprising contemporary contexts. That is why we have included at least a small selection of basic documents and archival material illustrating the atmosphere of the 1990s, which was crucial for the emergence and orientation of Gender Studies.

Even the list of publications that have been produced in the framework of Gender Studies activities shows only a selection of the most important ones or those still available. Similarly, the short list of the most important personalities associated with Gender Studies is only a small “sample” of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of women who have been in close contact with our organization over the course of thirty years.

Our publication on 30 years of Gender Studies is dedicated to its founder, Jiřina Šiklová. She followed the work on the book, occasionally adding a new perspective, and the last part of the interview took place just days before her death. Many thanks to all the women who contributed to the publication, whether by giving interviews or by searching for materials and arranging them chronologically.

When an organisation is 30, it goes through the same mental development as individual women or men of the same age.

When you are 30:

1. You have an opinion and you are not afraid to say it out loud.

2. You are already clear about what kind of work fulfils you and you have enough work experience to

decide where and for whom you will work.

3. Some dreams have already come true; some are still waiting to happen. Either way, you already

know that dreams come true.

4. You have a solid circle of true friends you can count on.

5. You do not get involved with gossip. You do not get upset by it, and you know that gossip does not

say as much about you as it does about the person spreading it.

6. You have a decent collection of good books.

7. You have carried out all sorts of experiments.

8. You are not afraid to step out of your comfort zone. You know that if you want something, you

have to sacrifice something to get it.

9. You know that your happiness doesn’t depend on others, but on you alone.

10. You know how to give advice to younger colleagues. Because you have been through similar

situations before.

For Gender Studies, the most important women's rights organisation in the modern history of the

Czech Republic, this rather unassuming list fits perfectly. The organisation has matured, it has strong, unshakable roots, and from its nest have sprung many striking personalities, ideas, laws, and social innovations. But the work in the field that the “founding mothers” set out for Gender Studies in legendary debates in the apartment of Jiřina Šiklová in Klimentská Street is far from over, even after thirty incredibly inspiring and project-laden years. Czech society's sensitivity to gender and feminist perspectives fluctuates according to political and economic priorities, and we feminists often feel that we are going round in circles, that change is too slow, that stereotypes are indestructible. We want society and political representation to react and act faster (for example, in the area of equal pay for equal work) and we often despair at the lack of movement. On the other hand, many of us actually live our ideal free woman's life of study, a dream job, travel, a partnership, joint childcare, civic activity, financial independence, and the joy of creation, day in and day out. And this is mainly thanks to the fact that Gender Studies and other women's organisations have prepared the ground, helped us to define our visions and to translate them into lived reality.

The publication, which was conceived by Pavla Frýdlová for the thirtieth anniversary of Gender Studies, does not contain evaluative essays, but, in an entirely feminist spirit, seeks out a “small” history in the memory of the ten women who founded, defined, or for a time led GS as directors. Their recollections, as well as their assessments of what succeeded and what failed, paint a picture of an organisation that, since the 1990s, has formed an intellectual nest of Czech feminist thought and activism, with all the difficulties and pitfalls that accompanied this process of hatching and learning to fly.

The interviews and their tone are to some extent influenced by the generational categorisation of the speakers. The founding generation — Jiřina Šiklová, Jana Hradilková, Marie Čermáková, Mirka Holubová — evaluate the work of the organisation as highly successful and the social development as positive. The younger, or rather middle generation of women who have led the transformation of GS into a large professional organisation — Lenka Simerská, Lada Wichterlová, Michaela Marksová, Alena Králíková, Linda Sokačová and Helena Skálová — see much bigger gaps and talk about unfulfilled dreams, the exhausting personal burden that the topic of gender presented to them on a daily basis, but which was not offset by the expected results, the fatiguing discussions with an uneducated political representation, and media ignorance and the arrogance of the public and some political leaders.

The interview with Jiřina Šiklová, which was written just a few days before she left us, contains a number of vivid memories of, let's say, the punk beginnings, when no one knew what a non-profit organisation meant, how it was founded and how it was governed. The interview also shows Jiřina's vision to go in her own direction, to be neither influenced by Western feminism nor to follow the communist Women's Union, to combine what works and what is beneficial for social justice. From the beginning, Jiřina also advocated the activist nature of the organisation, because this made it possible to react quickly and directly influence public opinion through action.

Jana Hradilková is particularly positive about the fulfilment of her initial dream, i.e. the fact that Gender Studies has had a library as a documentation and resource centre for 30 years. Jana points out the complications with the funding of the organisation and a certain pragmatism in its direction, where it was necessary to follow up on project calls and determine the topics that GS addressed accordingly. She highlights the voluntary work of women from the USA and Canada who were instrumental in bringing GS to life in the early days.

Marie Čermáková, long-standing director of the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences, describes the difficult start to her scientific career, which had all the hallmarks of gender inequality, the support she found at that time from Gender Studies and its circle, and she points out the dangers in the current pandemic situation and the looming climate crisis that women will have to face. Because, once again, it is women who are paying for the pandemic many times more than men.

Drawing on personal experience, Mirka Holubová describes the international context in which Gender Studies has operated since its beginnings, recalling the international partnerships and networking that have been essential for a deeper understanding of the issues and the starting point for important GS projects such as Women's Memory.

Michaela Marksová, who went from Gender Studies to the highest levels of politics and became the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, evaluates her time in politics, critically looking at the gender stereotypes that prevail there, but also recalling the legislative successes she was able to achieve thanks to her experience, research and stories gained in GS.

Lada Wichterlová, one of the longest-serving contributors to Gender Studies, recalls the diversity of projects that have been developed within GS, and the variety of focuses, from supporting women in politics. transgender issues, the specific problems of Roma women, the accession to the EU and its related gender legislation, to the reconciliation of family and work life.

Lenka Simerská describes how the beginnings of the organisation in the 1990s were extremely interesting, what opportunities were created, and what creative and free genes Gender Studies has. But she also notes that lived feminism is still very exhausting and complex, unsupported by a system, dependent on the strength and courage of individuals.

Alena Králíková became Director of Gender Studies at the time of the Czech Republic's accession to the EU, so her recollections relate to the difficult period of transition from receiving funding from a main donor, which for years was the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, to funding from European grant programmes. She also mentions a major GS event of that time, which was a large exhibition on menstruation.

Linda Sokačová was behind the implementation of the important Half and Half project within the European Equal programme and remembers it as the project that made Gender Studies grow into a large organisation in terms of staff, but at the same time more specialised in the field of the labour market.

The current and longest serving director of Gender Studies, Helena Skálová, reflects on the future and sees it in the expert role of GS. Thanks to its vast experience and erudition, she wants it to be part of broader partnerships as an expert organisation that brings a gender perspective to projects and activities that are not primarily gender-focused. Helena in a way figuratively goes full circle, because Jiřina Šiklová talks about the same thing using different words in her vision of the future mission of the organisation. She too wanted to have gender as a transversal theme that cuts across all areas of society. She claimed that we have passed the phase of equality; now we are facing the phase of equality in diversity.

We dedicate this publication to Jiřina Šiklová, who influenced all of us who ever came into contact with her in an indescribable way. We will carry the seed she figuratively implanted in us for the rest of our lives. It will burn unpleasantly whenever we are overcome by cowardice or convenience, whenever we fail to defend the rights of the weak, whenever we hide in the crowd, whenever we do not stand up for our truth, whenever we whine, whenever we are unable to make fun of ourselves. This is also part of the history of Gender Studies. Let’s make Jiřina's soul proud of us!

Many thanks are also due to the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their years of support and trust, without which Gender Studies would not be what it is today