Were women really absent from pre-89 Czechoslovak dissent?

Twenty-five years after its fall, a fascination remains with those who chose to openly oppose communism in the former Czechoslovakia, however women’s oppositional activity has not adequately been acknowledged. Were women really absent from pre-89 Czechoslovak dissent? Or might we need to take a closer look at dissent in all its forms?

Photo: CreativeCommons/ Pavel Matejicek


Václav Havel’s seminal essay, The Power of the Powerless, led many to romanticize Havel and his fellow dissidents’ valiant acts of defiance. Their courage and conviction in choosing to “live in truth” while fighting the communists and eventually, single-handedly, overthrowing them in the Velvet Revolution brought widespread admiration. However, it is now clear to observers that many factors contributed to the fall of Communism in 1989; and that the message of The Power of the Powerless only resonated with a very small portion of the Czech population. Havel’s ironic use of the word “dissent” was initially lost on most of the essay’s readers. Few of the high profile individuals who opposed the regime in Czechoslovakia considered themselves “dissidents.”

In an interview with the Czech writer, Eda Kriseová, Michael Long, an American professor of Slavic and East European Studies asked: “what incident or event turned the thinking of a potential dissident, eventually leading that person to live in defiance of the regime and join the underground?” 1In an answer representative of most oppositionists, Kriseová told Long, “we are not heroes, we simply did what we had to do to make life livable.” 2

Despite the fact those labelled “dissidents” rejected the term, they have continued to be referred to as such. With few exceptions, scholarship on normalization-era Czechoslovakia has focused almost exclusively on the human rights manifesto and movement of the same name, Charter 77. This is largely due to the public nature of its activities. Although small compared to other civic initiatives like Solidarity in Poland, Charter signatories were the most visible group openly opposing the regime in Czechoslovakia.

The majority of Charter 77’s signatories happened to be male, and with few exceptions, they have received most of the attention in the foreign media and scholarship. However, “making life livable,” as Kriseová put it, took different forms for different individuals, and was not limited to public acts of defiance. It is this narrow understanding of the nature of resistance, coupled with conflicting views of gender roles on either side of the Iron Curtain, that can be attributed to the inadequate acknowledgement of women’s oppositional activity in pre-89 Czechoslovakia.

The “spectrum of dissent” and the “grey zone”

Barbara Falk has written extensively about the political philosophy of dissent, and has suggested that opposition should be thought of as a spectrum, with “resistance” occupying one pole and “dissent” occupying the other. 3According to Falk, between these two poles were various activities that ranged from refusal to abide by communist principles through excessive drug or alcohol use, listening to or reading banned material, or agreeing with a petition to finance the operation of a an underground publishing house. It was only at the far end of the spectrum that one encountered actual dissent through, “the production and distribution of samizdat, public protests, [or] active involvement in independent groups outside the control of the party-state.” 4

Though dissent occupies only a portion of the spectrum, it has received the most attention not only because of it visible aspects, such as open letters, the publication of illegal documents or the persecution and imprisonment of dissidents, but also because of the availability of resources related to its study. Collaborative acts of open dissent have proven much easier to chronicle than individual acts of passive resistance.

The “grey zone” is a term that has often been used to encompass some of the activity on the spectrum of opposition between private, non-conformist acts and open acts of dissent. The sociologist Jiřina Šiklová, who also played an active role in the Czech opposition, described people in the “grey zone” as those who “agree with the views of dissidents and are in favor of the relaxation of political conditions,” but at the same time “hesitantly, reluctantly, they cooperated with the establishment all the same.” 5 Most women oppositionists operated in this “grey zone,” not because they were conforming, but because oppositionist activities could be carried out in the private, or domestic sphere, giving women greater scope for anti-regime activities.

Private women, public men?

The scholarly emphasis on open dissent, which was heavily dominated by men, has led to the mistaken view that the few women who were active played only a minor role. According to literary historian Jonathan Bolton, couples involved in dissent should be thought of as a “spousal unit” because they “worked out a clear division of labor, in which one member remained politically engaged, while the other held down a job in order to support the family financially, and often took care of the children as well.” 6 Usually, though not always, it was the husband who took on the public “role” meaning that all too often “women seem to be erased from the picture.” 7

Thinking of spousal units as part of the spectrum of dissent is useful in understanding the range of possible oppositional activities carried out by women. While couples sometimes signed the Charter, those women who did not sign with their husbands often fell somewhere in the “grey zone,” frequently agreeing with their spouses and often performing less visible acts of opposition. For example, Marie (Madla) Vaculíková, whose husband Ludvík Vaculík was very actively involved in the Charter and head of the samizdat publishing house, Edice Petlice, did not sign the Charter, but took part in oppositional activities in their home by organizing meetings and seminars. 8

Although the spousal unit model did not apply to Šiklová; she did not sign the Charter until after her arrest in 1981 (the signature was not published until 1989) because she had been actively smuggling samizdat in and out of the country since 1972, and publishing her signature would have further jeopardized her efforts. In a tribute to Josef Škvorecký, the Czech author who immigrated to Canada and established 68 Publishers, she describes an instance where a woman she had never met came up to her with a baby stroller, and under the baby, there was a hidden manuscript that was to be sent to Toronto. 9

Emancipation inside and outside the Iron Curtain

Differences in women’s access to the labor market on either side of the Iron Curtain further complicated Western understandings of Czech women’s relationship to public and private spheres. In the 1950s, the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia brought more women into the work force in an effort to promote equal employment, in addition to facilitating equal opportunities to education, and encouraging women to participate in party activities and public life. 10 By the late 1960s these initiatives had mostly been realized, but with unintended consequences. Full employment for women, together with continued shortages of consumer goods and housing, led women to delay having children, resulting in a reduction of the average number of children women had. The birthrate in Czechoslovakia fell dramatically, reaching an all-time low in 1968. 11

The declining birthrate created “widespread fear among Czechoslovak planners that the population would shrink, potentially jeopardizing the future labor supply and socialist modernization.” 12 In response, the government introduced what it called “motherhood incentives,” which consisted of the extension of paid and unpaid maternity leave, as well as the provision of additional maternity and family allowances, as most Czechoslovak women had limited the number of children they had due to financial concerns.

The government measures were successful, and the birthrate rose steadily throughout the normalization-era. 13 These policies, however, contradicted the earlier 1950’s communist commitments to equality. Social scientist Jacqui True argues that this contradiction was reflected throughout the 1970s and 80s in the, “persistent gaps between men and women’s remuneration and employment positions.” She also pointed out that, “many women responded to government policy and employer perceptions by focusing more of their efforts on their family and household activities than on their state employment.” 14

Thus women were not working less than before, but in addition to their regular work hours they were expected to take on more responsibility at home. This meant women were increasingly spending more time in the private sphere. Consequently, conflicting interpretations of this shift towards home life occurred on either side of the Iron Curtain.

Czech sociologist Hana Havelková suggests that women not only claimed power in the private sphere, but that this could be done while still performing public functions. She argues that although both women and men were active in the public and private sphere, “the latter has remained, more than the former, the ‘domain of women’” and that it was generally “the woman rather than the man who shaped the compensatory functions of the family and its entire lifestyle.” 15

Czech women saw themselves as powerful and thus had trouble accepting Western feminist ideologies, that were “based on the idea of their powerlessness.” 16 Commentators in the West and the former Czechoslovakia acknowledged the role of state-imposed restrictions, with the former arguing it prevented women from realizing their creative potential in reinforcing patriarchal structures, while the latter argue that the opposite occurred; women reclaimed the private sphere and exercised their own power by determining how this sphere would appear. It is largely because of women’s exponential growth in the 1950’s labor force that equal access to employment was not a priority for Czech women during normalization. Essentially, Western feminists were critical of Czech women’s ‘take it or leave it’ attitudes towards the public sphere and their embracing of the private sphere; while many Czech scholars studying women’s issues had trouble understanding Western feminist’s desire to distance from home-life and to attain equal rights in the public sphere.

As a result of equating opposition to dissent, if one was going to subvert the social order, whether it was to advocate for women’s rights or to oppose human rights violations, it had to be done publicly. Since Western feminists viewed emancipation as attaining equal rights in the public sphere, they had trouble reconciling the actions of Czechoslovak women, misinterpreting their embracing of the private sphere as a passive acceptance of communism. Understanding these paradoxes helps paint a better picture of the oppositional activity women engaged in, and why it took on the forms that it did.

Unconventional politics or traditional gender roles at home

Given the nature of communism, women’s roles were not always clearly defined. Jacqui True argues that due to women’s dual roles, they found “a place within Czechoslovak opposition to practice unconventional politics.” This was because under President Gustáv Husák’s regime “politics got pushed into the private sphere,” allowing women to control “the very space for independent civic initiatives in Czechoslovakia.” 17

In an interview soon after the fall of communism, Ombudswoman Anna Šabatová, Charter 77 signatory and chief editor of INFOCH (Informace o Chartě 77), reflected on the relationship between politics and home life while her husband was in prison. She recalled that most of the work undertaken by the Charter was realized in Czech homes and that “from a practical point of view, this gave women with children the option to participate in any kind of activity.” 18 Ironically the government’s own program that incentivized women towards the private sphere worked against it, by creating new circumstances under which women could participate in oppositional activity.

Charter signatory and spokesperson, Eva Kantůrková, advocated one of the most commented upon and unconventional approaches for women to oppose communism. She thought women should “rediscover their ‘authentic’ traditional feminine qualities of compassion, love and tolerance,” and like other Charter members, “she found the universalist concepts of human rights and human liberty more relevant to women’s circumstances than the ideas of Western feminism.” 19 The problem with this approach, historian, Paulina Bren points out, is that through her emphasis on traditional feminine qualities as an element of emancipation, “Kantůrková comes close to sanctioning the regime’s program, which asked women to mend the inter-human relations that had gone awry.” 20 It begs the question whether disavowing equality is a form of emancipation or a rejection of it.

Locating the women oppositionists of the former Czechoslovakia in outside scholarship, therefore, requires re-evaluating the view that opposition is only limited to open dissent, and re-framing the conflicting interpretations of emancipation. From the 1950s to the normalization-era, emancipation and feminism in Czechoslovakia, unlike the West, were seen as mutually exclusive things. At present, as debates around feminism continue, and change globally with vastly different approaches, further treatment of the topic of women in opposition will surely yield new findings.

This article is based on, and includes various excerpts from, the author’s Masters dissertation for the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London submitted in September 2015. Information used and derived from other sources is acknowledged in the text and footnotes.


  1. Michael Long, Making History: Czech Voices of Dissent and the Revolution of 1989, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2005, p. xiii. 
  2. Long, Making History, p. 141.
  3. Barbara Falk, ‘Resistance and Dissent in Central and Eastern Europe: An Emerging Historiography,’ East European Politics and Societies, 25, 2011, 2, pp.318-360 (p. 321-322).
  4. Falk, ‘Resistance and Dissent,’ p. 322. Samizdat is the Russian word for ‘self-publish’ and opposition to the regime often took this form. The word is often italicized because it has not been naturalized into other languages.
  5. Jiřina Šiklová, ‘The “Grey Zone” and the Future of Dissent in Czechoslovakia,’ Social Research, 57, 1990, 2, pp. 346-363 (p. 351).
  6. Jonathan Bolton, Worlds of Dissent: Charter 77, The Plastic People of the Universe and Czech Culture under Communism, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2012, p. 42.
  7. Ibid, p. 41-42.
  8. Bolton, Worlds of Dissent, p. 239. Bolton describes a 2002 interview in which Vaculíková recalls discovering with her husband that their entire flat had been under surveillance, and so they ‘avoided talking about important things by writing them on paper and flushing them down the toilet.’
  9. Jiřina Šiklová, ‘Někdy je lepší nevědět. Vzpomínka na spolupráci s Josefem Škvoreckým a Zdenou Salivarovou během normalizace’, Paměť a dějiny, 2012, 1, pp. 99-102 (p. 100).
  10. Alfred Meyer in Sharon L. Wolchik and Alfred Meyer (eds.), Women, State, and Party in Eastern Europe, Durham: Duke University Press, 1985, p. 23.
  11. Tomas Frejka, ‘Fertility Trends and Policies: Czechoslovakia in the 1970s’, Population and Development Review, 6, 1980, 1, pp. 65-93.
  12. Jacqui True, Gender, Globalization, and Postsocialism: The Czech Republic after Communism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, p. 37.
  13. Alena Heitlinger, Women and State Socialism: Sex Inequality in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, London: The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1979, p. 184. See also Paulina Bren, The Greengrocer and his TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2010, p. 175.
  14. True, Gender, Globalization, and Postsocialism, p.37.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Paulina Bren, The Greengrocer and his TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 2010 p.176.
  17. True, Gender, Globalization and Postsocialism, p. 50.
  18. Anna Šabatová in Marta Marková (ed.), Olga Havlová a ty druhé: Ženy ve vnitřní emigraci, Brno: Barrister & Principal, 1997 p. 145.
  19. True, Gender, Globalization and Postsocialism, p. 50.
  20. Bren, The Greengrocer and his TV, p. 173.
Lara Wigdor

Lara Wigdor

is a Canadian based in Prague and recently completed an MA in History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. Her research interests include opposition to human rights violations, gender equality and democratization in Visegrad states.