Period Context of the Exhibition

Social Situation at the Time of the Culmination of the Women’s Movement around 1900

There was always some presence of feminist thought in the Czech society. But the heroes of both everyday life and extraordinary events to whom this exhibition is dedicated lived in a concrete time period when feminist thought was on the rise, when it influenced a number of important events that made a big difference in the lives of women and society as a whole.

Those fighting for women’s suffrage, right to study and work, decent wage, and social security lived their lives in concrete places. We put those places in the focus of this exhibition. They show us an often-ignored imprint of history. By using concrete places to recall the different historic events, we demonstrate the heritage of a number of women to whom social inequality was of central concern. They had the resolve to speak out even if their actions and decisions often came with negative personal consequences. In spite of those, they decided to build a girls’ gymnasium, establish a women’s production society, erect a women’s community centre, and educate both one another and the society as a whole. Their actions made a difference by allowing women to live more dignified and equal lives. This is why we in the 21st century can now show on a map that Prague was, is, and will be a FEMINIST CITY.

All the women you will get to know at the exhibition had a lot in common with the women of our time. They had similar desires, wishes, and concerns. Yet given the special relevance of certain historic circumstances, we chose to frame the content of this exhibition into several thematic areas.

Czech–German coexistence in the 19th century

From the Middle Ages, the Czech lands were inhabited by a mix of Czech and German speakers. The relations between them became more tense after the revolutionary year of 1848. Prague got divided between a Czech part and a German part, with little communication between them. For example, in 1882, the Charles–Ferdinand University was transformed into two completely independent universities of the same name, each with its own language of instruction. The National Theatre was constructed for the Czech population and the German Theatre (nowadays State Opera) for the German population etc. While the German population fell behind in terms of women’s emancipation, Czechs viewed women’s rights as somewhat inherent to the national question. Women’s emancipation efforts were perceived more positively as they went hand-in-hand with patriotic values: better education for Czech women was to increase the chances for Czech children to obtain appropriate literary, historic, geographic education and to be raised in patriotism.

Urban vs. rural areas

There were traditionally immense differences in social relations between the city and the countryside. Women in the villages joined men in hard agricultural work; unmarried cohabitation of (mostly poor) couples was normal; and there were single (poor) mothers in every village. Earning a living and providing for one’s loved ones was people’s primary concern in life. The industrialization of the 19thcentury further increased the gap between urban and rural areas. Men left the villages to work in industrial centres, including emerging ones like Ostrava or Kladno, and girls sought jobs as servants. Only farmer dynasties remained in the countryside, with their members getting married to one another. Girls from these families were increasingly likely to obtain education at city schools before coming back home to marry grooms from similarly positioned families; workforce shortages started affecting the countryside. In contrast, urban areas saw a rise of both national and women’s emancipation efforts. The educated social strata were found in the cities where, thanks to their better standard of living, they could devote their time and energy to these ideals.

Size of Prague at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries

Prague was the Hapsburg monarchy’s third largest city, after Vienna and Budapest. By today’s standards, it would have been a rather provincial town, despite a fast industry-driven growth in the suburbs. The urban population was around 150,000 people in the mid-1800s and exceeded 200,000 after 1900. The patriotic circles (including a part concerned with women’s emancipation) were relatively limited, only several hundred people, who knew and regularly visited one another and worked together in Czech associations and institutions. Marriage customs played an important role in the time’s social networks.

Civil society

Following the legalization of the freedom of association in the 1860s, civil society efforts in various areas become the middle-class activity number one. New associations were established by students, occupational groups, artists, later also by women’s clubs or advocacy groups. Some associations started pursuing political agendas towards the end of the century. They often launched petitions to assert various demands, including e.g. women’s right to education. It was also thanks to a petition that the leader of these efforts, Women’s Educational Association Minerva, pushed through the establishment of the first girls’ gymnasium in 1890. Its most vocal supporter among political parties was the Social Democracy, where women also soon came to occupy visible political offices.

Social inequalities

In the context of the national revival and the absence of a Czech nation-state, the civil society that arose in the Czech lands around the mid-1800s was formed in opposition to the Hapsburg monarchy. Liberalization of Austrian politics gave a strong impetus to civic associations and activated the society in general. Still, social inequalities and class membership played an important role. The working class and farmers were still quite unlikely to penetrate the middle class; class remained a determinant of everyday life. The issue of women’s emancipation was raised by the middle class (bourgeoisie), which was growing both economically and in numbers at the time. While the prevalent customs dictated giving daughters a sizeable dowry, these families were unable to accumulate such assets. This made it necessary to allow women some level of independence, to give them the opportunity to learn a skill for making a living. Until then, women could only work as teachers or governesses.

Beginnings of the women’s movement

The national revival saw women primarily in the role of governesses of the future patriotic generation. For that reason, women were to be educated in history, geography, and literature, be mathematically literate, and pursue arts and needlework. It was only later, during the second half of the 19th century, that a college-educated woman became the ideal – one that would work side-by-side with men in difficult professions, especially medicine, and advocate for political goals. A higher stage of women’s emancipation was reached after the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic, when women came to occupy top offices, including seats in both chambers of the country’s parliament.

However, the path to active suffrage, abolishing female teachers’ celibacy, or expanding women’s equality was not at all easy. It was trodden by many concrete women who had the resolve to do things differently, refused to accept social inequalities, and fought for a better world. Our exhibition recalls the efforts of these women in the feminist history of Prague.