January 2017 marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of Charter 77, a proclamation calling on the Czechoslovak government to comply with international human rights commitments it has signed up to in the Helsinki Final Act. On the occasion of this anniversary, our team at the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences launched a small project to examine the role and activities of women in dissent.
By doing this, we wanted to highlight that women were an integral part of the dissident movement and played an important role in its activities. We also wanted to explore in what ways the persecution they faced from the Communist regime was gendered, and what gendered ways they employed against the regime.
The book of 20 interviews will portray the experience of women who stood up to the regime through their narratives and memories. History is often the story of political events where men play the main part. Looking back, women are often invisible – either because not much attention is paid to the everyday events and the private sphere and secondly because even if women play a huge role in historical events, they often disappear from history. With the book House revolt: How Women Did Dissent, which will be launched on 17 November, day commemorating the change of the regime in Czechoslovakia, we want to partially repay a debt to generations of brave and courageous women who needed to live in line with their conscience and stand up to the normalization regime.
Gendered violence and gendered forms of subversion
With one third among signatories, women formed a solid part of Charter 77. There were also eleven women (and twenty three men) among Charter 77 speakers, the most visible and exposed position in the movement. The speakers were the target of concentrated attention from the Secret Police and in some cases subjected to violence. One of those who were brutally attacked was Charter 77 speaker Zdena Tominova. Today it is hard to imagine the constant stress and pressure these women and men faced: summons, interrogations, detention for 24 or 48 hours, wiretapping and bugged apartments, surveillance, presence of the police behind apartment doors, custody and imprisonment.
Although women were subjected to physical beatings less than men, the Secret Police had other ways. Some of the interviewed women reflected on being subjected to constant male gaze during interrogations and surveillance when women were followed by male agents and were aware of them looking at their behind and legs. “It was hard to bear, the constant masculine presence. During the interrogations it’s worse for you as a woman. You sit and keep your knees together,” says Zdena Tominova. Intimate forms of violence were perpetrated by paediatricians and social workers too. Jarmila Johnova was forced to breastfeed her baby in front of the child’s doctor who allegedly wanted to check whether she does it right. Women dissidents were often under the threat of their children being taken away by the social services. Women’s bodies, intimacy and sexuality were used by the Secret Police as a specific form of violence directed at women.
On the other hand, women made use of everyday situations to fluster the police and agents. Eva Kriseova did her shopping on the way to an interrogation and disarmed her interrogators by saying that she had children, was busy and had to do shopping on the way to manage everything. Prams and wraps were used to smuggle and transport illegal materials, identical shopping bags to swap documents. The role of caring mothers helped to make these women to some extent invisible to the police.
Chained in the home: four shifts instead of the common two
A large part of Charter 77 activities took place in apartments and this was one of the main reasons that women could be so active in the movement. The sharp divide between the private and public sphere was erased. Flats hosted meetings of the speakers, home seminars and discussions, it was there that petitions and other documents were signed and distributed, visitors and foreign journalists were received, and where secret samizdat documents and smuggled materials from abroad were hidden.
All these activities were either literally or figuratively taking place in the kitchen and so women were able to participate and contribute even when they had small children. “Women were chained to flats”, says the current Ombudswoman Anna Šabatová, and these could function as hotels, editorial offices and hiding places, in the words of sociologist Jiřina Šiklová.
“The entire Charter 77 depended on flats and that women maintained a normal course of events,” adds mathematician Kamila Bendová, whose flat was one of the most prominent ‘open flats’ in Prague.
These women managed an unbelievable volume of work: instead of the normal two shifts that women had, women in dissent had to manage four. Women’s labour force participation was high since the 1950s and they bore the brunt of most house chores and childcare in the home. On top of this, women dissidents also had to add the third shift of all the work done within the dissident movement and a fourth of managing the time demands of the secret police. Marie Rút Křížková was summoned to an interrogation approximately 260 times, and as she said, this equals one year in prison.