02/17/2014 11:23 am ET Updated Apr 19, 2014

Engendering Change in the Czech Republic

The Communist governments and the oppositions shared at least one feature in common: they were overwhelmingly male. The leaders of the countries and the members of the Politburos were mostly men. And the dissidents that received all the coverage in the West - Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Victor Orban - were also men. There were exceptions on both sides, of course. Elena Ceausescu in Romania and Mirjana Markovic (the wife of Slobodan Milosevic) in Serbia were powerbrokers in their own right. And a number of women played key roles in the democratic opposition, from Solidarity to the human rights activists in former Yugoslavia.

In Czechoslovakia, most of the signatories of Charter 77 were also men. I talked to several people who told me that their wives would have signed, but they decided that, for the children's sake, both parents shouldn't be at risk of imprisonment.

Jirina Siklova had a career and children. She signed anyway. As a result, she lost her job at the philosophy faculty. Like many Charter 77 signers, she had to take whatever job was available - in her case, as a cleaning woman at a hospital. But she kept working for the opposition, writing and witnessing. She was also part of the network established by Jan Kavan in London to smuggle materials in and out of Eastern Europe. Arrested, she spent a year in prison before international appeals by the leaders of France, Austria, and Britain, among others, led to her release.

After 1989, Siklova embarked on a new phase in her career. In 1991, she helped establish the first gender studies program in the region. Her apartment in Prague became a meeting point for feminists from all over the world. The Network for East-West Women -- and one of its principal activists, Ann Snitow of the New School for Social Research -- provided material assistance to the fledgling program. In an interview with me in her apartment in Prague last February, she recalled the initial gift of books.

"I often repeat this story, about how these women from the West gave me these books and I was not very enthusiastic," Siklova said. "Ann Snitow asked me, 'Why are you not satisfied?' And I said 'My dear, even if I will be ill for a very long time, never could I read all these books!' She asked, 'Then what would you like?' I said, "I need $200 per month. I will give $100 to one student who will organize the library, and with the second $100 we will buy a typewriter, fax machine, and telephone." And she said, "Of course it's possible."

The Gender Studies program quickly outgrew her apartment. And there are now similar programs throughout the region. These programs have done, among other things, oral histories of women in the region, which have revealed the important roles that women played in all the changes that have swept through East-Central Europe.

We talked about her experience of 1968, her efforts to find a third way between capitalism and communism, and the challenges that women face today in the Czech Republic.

The Interview

What do you think are the greatest challenges facing women in the Czech Republic today?

We have women with high education who have relatively low salaries compared to men in a similar position. But it is not a question of official discrimination. It's often connected to the fact that women are not interested in having these positions. There is a tradition here of having children and looking after the household. Also, women are not in leading positions in companies. The issue of quotas for women can be counterproductive. Sometimes our women say, "Yes, but if I'm in the position because of a quota, it reduces my prestige." You know this discussion. It doesn't just take place here.

It's similar in politics. After the changeover, women were very active, and there were plenty of women in politics in the first couple years. But women lost interest in politics. These political parties started, and that's one of the reasons why they left. Also, women are more oriented to the left. And in 1992 started here a right-wing orientation when Civic Forum split into Vaclav Klaus's party and the party of the former dissidents. But in 1992 people elected right-wing-oriented parties. And women left parliament. It's not that somebody said, "You can't be there." But they just didn't have a big interest in it. And the former dissidents, too, lost their positions.

In Eastern Germany, one of the biggest questions right now is the availability of childcare. The availability of childcare makes it possible for women to enter the workforce or remain in the workforce. Is that an issue here?

Yes, of course, it is a problem. If you are in a private company, your maternity leave or parental leave is very complicated. The entrepreneurs are not so interested in supporting you because they think it's a waste of time, and so on. It is a big handicap, and one of the reasons why women are not in better positions. There are very good statistics on this compiled by the Department of Gender Studies.

Have you rethought any of your positions from the 1990s? Have there been any changes in your worldview or your philosophy?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.