Feminism is not a bad word

19. 12. 2022

What did women write about in their diaries in the 19th century? Why do people have such a negative view of feminism? Milena Lenderová, historian at the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, deals with women's history and gender issues. "Even today, the view persists that women's domain is the home," she says.


You study the 19th century. How did women live then? 

The whole 19th century is quite a long period. At its beginning, the situation for women was incomparable to that at the end of the century. Over the period of a hundred years, women came a long way. From the beginning of the century, when women's right to any education and the need for women's education was still questioned, to girls' grammar schools and women studying at universities.

What encouraged this progress?

The paradox is that women's emancipation is always pushed by a problem. It might be a crisis or a war conflict. In this case, it was the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, which turned into a human and demographic tragedy. Suddenly, there were many women:⁠ widows who should have been supporting their families but could do nothing, and there also were a lot of girls searching for a groom in vain. After the early 1860s, when there were only higher schools for girls, courses of the Women's Production Association appeared, aimed at improving women's qualifications. In 1870, the Teacher's Institute opened as the first girls' secondary school with a graduation exam. 

You have studied in detail the diaries of young women and girls. What was interesting about them? 

It was a kind of self-stylisation. We think the diaries are heartfelt. The manuscripts show clearly that the author was always writing for someone to read her text at some point. Since I was interested in the history of sexuality, I searched the diaries for information on this subject. But it was almost non-existent. And when we were dealing with the history of obstetrics, it was similar. For example, Eva Vrchlická wrote in her diary only: "This morning, I got a baby girl."

So, what did the women record? 

Women's diaries view the reality from below. You get to know what they did, what they wore, what friends they had and other everyday things. 

Was it common back then to keep a diary?

In an educated environment, even the children from about 12 had to keep a diary. When they reached their confessional age, they got a notebook and began to write under the watchful eye of their parents or governess. Girls were more persistent, but their memories usually ended with the birth of their first child. That's why we found more girlish concerns in them. Only in exceptional cases was a girl interested in politics and even wrote about it, so the diaries certainly do not serve as a source for reflecting on political events in the Czech lands. 

Why did the children have to keep diaries?

Writing them led to responsibility and self-reflection. Recently, the third volume of the diary of Marie Červinková-Riegrová, granddaughter of František Palacký, was published. She kept it since she was eleven. Only parts of the diary from her adulthood, when she was a kind of a secretary to her father, František Ladislav Rieger – the founder of Czech politics – have been published. But we also have manuscripts from her early years, which are endearing in that every evening she asks whether she was good and behaved as expected that day. We find things like that she got into a bit of a fight with her brother or wasn't good and thought of bad things. These children were encouraged to think every day about what they had done and whether it had been in line with the norm in educated and wealthy circles. But over time, the supervision by parents faded a bit, so we can see even more exciting things that go beyond norm in the diaries. Even though children were more disciplined in the 19th century, their memoirs contain notes like "we had a smoke with my friend today", "we had a beer" or "we scribbled on the desks". 

What was a woman to a man then?

Instead, let's look at what a man was to a woman. He meant economic security for her. Back then, women had almost zero access to the labour market. Some were workers but would leave their work once they got married. After they had children, they became maids, laundresses, and the like. Until the last quarter of the 19th century, qualified women's professions were non-existent, perhaps save for a private tutor or governess. Girls were raised to be good wives and their duty was to provide for the family. They made sure that the family members lived in a clean house, ate well, the place was warm, and the children were well-behaved. That was mainly the mother's business, whereas the father was just a sort of an arm of the law. At this time, marriage was more important for a woman than for a man.

So, was the marriage not based on love?

It depends very much on the social environment. Sovereign marriages were a matter of politics, with the main concerns being some political advantage, alliance, and the like. In nobility, it was more about the property, and the effort was to consolidate or expand land. Things got interesting in the wealthier middle classes. A man with a law degree could have looked for a reasonably well-off bride whose dowry he could use to open a solicitor's office. On the other hand, a doctor could use the dowry to open a practice. The economic aspect was powerful. But during the 19th century, mutual affection, feelings and love began gaining ground.

What did women do in their spare time?

They didn't have much leisure time. It was said that idleness led to vice, so women were always supposed to be helpful. Although the family usually had a maid, the woman was expected to spend her free time doing something worthwhile, such as charity work. The wife of the aforementioned F.L. Rieger was constantly knitting stockings for poor children, organised kindergartens and nurseries, or cared for poor women and infants. Leisure time didn't appear in the women's world until later; women were to spend it reading or writing diaries.

A woman was said to be a daughter, sister, mother, companion and a mere appendage of the human race. What does it mean?

A woman had no legal personality and was always under a man's responsibility. First, it was her father, then her husband when she got married. This position was laid down in the Austrian Civil Code of 1811. A woman had no right to decide on the children she bore, not even the property she brought into the family. She did not have the right to vote until the beginning of the First Republic. In our environment, there's the ending -ová stipulating possessiveness, i.e. that you always belong to someone. That's why I kept my name. I didn't mind being my father's daughter, but I wouldn't want to be my husband's property anymore. 

So, do you mind if women don't add that ending to their names?

I don't. However, it's a bit disturbing in the Czech environment. Instead, I mind the gender inflexion of foreign women's surnames. It seems to me like a violation of the bearer's autonomy. What does she care about the specifics of the Czech language? It annoys me when someone says Madeleine Albrightová. That wasn't her name. 

We live in a country that was one of the first to enact gender equality. How are we doing today?

I think that we still don't have enough women in politics. This is not to say that I'm a quota advocate. In politics, it should be skills, knowledge and insight that make the difference. But if we look at current male politicians, we find this is not the case. And I don't know if quotas would help here. Since November 1989, there have been pitifully few prominent female Czech politicians who have left something behind that would spring to mind when their name is mentioned. But that is because there is still a lingering belief that a woman's world is the household. Yet, in Scandinavian countries, women in politics such as prime ministers and presidents, work well.


Equality between men and women is also one of the priorities of the Czech Presidency of the EU Council. Is it right that this topic is still being raised?

It is good that it's being talked about. But it has been in the Constitution that there are no advantages of gender or sex since 1920. Even in the First Republic, this did not work very well in practice, even though the president T.G. Masaryk was a great feminist, who had already been working on theoretical issues of feminism in the last decades of the 19th century. There is still no question of complete equality. We have the legacy of communism that we are all equal, but we are not. Back then, a woman was equal to a man in that she could work eight hours and then go on an eight-hour housework spree. The idea that the household is the woman's domain persists. Moreover, it also appears in politics, for example, in some politicians' statements. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that the current government is taking this issue seriously enough. 


Is the word ‘feminism’ understood correctly in the Czech environment anymore? 

No, it is still more of a swear word. When I published my first book, K hříchu i k modlitbě (On Sin and Prayer), which was about women in the 19th century, three renowned historians told me how nice it was and that it showed that I was not a feminist. But I am a feminist. The word still has a pejorative air in this country. The basic idea, which has been developing since the French Revolution, is that men and women are equal. That's nothing against anyone. Feminists don't want to eradicate men. They may like to drive them away from the sofas and the television, thus reminding them that looking after the family and the home is their business too. Still, they have no dystopian ideas about the domination of women. People are still unclear because they listen to simple information.


The mayor of Brno said she is not a feminist because she likes it when a man holds the door for her, pays for her coffee and helps her into her coat. Is that the right view of feminism?

It's completely unrelated. These situations are a matter of etiquette, not feminism. It's not just Czechs who have a problem with feminism, and an even bigger problem with etiquette, because they often don't know how to behave. Masaryk said: "Men and women are fully equal; only the physical difference can be recognised." Biological sex still plays a role, as women are physically weaker. Opening and holding doors have their roots in the days when doors were heavy. Our faculty today has a heavy security door that I sometimes struggle with. Giving someone priority is also a safety issue. We let an older adult and woman in first so that they would not get bruised in the doorway. Etiquette has rational roots. But the Czechs don't know it despite the excellent Mr. Špaček. They don't understand feminism or etiquette and put such nonsense into the world.  


What are the goals of feminism then?

Equality of both sexes. And not only equality in legislation but also equality that is respected. It's a matter of education, reading, media and television. With my grandchildren, I sometimes watch ČT Déčko, and I would say that they are starting to do well there because girls are coming to the fore. It's not always the boy who is the smart, energetic and resourceful child. That's the way life is. If people respect this, gender equality will work. Otherwise, more decrees, regulations, and the like will not help. We've had equality of the sexes in our Constitution for over a hundred years.

Let's take another look at sexual harassment. One politician said it's a natural thing our ancestors did, and if they hadn't behaved that way, we wouldn't even be here…

It used to be natural to blow one's nose in the lordly way, which means on the ground. It was common not to wash too much, to eat with our hands and fatalistically accept the deaths of our children. Sexual harassment might have been a natural thing in the past, but our society has become somewhat more cultured. We wash, blow into a handkerchief, and shouldn't be sexually harassed. But it's a question of what sexual harassment is. Something is wrong if someone thinks that it is considered sexual harassment to open the door for a woman. Opening the door is not the same as a slap on the bottom. But an intelligent person, I think, understands that. 

What would you wish for women? 

I think every man with a sense of justice wishes for an end to the war. And that Russian war criminals are brought before the International Court of Human Rights. And I wish that not only for women, but for everyone.

prof. PhDr. Milena Lenderová, CSc. (1947)

  • She completed her studies in History and French at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University, where she also received her PhDr. and CSc. degrees.
  • She habilitated and became a professor at the University of South Bohemia.
  • She was the first to research the history of women and childhood from the perspective of historical anthropology in the Czech Republic.
  • She was the first dean of the Faculty of Humanities (later the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy).
  • She is the author or co-author of 25 publications and about 200 scientific studies.
  • In 2016, she won the Magnesia Litera Award for the publication Vše pro dítě! Válečné dětství 1914-1918 (All for the Child! War Childhood 1914-1918).
  • In her spare time, she devotes herself to her grandchildren and animals.