Democracy and its limits: Gender and rights in the Czech lands, 1918-1938

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Abstract

In 1918, Czech feminists, buoyed by their intense faith in the democratic nature of the Czech nation, had assumed that creating a democracy in the Czech lands would be enough to bring women the rights they felt all individuals deserved. However, as their failed attempt to legalize women's civil equality made clear, few Czechs shared their egalitarian definition of democracy or their conception of citizenship. As they struggled to align their beliefs about democracy and gender difference, most Czechs eventually came to the conclusion that even a democratic nation could not afford to get rid of such differences; in fact, the good of the nation depended on maintaining the social distinctions between the sexes. The words of the Constitution notwithstanding, citizenship would not become a genderless category, and the legal rights granted to women and men would continue to be different, based on their different social roles. Although each sex had a right to freedom, that too was a gendered right rather than a universal one: it could never be allowed to contradict the dictates of the "natural" gender system. Women's rights would be based on the idea of womanhood rather than personhood, on what was best for their place as wife and mother. For many Czech women, a version of citizenship that allowed them to be politically active while protecting their roles as wives and mothers seemed like the best of all worlds. However, as the double earners discovered after being summarily fired in 1938, gender difference was a shaky ground on which to build a case for citizenship rights. As the definition of what was socially appropriate for women changed, so did their rights. Without recourse to a universal standard of citizenship, Czech women would find that they had no rights that could not be successfully challenged under the guise of protecting either family or femininity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)553-570
Number of pages18
JournalNationalities Papers
Volume30
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 2002
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • History
  • Political Science and International Relations

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