Melissa Feinberg. Elusive Equality: Gender, Citizenship, and the Limits of Democracy in Czechoslovakia, 1918-1950. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. 288 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4281-8.
Reviewed by Sarah E. Summers (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill)
Published on H-German (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Citizenship in Theory and Practice
In her seminal text, The Sexual Contract, Carol Pateman warns that "[s]exual difference is political difference; sexual difference is the difference between freedom and subjection" (p. 6). Pateman's analysis rings true in Melissa Feinberg's discussion of Czechoslovakia in the interwar years. Despite a constitution guaranteeing women's rights and equality, women discovered that the general populace held widely different beliefs about how gender should function in a democratic society. Most of the time, enthusiasm for including women in the state ended at home. Tensions between philosophy and action, between individual rights and the good of the nation, and between women and mothers are the central focus of this monograph. Covering topics such as abortion, citizenship, the civil code, and women in the civil service, Feinberg aims to characterize and analyze the new state's democracy through a gendered lens. Her research adds not only to our understanding of the place of women in the state in interwar Czechoslovakia, but also sketches the connections between gendered citizenship and the downfall of its democracy after the Munich Conference.
Feinberg's work diverges from the popular trend toward investigation of social citizenship--a widely used term because it was a kind of citizenship that women actually possessed--and the welfare state. Instead, taking her cue from sociologist Ruth Lister, she investigates citizenship as a site of contradiction and struggle between theory and practice. For Lister and Feinberg, citizenship is both a legal status and practice. As a consequence, Feinberg looks at political ideology, but also governmental practices towards women. Feinberg contextualizes each chapter within the extensive literature on reproductive rights, citizenship, suffrage, and employment in other European historiographies. This practice enhances the work's readability for readers unfamiliar with the history of Czechoslovakia. While Feinberg agrees that the Czechoslovak republic's handling of women's rights was no different than its European contemporaries in the interwar period, she contends that the context of these battles was unique there: a new republic wholly popular with its citizens, a progressive constitution that legally forbade male privilege, and a declaration of independence that seemed to promise women's equality.
Beyond her contextual argumentation, Feinberg draws connections between ambivalence in Czechoslovakia over women's equality and the later fascist and then communist takeovers. She posits that its citizens, "worried about the impact of women's equality on the family, developed a capricious attitude towards rights" (p. 9). Eventually, rights played second fiddle to political, familial, or national needs. Therefore, "once Czech democrats accepted rights as shifting, and citizenship as something that deferred to the nation rather than the law or the constitution, they began to find themselves making ideological common cause with their fascist or authoritarian neighbors" (p. 9). She complicates the traditional view of Czechoslovakia as victim of geopolitical pressures from first the National Socialist regime and then communism by arguing that its citizens' inability to deal with the question of difference "rendered them incapable of creating the kind of political culture that would support those institutions in times of true crisis" (p. 8).
Chapter 1, "Masaryk, Feminism and Democracy in the Czech Lands," focuses on connections between the origins of women's rights as an inherent part of Czech democracy and the Czech women's movement, an important actor in Feinberg's narrative. The link between nationalism and democracy originated with the democratic philosophy of Thomás Masaryk, whose immutable belief in the equality of women connected democracy and nationalism with women's rights and gave the burgeoning Czech women's movement a vocabulary for its mission. When Feinberg mentions "feminists," she means in particular members of the Czech Women's Club, an organization comprised of educated and professional women. It represented Czech women internationally and led the coalition to defend women's political and social interests. Masaryk's philosophy became more important during and after World War I, when he was forced into a position of enormous political influence. Suddenly, women's equality was included in the Washington Declaration and became a "self-evident" component of democracy in the new state. Yet, Feinberg argues that almost irresolvable ambiguities persisted in the Czech constitution; lawmakers partnered article 106, which declared women equal with men, with other statutes that reflected a distinctly gendered concept of rights. The disjunction between the two concepts depended on the definition of family and "since a traditionally gendered model of family relationships was dominant in the Czech lands," the combined effect created legal tensions over how women should be included in the state (pp. 35-36). So, while suffrage and equal political participation for individual women became an inherent aspect of the democracy, the question of whether mothers, as members of a family unit, could be considered individuals remained disputed throughout the interwar period.
Subsequent chapters show how this unresolved tension played out in specific governmental policies towards women and debates about them. Chapter 2, "The Fight over the Czechoslovak Civil Code," analyzes the next hurdle in establishing the republic. In debates over the civil code, friction between feminists who promoted individual equality for women outside and inside the family and those who felt threatened by equality of women in the family came to a head. The 1920 draft of the civil code did little to alter the legal status of the husband as head of the household as stipulated in the previous Habsburg civil code. Most lawmakers felt the only change necessary was removal of the church's hold on marriage, and did not question the family as the foundation of society. This sentiment mobilized the Czech women's movement; Františka Plamíková founded the Women's National Council (WNC) to act as a center for women's political action. Feinberg calls the WNC "both weak and strong" in its advocacy (p. 66). It could easily secure meetings with important officials, but was always left at their mercy for concrete action. In the end, the family portion of the civil code was left out and not resolved until after 1945. But Feinberg posits the damage had been done; the "troubling dichotomy" of two different views of the purpose of the civil code "set the cause of democracy against the idea of the family and impli[ed] that one existed to the detriment of the other" (p. 71).
Feinberg includes debates over the issue of married women's national citizenship in chapter 3 in order to discuss the "complicated interplay of imperatives motivating Czech politics" (p. 97). The problem of women's citizenship was international in scope, however, and the WNC began agitation after appeals from stateless women fell on their doorstep. In 1930, they attempted to sway politicians at the League of Nations to make citizenship laws more sympathetic to women. During subsequent activism on the home front, WNC activists laid aside their normal democratic arguments in favor of reminders that a new citizenship law would put Czechoslovakia at the forefront of international politics. In this case, WNC activism resulted in proposal and support for a bill to give married women more rights in separating a wife's citizenship from her husband's (the vote never occurred because of the Munich Conference). But it was a pyrrhic victory; the law did not guarantee a woman's personal autonomy. Given the precarious position of the nation in 1937, lawmakers were more concerned with keeping as many people as possible in their national community.
Feinberg's next chapter deals with the always complicated issue of employed married women by focusing on the civil service and "the feminist struggle to assert and protect women's equal right to work during the interwar period" (p. 101). She sees the civil service as representative of politicians' practices and beliefs about work, salary, and women's rights. She argues that the ideal of the male breadwinner influenced beliefs about gender and work, even though the experiences of most Czechs diverged from that conception. Here, Feinberg contends that the case of female civil servants "illustrates how political concern began to lead Czech lawmakers away from the legal guidelines of their constitution. When government ministers placed restrictions on female civil servants, they clouded the state's duty to protect individual rights" (p. 102). Faced with the economic crisis of the late 1920s and 30s, the government faced heavy pressure to lay off married women. The media barrage declared them thieves of jobs that husbands needed to support their families. The WNC worked hard to ensure that austerity measures affected men and women equally, but "the government coalition had apparently decided that married women working in the civil service were too great a public liability to defend" (p. 122). In other words, lawmakers chose popular support over measures that would actually have an effect on unemployment and the budget, again reverting to gendered norms of behavior over constitutionality.
Chapter 5 deals with the time period between the end of World War I and the Munich Conference. Here, Feinberg discusses abortion politics, where dividing lines were present in class and religious convictions. In this case, only a few participants employed the commonly used language of rights. Even so, "the debate over abortion formed a vital part of the larger discussion over the legal limits of individual freedom and the proper relationship between the family and the state" (pp. 130-131). Religious and political divisions rendered the WNC almost powerless. While the WNC had strong ties to the Left (which supported legal abortion), other religious and political groups among WNC members complicated any action on the issue. Justice Minister Alfréd Meissner, a Social Democrat, drafted a progressive law on abortion that made allowances for abortion in cases of medical necessity; it was supported by many factions apart from Catholic ones. But political attacks against the church, other political parties, and the middle class by female Social Democrats undermined attempts to unite diverse factions of women. Feinberg concludes that debates over abortion demonstrate, as usual, prioritization of the interest of the family and the state over those of individual. In this case, this characteristic was particularly strong across the political spectrum, showing a continuum of instances where rights were sacrificed in the name of the common good and stability.
The consequences of the mutability of democratic ideals argued so strongly by Feinberg in her first five chapters play out in the last two, which treat the post-Munich and post-World War II eras in Czechoslovakia. She argues that the legal repercussions of twenty years of contradiction between constitutional citizenship and the practice of placing the nation above the individual played out in the Second Republic. While limits to female citizenship certainly did not reach the level of those in Nazi Germany, Feinberg posits "a certain ideological connection between the Czechs and Germans, particularly those on the political right," a connection even more pronounced after Munich (p. 160). The Second Republic, an "authoritarian democracy," emphasized nation over individual in the face of the annexation of the Sudetenland and international and domestic instability. The WNC tried to prevent the summary firing of all "double earners," but Feinberg describes this effort as "clinging to a set of values that had fallen from public favor" (p. 167). Post-Munich, "difference oriented" members of the WNC took over and supported the regime's propagation of the traditional family structure. They challenged the regime on certain levels, including increasing the status of women's work. After the Germans invaded, the protectorate ended female suffrage and political participation altogether. The only possibility left to the WNC was to work with the regime to ensure its place in the new government. It did, however, seek to provide an ideological center for opponents of the regime's gender practices. It educated its members on the history of the Czech women's movement and engaged otherwise in consciousness-raising. Some members also became involved in the resistance.
Chapter 7, on the People's Democracy, concludes the monograph's narrative. Milada Horáková reconfigured the WNC into the Council of Czechoslovak Women (CCW) and tried to implement a program based on the goals and methods of the interwar feminist movement. The postwar political landscape seemed rife with opportunity for women's activists, since every party openly promoted women's rights. Yet, the strong partisanship that developed after the war trickled down to the women's movement as well, rendering unified activism unattainable. The CCW could not remain outside of the 1948 takeover. CCW members kicked Horáková out on the grounds of her democratic beliefs; she did not want the CCW to join action committees being set up by the government. Feinberg frames her subsequent arrest, show trial, and execution as the death of possibility of feminist liberation via democracy in Czechoslovakia.
Feinberg should be praised for attempting to bring the historical study of citizenship and gender beyond "social citizenship" and the welfare state. The utilization of social citizenship has proven fruitful in identifying spaces where women maintained a connection to politics and the state even when they did not or legally could not through traditional means. Nonetheless, I hope that Feinberg's method of delving deeper into political culture is a tell-tale sign that historical inquiry into citizenship is becoming more popular. First, we may find, as in Feinberg's case, that conceptions of democracy, citizenship, and women's rights propagated by politicians were publicly contested and debated by many, not just feminists and women's activists. Second, we may see more clearly--in contrast to the claims of Pateman--that democratic political cultures did not inherently exclude women, but resulted from a long process of debate and contestation that involved many different factors beyond cultural constructions of gender.
Feinberg's argument about potential connections between Czechoslovakia's inability to deal with difference and the slippery slope to authoritarianism is interesting when discussed in light of various other explanations for the downfall of democracy in central Europe in the interwar period. But the connection, in my opinion, is also weakened by her lack of methodological engagement with the conceptions and standards of democracy that impact her analysis. Does adherence to rights constitutionally and in practice necessarily protect a democracy? At the very least, she raises an interesting question. Despite this reservation, however, Feinberg's work is a stellar first monograph: well argued, organized, and teeming with questions for the future.
. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1988).
. See, for example, Gisela Bock and Pat Thane, eds., Maternity and Gender Policies: Women and the Rise of the European Welfare States, 1880s-1950s (New York: Routledge, 1991); Seth Koven and Sonya Michel, eds., Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States (New York: Routledge, 1993).
. Ruth Lister, Citizenship: Feminist Perspectives (New York: New York University Press, 1997).
. Kathleen Canning's writings on citizenship suggest this conclusion; Kathleen Canning "Of Meaning and Methods: The Concepts of Class and Citizenship in German History," in Gender History in Practice: Historical Perspectives on Bodies, Class and Citizenship (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006), 193-211.
, a widely used term because it was a kind of citizenship that women actually possessed
in the Czechoslovak republic
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Sarah E. Summers. Review of Feinberg, Melissa, Elusive Equality: Gender, Citizenship, and the Limits of Democracy in Czechoslovakia, 1918-1950.
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