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Czechoslovak Life: The Desire for Marital Bliss at Home and Peace Abroad
by Sarah Van Hoose
In a Radio Prague section of the November 1965 issue of Czechoslovak Life, titled “What interests us about what interests our listeners about Czechoslovakia,” Mr. John Sills of Leicester writes, “After the war, freedom alone was not good enough, so they rebuilt their industries, their homes and their schools and rejoined the fight. Not the fight of destruction, but the fight for knowledge and advancement.” Pictures of robust, grinning workers, gleaming new technologies paired with impressive production figures, and the wind-swept peaks of the Tatra Mountains tumble forth from additional pages of the magazine. Socialist Czechoslovakia looks like a workers’ paradise. Even with the specter of the Cold War looming in the background, this period of Czechoslovak Life is a snapshot of hope. Today’s reader knows that this hope was qualified by the tumultuous year of 1968, with the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. My focus, however, is Czechoslovak Life’s 1965 to 1966 investigations of marriage and what this meant for the new, liberated woman. The mesmerizing appeal of Czechoslovak Life provided a platform to call for a solution to an issue common to both western democracies and the Eastern Bloc alike— the “women’s question.” The female struggle to manage expectations as both workers and mothers, as well as how to make these identities co-exist, reflects Czechoslovakia’s uncertain place as a Soviet satellite in the greater global context. The magazine’s optimism in this period for Czechoslovakia’s youth, the institution of marriage in building a brighter future, and equality of women within that sphere reflects its optimism for Czechoslovakia as the picturesque worker ideal carefully curated in its own pages.
The responses of Czech and Slovak males and females, aged 15 to 30, toward marriage were compiled by the youth newspaper, Mláda fronta, analyzed by sociologists, and then published in a three-part series spanning from September 1965 to May 1966 in Czechoslovak Life. Questions deal with topics such as which qualities an ideal partner should have, when one should get married, and whether fidelity is achievable. The majority responses are as follows: Female respondents wanted their partner to be intelligent, sincere, and a non-drinker; the latter a troubling indicator that alcohol disrupted marital bliss in the preceding generation. Male respondents wanted their partner to be intelligent, sincere, and faithful. The December 1965 issue indicates that females wanted to be married between 20 and 24, with their male counterparts preferring slightly later marriages for themselves, between 23 and 25. Both genders agreed that a couple should save for their own housing before marriage as well as on the number of children they should have—two.
The May 1966 issue indicates that the genders were in agreement that getting married with the thought of divorce as an optional back-up plan is wrong—although a couple should divorce if they find they are fundamentally incompatible—and that a happy marriage is founded in both material security and mutual understanding. Such preferences would have echoed popular western sentiment, with one notable exception being the liberated worker-mother. Czechoslovak Life concludes, “Today, the economically emancipated woman sees no reason why adaptation should not be two-way… today, young people are convinced that their plans will materialize; if they lack something today, they will have it tomorrow.” For many women, this tomorrow remained unrealized.
In the same May 1966 issue as the result of the fidelity study, an article titled “Emancipation, myth or reality?” adds a dose of realism to this picture: Though Czechoslovakia was rightfully proud that its women had equal rights to vote and work, they were caught between traditional expectations of motherhood and the demands of the modern worker, and they were suffering as a result. According to this article, 44.6% of workers in Czechoslovakia were women, at this time comprising up to 52% of the agricultural labor force. In addition to an average work day of 14 hours, women still attended to their children, getting less sleep (about six hours) and less leisure time than their male partners. The consequences were increasingly common instances of high blood pressure, fertility issues, and neuroses. Discontented women instigated over half of divorces in Czechoslovakia, and only a paltry 2% believed motherhood was their main familial duty, with most considering their financial contribution to the family unit to be most important. Instead of blaming women or the system which depended on female workers, as was unfortunately still common in the west, the magazine cries out instead in defense of these weary mothers. It calls for conscious cooperation from men—from husbands helping with domestic chores to holding advertising agencies accountable manipulating women, still considered keepers of the household, into guilt-driven purchases. It concludes, again, on a hopeful note: “Under socialism, essential harmony exists between the needs of women and the family and the needs of society, and this itself is a guarantee that solutions will eventually be found to the economic, sociological, and psychological aspects of the ‘women’s question.’” In frankly addressing the plight of these mothers, the magazine asks its western readers to reflect on the status of women in their own countries.
Czechoslovak Life showed an appealing, friendly, and familiar face in its pages, humanizing a socialist country which otherwise may have seemed alien by showing that, fundamentally, the world was changing. The youth were speaking for themselves, and they wanted equality in work and in marriage. Perhaps it even made readers reconsider their own opinions about the compatibility of democracy and socialism, like reader Mr. Patrick Green of Totnes, Devon, sharing this sentiment in the Radio Prague piece of November 1965, “I believe that the only way of ensuring world peace is by contact between ordinary people.” By acknowledging ongoing difficulties with the “women’s question” even in “so advanced a society as socialist Czechoslovakia” and confronting it as a serious issue, Czechoslovak Life stood in solidarity with women around the world.