Is Feminism Dada?

In the 1980s, two nice young Italian women came to Prague. They brought with them a women’s proclamation, which demanded many good things: respect for human rights, disarmament and so on. They collected signatures from women on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In Prague, however, they came up against unexpected resistance. 

Almost all the dissidents in Prague refused to sign the proclamation even without having discussed it between themselves. This was not out of fear of repression, but of ridicule, as Václav Havel recollected. The ridicule would have involved participating in an international women’s campaign.

What is ridiculous about women making joint proclamations? Well, according to the future Czech President, the dissidents were afraid that the women would end up looking ridiculous because of the seriousness with which they “would like to increase the importance of their civic opinion by invoking their vulnerability and femininity”. But again, the question can be repeated: what is ridiculous about that? And who would actually mock the signatories of the female proclamation?

Would it be the Communists, to whom they had already proved their courage more than once by signing proclamations that did not require invoking “vulnerability and femininity”? Would it be those citizens who did not know about the majority of the proclamations signed by the dissidents at all or were indifferent to them? Whose opinion really counted for the brave female dissidents – of the women harassed by the regime, thrown out of work, blackmailed with the future of their children, and often even beaten by unknown perpetrators? Whose opinion was important for the women living, as Havel once put it, in a dissident ghetto?

The author does not answer this question. The subject of the essay “The Anatomy of a Reticence of One Side” (1985), from which the event comes, is not feminism, nor is it the attitude of male dissidents to female dissidents. The question of gender appears in it quite marginally, as an illustration of the “tradition of this Central European atmosphere” characterized by a heightened sense of irony and self-irony, which makes Central Europe, or at any rate “our community – although women are doing comparatively worse here than in the West – a place where feminism is simply considered to be >>Dada<<” (Havel). ‘Dada’ is something which is funny the more it tries to be taken seriously“.

We learn nothing about feminism from the fact that Czech dissidents thought it ‘Dada’ thirty-five years ago. But we do learn quite a lot about the sources of the views on gender and gender equality represented by today’s national-conservative politicians from Central Europe, who are often former dissidents and identify with the dissident tradition. If feminism seemed ‘Dada’ to Havel, then what about Kaczyński and Orbán? The sources of anti-feminist policy in the countries of Central Europe are also dissident and not only religious.

“We should add for the record,” wrote Václav Havel in the same essay, that five Czech female dissidents finally signed the proclamation with which “two nice young Italian women came to Prague”. He did not explain whether they were nice and young, but they were certainly not ‘Dada’.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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