The Congress of Women: The Women of Bohemia

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

The Women of Bohemia

Mrs. Josefa Humpal Zeman is a native of Bohemia. She was born January 9,1870. Her father was a prominent Bohemian leader and speaker, who came to this country in 1873. She was educated in the public schools of Chicago, and later spent two years in studying at the High School of Pisek, Bohemia, where her parents returned, and since 1890 has been studying at the Woman's College, Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio. She has traveled extensively in Austria, Germany, England and America. She married a Bohemian editor, Robert Zeman, in 1887. Her special work has been in the interest of the women of her own nationality, philanthropic and educational. All her literary works have been published in the various Bohemian journals. She is a Christian and a member of the Presbyterian Church. She is a regular contributor to all the leading Bohemian journals. As a lecturer she is intelligent, sparkling and attractive and the only Bohemian woman speaker in America. Her postoffice address is No. 513 Arcade, Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio.

You have heard how in the beautiful forests of Bohemia there blossom millions of sweet scented violets, modestly hiding their drooping heads beneath the velvet moss; they live their short life quietly, yet steadily, performing the duty assigned to them by their Creator; they live and breathe the sweet breath that fills the air, invigorating the wearied passer-by with new strength for his daily toil; intoxicating the nightingales, who, bursting in songs of joy, soothe and inspire souls, who, like Keats, need new vigor to enliven their fainting hearts. And like these violets that blossom in the bosom of our forests, so the women of Bohemia live quietly, hidden within the sacred walls of their homes, unostentatiously performing their duties, and yet their influence has filled the air with the sweet scent of encouragement, and inspired our men to deeds of heroism. Our women always have lived closer to the men than the women of the western nations. They have been their true helpmates in home and national life, and not unfrequently have their words, their faith, their example, poured fresh vigor into the fainting hearts of the worn-out warriors. As far back as legend and history can reach we find our women participating in national welfare. The third ruler of the Czechs was a woman, Libuse, and it is said that under her rule the nation prospered, and today she lives as an embodiment of all that is desirable in a good king; as noble, just, kind and wise queen! Later, Drahomira was another brave queen, and among the first Christian women. St. Ludmila is a good illustration of the interest that women have shown in public life as far back as the eighth and tenth centuries, A. D.

In the times of the great tribulations that came to Bohemia during the Hussite wars, when whole armies of Catholic soldiers swept into the quiet regions of Bohemia, tearing away from the hearts of the people that which was most sacred to them-their religion and their mother tongue-it was then that our women showed their heroic nature, sending their husbands away to war, and they themselves marching with them. They carried stores, nursed the wounded, and frequently stepped into the place of their husbands and sons when the cruel shot swept these out of their places. Thousands of women left their homes, their friends, and went into exile, when, after the fall of Bohemia on the White Mountain, in 1620, after the long Thirty Years' War, Rome and the Hapsburgs were victorious; and all those Bohemians who would not become Roman Catholics were exiled, their property confiscated and given to foreigners, who filled the land like ravens, preying upon helpless, suffering Bohemia. In the Middle Ages our women were queens of the castle, and often were very learned. Many wrote in Latin, Greek, and some even knew the Hebrew. We have traces of literary efforts done by these women as early as 1502, and all through the so-called "Golden Age" of Bohemian literature in the sixteenth century. The "old embroideries" prove the high artistic talents of women, for the designs are all made by women copying the creations of nature in their beautiful embroidering. The blending of colors and choosing of design, all testify to a great development of í¦sthetic tastes and love of nature "for its own sake." It is, however, this century that best unveils to us the hearts of our women. Standing by the side of our poets, they went from village to village, from house to house, awakening the people to new life and new courage, carrying with them literature, and teaching the peasants how to read and write. This is the time that Mme. Bozena Nemcora formed her little salon, and, like Madame De Staí«l, gathered about her the best sons of Bohemia, inspiring, helping and teaching them. She was the "good star" of the brave men who tried to resurrect the nation from a death of more than two centuries.

During those days of tumult and strife, when the Bohemian language was almost forgotten, when it was a shame to be a Bohemian in his own fatherland, when there was no literature left-for the Roman clergy had burned all that came within its grasp because the best class of literature was written by the "Bohemian Brethren," a Protestant sect-it took more than courage to stand up as a patriot, and Madame Nemcora, braved the storms. She is the first one who cultivated novel writing, and her "Babicka" or "Grandmother" has been translated into German, Russian, Polish, French, and by Frances Gregor into English (published by McClurg, Chicago). It is a classic in the language. Her literary productions would fill a small library. She is to Bohemian what George Sand is to French, and George Eliot is to English. Around her, during the first half of this century, in the time of revolutions and upheavals in society gathered nearly thirty women, who began to cultivate "Belles-lettres" and help in the patriotic efforts of the men. Up to this time the girl's sphere was limited. She had been brought up like the girls of other nations, to regard household duties as her proper sphere. The Bohemian housekeeper was well known, the Bohemian cook was famous, and so each young woman was carefully trained in these arts. Fancy work, fine embroidery, a little music, French and German were about all the arts which were opened to the girls. The women of lowest class, the "laboring" women, were, however, allowed "equal rights" with the men, and could work in fields, in winter spin, and in the cities these women often worked with the masons, carrying brick and mortar and doing such rude work. The life of the "laboring class" of women is a hard one indeed; but they don't complain, they remain loyal to their homes, and often from these lowly homes come the greatest men, and many of these men have thanked their mothers for their success in life.

The "Middle Class" consists of the families of the professional men, merchants, officials, and such as have income enough to keep their families in comfort. In this class the women, as a rule, do not help the men to earn the living. The daughters in these families, in addition to the elementary education received in the public schools, receive a supplementary one, which is to put a sort of varnish over the other. They are taught a little German, French, music, a little painting and a good deal of fancy work. But all this is done, not with the view to enabling them to earn their own living, but rather of giving them some accomplishments to help them to win a husband. These women expect to be supported by some man, since there is no way open to them by which they may earn their living. The "Nobility" of course, live like the same class everywhere else: besides, we have, with very few exceptions, no nobility that is really Bohemian. Since 1870 the condition of our women has changed, and there are now certain professions opened to them. These are the teachings (there are twelve hundred teachers in Bohemia now), nursing, type-writing, telegraphing, clerking and some trades. There are only two physicians, and these studied in Zurich, and are not allowed to practice in Bohemia, although the government has acknowledged their ability by appointing them to be regular staff physicians in Bohemia among the Mohammedan women.

These openings for self-support to young women have been made by the organization of "The Bohemian Women Commercial and Industrial Society," organized by our great novelist, Mme. Karolina Svetla, in 1870. This organization has a school in Prague, where the girls are taught, in addition to various branches of higher studies, all kinds of handiwork, mainly dressmaking, millinery, bookkeeping, type-writing, cutting and various fancy works. The school can only accommodate about five hundred students, and hundreds of promising girls must be turned away because the society has not funds enough to enlarge its school. A similar school is also sustained at Brunn by the women of Moravia. The school is something like Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. This society has also founded the first and best Bohemian "Woman's Journal," whose editor is the famous poetess, Eliska Krasnohorska, the founder of "Minerva," a society composed of the best men and women in Bohemia, under whose auspices a Gymnasium for girls was established in 1890. The Gymnasium is the first school of its kind in Eastern Europe, and has now been copied by the German and Austrian women. The students are to be prepared for admission to the University. The funds for supporting the school are raised by Madame Krasnohorska, the indefatigable author and worker in the cause of women. The school now numbers more than eighty students. It is a task of great importance and very difficult, since, with the exception of the University of Zurich, no university in Northern Europe opens its doors to women. There are not less than one hundred and eighty societies of women in Bohemia, and yet out of all there is none that we might call a "suffrage club," although the Society of Bohemian Teachers in Prague has given considerable attention to this subject, having arranged for lectures, and many of its members write articles upon the theme. Bohemia, like all of Austria, has not universal suffrage, and only those who have property can vote. In many towns and cities the women vote also; in others they are represented indirectly. In some towns they may even vote for the delegates to the state Diet; but not for those of the Reichsrath. Although in some cases they may vote, they themselves are ineligible to office. Some towns have a committee of women appointed to oversee the work in the primary and industrial schools for girls.

As I have said before, since the "Medií¦val Era" of the Bohemian literature, women appear in the ranks of authors, and today some of the most popular authors of drama, poetry and novels are women. The Bohemian women exhibited and donated to the Woman's Building three hundred and twenty books, all original, not one translated, written exclusively by women. This is a good showing, when we remember that the nation is continually in a fierce struggle for self-preservation; that until recently no avenues of higher education were opened to women, and that the nation is comparatively small, of only five million inhabitants. The German women had only five hundred copies, and the French women only seven hundred. But not only do the Bohemian women write poetry, novels and drama; they have made some very successful attempts in scientific and educational literature, some having written well in history, hygiene, physiology, geology, travels, and as art critics. There is one remarkable fact which I wish to note in closing, and that is that all the students of the University of Prague are very friendly to the attempts made by women pleading for admission. The women of Bohemia have done this work quietly; they are pressing toward the same mark to which the women of the whole civilized world are directing their desires and ambitions; but whatever they do, for whatever they may long, they never forget their obligation to the nation, and are first patriots and then women. They stand in the ranks of soldiers, fighting for the sacred right of Bohemia, bearing the heat and smoke of the battle, ministering to the wounded, and yet performing their duties as wives, mothers and sisters. They cannot point to glorious buildings, clubs and enterprises, for every penny is needed by the country, and no one can under- stand the difficulties and burdens that are laid on the shoulders of our women. It is harder for them to get a penny than for people of this country to secure dollars. Their efforts may appear small, but to those who know the hard situation in Bohemia, they speak of zeal, enthusiasm, and perseverance, such as only a Slavonic woman, endowed with her splendid physique, could accomplish. We are only in the dawn of the morning. Before us lie the whole possibilities of a splendid day, and I can only say that the Bohemian women are on the march, and they will keep step with the ranks of all womanhood marching on to progress.

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