Women’s Memories – An International Learning Project



Alena Wagnerova

The origin of the project lies in the confrontation between Western feminists and women from the former Eastern Block. The Western feminists, who after re-unification in 1989 travelled to the socialist countries, judged the position of the women there according to their own criteria and experiences. This caused women in the East to feel displeasure, disquiet and insecurity because they could not recognise themselves according to the description of them given by their Western colleagues. It was a clash of two different lifestyles and historical experiences. Sometimes the Eastern women could not help thinking that a foreign model was being enforced upon them and that they were being made to lose their past. As the collapse of real socialism was interpreted as the triumph of capitalism over socialism, they felt inferior as a result of the interpretation of the Western feminists. This confrontation encouraged women from socialist countries to question their own identity. The reconstruction of the past proved on an increasing scale to be the most important requirement for the political practice of the present. The Czech sociologist and founder of Gender Studies in Prague Jirina Šiklová was the first to sum up these discussions in the Project “Women’s Memories” in 1995, whilst on the train to the Peking women’s conference.

The Method

From the beginning the Project was organised as an international one. It was to capture the experiences of three generations of women (who were born between 1920 and 1950) in the previous Eastern Block. The reconstruction of the truth in terms of first hand experience was its target. This determined the choice of a method of Oral History. An open project was conceived, that was anti-ideological and emancipatory and above all feminist.

1. It was oriented not towards written stories but to everyday stories, biographies of women, to history at grass roots level. We agreed that the personal explanation of a person’s identity was a prerequisite for the re-construction of civilian populations.

2. The Project had to fulfil scientific criteria, but had to be mainly oriented to civilian populations. Its target was not towards theory building, but towards practical action and politically based work. The purpose of the material collected was in any case to facilitate a scientific evaluation at a later stage. And the results were to conform to international standards. The connection between both criteria, that is the political method oriented towards civilian populations and the scientific nature, portrays the essential characteristics of the project. It is not project oriented but process oriented.

3. The feminist nature of the project determined the attitude towards the women interviewed; they were not to be the object of the project but the subject. They were to form a central point, acting as both purpose and objective of the project.

The project’s importancealso derives from the fact that the socialist model of women’s emancipation is the only systematic and comprehensive concept for the freedom of the woman. It forms an integral part of the programme of socialism. The classic Marxist theory presents the emancipation of the woman as a part of the overall emancipation of human beings and is therefore closely connected to the revolutionary target of the liberation of the working class. So according to the Proletariat theory, one cannot be freed if the woman is not also freed. The liberation of the woman was a criterion for the success of the revolution. During the Stalinist period the liberation of the woman as a person led to the liberation of the female working force, marked by overtaxing of women. However women acquired a high level of training and qualifications, economic independence and their own social status – a process, which in the Western countries has not yet fully taken place. A totalitarian regime also paradoxically broadened women’s scope of freedom or at least given the opportunities.

We were methodical in our orientation towards biographical research and oral history. For the interviews we developed themes, which were not formulated in questionnaires but which served as a background without interrupting the discourse. During the work on the pilot project the methods were stated in more precision. In this regard what proved to be very useful were the five international seminars where the project partners met. From the beginning it was very important to understand that the project was a learning project, and that the basic points were not given once and for all.

This method of proceeding corresponds to our understanding of the interview as an interaction between the “interviewer” and the “interviewee”. In a discussion an aura of confidence must be created, because this is the only way in which remembrance and reflections thereof may succeed. It was not just a case of collecting “data” but also of inciting processes in women of reflection on their own identity. Equality between the discussion partners constitutes the ethical basis of the project. During the conducting of the conversation we oriented ourselves towards the interviewee and her capacity to relate. What is “required” is the real truth based on experience and true life, not the objective “truth”.

In this regard the situation and atmosphere of the conversation was noted and a biogram was added to the written conversation for guidance. It proved to be very useful to have an interdisciplinary team composed of psychologists, historians, sociologists, philosophers and writers.

The Product

If we also place value on the process side of the project, we cannot just define its “product” as well. In this instance differentiation must be made between two different forms of products: the concrete product and the mobile (fluid) project.

The concrete project consists of:

1. The interview archive on recordings and paper, which may be used scientifically as a thesaurus of memories of women of a certain era according to different criteria.

2. Researched data within this context,

3. The spreading of results through speeches and publications,

4. Seminars and workshops on the stories told by women.

In respect of the fluid product we are describing the effect of the project on women involved, i.e. interviewees and interviewers. This aspect goes beyond the understanding up until now of political work. As we understand it, the first step of political work begins with the interview. Many women interviewed wondered and surprisingly asked us what could be so interesting about their life. For many of those women interviewed this was the first time that they had weighed up their life. The discussion enables them to get another perspective of their life and this increases their self-confidence, through the simple fact that their life is of interest to a stranger. The interviews are talked about in the family and amongst acquaintances – they have widespread impact.

This impact should not be under-estimated; even the second feminist movement began with many small groups and then became a movement that affected the whole of society. The second stage of political formation took place in individual national groups during the supervision and analysis of discussions. The interviewers got new insight into their lives and their social surroundings. Within the group discussions and especially in the circle of friends and acquaintances there is another step in the mobile and fluid phase.

What was and what is to be?

The concrete work began in the years 1996/97 with the pilot phase of the project of Gender Studies in Prague. With minimum financial support about 20 interviews were conducted. On this basis the project method was finalised. The support of ENROS in Prague made the first phase of the national project possible. Contacts were made with OWEN in Berlin and Efka in Krakow, from whom support was won for the project.
Only then was the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation sought, as it was important to start the project from the bottom with interested women, as opposed to from the top through an institution.

The project was co-ordinated internationally by Pavla Frydlova. In between contacts were made with similar working groups in Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia; the pilot phase began in Slovakia. Preparation is being made for contacts with Macedonia, Lithuania and Russia. The archive of women’s memories in Gender Studies has been founded in Prague. International seminars in Berlin, Krakow and Brac Island showed the importance of discussions in international groups and brought to light the differences between the individual former socialist countries. The confrontation with the variety of lifestyles in the different countries questioned the idea of a stereotyped uniform and grey Eastern Block. For us, the participants, this often came to us as a great surprise and it served as a conflict- filled rehearsal for multi-cultural issues.

With regard to society as a whole it is a contribution to the reconstruction of a civil Europe; a whole made up of a variety of lifestyles.

Alena Wagnerova grew up in Czechoslovakia and now lives as a writer and journalist in Germany where she has published numerous books on the social standing of the woman.
Contact: aktueller.buch.service@t-online.de

Project contacts:
ProFem Prag: http://www.ecn.cz/profem
email: Pavla.Frydlova@ecn.cz , Gender@ecn.cz
Efka Krakow: http://www.efka.org.pl/
email: efka@efka.org.pl
OWEN Berlin: owen@berlin.snafu.de

Translated from German into English by Heather Batchelor

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