My approach to the general survey course is thematic rather than chronological, with the course content organized into topical sections. Each section offers students the chance to explore one subject in depth, while at the same time learning to wrestle with one or two particular types of primary sources. One theme is the changing status of women over time. During the first week of this section, students read a range of primary sources spread over several centuries, including laws concerning women’s status, public health reports, political speeches by or about women, and social commentary devoted to the status of women.
In the second week, students move from this broad sweep of sources to a set of letters written by one woman, Czech politician Milada Horáková, just before her execution by the Communists in 1950.1 Moving from the general to the specific, the students apply lessons learned from the range of sources to one example.
Horáková makes a good case study for several reasons. One of the most prominent European feminists of the first half of the 20th century, she was an active member of the resistance during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1940, she and her husband, Bohuslav, spent the rest of World War II in the Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp. After the war and her release from prison, Horáková helped found the Union of Political Prisoners and Survivors of Victims of Nazism, a support group for former prisoners, and won a seat in the Czechoslovak parliament. She was also elected head of the Women’s National Council, the country’s largest women’s organization. After the Communist takeover in February 1948, Horáková resigned her seat in parliament, but remained politically active.
On September 27, 1949, the Communist authorities arrested her. As the police arrived, her husband escaped and fled Czechoslovkia in December. Horáková was charged with conspiracy against the state and, despite being tortured, refused to accept the legality of the current government. She was sentenced to death after a widely publicized trial. The Communist authorities offered her clemency in exchange for a confession, but she refused and was executed by hanging. The night before her execution, her jailers allowed her to write three letters—one to her husband, one to her teenage daughter, and one to her mother-in-law, who would raise her daughter. It is these poignant letters that my students read.
These letters offer insight into the status of women in Europe in the mid-20th century. I remind students to think about how Horáková’s experiences and ideas exemplify themes we have discussed about women, such as women’s changing political, economic and legal status; changing views of the role of women in the family; and changing views of female sexuality; as well as how Horáková is an exceptional case. I also instruct them to think carefully about what we can learn from studying one set of letters written by one person at a particular moment—as compared to what we learned by reading the diverse sources assigned during the previous week.
As they do every week in my course, students go home with the sources for the following class and a set of assigned questions.2 They write responses to the questions in our class weblog.3 Weblog postings are due 48 hours before the class. In addition to posting their own answers, students are required to post a comment on at least one weblog entry posted by a classmate. These comments are graded according to how much they add value to the original posting. Do they extend the author’s analysis? Do they offer a new way of looking at the same issue? Do they raise issues that the author has ignored or simply left out? Early in the semester, my students are not very good at this latter task, but by mid-semester they have figured out how to use the weblog forum to engage in a reasonably analytical discussion prior to class.
My purpose in having students post answers and comments is to set up the in-class discussion. In my experience, if students have “talked” about the questions online before class, they come prepared to deal with the issues in more detail. Each student is assigned to a small learning group on the first day of class, and they discuss their postings and any questions with this group. I give them about 20 minutes for their small group discussions and then begin a class-wide discussion by building on issues raised in the small groups.
I have been assigning these letters for six years, and in my experience, students fall into two groups. About half are distracted by the emotional content of the letters and the others are able to read them deeply. Those who do read analytically notice such things as Horáková’s balancing act in her letter to her husband, Bohuslav. She is happy that the love of her life and partner in her struggles escaped and will survive. On the other hand, she is clearly unhappy that he abandoned her. In this letter, students find evidence of both Horáková the political leader and of Horáková the wife and mother who feels guilty that she was not a very good cook and that she didn’t devote more time to their home life. In these examples, students see clear evidence of the “double burden” women faced, i.e., having a career in the workplace and being expected to take care of the home as well.
In the letter to her mother-in-law, students often see a daughter-in-law trying to amend relations at the last minute. Some see evidence of a woman who recognizes that her daughter will be raised by a woman who is more traditional and who is unlikely to encourage Horáková’s daughter to be the kind of woman Horáková hopes she will be. Looking carefully at Horáková’s choice of words, they see her attempts to convince her mother-in-law that being a “modern woman” is not a bad thing, even if it means execution for one’s political convictions.
It is the final letter, though, that students do the best with. In the letter to her daughter Jana, Horáková shows how difficult it was to be a prominent politician, a woman, and a mother at the same time. Most students pick up on the fact that Horáková advises her daughter to be of independent mind, to remain true to her principles, but also to be demure, to choose her friends carefully, and to be devoted to her family. As one of my students said in a recent weblog posting, “She’s just perpetuating her own problems onto her daughter.”
Because the letters are poignant, and because they offer excellent points of connection to various issues we’ve discussed with regard to the changing status of women over time, the classroom discussion is always animated and sometimes heated. After reading the letters, students write essays on the changing status of women, using the sources we have read as their main evidence. Many students cite one or more of Horáková’s letters to support their points.
1 In Wilma A. Iggers, Women of Prague: Ethnic Diversity and Social Change from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Providence: Berghahn Books, 1995): pp. 287-312.
2 The questions I most recently gave my students were:
1. What can we learn from these letters about the status of women in Europe?
2. What can we learn from studying just one set of letters written by one person at one particular moment—as compared to what we can learn from reading a diverse set of sources like those assigned for last week’s class?
3 Weblogs, or simply “blogs,” are a form of online diary or discussion forum that provide visitors with a mixture of commentary, questions, links of interest and personal ruminations. Increasingly, weblogs have become an important sector in online journalism. Many of my students already have their own weblogs and so I find this medium much more conducive to online discussion than a forum product like BlackBoard or WebCT.