More about the project
The lifting of the Iron Curtain in 1989 was accompanied by high expectations, especially in the sphere of production and distribution of knowledge. Perhaps nowhere were these expectations so high as in the area of women and gender studies.
At that time many Western feminists rushed to the so called "backward" region of Eastern Europe under the flag of global sisterhood. Most of them were equipped with more enthusiasm than linguistic competence and cultural understanding. They were trying to judge the position of women in the East on the basis of their own social and cultural experience. Some of them saw women in this Region as not emancipated enough, while others had idealized and unrealistic ideas about something called "socialist woman".
Most of the feminist writing resulting from these approaches was loaded with decontext-ualized data and misleading interpretations. And at the same time, in the East European media an almost pathological allergy towards anything redolent of "feminism" and gender issues had emerged. In that slightly hysterical context of anti-feminism without feminism, several women mostly of an academic background and one man started to meet in the Prague flat of the prominent Czech human rights activist and professor of sociology at Charles University Jiřina Šiklová in order to discuss gender-related issues. Out of these meetings emerged the Gender Studies o.p.s. in Prague.
Soon it became clear, however, that there was a need for a major project that could serve as a source for knowledge of gender issues not only in the Czech context but in the entire Region of the former Soviet block. In 1996 the idea of the Women's Memory project emerged. The aim of this project was to grasp the history of women under socialism, in all its complexity. We wanted to challenge the established myths and clichés about "socialist woman", often presented as some kind of heroic female tractor driver. We wanted to document the life experiences of women of three generations born between 1920 and 1960. We were interested above all in their life strategies and in their personal culture of survival.
The complexity of relations between socialism and gender issues can never be fully grasped from one discipline only. Therefore the national research teams included women from various disciplines, such as sociology, history, linguistics, psychology, philosophy, ethnography, anthropology and journalism. Nevertheless the aim of the project cannot be reduced to its cognitive aspects. It is unique in the sense that it goes far beyond the academic community and is oriented towards the large population in the related countries and hopefully will have an impact on a society as a whole.
So what does the project look like today?
To date the project has been conducted by 6 national interdisciplinary research teams from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the former East Germany, Poland, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Ukraine. Till today their work has resulted in 470 interviews and approximately 20 000 pages of transcription. The archive - located in the Gender Studies Center in Prague - includes hundreds of tapes and minidisks; 7 books of edited interviews in different local languages have been published.
Even though the project has attracted a large number of researchers, we have always had to confront the problem of - where to find the money for it? It became obvious that a single financial resource, which would completely cover the needs of the project, simply was not available. We could not dream of anything comparable to Spielberg's funding of the Holocaust project. Only the German team has state funding. For the other national teams, funding has so far been very fragmented and sporadic.
But perhaps more important than the funding issue was the question of methodology. Feminist developments of the social sciences have challenged the traditional male dominated interpretation of the world. For instance, it has emphasized the importance of personal experience as a part of the research method. For this reason many feminist researchers are applying narrative and biographical approaches. According to these methods, history does not represent a set of events, but is a result of interaction between individuals. It is the meaning and significance attributed to the events by the individuals which retroactively shapes historical "reality". The choice of the method of oral history based on interviews for this project seemed to us quite logical. This method is rooted in the oral transmission of information and particularly in family narratives. We are interested in lived experience rather than so-called objective truth.
The elaboration and finalization of our method lasted over a year. While we initially drew on the experience of other related projects, out own method was shaped by the actual process of interviewing itself. The methodology has been further developed at five international workshops. At these workshops, while respecting the cultural, religious and historical differences between involved teams from different countries, we had to established an agreed common ground which would enable us to compare the project results internationally.