They gave up their own freedom in pursuit of a freer country by signing an illegal document
demanding human rights and dignity in communist Czechoslovakia. They were smugglers, writers, mothers, speakers, journalists, and pranksters. Forty years later, they are an inspiration to young women in countries still struggling for those rights.
On January 7, 1977, a short and humble text appeared in the pages of some of the largest Western newspapers, including The New York Times and Le Monde. Written in Prague, Czechoslovakia a few days earlier, it was read out and discussed
in the original Czech that day on the airwaves of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America. Both broadcasters were officially banned in communist Czechoslovakia at the time -- as was the text itself, which circulated in “samizdat”
or self-published form only. The authors and the 242 original signatories called the text “Charter 77,” and their demands were modest: that the government respect human rights as stipulated in the country’s own constitution and in international
agreements like the 1975 Helsinki Accords, and that citizens be free from persecution and fear of persecution for expressing their opinions.
The government’s response was swift and brutal. Those associated with the charter were called traitors and imperial agents; many of them were imprisoned, dismissed from their jobs or university studies, spied on, and threatened. Over the
next 12 years, the Charter 77 dissidents wrote thousands more pages describing the kind of society they wanted to live in, and they gathered more signatures, all at great personal cost.
Finally, in 1989, the Velvet Revolution brought a peaceful end to the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. One of the brightest luminaries of the Charter 77 movement, playwright Vaclav Havel, served as the last president of Czechoslovakia
and the first president of an independent Czech Republic.
Although most of the leaders and signatories of Charter 77 were men, women participated at every level of the movement, and not just as errand runners and menial helpers (although they managed those less glamorous tasks as well). In some
ways, the culture of Charter 77 reflected the prevailing attitudes and assumptions about men and women in Czechoslovakia at the time; in other ways, it was very progressive and explicitly egalitarian.
This project profiles three of the women who signed Charter 77, and two women who have been influenced by the movement to affect change in their own countries, but it is a tribute to them all.