The Czech first lady: An overlooked, yet important, role for Czechia

Life as the partner of the Czech president brings little official power, but lots of responsibility.

 William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 25.01.2023 17:13:00 (updated on 26.01.2023) Reading time: 4 minutes

The Czech presidential election will conclude this weekend with a run-off between former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš and retired army general Petr Pavel. Regardless of who takes office at Prague Castle, it won’t just be their life that will turn upside down.

Life will also change for the partner of the new president, whether that’s Monika Babišová or Eva Pavlová. Although the role of “první dáma” isn’t as formalized in Czechia as it is in the US or France, the first lady is an important public figure (Czechia has not yet had a first gentleman).

What do first ladies do?

In the past, first ladies have tended to focus personal activities on their own areas of interest, such as culture, education, or helping those in need. And like partners of heads of state and government around the world, they’re also expected to accompany their spouse in important diplomatic functions abroad and at home. All this makes it hard for them to preserve personal or financial independence.

“I can’t really imagine that someone who wants to be a fully-fledged supporter of their life partner in the highest office of state would still have the capacity to perform some ordinary civilian occupation. That’s almost impossible,” Jiří Weigl, former head of the presidential office of Václav Klaus, told Deník N.

This might seem outdated, it’s the result of a combination of factors: the representative demands of the role, expectations that the first lady should use her position to strive for the public good, and intense media scrutiny that imposes strict limitations on independent activities.

Czechia’s previous first ladies

Past first ladies have taken different attitudes to dealing with the role. Mental health issues prevented the wife of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, from participating in public life, so the original standard was set by Hana Benešová, the wife of Czechoslovakia’s second president, Edvard Beneš.

Benešová was arrested during World War I on suspicion of assisting attempts to create an independent Czechoslovak state, and after her husband became president in 1935, she was a popular and admired figure. In later life under the communist regime, after the death of her husband, she was recognized riding trams in Prague and fellow passengers would stand up for her as a mark of respect.

The Czech Republic has had four first ladies since the fall of Communism. The first two were wives of President Václav Havel: Olga Havlová, who died in 1996, and Dagmar Havlová, who married Havel in 1997. President Klaus was accompanied in his role by Livia Klausová, while current President Miloš Zeman has been supported by Ivana Zemanová.

Each woman has provided a different example of public service. As the first wife of the first democratic Czechoslovak president since 1948, Olga Havlová was a pioneer in pushing democracy forward in her country. An activist and dissident in her own right, she devoted herself to charitable activities via the Olga Havlová foundation.

Olga Havlová / photo by Ondřej Němec, CC BY-SA 4.0
Olga Havlová / photo by Ondřej Němec, CC BY-SA 4.0

Dagmar Havlová, Havel’s second wife, carries on her late husband's legacy to this day, founding the Dagmar and Václav Havel Foundation and the Václav Havel Library. 

Meanwhile, following the conclusion of her husband’s presidency. Livia Klausová served as the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Slovakia.

Ivana Zemanová, on the other hand, has taken an understated interpretation, staying largely out of the public eye and refraining from major personal initiatives. While this has attracted criticism, others point out that partners of Czech presidents have no democratic mandate to influence policy. 

“The institute is not perceived as a political function,” said Markéta Kos Mottlová, from the Forum 50% organization. “It’s usually assumed that first ladies will not set the agenda or topics, or speak actively at public events.”

This is in contrast to the more public function generally expected of ‘FLOTUS,’ or the First Lady Of The US, who has her own office in the White House comprising 11 staff members including a Chief of Staff, Press Secretary, Communications Officer, Executive Chef, and even a Chief Floral Designer.

Who will be Czechia’s next first lady?

Both of the women who could be Czechia’s next first lady have experience on the international stage.

Babišová married Mr. Babiš in 2017, the year he became Czech Prime Minister. She met Babiš in 1992 while working for a company where he was a director. While her husband served as head of government from 2017 to 2021, she helped represent the Czech nation on the international stage, including during a visit to the White House.

Babišová has also worked as an interior designer in spaces such as a former Michelin-starred restaurant in the south of France. After her marriage, she founded the Agrofert Foundation, running programs to support children, schools, and single mothers.

She is an ambassador for a research project focusing on the prevention of cervical cancer, and she has said that as first lady she would devote herself to projects helping those in need.

Eva Pavlová, like her husband Mr. Pavel, has a military past. The couple met in the army in the 1980s, and she continued to work in military roles following the Velvet Revolution. She moved with Pavel to Brussels when he was elected as head of the NATO Military Committee in 2015. Upon their return, she worked with a Czech mediation company before health issues temporarily forced her to withdraw from public life.

Having fully recovered, she has said her idea of being first lady would be more active than the precedent set by Zemanová, saying she wants to focus on issues around family and relationships as well as the position of women in society.

Whoever Czechia’s next first lady may be, her role, though historically away from the spotlight, will be filled with great responsibility – and possibility – in the years ahead.

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