Metta Spencer

Post-Socialist Patriarchy

from Women in Post-Communism, Volume II in Research on Russia and Eastern Europe, JAI Press (Greenwich, Conn.), 1997

By Metta Spencer

This book represents a collection of articles describing the position of women since the dramatic political reversals of 1989 and 1991 in Central and Eastern Europe. Its main conclusions will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with several other similar anthologies, for the same trends have been consistently observed in all of the post-socialist societies, with but few exceptions. The bulk of this final essay constitutes an effort to summarize those common trends, with reference to both the present set of articles and to other comparable observations published elsewhere during the first half of the 1990s. After summarizing the general patterns, I shall identify the few conspicuous differences that can be seen when comparing the status of women in those societies and, finally, I shall briefly consider what the trends may mean.


For whatever reason (and frankly, no theorist has proposed an intuitively satisfying explanation), the single theme that runs through these analyses is that the sudden turn against socialism was accompanied by a visible revulsion against feminism. Partly this represents an ideological change (a denial that women should expect to occupy high level roles outside the home) and partly it is simply a statement of fact: that women's social conditions took a turn for the worse (at least when measured in terms of feminist values) during the early 1990s. To establish this inference it will not be necessary to recapitulate in detail the facts that have already been recounted with almost monotonous regularity in preceding chapters.

All evaluations are based on comparisons, though the standard against which one measures is not always spelled out. In most of these chapters, the author implicitly makes two different kinds of comparisons: temporal ("after" in comparison to "before" the end of communist dominance) and spatial ("Eastern" in comparison to "Western" societies). Of the two comparisons, the "before and after" evaluation seems to lend itself to more consistent verdicts: Women in Central and Eastern Europe have generally found their situation worse in the later period than before. The "East and West" comparisons, on the other hand, yield more qualified verdicts. In some respects (e.g. political representation and access to state-funded child care services) Eastern women formerly enjoyed benefits that were less available to their Western counterparts. On the other hand, they were comparatively disadvantaged in other respects, such as with respect to their disproportionate household duties. Even before 1989, Eastern husbands performed even a smaller proportion of the work than Western husbands, and their gender gap has evidently widened since then. To be fair, of course, any such comparison should be distinguished from the effects of the higher or lower material living standards prevailing in the East and the West -- the availability of vacuum cleaners, freezers, and washing machines, for example, which reduce the burden of housework, whether performed by a male or a female.

To summarize the usual findings showing the revival of patriarchy, it will suffice to mention the trends in five different domains of social life in the post-Communist societies: (a) family relations; (b) reproductive decisions, (c) employment and income, (d) political representation, and (e) civic participation.

Family Relations

In estimating the status of women in their families, it is well to begin with the reminder that patriarchy is virtually universally prevalent in all societies. What we are looking for is variation across time and space. The variation among societies is small in comparison to the overwhelming evidence of continuing gender discrimination in all countries.

Having stated that caveat, we shall nevertheless focus on those minor variations, for much can be learned by examining them. By and large, socialist countries made extensive political use of rhetoric by claiming to uphold far greater gender equality than could be found in any capitalist society. Such claims were partly true. Ever since Engels's day, communist social theories had promoted gender equality and ease of divorce as a means of emancipation from oppressive family relations. Moreover, the enormous male casualty rate of World War II, especially in the Soviet Union, meant that most households in fact had to depend heavily for a whole generation on female breadwinners. Certain institutional provisions were created to enable women to carry on their busy lives. Thus abortion was generally available and public child care services were more accessible and probably of higher quality in the East than the West.[1]

On the other hand, the East was always poorer than the West. The shortage of material resources, even during the fairly affluent Brezhnev years, made household chores, cleaning, and shopping especially burdensome. Moreover, there was never any campaign in the East urging men to share these tasks. Patriarchal habits not only prevailed but patriarchal prejudices were expressed freely. Despite all the official rhetoric of gender equality and the flowery thanks spoken on Women's Day, in everyday conversation a socialist man did not hesitate to utter condescending remarks about women that a Western man (or even his father before him) might have been ashamed to say or perhaps even think.

Thus sexism was well established in the socialist countries, and most women went along with it and internalized gender stereotypes. For example, during the last decade or so of the Soviet period, many urban women seemed to care more about their appearance than women in some Western countries, despite the greater difficulty of obtaining good clothes and cosmetics.[2] Because of their many hardships, they tended to age quickly in spite of their best efforts, and their bodies and coats began to sag. As long as possible, however, they enjoyed male flattery and chivalry of the kind that many Western women have long regarded as cynically manipulative.

In their homes, women accepted without complaint the double burden of housework in addition to paid work. Indeed, despite this hardship, their health was generally better than that of males -- especially in the Soviet Union. By the early 1980s, life expectancy actually had begun declining for Soviet males, largely because of their alcoholism and smoking habits, while women generally sustained a more steadying, reliable position within their families. For example, divorce was marginally less common in the Eastern than in the capitalist countries. In a totalitarian society, the home was the only safe place, and within their own narrow domain, women occupied a certain status of authority. Thus, while it was generally true that Eastern women experienced greater gender discrimination than their Western counterparts, in certain respects they were actually better off.

But with the breakdown of the socialist system in about 1990 there began an overall deterioration of women's status in their families. Evidence of this comes from polls showing most respondents concurring in the opinion that women's position had worsened in comparison to that of men.[3] Females began to express sharper increases in dissatisfaction than men, who for their part were also somewhat more dissatisfied than a few years before.[4] Moreover, domestic violence was increasing in frequency[5] and pornography suddenly became commonplace.[6] Marriage lost some of its popularity as an institution, with divorces increasing, marriages decreasing, and more women becoming single parents.[7] This trend was especially apparent in Russia, where unwed motherhood is not simply the predicament of lower class women, but has become a lifestyle not infrequently chosen by well-educated career women.[8]

On the other hand, despite the evidence that marriage is not becoming easier for women, the resurgence of patriarchy has been largely accepted by Eastern women themselves. Not only do men demand that women give up their public roles, but some women aspire to that goal as well, though this trend is not universal. In some countries women initially expressed a desire to give up their paid jobs and become full time homekeepers and mothers. With this prospect in mind, they even accepted the closure of day care centres and of paid maternity leaves. In reality, however, their economic circumstances rarely enabled them to make such a choice. As we shall see, the usual outcome has simply been the predictable one: a reduction in the opportunities for women to advance in an increasingly competitive work force. Nevertheless, very few of them have responded to these problems -- so far-- by marching under the banner of feminism.

This post-1989 revival of patriarchy is associated with two political trends: the reaction against communist ideology and the revival of nationalism. Historically, the romantic glorification of one's ethnic community has been a male ideology. Viewing women as the "procreators of the nation," nationalists try to restrict their women to marrying members of their own community. Also, to increase the birthrate, nationalists go in for such promotional gimmicks as awarding "heroine mother" medals for prodigious feats of childbearing. Accordingly, they also would like to abolish abortion.

Reproductive Health and Rights

Just as in their family life, the reproductive health of women in socialist countries was both better and worse than the status of women in capitalism. On the one hand, abortion was readily available and paid by the state. On the other hand, abortion was almost the only means of family planning, for the state manufactured or imported virtually no mechanical or hormonal contraceptives. Moreover, a typical abortion was a terrible experience, often performed without anesthesia and using primitive methods that might inflict lasting injuries and impair the patient's reproductive capacity. Nevertheless, many women, especially in Russia, were unfamiliar with condoms and avoided contraceptive pills, some having heard a myth that these pose more health risks than do abortions.[9] Until recently the average Russian woman typically would undergo eight abortions in her lifetime, while only 15 percent used contraceptives.[10] Thus, though some Western feminists have in former times envied the socialist women for their unrestricted access to abortion, any real comparison between East and West would have eliminated any feeling of envy.

The temporal comparison shows that the reproductive health and rights of Eastern women deteriorated after the downfall of the socialist regimes. For one thing, even in the late 1990s, contraceptives remain expensive and scarce, at least in the former Soviet Union. In some countries the state has stopped paying for abortion, making it unaffordable for low-income women, and Russian abortions declined from 4.4 per year in 1988 to 2.9 million in 1993.[11]Abortion deaths have decreased in Russia, but remain too high.[12] There is a male-led Russian anti-abortion movement, but it is not politically influential; the actual declines in rates must be attributed to other factors.

With some exceptions (notably Romania, Bulgaria, and Latvia) abortion has been declining throughout the formerly socialist Eastern countries, even where there are no new legal restrictions, and no single explanation seems to account for the reduction in those places, though probably the expense is the primary factor. Abortion is still legal in the Czech Republic, for example, but the incidence is steadily decreasing -- mainly, it seems, because the women now have to pay the fees themselves.[13] As Rosenberg's article notes, the decline in abortion does not mean that the women in the Eastern countries are now giving birth to fetuses that might previously have been aborted; they are avoiding pregnancies instead of terminating them, with results that Funk calls a "birth strike."

On the other hand, we must not ignore the growing political influence of nationalists and conservative religionists, who have brought several countries to the point of outlawing abortion. Catholic Poland enacted the most extreme legislation, though as Siemienska points out, most Poles actually do not agree with the church's position on the matter, and we have probably not heard the last word in this cultural battle.

In Germany after unification, as Rosenberg, Ferree, and Funk all discuss in their articles, the courts restricted abortion rights, though these changes may have offended women's dignity and autonomy more than they reduced real access to abortion services. The changes in Hungary were similar to those in Germany. In 1992 the Hungarian Constitutional Court struck down the previous law and parliament passed legislation allowing abortions under a specified set of circumstances, though the woman must undergo counseling and must wait for a committee's approval. Abortions have declined significantly since the law went into effect,[14] though again, not necessarily because of the legislation.

In the former Yugoslavia, the abortion issue cannot be separated from the ethnic hatred associated with the civil war there. In Croatia, for example, a coalition of nationalists launched a campaign in 1993 to ban abortion and birth control, deport non-Croats, subsidize "ethnically pure" births, censor magazines, and limit the political rights of anti-nationalists. In January 1996, mothers with four or more children were recognized and paid as "Mother Educators," though that population policy proved to be too expensive to keep up. As Albanese shows in her paper, the feminist organization B.a.B.e organized an international campaign to defeat the racist agenda of this coalition. In Slovenia, too, feminists were active in defending abortion rights, successfully stopping the passage of a bill forbidding the procedure.[15]

Unfortunately, as Korac shows, the nationalistic hatred during the war in the former Yugoslavia resulted in such extreme brutality that the banning of abortion has to be considered a relatively mild political measure by comparison. "Ethnic cleansing" -- the expulsion of a hated ethnic community -- was accompanied by militarily organized rapes. Such acts were motivated, not by personal lust, but to defeat an enemy by robbing him of his "sexual property" -- his control over his woman's reproduction. The dynamics of war rape can be seen in the male control described by Randall Collins in accounting for both the subordination of women and the stratification of some males. "Sexual property is regarded as a form of male honor," wrote Collins. "The honored man is he who is dominant over others, who protects and controls his own property, and who can conquer others' property."[16] There will probably remain much controversy over the number of rapes and sexual tortures that were perpetrated in the Yugoslav wars. However, Collins's analysis enables us to understand these barbarities, not as something unique and limited to wartime, but as an aspect of something altogether familiar. Even in peacetime, a woman who asserts her right to make her own reproductive decisions -- whether to give birth or to terminate her pregnancy, for example -- is practicing what is considered by many as an ordinary human right. However, her free exercise of such a right can wound the pride of the man who claims her procreation as property that he may rightfully control.

By contrast, the woman's own reproductive decisions may be made on the basis of more pragmatic considerations, such as whether she can properly care for the prospective child, or whether the social and physical environment can support a child's healthy development. Thus the birthrate in Eastern Europe is determined, not only by concern for masculine "honor," or by religious devoutness, or by ideological faith in communism or capitalism, but also by women's health and their confidence in the prospect of sustaining their offspring.

Eastern European parents can have only limited optimism about such matters in the difficult post-communist period. As Issraelyan's paper shows, the number of day care centers declined in the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union. A third of all Russian and Hungarian married couples break up and the children usually stay with their mother. Worse, yet, the overall rate of infant mortality is twice as high as in North America.[17] Children in Ukraine, Belarus, and some Visegrad areas all are susceptible to high rates of cancer as a result of the Chernobyl accident. There are other spots, especially in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where other types of pollution pose grave health risks for children. It is therefore not surprising that marriage rates have declined, divorces have increased, and birthrates have dropped.

Employment and Income

The main theme of contemporary feminism is the view that women should have jobs -- or at least should have fair access to jobs -- that pay well and present opportunities for advancement. A woman should not have to depend on her husband for financial support. If this view is hardly contested in the West, the same cannot be said of the formerly socialist countries, where "feminist" is a term of opprobrium. Throughout their lives, Eastern women have been expected to hold paying jobs and in fact did constitute nearly half the total work force. This duty was half of the famous "double burden" carried by the female population, though their paid jobs were not on a par with those of men. Traditional "female" jobs such as clerical work, textile and food production, elementary education, banking, and social work were the main ones open to them. Even if a profession such as medicine, law, banking, or accounting was feminized, it was a stratified profession in which the ordinary tasks were performed mainly by women,[18] while higher level specialists and administrators were male. This pattern is consistent of course, with the Western experience as well. The gender gap in pay varied from one country to another, but generally was comparable to that in the West. For example, in 1984 Czech women's average monthly income was 68 percent of the men's average[19] -- just 3 or 4 percentage points more equal than in the West.[20] The gap in pay in the Soviet Union was wider.

With the ending of the Cold War and statist socialism, women's position in the work force became more precarious. Despite the fact that his wife and daughter have worked as a professor and a surgeon, even such an enlightened person as Gorbachev could say he hoped to return women to their "purely womanly duties."[21] This is no doubt a reflection of the fact that this view was universally accepted by all sectors of all socialist societies, including dissident and professional women. Unlike Western feminists, the Eastern women preferred to reduce their "double burden" by rejecting the public roles instead of their familial duties.

Some women, notably in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, expected to retire to a comparatively easy life as a housewife. However, they expected to do so voluntarily, not by being forced out of the labor force, and in many cases they soon discovered that, even if they wanted to return home, their families could ill afford such a change. Nevertheless, however much they needed to continue earning incomes, their job opportunities, job security, and remuneration declined. In some places, including Poland and Russia, the gender wage gap increased. As Beth Richardson has noted,

"When Stalin officially proclaimed women's emancipation achieved in 1936, women still made 70 cents to every man's dollar. Over the past three years, this wage gap has increased to as little as 40 cents to every man's dollar. Like equal opportunity legislation, equal pay legislation has no mechanisms to implement or even enforce the law. At the same time, women are more willing to work for clearly unequal wages just so they have a wage at all."[22]

It seems unlikely that the 40-cent-per male dollar estimate is valid throughout Russia; Issraelyan says that full time women workers are paid a third less than males, and her estimate seems more consistent with the pattern in Ukraine[23] and elsewhere. In reunited Germany, women in the mid 1990s earn 73 percent as much as man.[24]

In any case, the problem for women throughout the formerly socialist countries seems to consists less of a widening wage gap than of female job insecurity. Thus Wejnert's paper shows that in 1995 Poland, with an unemployment rate of 15 percent, three times more women then men were registered as unemployed, while seven times as many jobs were offered to men as to women. Wejnert notes that it is educated women who have suffered the most from the wage gap and from loss of jobs. The same is true in Latvia and, according to Issraelyan, in Russia.

Unemployment is not equally serious everywhere. It is a problem in Russia, where the percentage of working-age women with jobs dropped from 92 percent to 62 percent within the decade after 1983. On the other hand, in Hungary and the Czech Republic women still find plenty of jobs; as many as 92 percent[25] of women are working and the gender wage gap has narrowed in the post-socialist period instead of widening, as described above.[26]

What counts most is not simply the level of a woman's income, but also the relationship between that pay scale and the price of food and basic necessities, as Wejnert's papers remind us. Throughout the former Soviet bloc, income has generally failed to keep up with rising prices, thus jeopardizing the health of the whole population, especially the most vulnerable -- old people, women, and children. The death rate in many places is higher than the birthrate.[27]

Political Representation

The political gender gap is another respect in which the status of women has diminished in the post-socialist period. For all their lack of democracy, all the Communist Party-led governments did assure considerable political representation of women as legislators, as the articles by Liszek and Wejnert indicate. A quota of parliamentary positions was specifically allocated to women. Women usually had at least one non-voting representative in the Central Committees, the main decision-making committee in each socialist country, though this member was only a token presence who could not give voice to independent views. Still, during the last socialist years of Hungary, for example, women in fact occupied between 17 and 20 percent of the Central Committee posts and between 20 and 33 percent of the parliamentary seats.[28] In Russia, quotas guaranteed women one-third of the seats in the Supreme Soviet. [29]

When the communist regimes collapsed, women themselves abandoned the idea of allocating guaranteed spaces to women in government. This new view rejected quotas because they are not part of the Western democratic institutions, and possibly as unnecessary anyway. Yet the first elections under the "democratic" regimes all showed a predictable sharp drop in the number of women winning seats. In the 1989 Soviet elections, the women deputies elected to the Supreme Soviet fell to 16 percent and in regional and local soviets fell to only 3-7 percent.[30] After the first elections in the Russian Republic in 1990, for example, women constituted only five percent of the deputies. Some people argued that this change was not actually a step backward for females, since these deputies, having won their seats in fair competition with males, would be stronger than the "puppet" female deputies had been before, and would be able to fight harder for women's interests. In fact, however, the women's faction did not take an active stand against the war in Chechnya[31] -- the single issue on which women voters most keenly opposed Yeltsin's policies.

Similar declines in female representation occurred throughout the other previously socialist countries. In 1990, only seven percent of the legislators elected in Hungary were women.[32] In Croatia in 1994 only four percent of the parliamentarians were women.[33] In Romania, the percentage dropped from 34 percent to four percent, and in Czechoslovakia from 30 percent to nine percent.[34]

It is too early to be sure, but there is some reason to believe that the drop in female representation will not last long. In the 1993 elections to the Federal Assembly (the Russian parliament) women were increased to constitute more than 11 percent of the deputies. This change represented a successful effort by a new movement, "Women of Russia," when three women's organizations joined forces to set up a women's faction in the lower house of Parliament, the state Duma. Their campaign platform paid particular attention to free health care and education, human rights, family, the prohibition of violence and pornography, and society-wide peace and reconciliation. Their success was seen as reflecting a reaction against the radical economic reforms which were causing so much pain within Russian society.[35] A similar reaction against radical reforms can be seen in other countries after 1993, some of which restored Communists to power, though without any mandate to bring back the old undemocratic socialism of the pre-Gorbachev era. The 1995 elections brought women to 10 percent of the Duma seats, though only one woman was elected to the upper chamber, the Council of Federation. The women's faction was no longer important in that election, and none of the women politicians who did take office demonstrated any particular leadership.

Apart from Russia, the swing back toward social democracy has not been marked by a significant resurgence of female representation in government. Without the quotas of the communist period, which are not likely to be restored, there is no reason to expect gains in female representation sufficient to bring Eastern countries back above the levels of representation now found in Western countries.

Civic Participation

The "double burden" mentioned above has sometimes been called instead a "triple burden," for not only did socialist women have full responsibility for household maintenance and child care, in addition to their full time paid employment, but they also were expected to participate in the Communist Party and in non-governmental service organizations. However, this third burden could be avoided, to a considerable degree, and indeed communist regimes did not intend for citizens to participate independently in ways that are usual in democratic societies. In any case, it is important to consider in this section the extent to which women did -- and now do -- participate in public affairs, both at the grassroots level of politics and in civil society.

As Siemienska points out, it is not only in the socialist countries but throughout the world that women tend to be more conservative than men in their social values, reluctant to change, less informed about politics, and more readily influenced in their political thinking by personal relationships. Their so-called "conservatism" is, however, offset by a tendency to favor governmental support for social welfare institutions. Moreover, women have generally played prominent roles in social movements for human welfare, such as in peace movements; this pattern holds up in the Eastern and East-Central states as much as anywhere else. For example, women were well-represented in the Polish Solidarity movement and in the Czechoslovak Charta 77 movement but, as we have seen, when those organizations unexpectedly came to power, the activist women did not become part of the new governments.

Women nevertheless continue to serve actively at the grassroots level, both inside political parties and in non-governmental organizations. As Albanese, Slapsak, Licht and Drakulic show, they are particularly numerous and prominent in the anti-nationalist, anti-war movements throughout the former Yugoslavia, even when their activism brought them into conflict with the nationalistic male governments of their new secessionist states. They also provided very real and necessary relief services -- such as collecting food and clothes for war refugees. In Russia, Mothers of Soldiers led a popular grassroots campaign against the war in Chechnya, organized prisoner exchanges, and even traveled to the front to fetch their sons.[36]

Leaving aside acts of this personal nature, it would be wrong to exaggerate the gap between men and women -- even with respect to some forms of political involvement. When we compare the genders in terms of such modest types of political engagement as frequency of voting, the gap between them is generally reduced to a few percentage points. In the Commonwealth of Independent States countries, far fewer women than men said they were "very interested" in politics, but when it came to voting, there almost no gap. Women (especially highly educated women) are also likely to engage in signing petitions.[37] It is only with regard to running for office or other high-involvement political activism that the gender gap widens.

The scarcity of women in high official roles results from a combination of male pressure and from voluntary preference. As Siemienska shows, high status Polish men tend to disapprove of women's occupying such posts. Considerable publicity was generated in her country in the early post-communist years to suggest that most women were eager to become housewives and to avoid either paid or unpaid public roles. There was some truth to this claim, for many active women who had carried their triple loads courageously did hope for a more "ordinary" life than before. Women are more likely than men to reject offered appointments to highly responsible and demanding roles that may conflict with their familial duties. That does not mean they are disengaged at all levels, however; in the Czech Republic, for example, women constitute 70 percent of the members of non-governmental organizations.[38]

Grassroots female activists, whether in the governmental or non-governmental sphere, rarely call themselves feminist. For example, the head of the Women of Russia movement in parliament, Yekaterina Lakhova, openly proclaimed that Eastern women should not follow Western women's claims for equality, which she said are based on putting "women in place of men." Her preference is for women and men to work side by side. Eastern women, as much as their men, view feminism as sheer selfishness. Myra Marx Ferree is not alone in maintaining that the declining well-being of women throughout the East results primarily from that fact: women's refusal to organize effectively in defence of their own common interests.


Most of the patterns that have been described are extremely widespread throughout the post-Socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, one is rarely mistaken when making rather sweeping generalizations about the temporal comparisons without mentioning any exceptions. (Spatial comparisons between East and West are not as consistent, since at some periods some Eastern women's situation had been better than that of their Western counterparts.[39]) Nevertheless, there are a few exceptions to the aforementioned general patterns of changes over time that should be noted here, although none of them are self-evidently explicable.

The most conspicuous difference one finds when comparing different post-socialist countries concerns women's role in the work force. As we have seen, in most of these countries working women have fared poorly as a result of the macro-economic changes and the social expectations about family life. They are often victims of unemployment; the gap between their earnings and those of males have widened; and they are no longer provided with such free services as day-care. If women rarely complain about these conditions it is because of their anti-feminist ideology and because they would in fact prefer to stay home instead of working anyway.

But let us not overlook the exceptions to this generalization. For example, in post-socialist Hungary women are not experiencing high rates of unemployment; indeed, a higher percentage of females than males are employed. In 1996, some 60 percent of that country's unemployed were men.[40] Working women in Czechoslovakia and what had been the German Democratic Republic also depart from some of the generalization outlined above. Czech women do not experience much unemployment and even the feminist researchers among them tend to be more optimistic than Western feminists, with whom they often make quite a point of disagreeing. Some claim that the women of their country have gained more than they lost from the transition to capitalism. To be sure, some women have lost their government jobs and a few have fallen through the social safety net, but other jobs have opened in the private sector, where the pay gap between males and females is narrower. As a result, women's pay ratio increased from 68.4 percent of men's in 1984 to 74.8 percent in 1993. Moreover, a considerable number of women have become entrepreneurs and are doing well. However, their fortunate position in the flourishing Czech economy has not carried them to greater success in other domains, such as politics.[41] On the other hand, given the predominant preference of women not to occupy powerful public roles, it may be true, as Jirina Siklová and others claim, that Czech women have no shortage of self-confidence and are far from considering themselves victims of discrimination.[42]

Working women's situation in the former German Democratic Republic bears some resemblance to the Czech pattern in that East German women who are employed earn about 73 percent as much as working males. However, according to Hildegard Maria Nickel, the German labor market is shrinking and women are more affected by unemployment than men. In 1992, women accounted for 43 percent of the unemployed in the new German states but 78 percent of the long-term jobless. If these women differ from the prevailing patterns throughout the other Eastern countries, it is primarily with respect to their strong desire to work. In other areas, many women wish to return to the traditional housewife's role, even when their family income is too low to make this possible. The East German women, on the other hand, try everything they can to continue in the labor market. According to Nickel, many of them have low prospects of achieving this desire over the long term unless a new industrial labor strategy is implemented to share the limited work more equitably among all who want jobs.[43] If such a major societal change is to be implemented, it will come only as a result of the insistent demands on the part of working women. That, in turn, will require a greater degree of feminist activism than can be observed at present in Germany or any other post-socialist European state. However, if present signs are to be believed, there seems to be little likelihood that German women will become restive enough to press for such changes in the near future. Indeed, Myra Marx Ferree pointed out in her chapter that, "At the point of unification, East German feminists had already passed the point of their maximum mobilization and impact." Along with their sisters in the other Eastern countries, these women frequently deny that they are feminists, though Ferree concurs with Nickel's opinion that they emphatically do not wish to quit their jobs.

Finally, it is worth mentioning one other important exception to the general pattern. In most areas nationalistic or religious groups have tried to outlaw abortion, and even where this was not accomplished by legislation, the actual rates of abortion have generally declined somewhat.

The exceptions to this pattern are Bulgaria and Romania, where the period of socialism was not marked as elsewhere by the guaranteed right to free abortions, but rather by pronatalist policies that severely restricted them. Immediately after the revolutions of 1989, the new regimes moved toward liberalizing abortion. Everyone was conscious of the terrible effects of imposing childbirth on unwilling women; around the world television audiences witnessed scenes of abandoned children in Romanian orphanages. Since that time, no new efforts have been made in those countries to curtail abortions, which therefore are far more numerous than during the socialist period.[44]

These few examples -- Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the new German provinces -- provide the main exceptions with respect to women's place in the labor force, while Bulgaria and Romania provide the main exceptions with respect to abortion rights. Otherwise, the patterns that have been described elsewhere seem to be fairly consistent throughout post-socialist Europe. Thus we must, at last, attempt to make sense of these trends.


The euphoria surrounding the peaceable revolutions of 1989-91 was not misplaced. The ending of communism as practiced in Eastern Europe represented an overall advance for freedom and probably will, in the long term, produce many other economic and social advantages. Still, the painful consequences are very evident during the last years of the twentieth century, and among the most painful are the deteriorating conditions that are typically experienced by the women of the region. The heavy price they are paying has been objectively described in this book and in other articles and books dealing with the same theme. No longer can anyone reasonably challenge the conclusion that women are bearing a disproportionate share of the disadvantages in the transition from communism.

If this result is observable in every post-socialist society, does that mean that it was a necessary, inevitable outcome? Or was it a mistake that might have been avoided by wiser planners? (In truth, of course, the transition from communism was unplanned, so that little credit or blame can be pinned on anyone for the surprising ways in which it took place.) Nevertheless, one can argue plausibly that many women were unthinkingly complicit in unnecessary errors by having failed to defend their own interests.

The word "failed" here is expressed in the past tense, but the failure is still going on. Central and East European women, even as they watch policies being made that run counter to their own interests and values, generally continue to refrain from objecting. Their rationale for acquiescing is that they do not want to resemble the feminists of the West whom they see as strident, anti-male shrews. Yet, as Myra Marx Ferree and other contributors to this book have asserted, no solutions will be adopted unless the women themselves state their grievances and mobilize to enact social changes. This book would be incomplete and the basic findings would be inexplicable if we did not offer its Western readers a sympathetic analysis of the Eastern distaste for feminism. Such distaste is not entirely alien in the West, where the premises behind anti-feminism can also be found, to a lesser extent.

Few women in post-socialist countries deny the typical facts about their declining circumstances -- the worsening trends affecting their employment opportunities, health care, domestic violence, political representation, and the like -- but many of them do reject any inference from these facts that they are oppressed or that they have less power than men. Typically they insist that they do not want to work at all, and certainly do not want to wield power in government or industry. In part, this is a reaction against the "double" or "triple" burden they have long carried by performing most of the household chores on top of their full-time paid jobs and their duties to the Party. However, Western women also experience a substantial double burden without concluding that the solution to their problems would be to quit their paid jobs. Therefore, some other factor must be added to the equation if we are to explain the difference between the Eastern and Western programs of reform. All too often, Western feminists and Eastern non-feminists each regard the other perspective as hopelessly naive, whereas they would be more accurate in attributing these differences to dissimilar past experiences.

Two clues from this book may shed some light on the disparity between these clashing ideologies. The first comes from Svetlana Slapsak's comparison between the traditional male "vampire husband" and the "mortal lover" of the Communist persuasion, who bestowed all kinds of rights and benefits on women -- generous maternity leave, free medical care and abortions, reserved seats in parliament, and so on. Despite all the inefficiencies and repressive politics of socialism, at least formally and to some extent actually, the rights that women in those states enjoyed surpassed those available to Western women in capitalist societies. However, their gallant, generous man, the "mortal lover," has disappeared with the overthrow of communism and Eastern European women find themselves increasingly being victimized again by the old "vampire husband," patriarchy.

The second clue comes from Myra Marx Ferree, who does not glorify the communist period. However, instead of calling the Eastern European women "non-feminists," she maintains that in their countries feminism is "non-institutionalized" -- having already been "de-institutionalized" by the abolition of the communist system. The Eastern bloc states used to maintain large bureaucracies that managed women's affairs. The females who occupied those roles were the country's official "feminists," whatever ordinary women might think of them. When that bureaucratic structure was dismantled, women had to create new structures to replace them.

Whereas Western feminists had built up their own independent feminist organizations with great difficulty over a long period of time, there had been no comparable "civil society" in the East and no freedom for citizens to form non-governmental organizations. The official women's organizations had been set up by the Party on behalf of women. In this sense, communism (or Slapsak's "mortal lover") gave these institutions to women without their having to fight for them. When those structures were "de-institutionalized" most women found themselves inexperienced and averse to demanding their rights or organizing new independent projects, as Western women have been doing. Even had they been able to restore the old structures, they would not have wanted to do so, as one Russian writer, Tatyana Tolstaya, explains.

Women in the West [who] always ask why so few women in our country hold government and other leading posts don't imagine how many women tyrants have made themselves comfortable in these posts and are tormenting both sexes. Female bureaucracy is more horrible than its male counterpart -- a male bureaucrat can still be moved to pity by one's belonging to the fair sex, whereas a female bureaucrat can't be moved by anything.[45]

It seems natural, then, for the Eastern women to wait patiently for the male government to restore their former benefits and rights. Western women, on the other hand, had no such "mortal lover" and do not expect the government or employers to give them anything except what they have fought for and won -- an approach that sometimes is, indeed, unpleasantly combative. As Tatyana Tolstaya says, "Western women feminists have teeth like sharks."

She has a point. To raise objections is inherently disagreeable, and those who take the leadership in a new cause are inevitably perceived as nagging. (For example, if today most non-smokers can say, "Yes, I do mind!" when a smoker asks permission to light up, we can do so only because a few fearless leaders began saying that some years ago, when it was still an obnoxious thing to do.) Western feminists, who have won their victories by dint of their own bold organizing, somewhat pity their Eastern counterparts for being toothless sharks who can win nothing for themselves, but depend on their male-dominated establishment benefactors to bestow rights upon them.

Incidentally, the extraordinary historic role of the "mortal lover" is relevant to an old, unresolved debate among social scientists as to the relative causal significance of culture versus social structure. It is ironical that Marxists, for all their insistence on the primacy of material interests in shaping ideologies, were the chief promoters of the doctrine of equality between the sexes. The "mortal lover," Communists, gave women rights that they had not demanded, for no reason other than a principled adherence to Marxist ideology. And we see another demonstration of the primacy of culture over material interests today, when post-socialist women are objectively suffering from material deprivation that requires political and social reform. However much they may need the method of feminism, however, they eschew it for a cultural reason: they cannot identify with women whom they collectively perceive as aggressive and sharp-toothed .

Of course, there could be a different reason for declining to use feminist methods: the empirical question as to what works. Do feminist sharks win more benefits than gentler members of what Tolstaya still quaintly calls "the fair sex"? Though it is not a question that I have ever heard Eastern women ask, it is a fair question that they probably should ask. The answer is ambiguous. Western feminists evidently have made significant gains in the political and economic spheres through rather tough measures. On the other hand, there is much less evidence of their progress in bringing gender equity to family life. As Arlie Hochschild has shown, the Western woman's double burden -- her "second shift" of domestic work --has not been conspicuously equalized during the past generation. Hochschild's interviews with dual career families shows that husbands often continue to avoid their share of the household chores, no matter how the wives justify their request for change. Sometimes the wife simply gives up, realizing that she has only two options: do much of his work for him, or break up the marriage.[46] In this respect, Western and Eastern women face much the same predicament and, whether they call themselves feminists or not, they both lack a workable solution.

At least in this area, female solidarity should be possible for, despite their hostility to Western feminism, few Eastern women seem satisfied with the men in their lives. Yet oddly, if Tolstaya is to be taken as representing Russian womanhood, they derive a certain pleasure from feeling superior to these good-for-nothing husbands. Indeed, it is precisely because they are superior that they have no need to achieve anything in public life. They do not want a career, for example, because they are already supremely powerful in their own domestic domain, and reigning there seems to suffice. Tolstaya calls Russia a "matriarchy." She admits that women bear disproportionate and unfair hardships, but that only proves how strong they are -- and how despicably weak are their men. Tolstaya argues that women have little professional ambition because they derive so much satisfaction from their immense domestic power.

Russian women so often exude such a strong, psychologically overpowering aura that men, floundering helplessly like moths in the wind, are only to be pitied. A Russian woman is entirely mistress of her household, the children belong to her and to her alone, the family often doesn't even ask for male advice, or only consults men to clarify a situation: women will do things their way in any event. ... Men are the property of women; if this property betrays, or runs away, or decides to lay down its own law -- it will receive its just desserts....[47]

And it is not only Russian women who are portrayed as superior to men and therefore above all the usual male foolishness. The Czech writer Eva Hauser recounts the published interview with a prominent woman psychologist in her country who "implied that if you are a mother (and if you are a woman, you can't be genuinely fulfilled in any other way), you can wisely ignore all those silly masculine games like parliament, the government, politics, and a good job."[48]

If we accept this portrayal of strong women and weak men (and I am not sure we should) we must try to explain it. At least two possible explanations have been proposed, both of which hinge on the oppressive influence of the communist system.

The first explanation focuses on the processes by which domestic life came to be valued above public life. Tolstaya reminds us that every Soviet citizen, but especially men, used to be expected to participate in an "official" round of public activities that amounted to nothing but lies. It was mandatory to hold a job and to participate in official life, but women could sometimes evade these duplicitous public roles by escaping into domestic activities. Even in this post-socialist era they still see jobs and political participation as duties "imposed" on them by the Soviet regime, which they hope somehow to evade. Men, on the other hand, were unable to escape into their families; thus they were more often morally compromised or crushed in the public realm and, to this day, the effects can be seen in their weaker character: their alcoholism, apathy toward work, and negligence or absence as fathers. This explanation equates state socialism with feminism, which are jointly blamed for the "emasculation" of men by legislating an "unnatural" equality between the sexes.[49]

The second explanation is not incompatible with the first, but is a variant of it. This is a conservative theory that blames the socialist state for generating the distorted relations between men and women. However, by this account, the state brought about this unfortunate result, not by the oppressiveness of its public life, but instead by liberating women. Socialist countries guaranteed equality between the sexes and offered assistance to women in raising their children and in finding housing. Women could be dependent on the state and therefore could be independent of men. According to this theory, many women chose to rely on the state instead of on their own families, and many men concluded that the state and women had relieved them of their obligations to their families.[50] On this account, by abolishing assistance to women, the post-socialist state will begin the process of rebuilding the nuclear family.

It is worth noting here that both of these theories treat the communist regime as the villain of the story, not as Slapsak's "mortal lover" who rescued women from the harshness of their previous circumstances. Or anyway, if the communist state seemed to be a rescuer, its long-term effects worked against the well-being of women.

We need not appraise these theories here, for it is important to explain neither the superior attitude of East Central European women toward their menfolk, nor their disdain for the Western feminists who want to be treated on an equal basis to men. The first important thing is to acknowledge that domesticity ultimately makes a poor refuge for women, and that to participate in civic affairs is a moral obligation for adults of both sexes. The second important thing is a challenging task: to open (or re-open) the public realm of citizenship to women of all societies. It is sheer idiocy to call politics, economic affairs, or civil society "male games." These are human games -- and immensely worth playing. To win this competition against the looming dangers of the next century will require the public participation of all humankind, male and female together.


[1]Urie Bronfenbrenner, Two Worlds of Childhood (New York, Russell Sage, 1970).
[2]Fran Markowitz, "Striving for Feminity: (Post) Soviet Un-Feminism," Canadian Woman Studies 16 (1), 1995, p. 38.
[3]VCIOM Poll in Russia, cited by Penny Morvant, "Bearing the 'Double Burden' in Russia," Transition, September 1995, p. 6.
[4]Poll of 2,000 adults throughout Russia, August 1994 by All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion. Cited by Valentina Bodrova, "The Russian Family in Flux," Transition September 1995, p. 11.
[5]Issraelyan discusses this matter in the present volume and her views are confirmed by Penny Morvant, op. cit. p. 5. Domestic violence may have become more common in the former Yugoslavia than in any other country. Kim Lane Scheppele, "Women's Rights in Eastern Europe," unpublished manuscript available by Internet. Scheppele is Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan.
[6]Siem 2.
[7]Issraelyan and ibid.
[8]Alessandra Stanley, "Russian Mothers, From All Walks, Walk Alone," New York Times, July 1995.
[9]Beth Richardson, "Women in Russia: The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same," Canadian Woman Studies, 16 (1) 1995, p50. This article reviews the accessibility, supply, and price of various contraceptive products in Russia.
[10]James P. Gallagher, Tribune staff writer, "Russians Wising Up to Contraceptives. Abortion No Longer Their Only Option," Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1995. Available by Internet.
[11]Scheppele op. cit.
[12] St. Petersburg Press, July 1996, reported on the results of a World Health Organization program which significantly reduced abortion mortality rates. "Abortion Deaths Still Too High," St. Petersburg Press, 1996.
[13]Jaroslava Stastna, "New Opportunities in the Czech Republic," Transition, September 1995, p. 25. Catholics are not without influence in the Czech lands but so far have not been able to bring the abortion issue to the legislature. The same can be said of Catholic Lithuania.
[14]Scheppele, op. cit.
[15]Rada Ivekovic, "Women, Democracy and Nationalism After 1989: The Yugoslav Case," in Canadian Woman Studies 16 (1) Winter 1995, p. 11.
[16]Randall Collins, Conflict Sociology: Toward an Explanatory Science (New York: Academic Press, 1975), p. 241.
[17]Geoffrey York, "Statistics on Birth Defects in Russia Are Staggering," The Globe and Mail, July 30, 1995.
[18]Alena Vodakova, "K otazce zenske prace" (On the Question of Female Labor), Sociologicky casopis, no. 27, 1991. (Prague); for Russia, see Richardson, op cit, p. 49.
[19]Stastna, op cit. p. 25.
[20]In 1981, the average salary of full-time, full-year (as opposed to seasonal) Canadian female workers was about 64 percent of that of men who worked full time. Citing Statistics Canada data, Louise Brown reported in "Working Women's Column" Toronto Star, June 3, 1983.
[21]Anastasia Posadskaya, "A Feminist Critique of Policy, Legislation and Social Consciousness in Post-socialist Russia," Women in Russia: A New Era in Russian Feminism, ed Anastasia Posadskaya. (London: Verso, 1994), pp 164-183.
[22]Richardson, op. cit. p. 49.
[23]Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak, "Practical Concerns and Political Protest in Post-Soviet Ukraine," Transition, September 1995, p.16.
[24]Hildegard Maria Nickel, "Women Amid Social Transformation: The Dual Transformation in Germany and its Ambivalent Consequences," Canadian Women Studies 16 (1) Winter 1995, p. 64.
[25]Katalin Fabian, "Unexpressionism? Challenges to the Formation of Women's Groups in Hungary," Canadian Women Studies 16 (1) Winter 1995, p. 82.
[26]Stastna, p. 25.
[27]Bohachevsky-Chomiak, p. 16.
[28]Fabian, op. cit. p. 81.
[29]Yevgenia Issraelyan, "Women's Activism in Russia: Losses and Gains 1989-1993," Canadian Woman Studies 16(1) Winter 1995, p. 77.
[30]Patrice C. McMahon, "The Effect of Economic and Political Reforms on Soviet/Russian Women," Nahid Aslanbeigui, Steven Pressman, and Gale Summerfield, eds., Women in the Age of Economic Transformation (London: Routledge Press, 1994). See also Susan Gigli, "Toward Increased Participation in the Political Process," Transition, September 1995, p. 18.
[31]Issraelyan, "Women's Activism..."p. 78.
[32]Fabian, p. 81.
[33]Nina Czeglody, "Bread and Roses in Zagreb," Canadian Woman Studies 16(1) Winter 1995, p. 99.
[34]Gail Kligman, "Women and the Feminization of Poverty," in James R. Millar and Sharon L. Wolchik, eds., The Social Legacy of Communism (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Cambridge University Press, 1994).
[35]Issraelyan, "Women's Activism..." p. 77.
[36]For their activism, these mothers received the Rafto-Award for 1995.
[37]Susan Gigli, "Toward Increased Participation..." p. 19.
[38]Jaroslava Stastna, "New Opportunities in the Czech Republic," Transition, September 1995, p. 26. citing unpublished Prague survey data.
[39] This may have been especially true in Yugoslavia; see Licht and Drakulic in this volume, as well as Rada Ivekovic, "Women, Democracy, and Nationalism After 1989 -- The Yugoslav Case," Canadian Women Studies 16 (1) Winter 1995, p. 10. Ivekovic states that "Far from being problematic, the status of women in some East European 'socialist' countries (not Romania, obviously, but the GDR or the former Yugoslavia, for example) was for the most part... better than in the West."
[40]Judit Acsady, "Shifting Attitudes and Expectations in Hungary," Transition, September 1995, p. 22.
[41]Jaroslava Stastna, "New Opportunities ..." p. 24.
[42]Jirina Siklová, Prague Gender Studies Centre, No. 7. Praha, 1994.
[43]Hildegard Maria Nickel, "Women Amid Social Transformation..." pp. 65-68
[44]Scheppele, "Women's Rights in Eastern Europe," op. cit.
[45]Tatyana Tolstaya, "In a Land of Conquered Men," Moscow News, 24 September - 1 October 1989, p. 13, as quoted by Helena Goscilo, Dehexing Sex: Russian Womanhood During and After Glasnost (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996) p. 1.
[46]Arlie Hochschild, The Second Shift (New York: Penguin, 1989).
[47]Tatyana Tolstaya, "Notes from Underground," New York Review of Books, May 31, 1990, pp. 4-5.
[48]Eva Hauser, "How and Why Do Czech Women Organize? (Altos, Sopranos, and a Few Discordant Voices)" Canadian Woman Studies Winter 1995, p. 89.
[49]Along these lines, see Barbara Einhorn, Cinderella Goes to Market: Citizenship, Gender and Women's Movements in East Central Europe. (London: Verso, 1993).
[50]It may be noted that this theory resembles the conservative view in Western countries that, by providing aid to dependent children, the state had encouraged illegitimacy. It is on this basis that welfare is being superseded by alternative systems that are, overall, less generous.