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Gender Politics and Post-Communism: Reflections from Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.

By traditional Eastern European standards, a single woman in her late 20s like myself is considered an old maid. "If you don't get married while you're young and innocent, no one will want you later," our mothers used to predict, with wisdom and certainty in their voices, while their swollen hands were washing dishes or clothes in the aluminum tub. The cartoon on the cover of Gender Politics and Post-Communism, portraying the Eastern European woman, pregnant with her "double burden" (children climbing her head and shoulders; shopping bags, a hammer and a door in her hands; dressed and made up for work, her high heels marching all over the map of Eastern Europe), could easily pass for a portrait of our mothers or of ourselves.

This picture reminds me of the time, not that long ago, when my friends and I, all women born during the 1960s - overeducated, underpaid and treated as if we were too immature for positions of responsibility - sat around late-night tables dreaming of the Man (and the future society) who would change our lives. He would be paid enough to provide for his family, so there would be no need for us to work 9 to 5 and earn the second salary in the household; to educate our children alone; to stand in food lines and carry overloaded shopping bags; to be the sole person responsible for the cleaning, cooking and ironing; to entertain guests for drinks every evening; to be always dressed up with perfect manicures and well-coiffed hair, i.e., a desirable sex object, in order to compete with the women at his office and "save the marriage"; to be loving and passive, without ambitions for careers of our own; to survive through the everyday pressure of what is known in the West as "sexual harassment" in a society where rape is considered a true expression of manhood and where the unwritten requirement for a woman to advance at work is to become her boss's lover; to march three times a year on national holidays by a reviewing stand and be greeted by Communist Party leaders; to celebrate the 8th of March, the only day of the year when men take women out to a restaurant instead of expecting their dinners to be served - to be a Superwoman.

Instead of being thankful for the privilege of the Communist "equality" with men, which forced women to climb scaffolding, to get black lung disease in coal mines, to drive tractors and harvesters and hand-milk cows for pennies at the collective farms, we dreamed of the promised inequality of capitalism, which peeped occasionally from the glossy pages of six-month-old issues of Vogue or Burda, and sometimes its bright colors flashed in our eyes through the cracks in the Berlin wall, together with a package of perfumed Tampax or a pair of blue jeans. (As Slavenka Drakulic put it in How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Communism failed, if for no other reason, because for more than seventy years of existence it could not invent and provide tampons and sanitary napkins.)

The beginning was an angry women's demonstration in Prague, protesting the lack of menstrual pads and cotton at the Czechoslovak state-controlled market in 1989. On the night of November 9, people started to tear down the Berlin wall; brick by brick they were widening the opening toward the bright future. In Romania during the December 1989 "television revolution," women stood together with men against the tanks on the bloody streets of Timisoara. For a while it seemed like the long-awaited future of Eastern Europe already had begun. Gender discrimination and inequality were not issues: For years women and men had an enemy in common - the Big Brother of totalitarian uniformity, which kept everybody equally poor, equally uninformed, equally controlled, equally not free to choose and equally brainwashed by the dogma of unfriendly "isms".

Breathlessly running toward the imagined freedom of the big velvet change of 1989, Eastern European women experienced a horrible awakening. Sex discrimination suddenly came close to being official policy in most of Eastern Europe. During the past three years, a time of growing unemployment, women generally have been the first to be laid off, a reflection of the resurfacing of the traditional view of the male as breadwinner. In Russia, for example, women account for 70 percent of the people registered as unemployed; about 60 percent of the unemployed in Poland, Bulgaria and the former East Germany are women. At the same time, statistics show an increase in the number of female-headed single-parent families, in which women have absolutely no choice but to work: They account for 30 percent of all families in eastern Germany, 10 percent in Hungary and more than 10 million women in Russia.

In February, Genady Melikyan, the Russian Labor Minister, captured the new government policy toward women in Eastern Europe: "Why should we employ women when men are unemployed? It's better that men work and women take care of children and do housework. I don't want women to be offended, but I don't think women should work while men are doing nothing." Many women in Eastern Europe would not find this statement threatening or insulting, but would see it as granting them the long-awaited privilege of being women and mothers first - a concept not quite comprehensible to women in the West. In the East, the only ones who recognize the dangers inherent in the latest economic troubles are some small newborn feminist groups, professional women and single mothers.

If the first signs of today's anti-woman trend were expressed in the new labor laws and practices, what followed was far more clearly aimed at restricting women's right to choose. The Catholic Church together with the Solidarity-based government in Poland succeeded in their long-term efforts to ban abortion almost unconditionally; the new law went into effect in March [see Ann Snitow, "The Church Wins, Women Lose," April 26]. That same month the Russian Parliament discussed for the third time the new draft family law, which speaks of "the right of the person from conception" (language identical with Article One of the Polish abortion law) and of husbands and wives having equal rights to decide about the birth of children.

In this moment of uncertainty, misunderstanding and renewed fears for women's future in the East, Nanette Funk, an associate professor of philosophy at Brooklyn College, and Magda Mueller, an assistant professor of German studies at Stanford University, have assembled the first anthology of essays on the status of women in Eastern Europe to appear in the United States. Thirty-three women authors - scholars, journalists, writers, politicians, activists and former dissidents - represent Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech and Slovak republics, former Yugoslavia, former East Germany, Hungary, Poland and the former Soviet Union, sharing their views on each country's specific situation.

Among the long list of issues in debate, the editors identify several major themes mentioned in one way or another in every essay: nationalism; economic transformation; differences from country to country; collective identity and culture; democracy, civil society and the state (women and the state, participation in politics); sexual politics and women's bodies (abortion sexuality, lesbianism); philosophical issues (fear of "isms," and the consequent resistance to Western feminism); and traditional values and the remnants of the Communist past. The book not only covers the "hot topics" for women in post-Communist Eastern Europe but, more important, lays the groundwork for a larger and unavoidable discussion between Western and Eastern women, outlining the most important differences in both agendas.

It's a well-known fact that Communism debased language and thought. A sophisticated version of Orwellian "news-peak" worked for decades to deconstruct thought and communication between individuals and groups. The most effective way to abort dissent was to replace the true meaning of ideas with newly created myths and stereotypes expressed by empty, wordy definitions constantly repeated (at school, at the university, through the media) until they lost whatever meaning they may once have had. Much of Western feminist lingo falls into this category.

As the book's introduction points out, concepts such as "left", "emancipation," "solidarity," "socialism," "women's equality" and even more innocent ones used in everyday life, such as "restaurant," "day care," "housework" and "shopping" have totally different meanings in the East and West. Some concepts don't even exist in Eastern Europe, such as "sexual harassment."

"Feminism" itself has a completely different set of associations, and is often regarded with hostility, as many authors discuss. For most Eastern European women, feminism, and especially the feminist theory that flourishes in the West, is an intellectual luxury without any practical connection with their own lives. Feminism is viewed as just another "ism," an ideology that would require women to take on even more work than had been required in the past by the "double burden" of Communist "emancipation," and that would also restrict their freedom to choose the kind of lives they want - something that they fear the most.

Communist policy attempted to shape women socially in the image of men. The only way for women to escape what they saw as forced masculinization - the glorification of heavy labor and shapeless clothing - was to emphasize their femininity. Because of antifeminist Western propaganda, most Eastern European women believe that Western feminists imitate men and consciously deny their femininity. "Discourse between East and West is also pervaded by negative stereotypes on both sides: of American and Western feminists as |man-haters' or of post-communist women as simply having bought into sexism and having subordinated themselves to the family."

The book discusses such concepts as "socialist feminism" and "full employment," which have extremely different meanings among Eastern and Western women. Eniko Bollobas writes from Hungary:

The various benefits women enjoyed in the communist societies, such as full employment, free health care, maternity leave, and cheap abortion, only sound appealing to foreign observers, to whom these words have different and much more positive meanings. In Hungarian - as well as Czech, Slovak, Polish and Russian - these words sound pitiful, cheap, poor, and gloomy, because that is the reality they evoke. When in Hungary we hear about full employment, we know that it has the effect of killing ambition and initiative in millions of people, and that it masked unemployment. When we hear about free health care we do not picture an American hospital but an overcrowded, under-manned, under-equipped, underdeveloped Eastern European hospital. When we hear about maternity leave we know how much it pays and that the practice generates underachievement.

Gender Politics and Post-Communism is a first attempt to give voice to women who have been silenced for decades, and as such it opens the door for a friendly conversation and better understanding between the East and the West. A final example of the need for ongoing dialogue appears at the end of the book. In How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, Drakulic includes an essay called "A Letter From the United States - The Critical Theory Approach," a response to a letter from an American feminist requesting that she contribute a piece of writing for a "critical theory" anthology on women in Eastern Europe. In her response Drakulic describes the rise of a sex industry in Hungary and prostitution in Romania, and the threat to reproductive choice throughout Eastern Europe. "We are unprepared, confused, without organization or movement yet," Drakulic concludes. "Perhaps we are even afraid to call ourselves feminists.... We definitely don't have answers for you. A Critical Theory approach? Maybe in ten years. In the meantime, why don't you try asking us something else?"

Nanette Funk reveals in her own last chapter that she was the feminist who wrote to Drakulic: "She [Drakulic] was critical, if at points grudgingly complimentary, about the American woman's persona, clothes, and hair, calling her |surprisingly [for an American feminist, presumably] dressed with style.'" Funk writes:

One can only imagine the reactions of that American woman upon reading this account. Well, not quite, since I am that American woman. I was hurt, outraged, and angry.... Yet I began to reflect on this interaction. Were Slavenka Drakulic's essay and my reaction only individual responses, they would not be significant. But they are symptomatic of the risks, tensions, and difficulties inherent in discourse between Eastern and Western women.
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Author:Katzarova, Mariana
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 26, 1993
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