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Gender studies for a civil society: a Russian experience.

The terms "civil society," "gender," and "gender studies" have become part of contemporary social-political and cultural lexicons as well as tangible forces shaping the modern world. In different world regions, civil society arises under different conditions and has varied political characteristics. The institutionalization of gender issues in academia also differs across regions and can depend on a host of factors, including political culture, behavioral norms and traditions in the academy, and cultural expectations. Although they develop in different ways and in different situations, civil society and gender evidently influence and foster the development of one another. There appears to be a connection between the teaching of gender issues and the creation of civil society. The widening of educational borders to include gender undoubtedly stimulates the creation and development of social consciousness necessary for civil society.

The classical model of civil society is based on the Greek political philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. The concept of social contract and the concept of rights were developed during the Enlightenment by Bacon, Hobbs, Locke, and Grotius. Their theories emphasized the principle of personal freedom and the ideas of the self-worth of every person, respect for private property, and economic activity.

In the nineteenth century, the idea of civil society became a political reality in Europe. The theory of civil society was developed by Hegel, who considered civil society as a part of a civil state. (1) Alexis de Tocqueville enriched the theory, presenting civil society as a network of independent associations or organizations that exist parallel to the state. (2)

The question of the existence of civil society is still debated. Some theorists currently see civil society as synonymous with market economy and private property; others (on the orthodox left) consider the idea of the division of civil society and state as negative; and a third group deems civil society to be an autonomous structure, an early liberal stage in the development of capitalism. The representatives of liberal and moderate conservative traditions believe that civil society and state complete one another.

Beginning with Locke, theorists often posited private property as the basis of personal freedom. Private property creates many centers of economic power, excludes the centralization of power by one person or group, and balances the power of the state. (This theory only applied to men, however; women's claim to own property was not deemed legitimate.) If the state does not possess a monopoly on economic opportunity, society is guaranteed a certain degree of economic and political freedom.

The existence of alternative resources as means of subsistence guarantees freedom of choice in different spheres of social life. Therefore, the criteria for the real existence of a civil society are the division of private property and state power and the division of economic and political issues. Because of this tendency, individualism, proclaiming personal freedom and privacy, is the main theoretical resource of the concept of civil society and the stimulus for social development and the creation of democracy. Personal freedom can exist only with free economic choice, which assumes the limitation of state power in the economic sphere.

History suggests that there is no single road map to civil society. Indeed, even states with a long-lasting democratic tradition do not have the unique model of classic civil society. The diversity of forms of civil society mirrors the diversity of its civil initiatives according to the peculiarities of its political and cultural traditions. The range of social initiatives in modern society is very wide, and the entities that foster such initiatives can include social welfare organizations, ecology activists, defenders of justice, youth movements, ethnic groups, special interest clubs, sports associations, and women's movements. Such nongovernmental organizations, independent of official power, are the building blocks of civil society. Their primary merit is that they function independently of government and express concrete social interests. Thus, modern political theory (derived from classic theories) becomes reality as the property of ordinary consciousness. (3)

There are two distinct approaches to the discussion of the civil society in current Russia. The first is political. According to this vision, the primary features of civil society are independence from state power; a stable system of social institutions; and the ability of social institutions to influence state policy. This approach is shared by many researchers in Russia, including G.Diligensky, (4) T.Zaslavskaya, (5) Z.Golenkova, (6) and others, the majority of whom think that civil society in Russia is in its early stages of development and point to numerous obstacles blocking the positive process. Some, on the other hand, believe that civil society in Russia is rather developed. T.Yarygina, for example, President of the Academy for "Civil Society," assumes that in the Russian case, development has moved from the realm of theory into the realities of everyday political and social life. (7)

The second approach to understanding civil society is existential and dates back to the anti-Marxist ideas of the famous Russian philosopher Berdyaev. Supporters of this point of view (B. Koval', for example (8)) argue that the individual is the only subject of politics and of all social evolution. As Berdyaev said, "It is not the person who is part of society, but it is the society that is part of a person." In this view, civil society is composed of creative independent individuals.

The second approach is used in analyzing the influence of gender studies on civil society and understanding the importance of teaching gender in creating independent individuals. At the same time, it is important to note that the political and existential approaches supplement each other.

The institutions and norms of contemporary geopolitics also influence the development of civil society--for example, the integration of economics and education, the ecological movement, and globalization in all spheres. Civil society assumes that citizens have awareness of the law and a high level of political culture.

Education plays a critical role in the development of legal and political culture. The program documents of UNESCO (9) emphasize the leading role of education in the formation of individuals with modern political consciousness. The creation of civil society is impossible without increasing the level of political culture of the students. Higher education could be one of the main factors in the creation of civil society. We should preserve the traditional basis of education, but, at the same time, the modern model of education must include the new series of innovations stimulated by the development of modern society.

One of the vivid examples of the transformation of the classical model of education is the emergence of gender studies in higher education. Gender studies has become the main discipline able to approach the classic subjects with modern methods and new understanding of the personality in the system of socio-cultural relationships. Gender studies is an educational strategy that can render a breakthrough in consciousness and knowledge and can transform society to make the world more equitable for women and men.

The process of institutionalizing gender studies as a discipline in Russia began in the 1990s. Sociology in particular became the basis for incorporating gender understanding in academia. Even during the Soviet era, sociologists included sex stratification in quantitative methods involving the problems of family, occupations, etc. But the concept of gender and gender inequality was overlooked in these studies due to the ideology of the period, which implied that equality of the sexes was achieved in Soviet society. Beginning in the early 1990s, however, more and more Russian researchers started using Western concepts of gender inequality in their work.

The first university courses on gender were initiated by university prefessors. Their courses were characterized by the introduction of new gender terms and categories. This curriculum revision became possible because the general crisis in the educational system of Russia involved the closing down of some ideological disciplines as well as the need to introduce new ones. A variety of gender courses are now offered at different institutions in Russia, especially at universities in Moscow and St. Petersburg. As for the provincial universities, it is too early to speak about gender studies as a separate discipline, as it is often incorporated into other subjects (such as history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and cultural studies).

Unfortunately, many efforts at institutionalizing gender studies, especially in the provincial cities, are hampered by university administration. Students are not allowed to select their own disciplines; instead, strict course requirements are imposed on them. Gender studies can occupy only a small place in the curriculum of a system in which humanities courses are being eliminated, faculty compete for lecture hours, and a conservative, all-male administration wields the greatest influence.

Gender studies has more support in private colleges that have connections with foreign institutions and foundations. For instance, the most complex program of gender studies is taught by the faculty of sociology and political science at the European University--a private independent institute for postgraduate students funded by three U.S. foundations (Soros, MacArthur, and Ford) in St.Petersburg. (10)

The practical goal of teaching gender studies in Russia is first of all to change the attitudes and self-perceptions of the female students and to improve their status and respect for themselves and other women. Other goals are to awaken women's social self-consciousness and encourage social activity, as well as to help male students realize their place in the world and understand new and old gender relationships.

Gender studies makes it possible to analyze different women's activities in the process of creating a civil society. On the one hand, gender studies gives women the tools to evaluate their role and status in private life and the family. On the other hand, gender awareness also enables women to be more flexible in new economic situations, including the challenge of the market economy (especially in small and medium-sized businesses). Gender studies, and women's awareness of their status in current and historical terms, makes women more likely to create new forms of political and cultural organizations.

Currently in Russia, gender studies exists as a "school" for teaching the basic principles of citizenship and democratic participation in affairs of the state. One of the basic methodological tasks of teaching gender studies is to create democratic ways of thinking and behavior among students and encourage tolerance and respect for other people. These qualities will foster the widening of the social base of civil society in Russia. Because of the recent dramatic changes in the social, political, economic, and cultural spheres in Russia, the relationships between the individual and the society are also transforming. As the importance of the individual increases in contemporary Russian society, the problem of gender relationships is becoming one of the most important facets of the post-So-viet period.

Women have the opportunity to transform modern Russian society. Gender studies allows them to analyze different aspects of women's activity in the process of creating civil society. First, gender studies incorporates a focus on the political and legal status of women. Women realize their new situation in the rapidly changing and sometimes unstable world where the frames of gender stereotypes sometimes rapidly change. Problems that were formerly ignored, shunned, or thought not to be urgent have become real.

It is important to recognize that teaching gender is not limited to female issues. It includes solving philosophical, sociological, psychological, and economic problems connected with gender. During the last ten years, such spheres of gender studies as gender economics, gender politics, gender law, and gender sociology have emerged. Now we can and should look at traditional social sciences through gender glasses. Traditional political theory was based on the assumption that women would not participate in the political process. A woman was not recognized as a citizen and was denied the right to own property; her dependence on family and her non-individual status were not considered problematic, because women were believed to be naturally--biologically and metaphysically--inferior. A great transformation has taken place in this sphere, however, thanks to frequent, active discussions of the role and status of women as political subjects. The start of a women's movement is visible in the modern Russian political process, and the issues of men's comprehension of gender roles, relations between the sexes, the body, sexuality, and reproduction have emerged as topics of discussion in academic classes.

Civil society in turn influences the development of gender studies. Nongovernmental women's and feminist organizations also make an impact on the theoretical discourse of gender. Civil society provides a nongovernmental-based arena where issues regarding women's status as social and political actors are played out. The institutions of civil society--for example, nongovernmental organizations of women--provide access to information, including data about women's real situation in Russia, that can set the terms of the debate.

In contemporary Russia, gender problems are exacerbated by the social problems of transition, particularly in the large cities, where unemployment, violence against women, and other social problems are more large-scale and diverse. Gender studies must work out theoretical instruments and adequate practical methods for solving these current gender problems.

In my experience of teaching gender studies at Voronezh State University and analyzing the syllabi for many other gender courses in Russia, I have discovered that the discipline here is limited to political, social, and economical issues, and that gender studies courses are usually highly theoretical. The failure of a number of topics--e.g., sexuality, the body, health, and reproduction--to gain wide recognition can be partly explained by traditional taboos, which have their roots in the Russian Orthodox religion and have become part of the cultural archetype.

Interactivity, the basic method for teaching gender, is new in Russian higher education, where the Soviet tradition was for lectures to be monologues and seminars to be repetitions of the instructors' words. Interactivity has great potential for intellectually engaging students, and it is essential for leading them to discover practical solutions to the gender problems that have arisen in Russia in recent years. American researchers Myra Marx Ferree, Valerie Sperling, and Barbara Risman, who have conducted Russian seminars on the women's movement, consider "a culture of conversation [to be] a more radical and important step in a post-totalitarian society than it might appear at first glance. (11)

Comparative analysis as a method is also very important in teaching gender. The "dialogue of cultures" is becoming very important in the era of globalization. Cross-cultural analysis has special meaning in Russia, because of the country's geographical position between the West and the East with their corresponding influences.

Civil society in Russia is in its early stages of development. To facilitate this development, Russian colleges have to educate free and independent individuals--the central figures of the civil society. The Russian system of education must be seriously restructured if colleges are to fulfill their responsibility to create such a culture for their students. This sort of change can be accomplished through the teaching of gender issues. Gender education prepares students for life in a global culture and helps to develop individuals who can function successfully in civil society.


1. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel's Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967).

2. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. George Lawrence, ed. J.P. Mayer & Max Lerner (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).

3. E. Rutkevich, "Razvitie idei grazhdanskogo obshestva v istorii sotsial'no-philosophskoi mysli," in Professionaly za sotrudnichestvo, ed. Kulik Anatoli (Moskva: Kennan, 1999), p.34.

4. G. Diligensky, "Chto my znaem o demokratii i grazhdanskom obshestve?" Pro et contra, v.2, no.4 (1997), pp. 5-21.

5. T. Zaslavskaya, "Innovatsionno-reformatorsky potentsial Rossii i problemy grazhdanskogo obshestva," in Grazhdanskoye obshestvo v Rossii: problemy samoopredeleniya i razvitiya, ed. Boris Koval' (Moskva, 2000), pp. 18-31.

6. Zoya Golenkova, "Al'ternativy i perspectivy razvitiya grazhdanskogo obshestva v Rossii," in Grazhdanskoye obshestvo: teoriya, istoriya, sovremennost', ed. Golenkova Zoya (Moskva: Institut Sotsiologii RAN, 1999).

7. Interview with Tatiyany Yaryginoi, Prezidenta Akademii "Grazhdanskoye obshestvo," deputata RF Gosdumy, Nezavisimoye obozreniye (02.06.2002), p.1.

8. Boris Koval', "Vstupitel'noye slovo," in Grazhdanskoye obshestvo v Rossii: problemy samoopredeleniya i razvitiya, ed. Boris Koval' (Moskva, 2000), pp.3-7.

9. "Reforms and developing of high education," UNESCO program document (Paris, 1995).

10. O. Lipovskaya, "Institutionalization of Gender/Women's Studies in Russia/St.Petersburg," in Gender in Transition in Eastern and Central Europe Proceeding (Berlin: Trafo Verlag, 2000).

11. Myra Marx Ferree, Valerie Sperling, & Barbara Risman, "Challenges of Hierarchy for Feminist Research and Activism: Some Reflections on American-Russian Feminist Interactions" (unpublished paper).

[Elena Yakushkina earned a Ph.D. in History at Voronezh State University, Russia. She was a visiting scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 2003-2004 academic year.]
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Author:Yakushkina, Elena
Publication:Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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