Eastern European Feminism: No Room of One’s Own

Eastern European Feminism: No Room of One’s Own

by Jill Benderly

I am obsessed by the small feminist movement in Eastern Europe. I feel the most alive when I’m over there learning from them, or working on their behalf from this side of the Atlantic. At home, I’m often asked to address the question: “Why hasn’t feminism taken off in Eastern Europe? All the conditions are ripe.”

Women’s aversion to
public life appears the
hardest obstacle faced
by the new feminists

Journalists are supposed to be instant experts, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking for my friends whose experience is so different from mine – and, indeed, from one another’s, from country to country. But here are a few things I’ve heard, and my reactions.

Since the fall of “Communism,” women in Eastern Europe have been forced to confront a new set of problems. They face capitalist overhaul of the economy, which means disproportionate unemployment for women. Strong nationalism has placed demographic demands on women to give birth to more Croats, Serbs, Czechs, and Slovaks. The Catholic church, on the rise in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia, threatens women’s right to abortion and contraception. Eastern European feminists have responded to these blatant attacks in the same defensive way we face the antichoicers: They organize because what women have now isn’t good enough, but they also must protect what few rights they do have.

While a certain stratum of women have rallied in response to the struggles facing Eastern European women, it seems unlikely that vast numbers of women will hit the streets. They are reluctant not because they are against abortion, but because they are suspicious of “politics” of any stripe. Western feminists, and even some of the Eastern European feminists I’ve met, see this as “false consciousness,” or women not knowing what’s good for them. I have a problem with a “vanguard feminism” that claims to know what’s best for all women. I do not have any grand theory to explain why most Eastern European women are not rushing to feminist movements. But I think that such an understanding is vital.

For feminism to bloom in Eastern Europe, women there (and we in the West who support them) will be up against the hard stuff. The current backlash against women’s political and reproductive rights is certainly not easy to confront. But what’s even harder to face is the dispiriting reactions of Eastern European women themselves to the changes that have taken place since 1989.

In some ways, Communism’s false promises about “the collective good” left people feeling cheated, and forced to look out for number one. On the other hand, a kind of solidarity arose from the impossibility of getting things done the straightforward way. The scarcity of goods led to a grapevine where one neighbor would come by to report she saw an abandoned toilet in an alleyway which might just have the missing flusher that she knew you needed (but would never be able to buy in a plumbing shop). While bartering goods and services was the main way to get certain things, the formal “distribution networks” were often made possible because somebody along the line had connections to someone in the Communist Party elite.

Communism promised to emancipate women, but what it actually did was to incorporate over 80 percent into lower-paying, stereotypically female occupations.

Communism promised to emancipate women, but what it actually did was to incorporate over 80 percent of women into the workforce, mostly into lower paying, stereotypically female occupations, without relieving them of their sole responsibility for domestic duties. Childcare centers were available to attend to young children while their parents worked. But neither men nor the state helped women with housework and labor-saving devices like fast-food restaurants were unavailable. Instead, women commonly stood in line before work or at lunch hour to buy food. Eastern European women are tired. No wonder they dream of working part-time or staying home altogether.

In the more prosperous socialist countries, such as former East Germany, the state used the carrot to draw working women to bear children. The economy depended on a vast supply of labor for factories that hoarded workers for use when equipment and supplies were actually available. The German Democratic Republic, facing a declining birth rate in the 1970s, instituted what feminists call “mommy politics”: A “baby year” of paid maternity leave for the first child (increased to 18 months for subsequent births); sick-child leave; three hours off from the job per week for mothers of two or more children to do housework; extensive and highly subsidized daycare centers. (In East Germanyinl988,81percentofpreschoolers went to public daycare at the cost of 65 cents per day per child.) While these provisions sound miraculous to U.S. women, they led to a mentality in which women were seen as getting “unearned special privileges” and thus left in low paying, low-status jobs. Men were not expected to “help” at home.

Poorer socialist countries couldn’t afford to hand out carrots, so they relied on stick-like methods of increasing childbearing: Making contraception and abortion illegal (Romania) or just hard to get (Bulgaria).

Many women then, and even more now, view the family as shelter from the demands of public society. One of the first feelings I heard after the revolutions of 1989 was the desire to be left alone in one’s private space with no more experiments and no more mobilizations. According to Czech sociologist Jirina Siklova, motherly duties were an acceptable excuse for not joining the Communist Party, and as a result, ”women are today nowhere near as compromised by having collaborated with the previous regime as men are.” Communist quotas for women leaders in rubber-stamp parliaments, says Siklova, did “not lead to the strengthening of the candidates’ self-confidence, but rather to the development of an inferiority complex and to a revulsion against holding political office.” It’s no surprise, then, that most women look to the new system to grant them the right to be left to themselves, as well as the chance to buy stockings, makeup and disposable diapers. That’s what most women mean when they say they want “normal, European” lives.

On the other hand, the old system taught people to count on the paternalism of the state. This dependence doesn’t automatically shift into self-reliance as the old system dies.

Women have been socialized to see themselves as transmitters of values and culture. They view politics as “dirty” and harsh, and as belonging to the domain of men. They may, in fact, be right. The East German feminists from the Independent Women’s Alliance made a coalition with the Green Party for the 1990 elections, but found themselves bamboozled out of any seats for women afterwards.

Those feminists who, rather than lobbying and organizing politically, have taken up direct services to women, especially battered women’s hotlines, shelters and self-help groups, reach the many ”ordinary women” of all ages, classes and nationalities who cannot imagine launching themselves into political parties and organizations. By focusing on the problems women face in the “private sphere,” these strategies are helping to unlock the door on the family, mythologized by socialist and nationalist leaders alike.

Women’s aversion to public life appears the hardest obstacle faced by the new feminist movements in Eastern Europe, but feminists’ ability to reach “average women” in the private sphere may be the measure of their success.