New Internationalist

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Issue 118

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THE FAMILY [image, unknown] Feminist myths

[image, unknown]

Two steps forward,
one step back

Soviet women can fly to the moon. But they still have the ironing to do when they get home again. Socialist theory promised to liberate women by transforming family life. In practice socialist governments prefer to keep the family just the way it is. Wayne Ellwood reports.

IT’S A SAFE BET that Lenin wouldn’t have liked what’s happening in the Soviet Union today. Not only has the state not ‘withered away’ as both he and Marx prodicted. But the traditional Russian family which they both characterised as a kind of miniature model of inequality has flourished and prospered.

With its traditional power hierarchy and focus on individualism, the family was blasted by socialists as both the central cause of women’s oppression and a private stronghold of reaction and conservationists.

The revolution was still in its teething stages when Alexandra Kollantai. a leading feminist and the Soviet Union’s first Minister of Social Welfare, predicted: ‘Family households will inevitably die a natural death with the growth in number of communal houses of different types to suit different tastes. Once it has ceased to be a unit of consumption, the family will be unable to exist in its present form it will fall asunder and be liquidated’.

That’s a far cry from Premier Nikita Kruschev’s calm pronouncement barely 40 years later. ‘People who say the significance of the family drops during the transition to communism are absolutely wrong; he stated flatly. ‘In fact, the family will grow stronger under communism.

And grow stronger it has. Despite the Soviet Union’s overwhelming success in bringing women into the labour force and providing day care and other support services for working mothers, the basic sexual division of labour within the Soviet home remains.

So what happened to the grand marxist dream of the family disappearing into the mists of history?

It was Frederick Engels who first reasoned that the fortunes of the family were hitched to the fortunes of capitalism. And that the demise of one would inevitably lead to the demise of the other. In his Origin of the Fain ut; Private Propertt’ atid the State Engels saw the family as both a brake on social progress and the root cause of women’s oppression.

The rot began, he claimed, with the appearance of private property. According to Engels, early societies were truly communal. Men and women had different responsibilities, but since all production was for subsistece, there was no real difference in social status between the sexes. Men and women were seen as contributing equally to the wellbeing of both family and the larger community.

But private property upset the apple cart. And domestication of animals was what gave it the first nudge. When these animals multiplied. as they tend to do. productivity increased and so did wealth. And because men owned the animals, new wealth brought power to men rather than women within the family and in society. Increased production also meant a surplus for exchange over and above basic subsistence.

Private property replaced communal property and women suddenly found themselves stranded within the family. With their reproductive labour’ of caring for children and growing the family’s food relegated to secondary status, women became mere support artists for the real stars male breadwinners. The family became both a female prison and women’s ‘natural’ place in society. For Engels. the only way for women to regain their lost equality was to break out into the new world of productive work outside the home.

Writing in the 1880s Engels was off base on a lot of his history, but much of what he had to say hit the mark. When the Bolsheviks took power in the USSR in 1917 one of their first goals was to increase production by bringing more women into the labour force. Women were given the vote, legally permitted to challenge their parents’ choice of marriage partner, paid equally for equal work and received state support when pregnancy kept them from the factory. The Family Code of 1926 also legalised abortion, loosened the strings on divorce and gave illegitimate children full rights under the law.

But women’s revolutionary honeymoon was soon over. Stalin’s determination to drag Russia into the industrial age left no room for their specific concerns. Economic development based on freedom and equality would benefit all Soviet citizens— women included. Or so the reasoning went.

Within a decade Stalin abandoned Engels’ logic and invented the new, improved, pragmatic ‘socialist’ family. Its main goal was to produce more workers, which meant some quick backpedalling, To encourage women to have more children, abortion was forbidden, divorce made difficult and the Zhenotdel — the women’s section of the Communist Central Committee — slowly isolated and finally dissolved Motherhood became a patriotic duty: women with more than five children received medals and parents with few children were taxed.

Since the traditional family was not likely to die a quick death anway, the Soviet leaders decided it could profitably be used as an effective tool in the race to boost the economy. Nurseries. kindergartens and day-care facilities were still available to allow Soviet women into the paid workforce. But with capital investment as the main priority more and more women returned to performing, unpaid, those services the state could not provide: feeding, clothing and educating children, caring for the aged and providing a refuge outside work for Soviet men.

But all was not lost There are women cosmonauts, women streetsweepers and women scientists in the Soviet Union today. In fact, twothirds of all Russian women work outside the home,though they are still only 45 per cent of the labour force. But because power relationships within the family have remained largely unchallenged women remain second class citizens.


Third World Crossroads
Third World countries attempting to follow the socialist model of development are at a similar crossroads. Nations like Cuba, Nicaragua and Mozambique are primarily concerned with fighting poverty and providing basic health care, nutrition, literacy, hygiene and housing for all their citizens. These services take some pressure off women but not all of it. The social welfare role of the family is important in poor countries and this invariably bolsters a woman’s role as wife and mother.

‘Women are the pillars of their families’ says Gloria Carrion, head of the Nicaraguan Women’s Association. Ms Carrion told journalist Margaret Randall: ‘We don’t see ourselves simply as housewives caring for our children, attending to the duties of the home and subordinating ourselves to our husbands. Women are the centres of their families — emotionally, ideologically and economically. And it is women who face the task of holding the family together when men lose theirjobs and can no longer contribute to the support of the family.

In fact, 1982 is the Year of Frugality and Austerity in the Family in which women are being asked to’stretch the family income and preserve resources’. According to Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Nora Astorga, ‘it doesn’t make sense to separate the women’s struggle from that of overcoming poverty, exploitation and reaction. We want to promote women’s interests within that wider struggle.’

The hope is that by becoming involved in politics, the armed forces and in health and literacy campaigns, women’s status outside their homes will be raised. A growing economy will eventually provide jobs for women to gain economic independence. And the new status and freedom will in turn give them the strength to question the traditional sex discrimination embodied in family structures.

At least that’s the theory. Meanwhile, the women’s organizations in Cuba, Nicaragua and Mozambique have not lost sight of the personal politics of the family. Even Sandinista leader Tomas Borge, a man who has by no means escaped the influence of Latin American machismo, told Nicaraguan women that they would ‘work in production and men will share housework. Because it is absolutely unfair for working women to come home to do the household work.’


Personal Politics
In Cuba too, traditional family roles remain stubbornly in place and sexism is deeply imbedded. Men are officially encouraged to shoulder domestic work alongside their wives but there is little evidence of this actually happening.

A Cuban Communist Party discussion document notes that in families where housework is shared there can be a relationship of complete equality and comradeship contributing to the success of the marriage and to the education of the children.’ But the same document readily admits equality in the home still has some way to go. In Cuba, too, the family is the basic cornerstone of the new socialist society.

According to the 1972 Family Code, the family is the ‘natural cell of social development and the basic nucleus within which a communist education must begin’ to encourage ‘permanent habits of mutual aid, collectivity, love for the socialist homeland, for study and for work, for social discipline and strength of character.’ There’s a strong dose of old fashioned morality in the new socialist family. Subtract the ‘socialist’ content and the same sentence might apply to the role of the family in any Western country.

Nevertheless, equality outside the home has come easier for women in socialist countries. Demands like free day care, equal pay for equal work and maternal and child health care are basic rights which are yet to be won by women in most Western countries.

But real equality for women means more than joining men in waged labour — whether in socialist or capitalist countries. Challenging the traditional family role of wife and mother has to be more than just a debating point. Personal and family relationships are as ‘political’ as economic ones. Unless women in nations like Nicaragua keep that point front and central they may run into the same barriers to full emancipation that have plagued USSR and other Eastern bloc countries.


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