issue 164 - October 1986
White babies wanted
Women in the USSR and the West have been exercising their
right to have fewer children. But their governments don't like white
birth-rates falling. Amanda Root reveals the racism hidden
in some of the new pro-natalist policies.
Elena, a Soviet woman, wrote to a journal called Rabotnitsa (The Working Woman) with a problem. She loves her work as an engineer in a research laboratory, and often works late into the evenings. But her husband wants her to come home, cook and look after their child. Elena refuses to do more housework than is necessary: she deliberately had only one child in order to limit her family responsibilities.' She is not alone: millions of women from countries as diverse as Australia, the USSR and Singapore are limiting the conflict they experience between home and paid work by having fewer children.
The falling birth-rates alarm both capitalist and socialist governments. They foresee a reduction of their economic power if the number of adults capable of full-time work falls to below replacement levels. The French government has started a pro-natalist policy in all but name - paying families about $125 a month for two years at the birth of a third child and giving them an additional allowance of about $85 a month from the third month of pregnancy up to the child's third birthday.
West Germany is planning major new tax incentives to encourage large families - along with a program that would supply all women with 'motherhood vacation money of $200 a month for a full year after giving birth. 'Financial difficulties should not be a reason for breaking off a pregnancy,' says Heiner Geissler, Minister of Youth, Family and Health, 'in a country with an annual GNP of more than $600 billion.' Governments in Hungary, the USSR and Czechoslovakia are also offering mothers cash support for having more children.
But do women want to go back to the nursery? The conflict is clearest in the USSR where women's equality was one of the aims of the Revolution. After 1917 women were encouraged to get jobs. Now they form 51 per cent of the USSR's work-force (90 per cent of Soviet women of appropriate ages are employed or in full-time education). Women make an invaluable contribution to the Soviet economy and, according to one analyst, 'they know it: sociological studies reveal that their work gives them a clear sense of their own value and prestige'.
Yet Soviet-style equality does not go very far: housework has never been equally shared between men and women. Any discontent that women voice about doing the chores is still answered either by the old excuse - domestic work is a female function, ordained by nature - or by extending the range of domestic gadgets and services intended to reduce the time women have to spend on housework.
And now women are increasingly being asked to make motherhood their primary goal in life, to the point of giving up their jobs altogether. Soviet women are being encouraged to produce a part payment if they stay at home for the first 18 months of a child's life. It has also been suggested that women with small children might work from home, a practice that isolates women and lowers their wages.
Other moves to encourage Soviet women to see themselves primarily as mothers have included the appointment of a woman to the Central Committee Secretariat of the Communist Party (the first time in 25 years that a woman has occupied a senior Party post) with a brief to 'strengthen the family': to revive traditional ideas about male and female roles and ensure that women see motherhood as their duty.
The implications of such pro-natalist policies reach beyond the narrowing of women's scope to choose how many children they have and the pressure to make them accept an unfair burden of work. These policies also include a thinly disguised form of racism. The attempts to foster women's maternal feelings is limited to white women: in the Caucasus and the Central Asian Republics, where the birth-rate remains high, the goal of three children per family is designed to limit, not encourage, population growth. In these largely Muslim parts of the USSR, contrary to Soviet theory elsewhere, large families are declared to be as damaging to children as small ones and women are encouraged to do paid work.
Falling Birth Rates
A similarly racist pattern is being repeated in France and West Germany. In France, President Mitterand's worries about the falling birth-rate are inseparable from his concern that his country is losing its 'Frenchness'. France's mainly black immigrant population has a higher birth-rate than the non-migrant white population. It is easy to fan fears among the white French that they will, eventually, be 'outnumbered' by the black French, who currently form about eight per cent of the population.
In West Germany many of the strongest advocates of the baby-boom are also avid supporters of the proposals to repatriate the country's 4.5m guest workers. Women of Turkish descent (the largest group of guest workers) have an average of 3.5 children each. But racism means that black children are not seen as Germans by many of those in the pro-birth lobby.
A recent slogan in West Germany has been 'Give the Chancellor a child'. It awakens uneasy memories: the Nazis used to say 'Give the Führer a child'. Babies may be innocent - but not so the governments that are disingenuously showing such a great interest in them now.
1 The NI wishes to thank International Labour Reports for permission to use this example and other information on the Soviet Union from an article called 'Women at work in the USSR; a shift in perspective' by Lynne Atwood.
2 Source: United Nations Demographic Yearbook 1982.