Silent Sisterhood


new internationalist
issue 190 - December 1988

Silent sisterhood
Women working outside the home have long been important in
Soviet life. But the larger fight for equality with men remains on the
back burner. Linda Feldmann argues that Soviet women must
change not only male attitudes but their own as well.

Now that we have glasnost, the downtrodden women of the Soviet Union can band together and demand their rights, right?

They can congregate in unofficial groups and agitate for better birth control, safer abortions, more humane childbirth, more sober husbands, and higher career advancement, right?

Of course they can. Tens of thousands of Soviets have formed independent clubs dedicated to everything from saving historic buildings to playing blue-grass music to protecting the rights of animals. So where are Soviet women at this historic juncture in the Great Communist Experiment?

They are, for the most part, working full-time and running a household and minding junior if they're married, or looking for Mr Okay - Mr Right may be too much to hope for - if they're single. A woman is expected to be married by her mid-20s.

But not nearly as many are grumbling as you might think. Many feel it is their duty as women to cook, clean and care for children. In fact one of the few unofficial women's groups known, called 'Maria', is fighting for women's right to stay home.

Soviet women's ambivalence towards Raisa Gorbachev, the General Secretary's wife, is telling. They may appreciate and envy her stylishness, but they tend to find her prominence inappropriate.

For most Soviet women, 'feminism' is a dirty word. It stands for capitalist, wealthy women who have nothing better to do. Even if you discuss Western feminist issues with Soviet women without using the F-word, you are most likely to find either a sense of utter resignation, or embarrassment, or disdain, or a blank expression that suggests little previous thought on the matter.

There are individual women, who, through a natural independent-mindedness, have come to espouse various Western-style women's causes. There was a nascent women's movement based in Leningrad that lost its momentum when three of its leaders were expelled from the country in 1980. Now there's Olga Lipovskaya, also of Leningrad, who has begun to put out a samizdat (underground) journal called 'Women's Reading'. (The content of one issue seemed rather tame: a translation of a. British feminist article, a Dr Spock child-care article, prose and poetry by current-day or forgotten Russian women writers). It is impossible to test its appeal, she is only able to print a very limited number of copies.

But for cultural, historical, political and sociological reasons, there really is no Soviet feminist movement.

I hit this squarely in the face last year during a three-month stint as an exchange reporter for the Moscow News, that most pro-glasnost of Soviet publications. A week after my arrival, one of the young female reporters on the staff was assigned to write a paragraph introducing Alan Cooperman, the other American exchange journalist, and me to the paper's readers.

'What issues are you most interested in here?' Katya (not her real name) asked.

'Perestroika and glasnost,' I replied pointedly.

'Let's save those for Alan,' she said. 'Those are masculine themes.'

I had studied in the Soviet Union in 1980 and I was ready for men's sexist beliefs - even for an extraordinary explanation I sat through one evening from a young, dissident-minded microbiologist. 'Men's and women's brains are physically different, he asserted, and that's why women don't think as logically as men.'

But I wasn't ready for women's sexism against themselves.

The 'masculine themes' remark was especially shocking coming from Katya. I had considered her one of the less traditionally minded females in the office. At age 25, she lived with her mother and boyfriend and carried on a secret relationship with another man when she wanted excitement and nice gifts.

'I don't want to get married and have children until I've achieved something as a journalist,' she once explained.

But she seemed vague about what exactly she did want to achieve. When I asked her once if she wanted to be a foreign correspondent (her English was excellent), her face grew quizzical and she admitted it had never occurred to her to want that. Not that every ambitious journalist wants to work abroad, but I later discovered in a chat with a senior editor at TASS that the Soviets don't send women overseas to report. 'Who would she have at home to make the soup?' he asked in all seriousness.

Soviet women still have very few role models in politics and journalism. Moscow News was no exception. When I sat in on a board meeting of the paper's editorial board, there was only one woman present (besides the editor's secretary) out of 26 people.

The rise of Gorbachev and his policies of glasnost and perestroika has brought calls for more women in leadership positions. If Gorbachev's aim is to return the nation to the basics of Leninist ideology, then certainly equal sexual rights must be part and parcel of that. Many women played key roles in the early days of the Russian Revolution, including Lenin's wife, Krupskaya. In addition, if the Soviet Union is going to pull itself out of its stultifying spiritual malaise, it needs all the inspiration it can muster, male or female.

At the Soviet Communist Party conference last June, the head of the official Soviet Women's Committee, Zoya Pukhova, spoke forcefully of the need for more women leaders. She complained that laws designed to protect women are being ignored, such as a law that says women may not work the night shift in factories unless under extraordinary circumstances. She complained about a tendency for women to be blamed for the high divorce rate and for juvenile delinquency.

Ironically, it was one of the Soviet Union's most visible women these days - Tatyana Zaslavskaya, the economist and sociologist who favors radical reform - who can take credit for the latter charge. In an interview with TASS last June, she said that working mothers spend only half an hour per week 'communicating spiritually' with their children, and are therefore partially to blame for juvenile delinquency.

In another rare moment of candour about women, Gorbachev himself acknowledged in his June 28 speech to the conference that women are under-represented in leadership positions. But the second part of this remark was more ambiguous. He said: 'Women face numerous hardships that should be eliminated.'

Indeed they do. Doing the housework in the Soviet Union isn't the same animal as doing it in the West. Many fewer Soviets have access to washing machines, laundry is generally washed by hand in the tub. Cooking is done from scratch. There aren't fast food joints that allow Mom an occasional night off. Finding food and waiting in lines (which the upheavals of perestroika have made even longer) most likely fall to the women. I know plenty of Soviet husbands who help with these domestic activities to a greater or lesser degree. But in the end, they are 'women's work' - and felt to be so by both men and women.

So what is behind Gorbachev's remark about making life easier for women? It is part of the increasing official emphasis on early marriage and the glories of motherhood. As the Soviet Union's ethnic balance tilts toward the non-Russian, ethnic Russians have long been encouraged to have babies. Now, more than ever in this time of upheaval, the family is meant to keep society stable.

Women's hardships need to be eliminated so they can better fulfill their primary function - to be a good mother. The advent of beauty contests, fashion shows, and pinup culture are not only the latest (and inevitably belated) manifestation of Western culture, but also part of this emphasis on the traditionally feminine. Whereas make-up and frilly fashions were once decried as bourgeois and decadent, women are now encouraged to be as feminine as possible.

So while Soviet women have not shown much inclination to push for women's issues, in the final analysis neither has the government. The entire Soviet health care system is a mess, not just gynaecological services, Soviet officials now admit. Most Soviet women just shrug when a Westerner asks what can be done specifically, now, to improve women's health care.

A big part of perestroika is to streamline the system, which means eliminating jobs. If women would just drop out of the work force voluntarily, the Government's job would be easier. But, as in so many Soviet situations, it's a Catch-22. Most women who would love to quit working can't, because their family can't afford to sacrifice the second salary. Plus, women who don't work outside the home are not eligible for a pension or sick benefits.

Except for those women expressly dedicated to it, feminism is generally not part of the Soviet dissident agenda. Most Soviet dissidents are male, and as Soviet males, hold traditional views about women. So the whole network of communication that has developed over the years between the West and Soviet dissidents has involved little in the way of getting Western feminist literature into the Soviet Union.

Olga Lipovskaya, the Leningrad feminist, had a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves on her bookshelf. But she is unusual. Most Soviet women remain ignorant, by a combination of personal choice and government design, of the range of thought in the West on women's issues.

For me, the situation of women presents a great personal dilemma. At age 29, I am young enough not to have had to fight personally for my rights as a woman. I don't consider myself a feminist in the old-style activist sense.

But when I went to work and live with Soviets, I found myself increasingly wanting to shake young women by their frilly blouses and say, Get with it! Stop defeating yourselves! Take Masha, for example, her husband, Kolya, a talented young journalist, would vanish for days on end and leave Masha, who works full-time in the theater, to fend for herself with their two young children. When I was last in Moscow, in November, Kolya had left Masha altogether and was living with another woman.

Why doesn't Masha divorce Kolya? She is young, attractive and capable of supporting her family on her own. 'Because she loves him too much,' replied a mutual friend. 'And she doesn't have any respect for herself.'

The hard part, for me, is that while I was furious at the way Kolya treated Masha, I was far more interested in spending time with him than with her. He was much more intellectual and well-read, and therefore had more to say about Life than his wife. I encountered this over and over again, from Tallinn to Moscow to Irkuetsk: that Soviet men, as chauvinistic as they are, were far more interesting to talk to than women. Invariably, during late-night discussions around a kitchen table, most women would retreat into silence while the men held forth. Often, two separate discussions would be going at once - one, for example, on literature and another on, say, how to manage without hot water.

Even one woman professor I interviewed a leading literature expert, who greeted me at the door refreshingly attired in jeans, a flannel shirt, and no makeup - agreed with me, sadly, that she is able to find intellectual companionship mainly with men.

The easy explanation is that, because women spend so much time on domestic activities, they don't have time to read or think. But the roots of this phenomenon run much deeper. The sexist environment that Soviet girls grow up in teaches them from an early age to think very differently about themselves because they are female. This results in either meekness or subservience, or a tendency, among some younger Soviet women, to be manipulative in their femininity. But real contemplation and intellectual inquiry are usually left to males.

'One of the most frightening sights for a guy is to see a bunch of girls standing in a group chatting,' moaned one young single Soviet man. 'Chances are they're telling stories about some poor guy.

I found myself sympathizing. Sometimes, I think, Soviet men get a bum rap. And if Soviet women could somehow overcome all their years of conditioning, they might be pleasantly surprised by how Soviet men would react.

Linda Feldmann works for the Christian Science Monitor in Washington, D.C.

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New Internationalist issue 190 magazine cover This article is from the December 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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