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Issue 43, November 1999

Women and the family - After the Wall

The promise of liberation
Stalinist reaction
Women's double burden
The costs of restoration
Neither Stalinism nor capitalism

Continuing our series on ten years since the fall of the Wall, Socialism Today looks at the position of women in the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. ANNA SHVEDOVA and ALEXANDRA ARNSBURG report on the situation in Russia and the former East Germany and CHRISTINE THOMAS, below, examines why women have borne a disproportionate share of the costs of capitalist restoration.

THE TRANSITION TO a market based capitalist economy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has blighted the lives of millions. Inequality, poverty and ethnic tensions are the bitter legacy of ten years of neo-liberal, free market policies, following decades of Stalinist bureaucratic mismanagement and misrule.

Restoring capitalism to the former Stalinist regimes, however, has not been a uniform process. Historical, cultural and geographical factors have all influenced how the transition has taken place and how it has affected different sections of the population. Nevertheless, in every country one process is inescapable; the feminisation of poverty and the disproportionate share borne by women of the economic and social costs of 'market reform'.

The reality of privatisation, deregulation and marketisation has been devastating for the majority of women. A recent United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report, Women in Transition, (September 1999) found that in the countries where data is available, female labour force activity has declined dramatically since 1989. In Russia between 1990-95 women lost seven million jobs compared to two million lost by men. In East Germany from 1989-91 unemployment amongst men increased by 300% but female unemployment soared by 500%.


These figures are particularly stark when contrasted with previously high levels of female economic activity. The result has been that many women have been forced into economic dependency on a male wage earner. Housing shortages are such that it is common for women to continue to live with ex-partners even after divorce. A survey in Moscow showed that one in three divorced women had been beaten by their husbands. A 1991 analysis concluded that Russian women were six times more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than Russian men and several times more likely to be murdered by their partners than women in Western Europe and North America. Yet, according to UNICEF, there are few escape routes from a violent home or abuse. Those living on their own are subject to severe deprivation, especially in countries like Russia where the economic and social crisis has been particularly acute. At least 20% of families in Russia are headed by a lone parent, almost always female. In Poland 91% of lone parents live below the poverty line. In Russia, 75% of pensioners are women, often forced to eke out a living in the informal sector buying and selling whatever they can lay their hands on.

The free market has invaded every area of women's lives. For impoverished young women their own bodies are often all they have to sell in order to survive. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of International Affairs, 400,000 Ukrainian women aged under 30 are living abroad and involved in the sex industry. In a region with previously high standards of health care, out of 23 countries female life expectancy has decreased in 16.


The rosy scenario painted by capitalist politicians in the West after the initial collapse of Stalinism has become dark and uncertain for all but the very rich. But why have women been so disadvantaged by capitalist restoration? Women's position in society today cannot be fully explained without reference to the economic and social policies of the former Stalinist regimes.

top     The promise of liberation

UNICEF STATE THAT the transition is 'building upon rather than levelling existing inequalities'. There were many 'positive legacies' from the former Stalinist regimes, they argue, in the form of healthcare, education, paid maternity leave, child allowances and childcare, but in reality only a thin 'veneer of equality'.

Yet, according to official Stalinist propaganda, women in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had achieved liberation. Equality was legally enshrined and women formally enjoyed the same economic and social rights as men. In East Germany 91% of women were economically active. In most countries 50% of workers were female, comprising a highly educated sector of the workforce.

However legal rights and participation in the labour market don't add up to liberation, as many women in the capitalist West are increasingly discovering. Genuine liberation presupposes a total economic and cultural transformation in society.

In 1917 the Bolshevik revolution laid what was hoped would be the basis for such a transformation. Women's liberation formed a key component of the Bolsheviks' programme. The revolution ushered in a series of radical legal and civil rights which went far beyond those achieved by women in the more economically developed capitalist West at that time. Marriage became a simple civil procedure. Divorce was granted if requested by either partner. Every woman obtained the right to legal, free abortion. Homosexuality was legalised.


But the Bolsheviks recognised that formal equality was not enough. If women were to become economically independent, play an equal role in society, and form free and equitable personal relationships, they had to be relieved of their domestic burdens within the family. Lenin referred to the 'domestic slavery', the 'stultifying', 'degrading' and 'crushing' drudgery, which was the lot of the majority of women, especially within the peasant household. Measures were taken to free women from this drudgery by socialising household work through the provision of public restaurants and communal laundries. Childbearing and childrearing was to be eased through public creches, nurseries and maternity benefits.

At the same time a conscious campaign was waged to change the backward and reactionary attitudes towards women which were deeply engrained within society, underpinning the subordinate position of women within the family and the unequal division of 'domestic labour'. The 1919 programme of the Communist Party stated that "the party's task at the present moment is primarily work in the realm of ideas and education so as to destroy utterly all traces of the former inequality or prejudices".

The Bolsheviks held up a vision of real liberation, where all aspects of women's lives would be transformed. New economic and social relations, based on equality and co-operation, would give rise to new attitudes, ideas and personal relations. In her writings and speeches, Alexandra Kollantai, a prominent Bolshevik leader and the Commissar for Social Welfare in the first soviet government, explored the link between economic and social change and sexuality and personal relations. The revolution itself unleashed enormous creative forces. Young revolutionaries began to question traditional household and personal arrangements, experimenting with new ways of living and relating to each other.


However these determined efforts at transforming the lives of women and society generally were constrained by cultural and material backwardness. Russia, a predominantly peasant country, endured the ravages of the first world war, armed intervention against the revolution by 21 imperialist armies, and a brutal civil war. Forging new social and personal relations against the backdrop of economic devastation, war and famine became an overwhelming task.

This same economic backwardness, which could only be overcome with the spread of the revolution to more advanced countries, gave rise to a bureaucratic elite increasingly concerned with maintaining its own privileged position 'administering' society. While the nationalised planned economy was preserved, the political and social gains of the revolution came under attack. The 'revolution in thinking' which was required to liberate women could not be tolerated, when all critical thought represented a potential challenge to the rule of the new elite. Increasingly the needs and aspirations of women and workers generally were subordinated to the interests of the ruling bureaucracy.

top     Stalinist reaction

IN 1928, TO thwart the threat of capitalist restoration, Stalin, the leader of the new ruling bureaucracy, embarked on a programme of forced industrialization and collectivisation of the land. This necessitated a rapid increase in the labour force, including women workers. Eighty-two per cent of workers entering the labour market between 1922 and 1937 were female. In 1922 women comprised 22% of the workforce; by 1932 this figure had grown to 32%.


Working outside the home increases women's economic independence and raises their confidence and consciousness as women and as workers. It therefore represents an important step towards emancipation. For the Stalinist bureaucracy however, the forced entry of women into the workforce was a matter of economic expediency not a route to liberation. Moreover, it was accompanied by a conscious policy to shore up and bolster the family as a social and economic unit. While the Bolsheviks strove to overcome the economic and social inequalities arising from women's subordinate role within the family, the bureaucratic elite perpetuated those inequalities in order to maintain their own material privileges and prestige. The family represented an essential means of social control, a place where young people in particular could be disciplined to accept the power and authority of the bureaucracy.

Material and cultural poverty had already placed limitations on the Bolshevik goal of emancipating women. Women had gained the legal right to divorce but those who were unable to find work and earn enough to live independently either remained in unsatisfactory relationships or risked destitution. Faced with the reality of poor quality and under-resourced communal facilities, many women returned to their traditional domestic sphere. Now, as the bureaucracy tightened its parasitic grip on society, it consciously turned those constraints towards its own interests. Communal facilities such as laundries and restaurants were deliberately run down, offloading the burden for providing those services onto the family, and reinforcing the unequal division of labour within it.


In the process of reinforcing the private family unit, most of the gains which the Bolshevik revolution had granted women were rolled back. Marriage procedures were tightened and access to divorce became increasingly difficult for all but the very wealthy. Abortion was made illegal in most cases, forcing women to risk their health and lives through illegal procurement. By 1938-39, 12.7% of every 100,000 deaths amongst urban women were caused by illegal abortions. At the same time Stalinist propaganda extolled the joys of motherhood. Through a combination of exhortation and coercion women were urged to fulfil their glorious duty to reproduce the next generation of 'socialist' workers but they were also expected to play a full role in the production process.

top     Women's double burden

THE POSITION OF women in the Soviet Union and the Stalinist regimes which emerged in Eastern Europe after the second world war, developed from the period when the bureaucracy consolidated its power. Women were defined in law as naturally having a dual role in society, both productive and reproductive. Social policy reinforced these roles but the emphasis shifted depending on the needs of the bureaucracy.

So in 1955 for example, abortion was legalised in the Soviet Union, followed closely by Poland and Czechoslovakia. With contraception almost non-existent, it was not unusual for women in the Soviet Union to endure multiple abortions, some as many as 14. But abortion facilities did not feature in the economic priorities of the bureaucracy. Conditions were barbaric, with production line abortions carried out without anaesthetic or adequate hygiene.


Then, in the 1960s, fears of declining birth rates prompted abortion restrictions in several countries. In Romania in 1967 abortion was made completely illegal unless women already had four children. In the 1980s abortion was liberalised once more in many countries (but not Romania). Prior to the fall of the Wall, women in East Germany in particular, enjoyed relatively good access to contraception and abortion facilities. The compromise abortion law passed following reunification, which includes compulsory counselling, marks a significant attack on their reproductive rights.

Pro-natalist policies such as extended childcare leave and improved maternity and child benefits, were introduced to enable women to combine their dual role as mothers and workers. These were motivated primarily by demographic considerations, not the needs of women themselves. Such policies reinforced gender divisions. In Poland for example, paid leave to care for sick children was only available to women. In East Germany a monthly 'household day' to catch up on domestic duties remained the preserve of women. However these represented real material gains for women, all of which have come under sustained attack in the transition to capitalism.

This is especially true in the case of socialised childcare. The quality and quantity of childcare varied considerably between the Stalinist countries. While in East Germany the majority of pre-school children could secure a place in a public nursery, provision in Poland was extremely limited. In Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the 1970s only 10% of under-threes were in state nurseries. In the Soviet Union, by the end of the 1970s, places existed for only 13 million out of 35 million pre-schoolers. When the lid was lifted on conditions in the Soviet Union during the Glasnost era of the 1980s, women revealed the inadequacies of existing childcare provision. Often kindergartens were desperately understaffed and overcrowded, ignoring the individual needs of children. Nevertheless, despite all its shortcomings, the loss of state provided childcare has dealt a devastating blow to working women.


Often benefits such as housing, healthcare and childcare were workplace linked. Becoming unemployed has therefore meant losing much more than a job. With privatisation and deregulation, childcare provision has been slashed or become prohibitively expensive for the majority of women, forcing them to give up work. Some have decided to not have children at all in order to improve their chances of finding or keeping a job. Across the former Stalinist countries fertility rates have fallen by 40-50%. For those who lose their jobs, lack of childcare has made getting back into the workforce extremely difficult.

Women within the family were expected to compensate for the inadequacies in social services created by a distorted and bureaucratised planned economy. A survey carried out in East Germany in 1985 revealed that women were burdened with 60% of domestic labour. In Poland and Hungary the figure was nearer 80%. According to studies carried out in both these countries in 1984, women spent six hours a day on household chores and childcare. Since almost all women worked full-time, those not forming part of the bureaucratic elite were continually weighed down by their enormous double burden. Shortages of food and consumer goods exacerbated the situation. The following description of everyday life for women in northern Russia, published in 1984, summarises the situation:

"Tired after their workday, they hurry home to childcare centres. Bowed with the weight of grocery bags, they drag their children behind them. In a terrible crush of people, they wedge themselves into overcrowded public buses, elbowing people aside and pushing their way through to an empty seat, if there is one. At last, they reach home. Here new cares await them: dinner must be prepared and the husband and children must be fed. The laundry and housecleaning still await because, for a working woman, there is no other time for these chores. She cannot depend on her husband for anything.


"The next morning, these women, with glum, blank expressions, take their children to school or childcare centres and hurry to work. They perform their jobs mechanically, without inspiration, without enthusiasm".

Since this was the daily reality for millions of women, it would hardly be surprising that some greeted redundancy and the chance to spend time with their children with relief. Being a Stalinist Superwoman was exhausting and draining. However this has not been the attitude of the majority of women. In a poll carried out in East Germany in 1990, amongst women aged 16-60, only 3% described being a housewife as their ideal (compared to 25% in West Germany). Sixty-five per cent said that they would work, even if they didn't need the money. For these women work represents an important part of their identity and self-esteem. Many women who may have initially welcomed a respite from their double burden, are finding it impossible to survive economically and equally impossible to get back into the workforce.

top     The costs of restoration

WOMEN'S UNEQUAL POSITION within the family under Stalinism laid the basis for wider disadvantages and prejudice, including in the workplace. They did break into occupations and professions which in the West would be seen as traditionally male. And on paper they enjoyed employment rights such as equal pay with men. However the reality was somewhat different. In the Soviet Union, women received just 70% of male earnings, a figure similar to the capitalist West. Eighty per cent of working women were segregated in 'female' sectors and jobs. In East Germany 100% of nursery and kindergarten teachers were women and 77% of school teachers. Even where women worked in 'male' sectors, they were concentrated in lower grade jobs, despite being better educated than men. With women's work devalued through lower pay and status, it has been easier for the new capitalist employers to argue that they should lose their jobs.


The employment rights which women were granted in relation to their socially defined childbearing and nurturing role, contributed to gender segregation and discrimination. Women were viewed as 'expensive' rather than cheap labour, and this has continued to be the case during the brutal transition to capitalism, making them extremely vulnerable when job losses occur. Even where there has been some economic recovery women are still continuing to lose jobs, especially in the public sector, while men are grasping the few new opportunities which exist. In some countries, blatantly sexist ads offer men-only jobs. In the Slovak Republic in February 1991, for example, of 7,563 vacancies, only 29% were open to women. In Poland some ads stipulated the kind of legs which job applicants should have. One employer advertising for an office assistant in Russia added the rider 'no sexual services required', which speaks volumes about the kind of discrimination which women now face.

Family ideology concerning the importance of women's nurturing role is now used to justify and legitimise their ejection from the workforce into the home, the decimation of state services, and women's continuing discrimination in society. Often this is mixed with nationalist ideology which glorifies women's separate sphere and their role in reproducing the nation state or ethnic group. In countries such as Poland and Slovakia it has been accompanied by attacks on reproductive rights.

The way had been paved ideologically by Stalinism. In the Soviet Union, as the top down command economy stalled, 1980s propaganda to promote motherhood and reinforce 'natural' gender roles was stepped up by a bureaucracy struggling to maintain its privileged position and grip on society. It was hoped that some women would opt to stay at home, easing pressures on overstaffed industries and inadequate state services. At the same time a 'moral panic' promoted the family as the salvation of social problems such as crime, juvenile delinquency and sexual promiscuity. Similar ideology is currently being employed in most former Stalinist countries, this time in the interests of a market economy and capitalist profits.


top     Neither Stalinism nor capitalism

STALINISM BETRAYED THE hopes and aspirations of women for a liberated future. But capitalist restoration has dealt them a further blow. Incredibly, having catalogued the inequality and disadvantages which women are suffering under capitalism, UNICEF still concludes that women "have much to gain from the transition" to the market as its 'principles', "the search for expression of diversity, genuine political representation, economic development and the expansion of choice", are the same as those "that drive the movement for women's equality". But these principles are completely incapable of being realised on the basis of a market economy in global turmoil. Under capitalism, a future of continuing economic and social oppression awaits the majority of women in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

A new revolution is needed to bring about the far-reaching economic, social and cultural transformation which economic backwardness and isolation prevented the Bolsheviks from achieving. This will not be an easy task. The depth and intensity of the crisis unleashed by capitalist restoration, has deeply affected social consciousness. The energies of most working class people and women in particular, are directed towards daily survival.

However, attacks on economic and social conditions have not been completely uncontested. Workers, including women, have taken strike action to defend jobs and working conditions. In some countries women have protested against attacks on reproductive rights. But these protests have so far been very limited. Workers have the difficult task of building new organisations to represent their interests and wage a struggle to change society. As part of this process, women will inevitably become organised and fight for their rights as workers and as women. Through struggle they will become increasingly aware that a democratic socialist revolution, within the context of international revolutionary change, is the only route to genuine liberation.


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