the struggle for liberation
Women & the Family after the Wall
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
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.
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
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. The task of forging
new social and personal relations, against the backdrop of economic
devastation, war and famine, was overwhelmed.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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.
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.