Feminism and Post (19th Century) History in Eastern Europe


Feminism and Post (19th Century) History in Eastern Europe

Barbara Einhorn,
Cinderella Goes to Market: Citizenship, Gender and Women’s Movements in East Central Europe.
(London: Verso, 1993) 280 pp. $19.95
paper: ISBN 0 86091 615 4.

Nationalism is sweeping East Central Europe. The civil war in (former) Yugoslavia, the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, and Hungary and Romania’s territorial quarrels are among recent indicators. These Europeans are returning, at an accelerating rate, to a nineteenth century patria-centered nationalism. The Eastern European events are not an isolated phenomenon, for in the West as well, exclusive nationalisms are sweeping through state after state, as refugee and immigration laws become increasingly restrictive in this era of economic uncertainty and attacks on immigrants (who don’t “belong”) are on the upswing. The West, however, has an advantage — its economic difficulties are within the framework of a generally stable economic and political system. East Central Europe does not have this luxury, and is instead forced to create institutions and ideologies to fill the political and economic vacuum left behind by the collapse of communism. The past holds a magnetic appeal once “liberated” from communist interpretation, and the historic myths of nationalism and self-determination serves as powerful attractors. Thus, the evident appeal of nationalism: an organic, “native” institution, which was not invented and imposed by foreigners (as liberalism and communism often appear). Nationalism offers a sense of belonging, identity and purpose in an era of uncertainty and upheaval. Nationalism defines who “we” are, by first determining who we are not.

It is in this context from which Einhorn’s work, Cinderella Goes To Market, emerges: post-1989 East Central Europe, comprising (former) Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, (former) East Germany, (former) Yugoslavia and the Russian part of the (former) U.S.S.R. The brackets alone indicate the massive transformations and upheavals of recent years. Einhorn offers an examination of the role of women and women’s movements in post-1989 East Central Europe. She examines both gender as an issue in itself, and gender as a microcosm of social, political and economic issues. Her central question is whether the current backlash against feminism in East Central Europe represents a break or continuity with the region’s state socialist past.

Einhorn sketches a history of women under state socialism, from the early Soviet measures in the 1920s, through to Stalinism, 1945, the thaw of the 1960s, up until the fall of the Berlin wall. Then she examines the transition period of post-1989.

Early communists believed the “woman question” was secondary to the revolution. Restructuring class relations would inevitably lead to the emancipation of women, and thus any separate focus on the issue was a waste of time and effort. Measures were passed from above, by the state, to ensure equality of women in the work place and in society. However, as Einhorn perceptively indicates, this legislation emancipated women as workers, and not as citizens. There was no emancipation of social roles; women were simply required to add to their existing burdens: in addition to wives and mothers, they were to become workers and active communists (the “triple burden”). Social structures and mentalities remained unchanged within the family, and the nuclear family was transmorgrified into the socialist family. Today, in reaction to this past, women who cannot reject the primary “job” of wife and mother, are only too happy (in many cases) to cast off the extraneous responsibilities “imposed” upon them by the previous regime. Thus many East European women desire today to leave employment and politics to the men, to divide responsibilities between the public sphere — capitalism and politics (male), and the private sphere — home and family (female).

There is also increasing identification between feminism and state socialism (as gender-equality laws were initially enacted in most of these countries by the communists), and of socialism as “emasculating” the male population. According to Einhorn, men and women felt forced out of their “natural” roles, into new (and foreign) areas of responsibility and action by state socialism. Pre-1989 legislation has been completely rejected, irrespective of any intrinsic merit. Instead, the appeal is to 19th century nationalism, to an idealized era when women were not yet citizens, and instead stayed home and “made babies for the nation.” An era of exclusionary and ethnic citizenship, but a time when men and women could know, and feel secure in, their social roles.

Women’s movements that do exist today are often explicitly anti-feminist. However there has been some mobilization, particularly in Poland and the former German Democratic Republic, over access to abortion. The opposition of the Polish Catholic Church and the Federal German Government has coalesced women around this issue. Einhorn believes that more attacks on women’s citizenship rights in these countries are inevitable, but that when women feel their reproductive rights and employment opportunities to be truly personally threatened (especially in a period of economic difficulty), they will begin to fight to protect themselves as citizens.

There is, however, a question beyond Einhorn’s research which she does not touch upon: what is the relationship between feminism and affluence? East European women are neither temporally nor monetarily affluent, most have neither leisure time nor extra income. Many would perhaps prefer not to work, but as single mothers or wives of unemployed workers, they often have little choice. They have little time or energy left for politics, as many women stated explicitly to Einhorn. So from where can this movement to reclaim their rights as citizens emerge? A comparison with the development of feminist movements in either the West, or in non-European and non-North American countries would have been interesting to help pinpoint from where this movement possibly might originate. (And on a related topic, pre-World War II women’s movements in these countries are barely touched upon in the text. Surely, history need not be an inspiration only for nationalists!) This is primarily an empirical, and not a theoretical account of women in post-1989 East Central Europe. It is a descriptive history, but leaves one uncertain as to the future, except for a few tentative proposals (although perhaps Einhorn has learned from the mistakes of previous Eastern European analysts, those who predicted in a chorus of booming voices that the transition to liberalism and capitalism in East Central Europe would be smooth, fast and clean).

Einhorn also raises the intriguing question of the relationship between nationalist ideology and women. According to Einhorn, nationalism is a male ideology, with clearly defined and distinct roles for men and women, yet it attracts women, as it attracts men to its call. Is the attraction of nationalism for women the same as for men? Or, do women adhere to the nationalist banner for different reasons? Although clearly beyond the scope of her research, it raises some thought-provoking questions. 19th Century nationalism may have been a male domain, but late 20th Century nationalism clearly includes women as potential political actors.

The women of East Central Europe cannot really be “blamed” for their rejection of state socialism and capitalism. As in the West, the first victims of (19th century) liberalism in (20th century) Eastern Europe are often women: the first to be fired (maternity leave makes them “too expensive,” child sick leave renders them “too unreliable.”), the first to feel the crunch of economic crises (they cannot afford many household products and they are responsible for virtually all the shopping), and they are being told by society to stay home and have children — a life that seems far simpler than the one they currently lead or that is prescribed by the former regime. They have rejected state socialism and perceive no obvious place for themselves in capitalism. Nationalism gives the women of Eastern Europe a role to play and an identity to fulfill, offering security and a sense of purpose. Nationalism feeds into and plays off the remnants of communist values (which despite repeated denials, are deeply ingrained into these societies) far more neatly than capitalism could ever hope to. Nationalism provides social structures, and a ready-made “us versus them” mentality. As in the U.S., the search is on for new enemies in Eastern Europe. Just as the U.S. had to replace the Soviet Union as the enemy of its collective psyche, East Europeans can now no longer blame “the state” for all their woes.

However, you can’t stay and hide in the graveyard of the 19th century forever, amongst the stench of rotting ideologies. For hope, Einhorn looks to fledging grassroots women’s movements in the region. In an economy where many women are single mothers, and two paychecks are a necessity for a married couple, the force of economic necessity may galvanize more women to join these movements. As the economic rights granted under socialism disappear, their absence may force recognition of their social and economic necessity. However, as Einhorn points out, the real problem is that many women would prefer not to work, for they are already employed full-time at home. Socialism never altered the structure of family and gender relations at home. Thus, it is not simply political change that is required, but social change, and yet that can come only at the instigation of East Central European women themselves. However, the paradox is, when will they find the time and energy to do it?

East Central Europe is slowly returning to it pre-1945 historical path, and it is evidently the 19th century past that many inhabitants long for — the myths of the past look all the brighter in the grim days of contemporary reality. The state socialist past, for better or for worse, has been rejected, and only time will tell if it will become possible to redress issues of gender equality and social justice, and striking a balance between the pasts (all of them) and the present. Just as socialism could not force the final abandonment of the pre-1945 history of Eastern Europe, the events following 1989 cannot simply erase and ignore 45 years of even more recent history. The lacunae of one history cannot be replaced by the omission of another, and the difficulty of reconciling these various “histories” still remains a challenge. State socialism is now a part of East European history, just as women are now citizens of these states. It is evident that eventually East Europeans will need to look beyond the 19th century for solutions to contemporary crises.

Alexis Gosselin is a researcher in the area of Russian and East European Studies. She is Review Coordinator for CTHEORY.