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Vol 3, No 2
15 January 2001
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Women in Transition
From post-feminism to past femininity

Sam Vaknin

"[In]... the brothels off Wenceslas Square, in central Prague, [where] sexual intercourse can be bought for USD 25—about half the price charged at a German brothel...—Slav women have supplanted Filipinos and Thais as the most common foreign offering in [Europe]." (The Economist, August 2000, p 18)

"I'm also wary of the revolutionary ambition of some feminist texts, with their ideas about changing present conditions, having seen enough attempted utopia's for one lifetime" (Petr Príhoda, The New Presence, 2000, p 35)

An instance of feminism

"As probably every country has its Amazons, if we go far back in Czech mythology, to a collection of Old Czech Legends, we come across a very interesting legend about the Dévín castle (which literally means 'The Girls' Castle'). It describes a bloody story about a rebellion of women, who started a vengeful war against men. As the story goes, they were not only capable warriors, they had no mercy and would not hesitate to kill their fathers and brothers. Under the leadership of mighty Vlasta, the 'girls' lived in their castle, 'Dévín,' where they underwent a severe military training.

"They led the war very successfully, and one day Vlasta came up with a shrewd plan to take hostage a famous nobleman, Ctirad. She chose the lovely Šárka from the body (sic!) of her troops and had her tied up to a tree by a road with a horn and a jar of a mead out of her reach, but in her sight.

"In this state, Šárka waited for Ctirad to find her. When he actually appeared and saw her, she told him the sad story of how the women from Dévín punished her for not following their ideology by tying her to the tree, mockingly putting a jar and a horn (so that she would be always reminded that she is thirsty and helpless) nearby. Ctirad, enchanted by the beautiful woman, believed the lure and untied her, and when she handed him the mead, he willingly drunk it.

"When he was drunk, she let him blow the horn, which was a signal for the Dévín warriors to capture him. He was then tortured in many horrible ways, at the end of which his body was woven into a wooden wheel and displayed. This event mobilized the army, which soon afterwards destroyed Dévín. (Very significantly, this legend is the only account of radical feminism in Czech Lands.)" ("The Vicissitudes of Czech Feminism" by Petra Hanáková)

"We, myself... and many others, are not in search of global sisterhood at all, and it is only when we give up expecting it that we can get anywhere. It is each other's very 'otherness' that motivates us, and the things we find in common take on greater meaning within the context of otherness. There is so much to learn by comparing the ways in which we are different, and which the same elements of women's experience are global, and which aren't, and wondering why, and what it means." (Jiřina Šiklová)

"It is difficult to carry three watermelons under one arm." (Proverb attributed to Bulgarian women)

"The high level of unemployment among women, segregation in the labour market, the increasing salary gap between women and men, the lack of women present at the decision-making level, increasing violence against women, the high levels of maternal and infant mortality, the total absence of a contraceptive industry in Russia, the insufficiency of child welfare benefits, the lack of adequate resources to fund current state programs—this is only part of the long list of women's rights violations." (Elena Kotchkina, Moscow Centre for Gender Studies, "Report on the Legal Status of Women in Russia")

A gender-neutral hell

Communism was men's nightmare and women's dream, or so the left-wing version goes. In reality, it was a gender-neutral hell. Women under Communism were, indeed, encouraged to participate in the labour force. An array of conveniences facilitated their participation: day care centres, kindergarten, day-long schools and abortion clinics, to name a few.

They had their quota in parliament. They climbed to the top of some professions (though there was a list of woman-free occupations, more than 90, in Poland). But this—as most other things under Communism—was a mere simulacrum.

Reality was much drearier. Women, however mettlesome, groaned under the "triple burden" of work, marital expectations cum childrearing chores and party activism. They succumbed to the lure and demands of the (stressful and boastful) image of the Communist "super-woman." This martyrdom—now threatened by the dual Western imports of capitalism and feminism—served as a fountain of self-esteem and a source of self-worth in otherwise gloomy circumstances.

Yet, the Communist-inspired workplace revolution was not complemented by a domestic one. Women's traditional roles—so succinctly summarized by Bismarck with Prussian geniality as "kitchen, children, church"—survived the modernizing onslaught of scientific Marxism. It is true that power shifted within the family unit ("The woman is the neck that moves the head, her husband").

The double patriarchy

But the "underslippers" (as brow-beated Czech men are disparagingly self-labeled) still had the upper hand. In short, women were now subjected to an onerous double patriarchy, both private and public (the latter propagated by the party and the state). It is not that they did not value the independence, status, social interaction and support networks that their jobs afforded them. But they resented the lack of choice (employment was obligatory) and the parasitic rule of their often useless husbands.

Many of them were an integral and important part of national and social movements throughout the region. Yet, with victory secured and goals achieved, they were invariably shunned and marginalised. As a result, they felt exploited and abused. Small wonder that women have voted overwhelmingly for right-wing parties since the fall of Communism.

Yet, even after the demise of Communism, Western feminism failed to take root in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The East Coast Amazons from America and their British counterparts were too ideological, too Marxist, too radical and too man-hating and family-disparaging to engender much following in the just-liberated victims of leftist ideologies.

Hectoring, overly politicised women were a staple of communism—and so was women's liberation. Women in CEE vowed: "never again." Moreover, the evaporation of the Iron Curtain lifted the triple burden as well. Women finally had a choice whether to develop a career and how to balance it with family life. Granted, economic hardship made this choice highly theoretical. Once again, women had to work to make ends meet. But the stifling ethos was gone.

Communism left behind a legal infrastructure incompatible with a modern market economy. Maternal leave was anywhere between 18 and 36 (!) months, for instance. But there were no laws to tackle domestic or spousal violence, the trafficking of women, organized criminal prostitution rings, discrimination, inequality, marital rape, date rape and a host of other issues. There were no women's media of any kind (TV or print). No university offered a gender studies program or had a women's studies department.

Communism was interested in women (and humans) as a means of production. It ignored all other dimensions of their existence. In Sputnik-era Russia, there were no factories for tampons or sanitary bandages, for example. Communism believed that the restructuring of class relations would resolve all other social inequities.

Feminism properly belonged to the spoiled, brooding women of the West—not to the bluestockings of Communism. Ignoring problems was Communism's way of solving them. Thus, there was no official unemployment in the lands of Socialism—or drugs, or AIDS or unhappy women. To borrow from psychodynamic theories, Communism never developed "problem constancy."

Sam Vaknin, 15 January 2001

The author:

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Moving on:

After the Rain cover

After the Rain:
How the West Lost the East

Sam Vaknin's book on sale from CER as a print book and as an ebook

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