Present-day Russia needs a renewal of the feminist movement
By Anna Ochkina, translated from Russian for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by Renfrey Clarke
January 1, 2009 -- In the Soviet Union feminism was elevated to the status of official state policy and ultimately was destroyed as an ideology and a social movement. The dominant concept was one of a general, global equality; as a result, a separate movement for the rights of women simply could not exist. The feminist reference points of Soviet social policy took the form of a set of rights for women: employment in the workforce on an equal basis with men; political rights; equality before the law, and so forth. The gaining of formal rights, however, resulted in the restricting of particular, specific rights of women, which in practice proved very difficult to realise.
The reproductive rights of women were recognised in actual social policy only in the 1970s, when extended maternity leave was introduced, and later when women were granted child-raising leave of up to one and a half years with pay and three years without. It was only quite recently, however, that the equal obligations and rights of parents in child-care matters were spelt out in detail in legislation. While these rights had been recognised long since in the formal sense, exercising them in practice had been almost impossible. Fathers were unable to take paid leave in the same way as mothers to look after sick or newborn children. Rights of both women and men were denied in the case of divorce. The divorce laws did not allow spouses to resolve in adequate fashion questions such as access to children and the fair division of property. Nor were there adequate provisions for securing justice in this regard. In other words, even bourgeois family law did not operate fully, and neither was there any guarantee that the justice possible within its bounds could be obtained. Despite the official ideology, discrimination against women in the areas of work and politics remained in the USSR.
In post-Soviet Russia, this discrimination has strengthened as a result of the universal violation of labour laws and social entitlements. The dictatorship of the employer that operates in present-day Russia allows him or her to stipulate that newly hired workers will not give birth during a certain period, or will not take paid time off to look after a sick child. In the new labour code all the provisions intended to help women combine careers and motherhood are subject to the discretion of the employer, and are no longer obligatory. Workplace discrimination is evident in the fact that women are invariably forced into the lowest-paid job categories.
The changes enacted under socialism, in other words, gave women a whole set of formal political and social rights, but at the same time the actual policies that were implemented failed to ensure women their specific rights, especially those associated with their particular role in the reproductive process. Discussion of women’s problems was forced onto the margins, becoming the province of specific women’s movements that were totally subject to the official ideology. There was no broad consideration of such questions as the division of gender roles within the family, the equal responsibility of fathers for looking after children, the consequences of sexual freedom for women, the need to create a new culture of sexual relations, and so forth.
Moreover, traditional and even patriarchal approaches to these questions gradually became established. Along with economic difficulties, the contradictory nature of social policy in the USSR presented an obstacle to the exercising by women of their rights in all areas of social life. The official ideology also evolved gradually in the direction of the traditional understanding of "femininity" and "masculinity". In one way and another, these stereotypes were supported and developed by the system of child rearing and education. In the schools, training for work remained segregated, with girls learning housekeeping while boys were taught trades. It was also mainly girls who were involved in tidying up at school and performing domestic tasks at home.
Nevertheless, the social and economic changes that had led to the emancipation of women and to their participation in the social sphere of production proved irreversible. Women had been educated, had obtained qualifications, had acquired career ambitions and were exercising their sexual freedom. But while society was ready to make use of women’s professional knowledge and skills, it was not fully prepared to recognise their equal rights with men in all areas. Society did not accept women in leadership roles, and a woman’s standing was linked not only to her professional and intellectual attributes, but also to her family status.
Gender discrimination existed on the level of stereotypes in the areas of the workplace and professional life. In the areas of family and intimate personal relationships, extremely free and modern forms and rules of behaviour became combined with traditional stereotypes of the division of roles and responsibilities, in a manner extremely disadvantageous to women. In other words, men were ready to accept materially independent and sexually liberated women, but were not prepared to change their own behaviour in the family and in intimate relationships.
The reasons for this cultural renaissance of patriarchal gender ideas were the following. In the first place was the rejection of state-enforced stereotypes, which, moreover, were in continual contradiction with women’s real dilemmas -- the material problems of the family, arduous work and the unbearable "double shift" of hired work and domestic labour. The problems of the consumer market in the USSR drained the strength of women above all. In addition, there were two more reasons for the rebirth of patriarchal ideas: the disproportion in the numerical relationship of the sexes that resulted from the Second World War, and the extremely harsh socioeconomic conditions in which the emancipation occurred. Russian women simply had no choice; they found themselves not even consciously desiring freedom, when that freedom was imposed on them and turned into hard labour, in many cases accompanied by loneliness.
Post-Soviet Russia exacerbates discrimination
The shift to market mechanisms did not relieve the problems of Russian women, but exacerbated them. Occupational and economic discrimination grew stronger with the problems with the economy, with the fall in the number of jobs that were well paid (or which even paid more than the subsistence minimum), and with increased competition between workers in the labour market. The sharp reduction in the financing of social welfare brought increases in the cost of health care and education at all levels, affecting women most of all. It also turned out that the years of occupational emancipation of women had not made men completely equal partners in marriage; instead, men had been freed of moral responsibility for the material and social wellbeing of their families.
In post-Soviet Russia, the poverty and disempowerment of state-sector workers has been mainly a problem of women. In the USSR education, health care, social services and culture had already been extensively feminised. The marked decline of earnings and job prestige in these sectors thus affected women above all. It is perfectly justified to talk of economic discrimination against women in Russia. Statistical and sociological data show that in Russia, poverty is mainly a problem of women. Meanwhile, in 40 per cent of Russian families women are the main or sole breadwinners.
Many researchers in Russia have identified a crisis of the family. This crisis has appeared statistically in the growing divorce rate, declining number of marriages, huge numbers of abortions and falling birth rate. Sociologists testify that women are disillusioned with the patriarchal family. As early as the mid-1990s sociological studies were finding that for most women family and career were values of equal significance. The family has not lost its importance, but work and the chance of professional development have become vitally important to women. When combined with the super-exploitation of labour in modern-day Russia, where simply ensuring survival and satisfying the most elementary physical, mental and social needs demands a huge work effort, the persistence in society of near-traditional attitudes toward the rights and obligations of women and men in the areas of family and work has driven women into a dead end.
Women are forced to dash continually between work and family, while in order to achieve and maintain their professional status, they are compelled to work twice or three times as hard as their male colleagues. Meanwhile, sociological research shows that working women who are married with children constantly feel guilty toward their families. In the prevailing social consciousness, for a woman to neglect her family and parental responsibilities, even for the sake of work and a career, is almost criminal. For a man it is almost a mark of honour, or at least is considered natural. This is the case even though women are now the main or sole breadwinners in 40 per cent of Russian families.
During the period of market reforms, the ideological pressure imposed by society on Russian women has increased rather than diminishing. Surveys thus show that women experience professional and career discrimination, along with growing anxiety at the burden of combined family and occupational responsibilities. The fact that the status of women as "second-rank" workers is vanishing into the past has brought few changes to the gender structure of employment, especially at points higher up the scale. The areas of the economy that are most "feminised" are those in which the need for high qualifications is combined with relatively low wages -- education, culture, health care and social welfare. Even in these spheres, however, the top posts are usually held by men.
Sociologists also note the so-called "guilt before society" felt by single and childless women. The mass media and mass culture put about the image of women as sex objects and commodities. There is also the counterposed tendency to extol the "natural" destiny of women to be mothers. At the same time, no real initiatives are being taken in social policy, and the efforts to stimulate the birth rate are having, and will have, contradictory social consequences. Quietly being circulated in the press are discussions of the moral significance of abortion, and of the possibility of banning it or of equating it with murder -- that is, of once again outlawing it.
Meanwhile, it is essential to note that we are now losing even those gains in the area of support for mothers and children that were made earlier. In light of the standards of contraceptive and sexual behaviour that have become established among us (and of the prices of contraceptives) such trends in social policy, or even simply in public opinion, can result in the harsh exploitation of women’s reproductive function.
Social change needed
In Russia, the economic pressure of the market is thus combined in dramatic fashion with patriarchal (and at times simply barbaric) cultural stereotypes. Nevertheless, the need which our women have for feminist theory is an objective reality. Women in Russia are energetic, educated and capable of independence. If women in this country show a certain reluctance to accept feminism, this is in the first place a reaction to the distortion that feminism suffered during the socialist period. Second, it stems from the weight of the social and economic problems that women often find unbearable, and that force them to rely on support from their families and from men. Also of importance are feelings of emotional powerlessness in the face of social traditions and stereotypes.
It should be noted that because of their greater social vulnerability -- which is objectively determined -- and because of their status and role in the economy (including in the sphere of unpaid reproductive labour), women also have an even greater objective need than men for radical social change. As a result of their role in the reproductive process; of the historically established gender disproportions in the assigning of social roles, power and resources; and of the existing gender structure of employment, women may be subject to dual or even triple exploitation compared to men. This, however, does not in any way turn men and women into enemies. What it does is to make the majority of women objectively the enemies of capitalism and of capitalist exploitation. In politics, and on the left, it is still less true that men and women are enemies. Here too, one must look to the gender distribution of roles and status in all areas of social life, and to the existing stereotypes of social behaviour.
Feminist theory requires renewing, so that it can become adequate to the needs of women and of all of Russian society. The theory must take into account both the social changes that have occurred and the objective necessities which have manifested themselves. The feminist movement must develop not as a separate movement of women campaigning for specific rights, not as a movement aimed against men in the name of an abstract concept of freedom, but as an organic part of a social movement striving for full-blooded social welfare policies and for transformations of a socialist nature.
Specific women’s movements are inevitably limited in their social effectiveness. As local social movements, they cannot make a political impact, since they are unable to advance a clear and rounded political program. Women already possess a full range of formal rights. Social projects aimed at ensuring real rights for women can only be implemented within a context of broad social change. Partial and limited initiatives in this case turn into a caricature of the very concept of sexual equality, discrediting feminism as an idea and as a project.
Problems of the Russian left
The problem of the left in Russia lies in an organic failure to accept feminism in any form. There is an almost complete failure to conceive of gender problems within the context of the left movement and of the tasks of social change. For the most part, the left limits itself to declarations on equal rights, the rights of women, and so on. This cultural peculiarity of the Russian left has the result that questions of gender, and acute social problems linked with gender disproportions and contradictions, are not discussed at all at the source of left politics. Consequently, the official interpretation of these questions often remains the only one, while the initiatives of the authorities in the field of so-called demographic policy rate as the sole constructive proposals, despite their one-sidedness and the complete lack of any sign that they are socially effective.
An authentic equality of the sexes is possible only through realising the specific needs of men and women as natural and inviolable human requirements. Engels understood the movement for the rights of women not as a "special women’s movement", but as "the women’s side of the workers’ movement…" Hence the task of the left in the first instance is to discuss the problems of women as questions of universal significance. Abortion, violence within the family and questions of child-rearing are not specific problems of women, and require a thorough reorienting of social policy if they are to be adequately dealt with.
It is essential that women be drawn into political activity as partners with equal rights. Their problems must be addressed as general ones, and their occupational, social and sexual rights must be defended within the context of realising the universal rights of human beings.
[Anna Ochkina is a Russian feminist and academic. She is a research associate of the Institute of Globalisation Studies and Social Movements, and deputy editor of the journal Levaya Politika (Left Politics).]