Women Under Post-Communism

Against the Current, No. 44, May/June 1993

Nanette Funk

NOT TOO LONG ago, state socialist bureaucrats and Western feminists were both telling women in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union how good they had it, that they already had what Western women’s movements were still fighting for Abortion rights (except for Romania and to some extent Bulgaria), daycare, equality and full employment of women were regularly cited.(1)

What such accounts left out were precisely women’s own experiences, the problems Eastern and Central European and Soviet women really faced and still face, and how these problems are both the same and different from those in the West Without understanding this, post-communist women’s attitudes toward work, family, feminism and the possibilities and difficulties for the development of a women’s movement in post-communism will be misunderstood in the West.

Post-communist women’s reputed desire to return home and leave the paid work force is a case in point This reputed desire, to the extent that it exists, does not generally represent women’s turning their backs on a feminist paradise nor is it necessarily anti-feminist dreaming or a capitulation to a sexist vision of the glories of the traditional housewife role.

The reasons post-communist women may not want to work are complex. In the East, not working represents freedom. Whereas women in state socialism had to work, either for economic or political reasons, now they want to feel they have a choice whether to be employed. In addition the private sphere in state communism often represented the realm of freedom, freedom from state intervention, freedom to discuss politics, freedom to express one’s real values and perception of reality as one experienced it.

One form of resistance for women in the Soviet Union had been to leave the paid work force and take care of children at home, thereby taking control of one’s own life, eluding the power of the state and gaining more authority over the development of one’s children.

Women also consider the costs of paid work—in health, in guilt toward children, in lack of opportunity to enjoy their children, in lack of satisfaction in work and in stress. Some decide the equation comes out in favor of not being employed. Women are simply stressed out, exhausted and overworked. Although it varies by country, gender roles haven’t changed very much in the former Soviet bloc; women have the double burden of paid work in addition to the primary responsibility for children, the home and affective work in relationships.

Women do about 80% of the work in the home. Most leaves for childcare are maternity leaves, not parental leaves. Fathers were permitted such leaves in Germany (GDR) in 1986 and in Hungary in 1982, but it was rarely used. In Poland fathers could take leaves for the birth of their child only if the mother was dead(2) and in Czechoslovakia such leave was permitted only in 1990.(3) This meant that the state reinforced traditional gender roles and that men were not forced to think about their roles.

Women in the GDR also frequently found their jobs more dissatisfying than did men, which is not surprising given vertical and horizontal gender division of labor in state socialism, with women having very few positions of authority and decision making, e.g. only 1.4% of women in top management in the former Czechoslovakia in 1989,(4) in the GDR only 4% of top positions in industry and 2% in agriculture.

Women were still overwhelmingly in “women’s jobs” in all state socialist countries—in textiles, office work, health and education—working much more than men in unskilled jobs, and less likely than men to have jobs for which they had been trained. In Hungary women were less than 25% of the skilled workers,(5) in the former GDR women were 60% of the unskilled workers although they had equal job qualifications with men. Women’s jobs were sometimes dangerous to health, abortions were often dangerous and unsanitary which, combined with the stresses of the double burden for women meant that, for example, women in Czechoslovakia between the ages of 30-74 had an 11-18% higher rate of health problems than men.(6)

Post-communist women’s wishes to leave the paid work force are thus not unlike that of some Western professional women who, being financially able to do so, choose to return to the home, at least for some years, while raising children. The structure of the working day continued to be based on a male worker and it was just too much.

It should be noted that state socialist policies had generally changed from those of the 1950s and 1960s and women had already begun to be eased out of the paid work force well before 1989. Yugoslavia, with its high unemployment, had introduced measures, as did Hungary, which made it possible for women to stay out of the workforce for three years in Hungary, five in the former Yugoslavia, while raising children. This became a way for the state to maintain supposed full employment. From 1975 on, women’s employment in technical work declined by almost half in the former GDR. Hungary had already decided prior to 1989 that women staying home with young children was a cheaper investment that developing an adequate daycare system.

It should also be recognized that post-communist women are very conflicted on the issue of employment as studies have indicated, especially in the former GDR. Although some women may want to return to the home, they also feel a tremendous vacuum if they do not work. Women’s friendships and social-life largely turned around work, and their job was part of their identity, some having grown up in the same job for thirty years. In the GDR respect for women was in part based on their jobs.

It is true that about 30% of women throughout the former Soviet system would prefer to be employed part-time, where part-time is anything under eight and three-quarter hours a day, or they do not want to be employed when their child is very young. In most countries this had not been allowed, e.g. only 3% in Hungary while about 25% in the GDR worked part-time in spite of strong discouragement to do so.

Despite all this, it would be another mistake to think that high unemployment figures are a result of women’s own choices. Many women are single mothers, as high as 30% of all mothers in the former GDR, husbands are unemployed or their salaries are not high enough to support the family and women’s unemployment is forced on them. Daycare is being cut back, made more expensive or privatized, some women can no longer afford it and then cannot, either for legal(7) or practical reasons, be employed.

Because of institutional discrimination in state socialism women were at the bottom of the job ladder, with fewer contacts in important places to protect them and less power and thus they were the first fired. In layoffs, gender stereotypes are operative; it is presumed, by some women as well as men, that men will suffer more from unemployment than women, although the data do not bear this out. Once fired, it is much more difficult for women to find jobs. There are fewer reemployment opportunities, fewer training or retraining programs for women. In the former GDR only 6% of training positions are now written specifically for women, whereas 36% are specifically for men.

There is institutional discrimination as well as overt discrimination in the economic transition. Under state socialism—where the society in general lacked a “work ethic”—women were considered less reliable workers. They used sick leave extensively to take care of sick children; and given that children were often sick, women were frequently absent. When it comes to hiring now, employers prefer, at least in the former GDR, to hire men.

In fact, growing involuntary unemployment due to the economic transformation is a major problem that women face and that any women’s activities in post-communism must confront Unemployment is being partly displaced onto women, as has often been the case in modernization and economic transformations.

Thus women in the former GDR have twice as high an unemployment level as do the men (about 20% for women and 10% for men). And capitalist patterns of hiring, of preferring younger, pretty women, leaves many older women unemployed. Women are about 6% of the unemployed in Poland and Bulgaria, perhaps more in Russia. The war in the former Yugoslavia has disrupted so much of the economy that unemployment is an overwhelming fact of life.

But there are also cultural, social and political pressures for post-communist women to not work. In much of Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, the present form of employment of women signified a disrespectful, arrogant, modern world view being imposed on society by the communist state, disregarding pre-1945 or even pre-1917 traditional culture and women’s roles. Returning women to the home represents a reappropriation of a sovereign, traditional, but often patriarchal culture and “authentic” identity.

Such traditionalist striving also serves as an ideological mask and encouragement for eliminating women in the ever-growing competition with men for jobs. In the former GDR this competition is evidenced by men applying for jobs that were traditionally women’s jobs, in banks, tourism and insurance, because these are the boom sectors now.

Pro-women activities today must also confront the fact that the end of state socialism meant a loss of a collective identity, often replaced by nationalism. Nationalism sees women primarily in their role as mothers, as reproducers and perpetuators of the nation, a nation always perceived as under threat of extinction. The traditionalism that is often part of nationalism also means pressure for women to return to the home.

In the former Yugoslavia, many women themselves share in the nationalist concerns, and feel conflicted in their concern for women vs. the nation. Nationalism, as we see in the former Yugoslavia, can also result in acting out the war on women’s bodies in the systematic, nightmarish rape of women. This barbarism in turn propels more women into nationalist attitudes.

Returning women to the home, as well as restricting abortion, is also a symbol to the Church—in Poland, to some extent in Hungary and Croatia, and even in the former GDR—of its power For the patriarchal Church, restricting abortion rights not only undoes an evil, but also signifies that the old “evil” system of communism is dead.

Women thus have an important symbolic as well as material position in the transformation, one which does not redound to their benefit Thus in Poland the Sejm (legislature) is about to pass a law prohibiting abortion except in rape, serious malformation of the fetus or danger to the life of the mother And this is already an easing of a more restrictive proposal that would not even have allowed prenatal testing.

Western women must also recognize that although there was a right to abortion under state socialism, the conditions were often poor and unsanitary. In some countries, as in the former GDR, women often felt shame and guilt about abortions, prompted partially by the lack of any public discussion of abortion, publication of abortion statistics, or abortion counselling.

Likewise, the much touted daycare of state socialism was often insufficient, inadequate and even unhealthy particularly in Bulgaria, Russia and Romania. There was poor food, not enough heat, much sickness and political indoctrination. Even in the former GDR, which had the best, most extensive system with enough spaces for virtually all children from the time of birth, there was variation in the quality of the care, resentment by some parents of its rigidity, no parental participation in how centers were run, and exhaustion of parents, usually women, who had to get up at 5 AM to bring the child to daycare and then go off to their paid work.

Women often had guilt, bitterness and unhappiness at children’s long hours in daycare. Because of women’s long work hours they sometimes left their children in daycare for the whole week, seeing them only on weekends.

If the communist past wasn’t a feminist paradise and present post-communism surely isn’t one, now that repression has been lifted and a civil society is being created, one might expect it is a time ripe for feminism. Yes and No. It is not ripe for a feminist movement of the sort that developed in the West thirty years ago, or even one that uses the term “feminism.”

The cultures are different, with different histories and it is now a different historical moment, one with widespread economic recession, political instability, social crisis and even war Whereas the women’s movement in the United States in the 1970s had to deal with the normative unacceptability of women’s employment, post-communist women have to deal with its economic unacceptability.

In the former Yugoslavia, and in some parts of the former Soviet Union, war is so overwhelming and brutal that it absorbs all attention. In addition, although feminist movements may not have existed under communism, anti-feminism did, serving as a preventative strike against a possible invasion of Western feminism; “feminism” became a dirty word.

Post-communist women are influenced by state socialism’s depiction of feminism as a divisive, anti-socialist movement of selfish, spoiled, narcissistic women who hated men. Both in Hungary(8) and Bulgaria(9), published arguments claimed that women’s participation in the workforce was the source of social and family problems. Feminism was regarded as dividing the class, not based on the proper productivist grounds, particularist, and socially destructive. Collectivism is still a part of people’s social understanding, and the belief exists that a movement must be for all, not for some “special group.”

Women also look to Western feminism and ask what it has accomplished—there is no adequate daycare in the West and women do not have power in society or in politics.(10) Post-communist women are also suspicious of yet another foreign “ism” after having just gotten out from under one. Women are especially suspicious of joining any organizations, even women’s organizations, since they had to do this in the past, and they know that women’s organizations were largely an arm of the state to transmit state ideology to women, and to control the family and the private sphere through women.

They don’t want to fight for equality and emancipation or even hear these words, the very language used to describe some of the very things post-communist women hated and don’t want anymore. If that is what Western feminism has to offer, they don’t want Western feminism. Post-communist women are also resentful of an androgynous model of equality that state socialism offered, one which required women to be like men. They resented those hard-edged, tough, authoritarian, repressive, state-authorized women who were the models of the liberated women like Ana Pauker in Romania. They do not want equality, if that is what it means.

In addition women, as in the former GDR, are overwhelmed and disoriented by all the sudden changes, by the unemployment that has destabilized their lives, their family, their children, their sense of self-worth and their way of coping with problems in which work served a therapeutic function. They don’t have the time, the strength or the motivation to fight. Their children, especially teenagers, who may be turning to right-wing activities take their energy, as does their having to soothe the shattered egos of their unemployed husbands, and dealing with abuse from husbands or boyfriends.

Moreover, there was no political culture, especially for women, that would encourage post-communist women to think they could influence events, and take things into their hands. They were products of a state paternalism, whereby the good, along with the bad, was largely given to them. Women are unlikely to organize at the very moment when for the first time differences between women (such as being a single mother or not, having children or not, having job or not) are creating differences in living standards and eroding solidarity.

Women, for example academic women in the former GDR, are having to compete brutally and break down past solidarities in order to survive. There is also a general value crisis and moral cynicism. At the same time women have very little representation in parliaments (the range is between 5-13%), and women’s issues are rarely discussed, except for abortion.

Does this mean that a women’s movement, whether called feminist or not, is an impossibility and will not develop? No, no more than it meant that in the West, where one could also recite an imposing litany of resistance to feminism. But it will develop slowly and will respond to post-communist women’s own history and situation. Woman activists will have to deal with immediate problems women face, such as devastating unemployment in the former GDR or rape in the former Yugoslavia, as well as the widespread problem of sexual abuse and violence against women. Whereas in the West it was important to recognize the differences among women—whether Black, Chicano, lesbian, etc.—in former Yugoslavia it is important for women to establish that it is not the differences that matter, whether it was a Croatian or Serbian women who was raped, but that all are women. In this way an ugly nationalism can be resisted. Thus some post-modernist categories may not resonate with the concerns of post-communist women and, in general, one cannot simply import Western feminist theory wholesale.

Different sorts of arguments will also be needed in post-communism. In Poland or in the former Yugoslavia not only right-to-life arguments but nationalist arguments as well are deployed against abortion, for example, that the nation must be replenished. It is these nationalist arguments that women activists must address. The Western feminist argument that a woman should have control Ai over her own body is not the most relevant issue in post-communism. In these countries the notion of the worth of the individual, of individual choice and a right to privacy had either not developed or had been strongly repressed.

Western and American feminists must also be prepared to learn something from the East and not be just teachers—but to reflect on Western hyper-individualism. In abortion debates provoked in Germany by the unification and which involve both East and West Germany, the issue became one that had not been raised in the West, but from which U.S. feminists could learn. There feminists argued that unborn life is not best protected by legal prohibition to abortion and reliance on punishment, but that abortion rates would be best reduced by the provision of positive conditions that would make childrearing more possible—adequate daycare, financial support for mothers as well as sex education and free and available contraception.

In addition, while the recent Western women’s movement has had to fight for the right to abortion, in some post-communist countries it is the humanization and improvement of the conditions of abortion and reproductive freedom in a broader sense, including available birth control, that must be demanded as well as the continued right to abortion.

The demands and concerns of women in post-communism will vary by country. War in the former Yugoslavia means it is important to get rape recognized as a war crime The economic reorganization everywhere means it is important to demand training and retraining programs for women, to discuss quotas for women and the introduction of anti-discrimination laws. Women must be trained to function in a market economy and learn how to operate businesses.

Discussions of the communist past are needed, and how what was represented as equality, was not equality at all. Women’s centers and women’s studies are needed to provide literature, to counter state-imposed negative stereotypes of feminism and to enable women to appropriate their own history. Support for translations of some Western feminist works and donations of such books by Western women to these centers are needed. Groups such as the Network of East-West Women in the United States, organized by Ann Snitow and Sonia Robbins in New York, supporting active post-communist women in each country should be strengthened.

Fledgling women’s groups in each post-communist country must be supported, responding to their needs for media access, for equipment and training so that they can act for themselves, Training as rape counsellors needs to be provided for women in the former Yugoslavia. It means demanding that there’ be publication of data on women, and on women’s unemployment. And it means discussions of the issues of affirmative action to deal with the economic discrimination against women, but in conjunction with plans to develop the economy in general.

Western feminists must reflect on their own understanding of feminism, make every effort to understand the situation of post-communist women, lend, constructive support to activities and efforts underway in post-communism on behalf of women, and be willing to learn from the experience of these women. This would be one step along the way to a global feminism.


  1. Olga Toth, “Neither Envy Nor Pity…,” Gender Politics and Post-Communism: Reflections from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, eds. Nanette Funk and Magda Mueller (New York: Routledge, 1993.)
    back to text
  2. Jolanta Plakwicz, “Poland: Between church and state: Polish women’s experience,” in Chris Corrin, Superwomen and the Double Burden (London: Scarlet Press, 1992), 83.
    back to text
  3. Alena Heitlinger, “The Impact of the Transition from Communism on the Status of Women in the Czech and Slovak Republics,” in Nanette Funk and Magda Mueller (eds.), op. cit.
    back to text
  4. Alena Heitlinger, Ibid., 97.
    back to text
  5. Chris Corrin,  Superwomen and the Double Burden, 36.
    back to text
  6. Ibid, 101.
    back to text
  7. At least until recently in the united Germany a woman (though not a man) who did not have proof the child was provided for, could not be eligible for unemployment insurance, because they were not considered employable.
    back to text
  8. Joanna Goven, “Gender Politics in Hungary: Autonomy and Anti-Feminism,” in Funk and Mueller (eds.), op. cit.
    back to text
  9. Dimitrina Petrova, “The Winding Road to Emancipation in Bulgaria,” in Funk and Mueller (eds.), op. cit.
    back to text
  10. Maria Adamik, “Feminism and Hungary,” in Funk and Mueller (eds.), op. cit.
    back to text

May-June 1993, ATC 44