feminism,Society and Politics

Women’s struggle: Women rights and communism in the 20th century

The international women’s day roots in the activities of socialist organisations and activists in the beginning of the 20th century. In the US and Europe those early socialist feminists fought for the introduction of an international day for the struggle of women. In 1917 the 8th of March became a national holiday in Soviet Russia. The day was celebrated annually in communist Eastern Europe and enjoys until  today much bigger attention in former communist countries than in Western Europe. This invites to look at the state of women’s rights in the communist ideology and communist reality in the 20th century in Europe. 

Theoretically, all humans are supposed to be equal in communism, but it was not only George Orwell who made it clear that some are more equal than others. If inequalities under a communist regime are discussed nowadays, contributions tackle mostly the unequal relationship between the paternalistic state and the oppressed society or the hierarchies between the grand figures of the Polit biuro and the simple proletariat. The specific oppression of women is mentioned only little. The history of the 20th century in Europe still suffers from a masculine bias.

Class struggle = social struggle (?)

The theory in the beginning was promising: Karl Marx believed that the degree of oppression of women would be an indicator for the general slavery of a society in a capitalist system. He denounced the double oppression of women: through labour and through social constraints (mostly marriage). Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg are famous German, socialist feminists of the early 20th century who believed that the successful class struggle would lead to gender equality. Less known is Johanna Löwenherz who realized early that women belong to more than one oppressed group and that class struggle alone would not help their cause. Class struggle would be important, but the fight for women’s rights would have to go further.

Are we all equal or all different?

Are men and women equal or different? Feminist literature has come to the consensus that neither of those two approaches is helpful on the path to gender equality. If differences among the genders are recognized, “the man” is easily set as the norm to which “the woman” is trying to catch up to, yet lacking distinctive features. If equal features are ascribed to both genders women might be treated just like men – but without wiggle room for pluralism, diversity and the assumption that gender-specific discrimination prevails. The author and professor Zillah Eisenstein suggests to “pluralize the meaning of difference and to reinvent the category of equality.” Such a pluralist approach is impossible to find in the communist reality in the Europe of the 20th century.

The communist ideal 

The ideal communist subject was genderless, because – as mentioned above – the ideology was based on the assumption that everyone would be equal after a successful class struggle. Still, this ideal subject was characterized by typically male attributes. The abstraction of the gender only hid its embedded masculinity. Furthermore, experience shows that propaganda had only little success in promoting gender equality in the work force. Despite inclusion of women in male domains such as construction and mining, women faced manifold discrimination in societies which stuck to traditional gender roles despite relentless socialist propaganda.

This is unfortunate, because the Soviet revolution was also a social, emancipatory revolution in the beginning. But under the communist system the extremely hierarchical structures favoured  patriarchal power relations. Men, deprived from their influence and power in the public sphere, concentrated their power in the private sphere. Women suffered from a double, if not triple burden and were – on top of their work load – often helplessly exposed to sexual and domestic violence. Thsi violence against women was tabooed and stigmatized, and often legitimized to some extend as “natural suffering” in a biblical sense. The assumption that in communism everyone is equal worked against the cause of women and often multiplied their suffering.

Class struggle for gender equality? 

Since the communist ideology considered the class struggle as solution to all social problems and was furthermore based on the assumption that everyone is equal in communism it appears to be only logical that there was no or only little room to question the specific position of women in society. Additionally, there was no or little room to question possible oppression among members of the proletariat (of men against women for example). The Communist was the good guy. But to raise a warning finger in the West to condemn the East would be hypocritical, because the challenges and struggles of women and the mechanisms of oppression were similar. Home and kitchen duties were exclusively women’s tasks. Women were the bearers of society and had to be devoted mothers. They were systematically supressed from the political sphere. And as victim of sexual or domestic violence women saw themself left alone by state and society.

In the communist countries a woman would not be stigmatized as a “Rabenmutter” (a bad mother, lit. “raven mother”) if she would give her child to kindergarden to go to work, but instead she had the additional burden to provide the state not only with children, but her labour as well. The woman as producer and reproducer of the state. During communism it were women who queued for hours to feed their families during the economy of scarcity. Women planned and organized local socialist activities. Furthermore, many women were organized in the resistance, but received little acknowledgement of their risky contribution to social change. Especially in the case of the Polish “Solidarnosc” more and more evidence arises that the trade union would have had no chance of survival if not for the tireless work of many unrecognized women.

The retreat to the private sphere

After the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe the countries went through a social backlash. Many women happiliy retreated into the private sphere – others were pushed. Traditional familiy roles promised regained sovereignty and autonomy. The 90s saw a beginning exchange on feminist ideas. But, “exchange” might not be the wrong word for this process, because an often patronizing attitude of Western feminists was met with resistance among women in the East. The Western feminist movement of the 1970s had claimed their spaces under the slogan “the Private is Political”. But this cry scared many Eastern European women away. After years of complete control women longed for their private sphere and non-interference. The social realities of women in East and West were impossible to compare, but despite those differences the Western feminism was imported – without success. After socialism, communism, before that faschism and in the 90s also the import of neoliberalism the societies in Eastern Europe resented yet another “ism”.

The women’s fight on the rise in Central and Eastern Europe

Feminism as a term has experienced better times, in Germany just like elsewhere, but in Central and Eastern Europe it has been a rejected term since years. This is now quickly changing. Not only in Poland a strong feminist civil society is on the rise to fight for gender equality and self determination. Globally, the concept of feminism is modernized most recently. In Western Europe and the US feminists recognize that there are many facettes of women’s struggle. The principle of “intersectionality” hence the multilayered discrimination based on more than one factor such as gender, sexual orientation, race and class has become part of mainstream feminism. White, Western feminists gave up on their monopoly of interpretation on how feminism should look like. This enabled the strengthening of a new, global and inclusive feminism which recognizes that the slogan “all humans are equal” only makes sense if equality is understood and reformed as a pluralistic, open-minded, multi-layered and progressive concept.

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