Back to the kitchens in Eastern Europe?

March 4, 1991

In Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, women's role in society is undergoing a re-evaluation as profound as that which took place in the late 1940s and '50s, when women were brought en masse into the job of constructing socialism. TRACY SORENSEN writes from Prague.

Then, every able-bodied person was to work and contribute to the new society; today, the cry is out for industrial restructuring and the shedding of excess labour in the name of capitalist competition.

Then, women were declared emancipated from the narrow boundaries of the home; now, they are being told that their natural place is back in their apparently neglected kitchens.

On the other hand, the women standing in the queues waiting to buy potatoes two years ago are the same women standing in queues now; the women who returned home from eight hours at work to begin five hours of home duties continue the same activities now.

The transformations everyone anticipates — privatisation, unemployment, the dismantling of free education and health, women's return to the kitchen — are still in the future in Czechoslovakia, and only gradually making an impact in Poland and Hungary.

(The exception here is the abortion situation in Poland, which has changed dramatically for the worse; even before draconian anti-abortion laws were introduced into parliament, Catholic influence in the hospital system had begun to make it very difficult and uncomfortable for Polish women seeking terminations.)

End of tokenism

The first casualty of the new era was women's participation in parliament. Once the quota system, which kept women's participation at about 30%, was abolished, the numbers fell dramatically.

Bob Dent, a British journalist and author living in Budapest, commented on the Hungarian elections in the Hungarian left publication Euroview: "A visitor from Mars ... might have concluded that there were no women in Hungary. Almost every political party representative in virtually every discussion was male."

Only 28 of the 386 people elected to parliament in Hungary last year were women; a similar pattern emerged in elections in Czechoslovakia and Poland.

The loss of women representatives has not been widely mourned: most point out that their previous percentages neither accurately represented women's standing in society nor advanced their constituents' interests. Some hope that the dismal figures will galvanise women into action.

Maria Lado, of the Institute of Labour in Budapest, has written: "I believe the figures are more than a warning. Women have to begin their own struggles immediately and to take their place in the political ant to be excluded from shaping our future."

Defending rights

Of great interest to feminists in the West is what will happen to all those rights — full employment, child-care, extended paid maternity leave, free health care, the right to abortion — enjoyed by women in Eastern Europe for the past 40 years.

Ideologically, the governments and major political forces of all three states are firmly committed to a large-scale assault on women's rights.

The Catholic Church in Poland, the highly educated, liberal-minded leaders of Czechoslovakia's Civic Forum and Hungary's technocratic political leaders have all complained that the number of women working is "too high", and that, for their children's sake, they ought to return to the home.

"Approximately 75 or 76% of women are employed. This is a very high proportion. And I think this is even unacceptable from the point of view of basic education and basic care of children", says Civic Forum spokesperson Vladimir Zelezny.

"We think state care for children in the form of nursery schools failed in the past 20 years. Those people who didn't experience the everyday close contact with their mother grew up as rather strange personalities, I think. Those nurseries must be reduced."

Hungary's Free Democrats have called for a vaguely defined "family wage", for men, to overcome couples' current dependence on two incomes.

In Poland, where the level of the debate about women's role has reached low levels indeed, the right to vote and to gain higher education degrees have been seriously questioned by Solidarity parliamentary deputies.

The view that the effects of the 40-year experiment in social engineering must be reversed is even backed by many women. Many have welcomed the "right to return home", complaining that they were only in the paid workforce because they were dragooned into it, first by the state and then by financial necessity.

"The problem is that this terrible socialism entirely devalued women's work, like cooking and washing and taking care of children as something lower, something worse", Petra Francova, a member of the ecological women's group Mothers of Prague, told me.

This eagerness to re-embrace "women's work", is, some point out, a reaction to the trials of "emancipation": Czechoslovak women spend, on average, 13.5 hours a day on work and home duties. The drudgery of women is accentuated by the lack of labour-saving devices, bad service for breakdowns and simple repairs and hours queuing in shops.

Lilian Kandel, a lecturer at Paris University in contact over the years with the Eastern European dissident movement, expressed concern over this to the Italian feminist magazine Legendaria: "I think that many women will switch to the 'feminism of difference' in a ashion, rediscovering so-called natural tendencies and the return to an entirely private sphere".

Perhaps the situation for women seeking abortions in Czechoslovakia under the old regime gives an insight into the true nature of those rights which looked so good on paper.

Abortion was legalised here after the Communists came to power in 1948, but it was never a straightforward procedure. Until 1986, women seeking to terminate pregnancies faced the humiliating experience of going to a board of doctors and women from social organisations who would have to be convinced that theirs was a "deserving case".

"They gave you a lecture on the health dangers of abortion and how you'd been a bad girl", says Czechoslovak News Agency journalist Adam Novak. "If you were married you were stupid; if you weren't you were a slut. The attitude was that the state would bail you out this time but you had to be eternally grateful and be good in future." And this in a situation in which abortion was a mainstream method of fertility control, because of the unavailability, poor quality or erratic supply of contraceptives.

This was the "women's liberation" of the old regime: it featured many of the rights fought for by feminists in the West over the past 20 years, but these were served up in a way that did not help to create self-confident, assertive women. "Women's lot" all too often continued to be associated with drudgery, difficulty and shame.

Yet one never hears of women voluntarily giving up their jobs: few can afford to. This ideology, clearly, is not about providing positive goals for women, but about softening their indignation when they are the first to be asked to leave their offices and factories.

And while much is made of the indignities and difficulties of trying to pursue one's rights under the old system, it is still true that women were guaranteed a basic level of financial security.

Despite dreadful housing shortages, the housing needs of single women with children were given special attention, to the point where ex-husbands complained long and loud about the injustice of it. Child-care, secure work, free health and education and state holidays for the children were available.

While women's incomes were generally lower than men's, there was nothing financially perilous about a woman with children living without a man, as there so often is in the West.

The struggle begins

An embryonic women's liberation movement exists in all three countries.

The Hungarian Feminist Network, which will host a conference of women activists from the East and West April 5-7, has declared its aim to end the political, economic and employment practices that perpetuate women's current situation, and to fight for the "improvement of our life conditions, right to work, autonomy, health and basic and broadly defined existential security".

The network's declaration of intent points out: "This 'emancipation' granted by the state without any previous public discussion or grassroots organisation in a basically conservative society with a double standard of morality has only succeeded in producing deeply uncertain and self-doubting women prone to accept the scapegoat role they are often given".

In Poland, women's groups have sprung up to defend abortion rights, women's commissions operate within the Solidarity trade union structures, and at least one small left party is avowedly committed to equal participation in its activities (contrary to the left in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, which is an overwhelmingly male affair).

In Czechoslovakia, a group calling itself Women's Initiative 90 has written a public appeal to members of parliament, complaining that as a result of the economic reform, "women are becoming second-class citizens".

"The position of women as an unpaid labour force in the home is being intensified. The policy of concentrating capital in the hands of a small group of owners means an increase in unemployment, which means that women especially and youth will be affected", the initiative warns.

"... A nation can't be happy if half of it cannot freely enjoy human rights because of poverty."

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