Soviet women in a changing society

Wednesday, September 11, 1991

Interview By Renfrey Clarke

An economist and specialist on the problems of women in the workplace, ANASTASIYA POSADSKAYA is head of the Gender Studies Centre within one of the institutes of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. She was interviewed in Moscow by RENFREY CLARKE.

How did the Gender Studies Centre come to be set up?

The need has existed for many years, since the problems related to gender in the social sense are very real. Discrimination occurs in virtually every area of Soviet life, and it has to be studied if we're to have any hope of changing it.

The idea of a centre arose in an informal feminist circle three or four years ago, and was followed by the establishment in 1988 of the Institute of Social and Economic Problems of the Population. Last year the institute was given a state assignment: to develop proposals for a government policy on the position of women. We argued that if we were to carry out this assignment, a proper centre was required, and the Gender Studies Centres was set up in April 1990.

Has the position of women altered in the last six years? Are women more free now than they were before? For example, are they playing a role in political parties and movements?

The process has been very contradictory. At first glance it would seem that unprecented opportunities have now opened up for women to participate in political life. In the past, the corridors of power all led through the party structure. Now it's possible for women to have a much more diverse and real participation in public life.

Women used to take part in public activity, but that was public activity of a completely different kind. If you didn't perform this public activity, you'd be denied good work references, and you wouldn't get access to the distribution of consumer goods through the workplace.

Today the party structures include very few women. Our discussions with the leaders of the so-called democratic political parties show that they're totally deaf and blind where questions relating to women are concerned. They consider that to attempt to draw women into political life is simply to mimic the old Stalinist methods, the "mobilisation of women", and that it's necessary instead to be conscious of women's so-called natural destiny.

How is the transition to market relations in the economy affecting women?

When enterprises are forced to operate under market conditions, they acquire an interest in maintaining the most stable workforce they can. For the most responsible, prestigious jobs they want men, preferably from 28 to 35 years of age. These are an elite category.

When enterprises make the transition to leasehold or shareholding forms, the first people to be sacked are women. When the number of administrative personnel in the ministries was cut between 1986 and 1988, more than 80% of those made redundant were women.

To be sacked doesn't just mean losing your wages. It also means losing the ability to order food through the enterprise, and to obtain furniture and other industrial products through the same channels. Often it means losing your place in a queue for housing or for a garden plot. You lose your right to stay in sanatoriums and holiday resorts owned by the enterprise. Unemployment in our conditions is worse than in the West — the whole structure of your links with the world is destroyed.

What's the state of the women's movement, and what organistions of women is it possible and necessary to build?

The women's movement is definitely on the rise; every day sees the appearance of new organisations. In March an independent women's forum attracted representatives from 48 different groups and movements. These bodies are still fragmented, there's a lack of coordinaiong links between them, and it was only recently that a women's information network appeared.

There are also the official structures set up by the Communist Party, for example, the Soviet Women's Committee, which in the past didn't represent anyone except female apparatchiks, and whose leaders were appointed by the party bureaucracy. Organisations like this are now undergoing a lot of changes. They've been used as the basis for the formation of a stillborn structure of women's councils, which are basically concerned with the distribution of goods through the enterprises.

The independent women's organisations have a strong tendency to remain isolated from bodies like this. Women are wary of joining in broader unions, because they don't want to be subject to any kind of pressure. So the links which are now being established between independent women's organisations are for the purpose of exchanging information about their activities. In my view this is correct.

What's been the impact on Soviet women so far of the ideas of Western feminism?

Surveys show that the attitude to feminism is positive. The negative stereotypes here are gradually being overcome, and implementing the ideas of feminism is of course indispensable. Soviet women find their own concerns and interests reflected in these ideas, since the problems of women are universal.

How does the women's movement see itself in political terms? Does it concieve of itself as part of the "democratic forces"?

The only party which consciously seeks to draw women into politics — alas! — is the Communist Party.

Women's groups and organisations have not become part of the democratic movement, in my view because the democrats have a traditional patriarchal attitude to the place and role of women. Most of the democrats are men who consider that a woman's place is in the home. We define this as a "post-socialist reversion to patriarchy". It's characteristic of all the former socialist countries — after free elections, the degree of participation by women in parliament has declined.

We've also seen a general attack on the right to abortion in these countries, except in Romania. In the USSR, shortly before International Women's Day, the newspaper Moscow Komsomolets published an appeal urging people to sign a petition being pushed by a European religious organisation along the lines, "I protest against the right to abortion". The attack on the rights of women is very real.

Can you say something about the position of young women, high school and tertiary students in particular? What's been the effect on them of the recent period?

In school here female students are taught that they're equal, that they're individual personalities. But when women watch television, and see all the men there in the meetings, doing everything important, that also educates us in a certain way.

We finish school and start looking for a profession, and we find there are very definite limitations on what we can do. We find there are some professions that are considered women's specialties, and other that are men's. For example, when I finished school I was given a list of jobs I could pursue — telephonist, nurse, child-care worker, teacher and so on. There was no mention of engineer, electronic technician, computer specialist, factory director.

When you finish university, much the same happens. They tell you, "Well, you gained your diploma with excellent grades, but you'd be better off looking for some kind of job that allows you to combine work with your family obligations, something a bit easier".

That hasn't changed, and perhaps it's become worse. I don't think perestroika has relieved these problems.

Perestroika has provided a chance, but for the moment the new rules of the game are being formulated by men, and women aren't able to take part in this process. We have to understand that we must take

part, we have to become conscious that all of our individual problems are also the problems of other women. After the forced unification of previous days, we now have to find it within ourselves to seek collaborators for solving these problems. What you in the West call consciousness-raising is extremely necessary.

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