Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a major issue that is gaining more attention within Eastern Europe is how much control women have over their own lives versus what is being imposed upon them via societal expectations and patriarchal pressures. This has come about from discussions in the West relating to the seemingly contradictory nature of women’s behaviors and opinions, and how more freedom can be gained whilst still working within cultural norms. What has been an issue in these sorts of conversations is the lack of understanding of how people could possibly act this way, and overlooking the insight and awareness that follows from the proper context. As was discussed in this post, attempting to approach an issue from a sympathetic viewpoint rather than a subjective one when examining different cultures is key to truly creating an interaction rather than imposing dominance over other perspectives. What this short post seeks to accomplish is to define what liberation and agency mean to Eastern European women today, and why it came to be this way. The goal is to not rationalize and pass off the glaring issues of current situations as unimportant and harmless, but rather to highlight the current dichotomies and chip away at the notion of insurmountable cultural differences when constructing potential solutions. In order to give a well-informed overview of this topic, first, there will be a brief look into the history behind these differences in ideals. Next, agency and liberation will be discussed in relation to this history and explored on a broad scale. Then, the specific example of marriage and motherhood to the modern Eastern European woman will be examined in the form of mail-order brides, and the surveillance of women in Poland by the Catholic church.
Due to the influence of history being one of the main causes of the current situation, it is important to briefly go over what happened before the fall of the Soviet Union to give context to what is currently happening. The relevant history of feminism in Eastern Europe can be traced back to the beginning of the Soviet Union, where thinkers such as Lenin and Alexandra Kollontai envisioned a country in which all people, would become truly equal, since while everyone was expected to work, women would have access to reproductive rights, child care, communal kitchens, and the ability to leave the responsibilities of child rearing to the state. With this infrastructure, they could become ideally productive citizens and have the same opportunities as their male counterparts, since their main source of oppression, the expectations in the home, would be taken care of by the state where children would be raised in the perfect communist society. (Kollontai) While this appeared wonderful on paper and was hailed as the more progressive than western feminist ideals, in reality there were not enough resources to create these institutions, and abortion was common to combat the dearth of sex education or any other contraceptive methods. This failure was compounded by the later institution of Stalinist pro-natal policies that firmly replaced the responsibility of parenting and the domestic sphere upon women, creating a double-burden that required women to be simultaneously perfect Soviet workers and flawless parents of the next generation. In this sense, women were oppressed in their roles, and did not have the choice to be able to work or manage the domestic sphere since doing both was the accomplishment of the ideal woman as hailed by propaganda. This became the anecdote for the results of feminist policies to generations in Eastern Europe, since while western women were fighting for equal pay and the right to have careers, those sought after privileges became conduits of oppression in Soviet influenced countries.
The effects of these Soviet policies had the effect of changing the perspective of what personal freedom means for women after the fall of communism. When it came to propaganda, the portrayals of the ideal woman “implicitly defined and critiqued ‘bourgeois’ constructions that cultivated a fashionable beauty or sexual desirability,” and the state “limited the production of specialized good and services for women, including fashion and beauty products” which created the “image of the commodified woman as a goal rather than a target, an image valorized by both political censure and material lack.” (Holmgren, 1) The fall of the Soviet Union also saw the migration of women away from careers, which to this day are “tied in with enormous psychological difficulties and [add] so insignificantly to one’s salary that it isn’t even worth trying.” (Tolstaya, 9) This large trend away from the polices of the Communist regime into traditional gender roles was baffling to feminists in the west, but the freedom to choose work and sexual objectification was seen by many as the way to rebel against the hollow oppressive policies that people used to live under. With context, this trend seems more rational than foreign, but what has been the current debate is the degree with which women can make decisions in this realm of traditional family and cultural expectations, which has led to real issues that oppress in methods tied to nationalism, religion, and womanhood.
In the case of mail order brides, also covered here, women are exercising their right to choose a life outside of their home countries with better opportunities, but their reasons for doing so are influenced by enormous social pressures to be a normal woman by marrying and having children as quickly as possible. In Eastern Europe, “the general population has accepted the idea of the appropriate, ideal type of womanhood is tightly coupled with domesticity and the appearance of subservience” and the “ideal of femininity requires a husband and children, which makes the threat of being an old maid painful.” (Johnson, 29) These women write to men in the hopes of creating new lives for themselves, but there in an element of racing to obtain the normal, traditional ideal of marriage and motherhood before the lack thereof becomes a tool for social ostracization. Women can be “unmarriageable at twenty-three”, which is unheard of for career-oriented Americans who delay marriage in order to have employment stability. (Johnson, 30) Again, here there seems to be a cultural difference in what it means to have employment in Eastern Europe and the west, since having a job and working by definition means having a career in places like America, while working and motherhood in formerly Soviet-influenced countries are view as not mutually exclusive due to their double-burden policies in the past. This discrepancy is reflected in the ideals of the western men who write for mail-order brides, and what the women who answer them want for their lives in the future. Many of these people “envisioned working outside the home as a part of their new life as an American wife, even though they vehemently denied being feminists,” when it was clear that the men writing them were looking for traditional homemakers who care more about creating a perfect American conservative life, which in most cases, involves the woman exclusively not working. (Johnson, 32) It is hard to view this industry as not exploitative of women, who are choosing a restrictive life with a rich man due to patriarchal pressures through websites that lay out the selection process similarly to finding a new pet. While Eastern European women may see these types of options as liberating due to past history, there are clear issues with fundamental aspects of this that make it difficult to distinguish whether mail-order brides ultimately have more or less agency in these types of situations.
Another example of agency versus oppression is the prevalence of the Catholic church in Poland, which, while it has been viewed as the protector of Polish culture during and after WWII, has been surveilling women after the fall of the Soviet regime to pressure them into align their reproductive behaviors with Catholic ideals. During the period of Communist influence in Poland, the Catholic church was allowed to still function to a limited degree, and the Soviet policies of Russification attempted to homogenize the various regions under its influence into one culture. Poland was unique in the sense that the continuing existence of the church made it function as cultural preservation, and also had major influence in overthrowing Communism there. The new government saw, and still sees, the Catholic church as the cultural center of Poland, and in an effort to re-define “Polishness” and recreate the ability to celebrate culture, they gave the church a large degree of power and influence over its citizens. This has created an infrastructure of surveillance by the church, and especially targets women to uphold traditional family norms. The surveillance occurs in two major ways: confession, which Poles are expected to partake in once a month if they are practicing Catholics to receive communion, and the Kolęda ritual, which involves the clergy making annual visits to each household and keeping records of all Polish families and their adherence to Catholic values, despite if the households are Catholic or not. Both of these interview settings that gives the clergy the ability “to question the penitents about their behaviors and to follow up with appropriate with corrective teaching about what constitutes a ‘true family’” where “disciplining women about the use of contraceptives has been an important aspect.” (Mishtal, 117, 120) The state supports this view as well, where contraception availability has been extremely limited, and abortion is illegal except in cases of a threat to the mother’s life, rape, or incest, which has succeeded in creating a booming illegal abortion industry. While confessions do not involve much documentation due to their questionably anonymous nature, house calls involve “a system of recording and monitoring individuals’ behaviors through written records, which are permanently stored by the church.” (Mishtal, 128) Since records of visits are kept, priests are able to interrogate women about their reproductive choices if they are child-free or have not had a child in a long time, suggesting that they are using contraception or are getting abortions. Women are most often “reeducated” and questioned about their choices, since the church views men as being sinned against when they utilize non-traditional methods of birth control, and are therefore targeted and pressured to uphold the moral standards of family for Polish culture. While many people within Poland are not actively practicing Catholics and do not believe wholly in church doctrine, the church has established itself so strongly that surveillance is impossible to avoid if various milestones such as marriage, baptisms, and high holidays are to be celebrated without causing great offence and tension. The freedom to practice culture has given some amount of liberation to women after living under communism, since they can identify as Polish without fear of suppression or punishment, but the complete reinstitution of Catholic values as Polish morality has created a huge loss of agency for women that makes women’s rights a well-contested and controversial issue.
While the examples provided do not represent every single incidence of this type of conflict across Eastern Europe, it is clear that there is a pattern of women struggling between getting more freedom to participate in their culture and values after having them be suppressed, and having agency to make their own life decisions taken away due to the pressure that these same norms impose on them. This sort of conflict seems exotic when examined out of context, but make no mistake that all other cultures, including western culture, impose these same types of choices and struggles for women, it’s just harder to see from the inside. The purpose of this paper was to bring a sort of understanding to the debate with Eastern Europe specifically, and that maybe doing a critical examination of how and why people make choices within their cultural context can bring this same sort of examination to behaviors that the dominant culture normalizes as well.
- Kollontai, Alexandra. “The social basis of the woman question.”Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (1977): 58-74.
- Holmgren, Beth. “Bug inspectors and beauty queens: The problems of translating feminism into Russian.”Genders 22 (1995): 15.
- Tolstaya, Tatiana. “Women’s Lives.”.”Pushkin’s Children: Writings on Russia and Russians (2003): 1-13.
- Johnson, Ericka.Dreaming of a mail-order husband: Russian-American internet romance. Duke University Press, 2007.
- Mishtal, Joanna.The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland. Ohio University Press, 2015.