The effect of a changing economic system on the images and rights of women are evident in the implementation and subsequent failure of communism in the Soviet Union. Beth Holmgren writes about the various images of womanhood presented under Soviet rule in her article “Bug Inspectors and Beauty Queens: The Problems of Translating Feminism into Russian” (2016). For example, the “happy working woman” who had the responsibility of both public and domestic work was a prominent image. The image of the “good mother” who birthed and raised proper law-abiding citizens constructed the mainstream image of femininity and still holds a lot of weight among the general population of women in Russia today. These icons were promoted for political reasons and invoked either “maternal” or “maidenly” constructions of femininity that defined the standard of beauty and sexuality. These images were meant to remind women of their role in society, which was to work, be politically active, and procreate.
In the same context, there was a limitation on the production of material items, creating an absence fashion and beauty products. These became available only illegally or with certain connections. These items were coveted, and inadvertently led to a “goal” among Soviet women to attain “a bourgeois feminine image without bourgeois advantages.” Obtaining these items actually challenged the norm, and created this “unofficial” image. In contrast, under the “new Russian market,” according to Holmgren, women “consume their own commodification and as a means of earning value in men’s eyes.” Existing in and changing capitalist systems as women is no small feat. The commodification and objectification of women in a society have a lot to do with the economic system in place. Soviet women were still subject to the “beauty myth” but Holmgren argues that “in the absence of a capitalist market their extreme preoccupation with “looking feminine”… and obtaining hard-to-get makeup and stylish clothes also signified a personalized triumph over state-imposed norms and consumer priorities” (Holmgren, 1). Subsequently, the market value of “women’s beauty and sexual desirability still resonates with an unofficial desire, a past quest in which women did not simply consume a prescribed ideal, but exercised their own creativity and constructed their own ‘unofficial’… self-image” (Holmgren, 1).
Both Holmgren and Rosalind Marsh, author of Polish Feminism in an East-West Context” (2012) mention the “equality” under communism, where everyone, regardless of gender, is stripped of their rights. This idea was used by communist supporters as an argument against feminism because while it claimed to support equal rights among men and women, that equality still did not exist in the societies where many people supported it. Under communism, feminism was still denounced as an agenda that is self-indulgent and only for privileged middle- or upper-class women. Either way, the people of socialist and post-socialist countries heard pretty negative things about the feminist movement. Many Eastern European women are reluctant to call themselves “feminists” in the same way that liberal, Western women conceptualize the term. The few women in Eastern Europe who do claim that term face a lot of criticism. They are often accused of using the Western feminist agenda to gain funding from the West, and for only worrying about personal problems instead of the problems of other women (Marsh, 53-54).
Tatyana Tolstaya wrote a review of Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope by Francine du Plessix Gray (1991) in her book Pushkin’s Children: Writing on Russia and Russians (2003). In her review, Tolstaya gives a real account of what women in Russia are accustomed to and compares that with the tactics of du Plessix Gray in her interview process. Tolstaya praises Francine du Plessix Gray for her approach to talking to Russian women. The author generated real conversations and took the time to get to know Russian women. The typical approach of Western women when they attempt these interviews looks more like the “bug inspector” approach that Holmgren describes in her article. This approach is very impersonal and cold, where Western women come prepared with a series of questions similar to those of a regular bug inspector. There are different places to start in the fight for equality in regards to cultural norms. If Western feminists expect all women everywhere to be experiencing the same kind of oppression, and to be thinking the same ways about their own position in society, they are not going to end up doing much good. Being flexible, open-minded, and empathetic is certainly key to making positive change. The rigid translation of feminism from Western ideals to Eastern European ideas creates some holes in the narrative and perpetuates stereotypes of oppressed and unfortunate women who need saving.
Berry, Ellen E., and Beth Holmgren. Postcommunism and the Body Politic. New York University Press, 1995.
Gray, Francine du Plessix. Soviet Women: Walking the Tightrope. Anchor Books, 1991.
Marsh, Rosalind. “POLISH FEMINISM IN AN EAST-WEST CONTEXT.” Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/9329915/POLISH_FEMINISM_IN_AN_EAST-WEST_CONTEXT.
Tolstaya, Tatyana, and Jamey Gambrell. Pushkins Children: Writing on Russia and Russians. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.