The Intersection of Church and Body

Throughout the semester’s investigation of gender, feminism, and women writers in Eastern Europe, the theme of women’s bodies frequently arose to the forefront of the discussion, whether in context of liberation and freedom, or oppression, restriction, and control from outside sources. In this case, women’s bodies are placed under the microscope and morally regulated by decisions made by the Polish Catholic Church.

Two chapters from Joanna Misthal’s book, “Politics of Morality,” entitled “Confessions, Kolęda Rituals, and Other Surveillance” and “Abortion, Polish Style” analyze the role of the Catholic Church in Poland and its’ effects on the lives and bodies of Polish women (Mishtal, 110-159). The fourth chapter of the book, “Confessions, Kolęda Rituals, and Other Surveillance” captures the practices of the church, as well as individual priests, identifying behaviors like questions asked during confession (110-139). Misthal found that the practice of asking people about their sex lives during confessional began in the early 1990s, dictated by a manual published by the Vatican detailing consequences for sinners who strayed from morality (Mishtal, 118). While this already appears as an act to pry into the personal lives of members of the church, it is worsened by the fact that women were stigmatized and banished from the church community as a result of acts like having an IUD or using other hormonal birth control methods (Misthal, 122-123). Evident in these examples, is the manipulation of Polish women through the use of morality, a construct of power that is used by Catholic priests in order to ensure that female members of their congregation do not engage in sinful behavior. By the implementation of harsh punishments, such as dismissal from the church or social isolation, the Catholic Church governs the bodies of Polish Catholic women, limiting their bodily autonomy.

While there are negative implications for men involved in “immoral behavior,” such as calling them “un-Christian,” men do not face the same repercussions that women do when it comes to contraceptive methods or sexuality (Mishtal, 125). Based on the writings of the Vatican’s manual, men whose wives use birth control are “innocent bystanders perceived as victims of their wives’ unilateral decision to use birth control” (Misthal, 125). Thus, men are free of responsibility and sin, while women bear shame from their church for their right to a decision regarding their own reproductive autonomy.

The fifth chapter in “Politics of Morality,” “Abortion, Polish Style,” discusses abortion in Poland, stating the rates prior to and following its illegalization in 1993 (Misthal 140-159). As discussed in Misthal’s chapter, an article included in Time magazine noted the Catholic Church’s involvement and support of the illegalization of abortion, including the following quote from the executive director of the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Warsaw: “This law is a compromise between the Catholic Church and politicians without the participation of women. Our voices were neglected and ignored” (Sifferlin). This quote clearly exemplifies not only the legal influence of the Catholic Church, but also the lack of input from women about choices regarding their own bodies. The Catholic Church’s decision to openly support the abortion ban denotes the powerful role it holds in its’ union with the state, thus dictating what happens to or does not happen to women’s individual bodies.

Additionally, this chapter included first-hand experiences of methods and processes to obtain abortions in secret, private clinics following the abortion ban (Mishtal, 140-159). Women found blatant advertisement in newspapers for doctor’s offices that provided abortions illegally at their private clinic locations, publishing ads that used phrases like “all services provided,” “discreet,” “vacuum method,” or “anesthesia” (Mishtal, 143-145). Signals such as these are currently still denoted with neon hanger signs, as shown in a picture of the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Warsaw taken by Kasia Strek and included in Sifferlin’s article (Sifferlin). Women also were forced to travel to various nations, such as Slovakia, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus in order to gain access to abortions (Misthal, 150), a phenomenon that is still occurring as Polish women are traveling to Germany in order to avoid Poland’s ban (Sifferlin). Initially, I was surprised that police officers did not target this underground contraceptive process, however I figured this was due to the country’s record-low rates of legal abortions (Misthal, 143), as illegal abortions were not documented, deeming Poland (and the Catholic Church) free of the stigma associated with the procedure.

In conclusion, it is clear that in Poland, women’s bodies are being monitored by not only the state, but also the Catholic Church. This surveillance is occurring through the law by the illegalization of abortion, and also through annual visits to community members’ houses by Catholic priests as a part of the Kolęda Rituals, inquiring about sexual practices and contraceptive methods (Mishtal, 110-159). These practices are extremely gendered, placing the brunt of responsibility for immorality in the eyes of the church on women, freeing men of stigma or isolation from the church community (Mishtal, 125).


Works Cited

Mishtal, Joanna. The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland. Ohio University Press, 2015.

Sifferlin, Alexandra. “Polish Women Fight Back Against Restrictive Abortion Laws.” Edited by Andrew Katz, Time, Time, Mar. 2017,





After reading a few of the works assigned in the class, the question occurred to me: why do pronatalist policies fail? And, why do women become a matter of state policy? Pronatalism takes many forms socially, culturally, and politically. Pronatalism in conservative societies generally entails the curtailment of reproductive rights, such as restrictions on access to an abortion or campaigns to influence public opinion. In this course, we read literature that addressed pronatalist policies and articles that discussed reproductive rights in Eastern Europe and Russia.

In this essay, I briefly examine the implications of pronatalist policies implemented by the Soviets and those adopted in contemporary Russia, namely “maternity capital.” In both cases, the adoption of pronatalist polices was in response to a declining population and fertility rate. I conclude that both pronatalist policies largely failed to address the broader structural and social problems arising from childbirth and childrearing. Also, maybe some women are just not dying to become mothers.

Women will undoubtedly continue to be a matter of state policy, especially with the female empowerment movements, which are often viewed as a threat against the status-quo or “traditional family values,” as some would put it. As women pursue more demanding careers and forgo, or delay, childbearing, women can expect policy directed at them.

What is pronatalism?

Pronatalism is the promotion of childbirth through direct and indirect incentives. Generally, pronatalist policies are a response to a declining fertility rate, which has its own socio-economic implications. The consequences of pronatalist polices can be both negative and positive for women. In this short essay, I consider women empowerment efforts, such as paid family leave, tax breaks for children, and various anti-discrimination laws, to be forms of pronatalist policy that chip away at the structural and social challenges of childbearing. I consider one-time monetary incentives as forms that only address immediate challenges while ignoring the greater challenges faced by women.

Pronatalist policies are not unique to Russia or the post-Soviet region, rather they are implemented all over the world. While many states pursue policies to improve the structural challenges, such as financial cost of childrearing (paid leave, daycare, health, food, toiletries, ect.), as a means to promote childbearing, cultural norms, namely patriarchal biases, remain deeply entrenched in many societies. For example, a woman who pursues a professional career is more likely to be scrutinized for not spending enough time with her child than a man. If a woman decides to not have children, she is either not a true patriot or not a true family women: the two are often conflated. There is a plethora of other social stigmas that I will purposely not discuss for the sake of brevity.

While it is worth mentioning that not all women raise children on their own, conventional wisdom holds that women bear an unfair burden when raising children. Women often must commit a disproportional amount of time to unpaid tasks, such as childrearing and house chores.

Pronatalism in the Soviet Union

One of the greatest social experiments conducted by the Soviets is, perhaps, the reconceptualization of “motherhood.” Echoing the works of Vladimir Lenin, Aleksandra Kollontai, an early Marxist socialist writer for the Soviet Union, argued that capitalism not only fostered but fueled the fire of oppression of women. (225-231). In her writings, Kollontai ultimately advocates for greater state involvement, by making childrearing a matter of the state rather than a private family matter. She proposed the establishment of daycare centers for newborns and cafeterias for families. By alleviating the stress of early childrearing and reducing the amount of time spent on house chores, Kollontai and Lenin believed that women would then be able to be contributing members of the new socialist society.

Vasela notes, “Lenin saw the Soviet state as capable of freeing women from ‘their stultifying and humiliating resignation to the perpetual and exclusive atmosphere of the kitchen and nursery.” (Vasela 109). In this spirit, a robust social service program would encourage women to bear more children because it would reduce the financial cost of childbearing. Women would have had the opportunity to pursue careers without having to worry about the financial restraints of childcare. However, in the late 1920s through the 1950s, when Stalin came to power, a shift in women’s policy occurred.

The initial enthusiasm for the destruction of patriarchal barriers in pursuit of a more equal society among the sexes stagnated in the 1920s. Furthermore, rather than liberating women from traditional gender roles, the Soviet leadership shifted towards a policy that reinforced patriarchal norms. In the Soviet context, pronatalism was the belief that women not only had the duty to but also had the “honor” of giving birth. It was a policy response to the decline in population of the 1940s. In addition to pronatalism, traditional gender-roles were reinforced within that new paradigm, as Vesela notes, “in support of these pronatalist policies, divorce laws were tightened two years later, abortion was banned, and two provisions in 1944 put constraints on divorce and cancelled the recognition of extra-marital paternity.” (Vasela 120).

While it could be argued that Soviet pronatalist policies led to the (marginal) liberation of women, further investigation reveals that it led to development of a double and triple burden for women. The social services were largely insufficient, and that forced women to not only work but also disproportionally placed the home responsibilities on the mother, hence double burden. The triple burden is the combination of work and home life with the addition of political life, which was expected of party members for socio-political mobility. Against the backdrop of the socio-political life in the Soviet Union, pronatalist policies had a negative effect on women. (Examples of double and triple burden appear in Eastern European film and literature. See recommendation list.)

Pronatalism in Contemporary Russia

In response to a national demographic crisis in 2006, the Russian government introduced “maternity capital,” a pronatalist policy with the purpose of increasing the fertility rate. According to the agency’s website, the policy period was set to begin in 2007 and end in 2018.

In 2011 The Atlantic reported:

  • “Compared to other countries male death rates are extraordinarily high. Currently, 14 Russians for every 1000 die per year (compared with 8 per 1,000 in the U.S.), making Russia’s death rate one of the world’s worst. The average computed by the UN Population Division for “least developed countries” is 10 deaths per 1000 people.
  • While male life expectancy has improved slightly, it is still ranked about 160th among nations — lower, for example than Bangladesh or Algeria.
  • Women outlive men in Russia by 13-14 years, one of the biggest gender gaps in the world.
  • A significant proportion of the deaths (for women as well as men) are in the working age population, which is declining in size, leading to a bulge in the aged.”

Following the adoption of the initiative, every woman that gave birth to more than one child is issued a certificate. The value of the certificate in 2013 was approximately 11,000 USD. The guarantee was only paid in installments after the child reached the age of three. Moreover, maternity capital was only to be claimed once, meaning that a second certificate was not issued after the birth of an additional child. Furthermore, the funds can only be used for 1) housing, 2) paying for the education of a child, or 3) investing in the mother’s retirement fund. (Slonimczyk and Yurko 2).

Research found there was an improvement in the demographic crisis, with the fertility rate rising from 1.3 in 2006 to 1.7 in 2012. (Borozdina et al. 3). While Slonimczyk and Yurko found that there was an uptick in fertility, they were quick to discern the claim that maternity capital had any meaningful impact on long-term fertility. “The MC policy has had heterogeneous effects. Specifically, we find that the increases in birth rates are larger among women without a college degree and women who are married or cohabiting with a spouse. There are no significant differences between rural and urban areas or by employment status.” (Slonimczyk 4). In other words, women with a college degree (or who are on a professional track) were more likely to forgo or delay the birth of a second child. This suggest that structural and social challenges still exist. Women may view childbirth as an obstacle to their professional development.

Furthermore, drawing upon attitudinal and behavioral data, Borozdina et al, “Using Maternity Capital: citizen distrust of Russian family policy,” found that women who did give birth to a second child did not take advantage of the monetary incentive due to either distrust in the program or bureaucratic obstacles. (1) Less than a quarter of all mothers that gave birth to a second child did not cash in their certificates. (Borozdina et al. 4). In interviews conducted by the researchers, they found that respondents considered the policy to be deceptive and paternalistic. For example, a couple was unable to activate the funds for the purchase of a home because the down-payment, a substantial sum, needed to be paid by the couple. Down-payments were in the thousands, which a blue-collar family is unlikely to have. (Borozdina et al. 7).

Whether purpose of maternity capital was for political gains or increasing the fertility rate, women, when faced with the decision to whether give birth, are limited by structural barriers. In this sense, the empowerment of women is likely to result in more aggressive policies, which may lead to more restrictions on reproductive and marital rights as was the case in the Soviet Union.

Anti-abortion campaigns are one form of reinforcing traditional gender norms in post-Soviet societies. See The Nation’s article on anti-abortion movement in Russia.


Pronatalist policies need to address the structural conditions that make it difficult for a woman to raise child. Tearing down structural barriers is a large undertaking as it requires money and time. It requires a major invest in government institutions and society. In my view, one-time monetary incentives are but band-aids on a problem that requires a larger, structural fix. Changes need to happen at every level. I also think when pronatalist policies fail to increase the fertility rate, women are likely to fall victim to more aggressive measures. The political rhetoric of “traditional family values” in Russia today will consequentially reinforce patriarchal beliefs and norms, which will hinder the empowerment of women.

Work Cited:

Borozdina, E., Rotkirch, A., Temkina, A., Zdravomyslova, E. “Using maternity capital: Citizen distrust of Russian family policy.” European Journal of Women’s Studies, 2014, pp. 1–16.

Kollontai, A. “Theses on Communist Moralist in the Sphere of Marital Relations.” Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, 1980, pp. 225-231.

HEINEMAN JR, Ben W. “In Russia, a Demographic Crisis and Worries for Nation’s Future.” The Atlantic, 11 Oct. 2011, Accessed 18 Dec. 2016

Slonimczyk, F., Yurko, A.”Assessing the Impact of the Maternity Capital Policy in Russia Using a Dynamic Model of Fertility and Employment.” Discussion Paper Series, No. 7705, 2013, pp. 1-47.

Vasela, P. “The Hardening of “Cement:” Women and Modernization.” NWSA Journal, vol. 15, no. 3, 2003, pp. 104-123.

The Pension Fund of the Russian Federation. Accessed 12 December 2016.

See also:

A Woman Alone. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, performances by Maria Chwalibóg, Boguslaw Linda, and Pawel Witczak, 1986.

Baranskaya, Natalya. A Week Like Any Other: Novellas and Stories. Translated by Monks, Pieta, The Seal Press, 1993.



Mail Order Brides

To Western culture mail order brides are a foreign concept involving a contracted, loveless marriage, which reinforces male dominance over women. As I spoke about in a previous post, this is a common way for Western culture to view other cultures, because the term Feminism has inherently become a Western women’s term. In this essay I will further this discussion of Western views upon Eastern women in the specific context of mail order brides. Mail order marriages are believed to be abusive relationships, that take advantage of foreign women who believe America promises them a better life. The question is, at what point can you intervene in someone’s life choices and say there are wrong. Some argue that mail order brides are part of women’s empowerment, while others see it as the world reverting back to sexism. Marriage always tends to be a topic that people always have opinions on, and when the touchy term feminism is brought into the debate even more opinions come out of the woodwork. In this post I am going to explore the conceptions surrounding mail order brides from both Western and foreign perspectives, and will try to make sense of this foreign topic (literally).

Before taking a class on Eastern European feminism at the University of Michigan, I had no information on the subject except for cultural stereotypes. Some of the preconceived notions I had were that these relationships are exploitative; men are taking advantage of women who believe that America would provide them with a better life, and making it seem as though women are something you can put in your online shopping cart. There’s also a belief that these relationships are often abusive and that the women involved may be tricked into joining a trafficking ring. There are definitely assumptions about the type of people who are involved in these types of arrangements, for both the men and the women. For the women, they are believed to be slutty women who are exploiting their body and foreign looks in order to receive money from a foreigner. For the men, they are perceived to be low-lifes who cannot find a women in America, which there is no lack of, so therefore something is wrong for them. In my view there is definitely more negative stigmas surrounding the males, because they can be seen as extremely sexist for their desire to “buy” a woman, have her take care of his home and children, and perform for him sexually. These extreme views make the whole culture of mail order brides seem like a sex slave type of program, which is incredibly different from traditional views of Western romance.

There are many romantic assumptions within our Western culture that are inherently unspoken. We expect a couple to have met before, speak the same language, and have little to no financial transactions involved. According to Marcia Zug, a professor at USC, in her journal article Mail Order Feminism, “in America, marriage is a choice. If you are married, it means someone thinks you are worth marrying” (156). This assumption is part of the reason why men seeking these mail order brides are looked down upon, because numerically there has to be a woman for him in the US. Therefore, it is important to ask why these things are occurring–from both a male and female perspective. For the men, as women have become more equal in Western society, they have relied less on marriage for their social standing and have gravitated more towards a successful career. Zug’s essay describes the education gap that is occurring between men and women in the US, and how it is leaving less educated men with further marriage prospects. This is not to say that it is dumb men who are going elsewhere to find women, but it shows how feminism is affecting the gender roles within our society. These men claim to be seeking a woman who will take care of their home and children. While that can be presumed to be sexist, it is the assumption that anything regarding women in the home is sexist, which is making these men look for a foreign wife in the first place. The men are seeking a woman to take care of their house and children and in Russia there is a matriarchal culture where the home is proudly the women’s domain. Because these men’s desires match with the Russian martial views, it is not a wild assumption that these two types of people may come together. Besides the matriarchal culture which makes these Russian women good potential brides, they themselves are gaining from this marriage.

The foreign women who are joining these sites to become a mail order bride have their reasons for joining. Erica Johnson, an ethnologist who published a book on Russian women seeking Western husbands, discusses the process with one young potential mail order bride named Olga. Olga  claimed, “everyone knows life in America is better. Even poor people have cares, houses, and televisions. The most wonderful thing about America is the men. They’re more handsome and they don’t treat you like a slave” (Johnson, 181). From this quote we are understanding multiple different perspectives of these foreign brides. They are seeking a better life in America; she mentions that even poor people are poor, which represents the foreign perspective of the American dream. Part of this better life stems from the protective laws for women within the US government. The US congress amended a “The Violence Against Women Act” in order to permit abused, immigrant spouses to self-petition for permanent residency (Zug, 167). This type of protection is important because it establishes that immigrant spouses have rights within the US and that they are not obliged to stay in an abusive relationship, regardless of if it is a mail order marriage or not. Brides are also entitled to a criminal background history of their spouse, which allows them to have some power in knowing their fiance’s history (Zug, 169). Why do all of these things come together to create a better life than of a life is Russia? It is important to look at Russian men and how these women interact with them and their relationship roles.

The matriarchal society within Russia not only affects how the women act within Russia, but how the men act as well. The matriarch makes the women in the families assume specific roles, such as cooking and cleaning. According to Harvey Balzer, a director of Georgetown University’s Russia Area program noted, “Russian women are tired of domestic dictators. Even the (Russian) men I know who write about women’s rights wouldn’t get up from the dinner table to help clear the dishes” (Zug, 172).  She further illustrates how Russian men fail to uphold the traditional ideals of a marriage and have lost their sense of responsibility for their wives and children. This is where there are faults within the mail order bride process, because these women are seeking men who will look at them as more than a maid, but the American men also placed immense emphasis on women as homemaker and mothers. Perhaps they claim to have a better respect for women, but that is something that cannot be proven and is speculative.

The assumptions of why these foreign women and Western men partake in these mail order marriages are inherently negative, mainly due to the feminist views within the Western world and how they impose those ideas on foreign cultures. Two feminists Maria Lugones and Elizabeth Spelman discuss this disparity in their essay “Have We Got a Theory for You.” They introduce the theory of intersectionality, which addresses the different qualities a woman may possess that make up her identity, including race, gender, class, ability, or ethnicity (Oxford, online). Lugones and Spelman discuss feminism’s lack of diversity and make it clear that intersectionality needs to have a broader impact on the voice of feminism. They address that white/Anglo women are speaking as the main voice of feminism, and that other minority voices are not holding the same weight as a white woman’s voice. In Johnson’s reading, Olga discusses the Russian view of Western feminists and how they are viewed as hostile lesbians. It was a very politically incorrect view, and showed how much of a gap there is between the two cultures. This is definitely what makes this entire process so foreign (literally) to Western culture, because we view it as anti-feminist, but Russian women see it as them choosing their own life.


Johnson, Ericka. Dreaming of a Mail-order Husband: Russian-American Internet Romance. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.

Lugones, Marcia C. and Elizabeth V. Spelman Have we got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for “The Woman’s Voice.” Women and Values: Readings in Recent Feminist Philosophy. Wadsworth Publishing Company: California. 1986.

Zug, Marcia. “Mail Order Feminism.” Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 21 (2014): 153.