Women Under 20th Century Socialism: An Interview with Professor Kristen Ghodsee

Professor Kristen Ghodsee is an ethnographer and Professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of 9 books such as Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth Century Communism and dozens of articles, which include the viral op-ed Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism, which has been recently published into a book.   In her most recent work Professor Ghodsee argues that women enjoyed relatively more fulfilling lives and relationships under 20th century socialism as opposed to their counterparts in capitalist west.  She states that this was because 20th century socialist societies viewed women’s equality and emancipation as an immediate goal.

However, Professor Ghodsee is not calling for a return to the model of 20th century socialism, rather she is advocating that we should learn from the lessons of the 20th century and use a sober analysis in order to acknowledge the mistakes and salvage the benefits. Professor Ghodsee was kind enough to agree to answer a few questions regarding the historical role women played in 20th century socialist states and the changes women faced with the fall of the Soviet Union and the socialist Eastern Bloc countries.  I end my interview by asking Professor Ghodsee if socialism is necessary for liberation of women and men from patriarchy and traditional gender roles, if so what would this liberation mean for love, sex and relationships?

Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai a member of the Bolshevik party and professional revolutionary once stated,  “The women of the Soviet Union do not have to demand from their government the right to work, the right to education, the right to the protection of motherhood. The state itself, the government itself, draws women into work, giving them wide access to every sphere of social life, assisting and rewarding mothers.” This sentiment about 20th century socialism is one that is rarely shared and not widely known. However, did these social and economic benefits indeed extend beyond rhetoric and into concrete material gains for women under socialism? I started my interview by asking Professor Ghodsee about the gender roles in the former USSR and Eastern Bloc countries. I also asked about the benefits and negatives women experienced under state socialism and how much these varied from country to country.

“It’s hard to give a brief overview because the situation varied considerably over time and depending where you were in the former Eastern Bloc. But in general, the period of 1918-1936 is a time of amazing experimentation with regard to the emancipation of women and the abolition of the traditional family. After the October Revolution, Alexandra Kollontai is appointed as the first Commissar of Social Welfare and she helps to implement a radical set of policies to liberate women from their domestic responsibilities and their oppression within traditional marriage. The key ideas for her program for women’s emancipation came from the work of August Bebel and Friedrich Engels, who both theorized that women could only be free when they were economically able to support themselves outside of marriage. Kollontai understood that a socialist system that collectivized the care work done for the family would give women a chance to become economically independent of men.”

Women Workers in Estonia

“The Bolsheviks liberalized divorce and granted women full legal equality.  The Soviet Union was the first country in the world to legalize abortion in 1920, and it had some radical ideas about the withering away of the family. Through her work with the Zhenotdel (women’s section), Kollontai and other socialist women’s activists attempted to socialize domestic work by building a wide network of children’s homes, public cafeterias and laundries, and mending cooperatives that would free women to further their education and training and take up positions in the formal, modernizing economy.”

“But the traditional values of the Soviet peasants clashed with these high ideals, and the realities of revolution, civil war, and famine combined to create armies of orphaned and homeless children that the weak Soviet economy did not have the resources to support. Moreover, the legalization of abortion precipitated a dramatic decline in the birth rate. In 1936, Stalin reversed most of the gains of the earlier period, reinforcing traditional gender roles and placing a huge burden of domestic work and formal employment onto Soviet women. Stalin could concentrate resources on industrialization while women once again toiled in the home for free.”

“But the commitment to the ideal of women’s emancipation never fully disappeared, and after WWII, most East European states implement laws and family codes similar to the early Soviet family codes of 1918 and 1926: liberalizing divorce, granting legal equality to women, and after Stalin’s death providing access to abortion. Also, due to male labor shortages after the war, women are fully integrated into the labor force and massive investments are made and women’s education in training.”

“Women workers gain strong footholds in most professions once dominated by men, especially white-collar jobs in medicine, academia, law, and economics. In engineering, for instance, most countries in the Eastern Bloc reached gender parity in the 1980s.

Furthermore, the socialist state provided women with a combination of job-protected paid maternity leaves, free or subsidized crèches and kindergartens, and in the case of the German Democratic Republic, a fully paid “housework day” once a month to help women combine their work and family lives. Some states attempted to get men to help out more around the home, but in the end, it was easier to try to socialize as much domestic work as possible or at least to compensate women from their time spent outside of the labor force.”

“But women living in the Eastern Bloc still faced gendered expectations that housework was “women’s work” and they suffered under the notorious “double burden” which led to declining birth rates by the mid-1960s. At this point, there is a sharp divergence in state policies toward women with Romania famously repealing all reproductive rights for women in 1966 and forcing women to have a minimum of four or five children. On the other hand, most other Eastern Bloc countries maintained women’s access to contraception and abortion, and expanded the network or crèches and kindergarten or extended more generous maternity leave benefits (both in terms of time and money).”

It is clear that the experience of women under 20th century socialism was very complex and varied greatly under certain time periods and locations. There was not a monolithic singular experience for women under 20th century socialism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. There were both benefits and negatives. However, when socialism fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s many of the benefits were tossed aside with the rest of the socialist system. I asked how women fared into the transition to a capitalist economy from a socialist one. To what degree was there a change in gender roles from previous socialist societies to capitalist societies?

“Although East European women were relatively better prepared than men for the transition to the free market (in part due to their education and professional experience in valuable “white collar” sectors of the economy), rapid privatization and the implosion of public spending reduced women’s ability to compete on newly liberalized labor markets. To the extent that the socialist state once paid to socialize the work of caring for the young (as well as the sick and the old), the socialist system did give many women the opportunity to pursue education, training, and formal employment that increased their economic independence from men.”

“After 1989-1991, the sudden marketization of the economy in Eastern Europe transferred previously socialized care work from the public back into the private sphere. Newly private enterprises closed down their childcare facilities. The breakdown of the health care system and the sudden shrinking of pension payments in the face of hyperinflation meant the state could no longer guaranteed the welfare of the sick and the elderly. Unemployment skyrocketed as young people fled to find work in the West.”

“Some former Eastern Bloc states also returned to nationalist ideologies and traditional gender roles, and implemented “re-familization” policies, which enticed women to quit their jobs and look after their children at home (by extending the length of maternity leaves but removing the job protections). Once home, women would also provide care for the sick and the elderly at a great cost savings to the state. In many ways, the transition to free markets was accomplished with the unpaid care work of women in the private sphere. For the first time in their lives, many women found themselves economically dependent on men, and this was an incredible shock. So, if we want to study the effects of capitalism on women’s lives, looking at what happened to women in Eastern Europe after 1989-1991 is almost a perfect laboratory experiment. Despite its many shortcomings, the old system did at least value women’s care work and supported their economic independence from men.”

As professor Ghodsee explained the fall of socialism and the transition to a capitalist society provided the perfect laboratory experiment in which we can determine the effects capitalism has upon a previously socialist society.  We can look back at the period of rapid privatization and see the damaging effects it had upon women and men of the former socialist countries. One example of the deadly effects privatization included a 12. 8% increase in deaths and one million excess deaths in working-age men.  Despite the faults and problems associated 20th century socialism it did provide basic economic security for majority of its citizens and even in some cases provided socio-economic equality among men and women.  I ended my interview with Professor Ghodsee by asking her opinion whether not socialism is necessary to liberate women from traditional gender roles? Is socialism able to create and foster more meaningful romantic and sexual relationships?

“First, I make it clear in the book that I am not calling for a return of any form of authoritarian 20th century state socialism in Eastern Europe. Those experiments failed under the awful weight of their own contradictions. Second, socialism alone will not liberate women from patriarchy and traditional gender roles as we can see clearly from the experience in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. “In many ways, state socialism reinforced certain aspects of patriarchy, and so socialism always needs to be combined with some kind of feminism or at least a strong commitment to women’s emancipation. But, yes, in general I do not think women can be liberated from patriarchy and traditional gender roles under a capitalist system that discriminates against those who have primary responsibility for childbearing and caregiving. Some form of socialism is necessary to ensure that care work is valued as something which contributes to society as a whole and which does not become a burden to those who perform it.”

“In terms of relationships, love and sex, when women are economically independent (able to meet their own needs or at least living in a society with a strong enough social safety net), they have the freedom to leave unhappy, unhealthy, or abusive relationships. Moreover, women who are able to support themselves and their children are less likely to enter into relationships for money and therefore love and sex are freed from economic considerations. Alexandra Kollontai wrote about this in the early twentieth century, and argued that calculation and desperation poisoned many heterosexual relationships and that socialists would free people to love those for whom they felt true affection and attraction because their material needs would be met by society rather than my participation in a relationship. “

“I think men benefit from the liberation of women because they too would have more authentic and honest relationships (and not just as romantic partners). Human relations in general would be less transactional. Furthermore, men are equally the victims of the most savage aspects of patriarchy and so-called toxic masculinity. A world where men no longer feel their inherent self-worth as something that is measured by the size of bank accounts is going to set a lot of men free from the crushing expectation of always having to be a “provider.” In my opinion, a more just, equitable, and sustainable society is basically good for everyone.”

In closing, regardless of your own left-tendency, or your views on 20th century socialism, there is much to be learned from the world’s first socialist experiments.  In order to learn we should analyze the history of 20th century socialism in an objective manner. We on the left should acknowledge and reject what did not work and accept the achievements. Such achievements include the value of women’s work, the support of economic independence from men and the creation of robust welfare programs such as parental leave and state supported childcare. As socialists, women’s liberation and emancipation should always go beyond rhetoric and instead be on the forefront of our revolutionary programs and banners.

Also, it is important to remember that men have very much to gain from the liberation of women. Women’s liberation would free men from toxic masculinity and from the traditional gender role of being the sole ‘provider’. Lessons from the past will provide socialists with a roadmap on how to create a better society and what mistakes we should avoid. In short, either all of us are free, or none of us are free.

Worker and Kolkhoz




3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7828901.stm

Check out Kristen Ghodsee’s work: Red Hangover Legacies of Twentieth Century Communism and her latest book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence


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