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On the missing feminist element of Eastern Europe’s transformation

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[Translate to en:] Über den verpassten feministischen Moment in der Transformation Osteuropas

Anyone interested in the status of women after the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe is likely to have noticed that women are invisible both in themselves and as an object of research; they exist in the background and are of barely any interest.

When it comes to the gender-specific effects of these processes, they had a profound impact on women’s lives because it is still expected of women exclusively and without compensation to do the ‘labour of love’. All this generously given love unfortunately started a vicious cycle which ends with high risk of poverty in their old age as a reward for 24 hours spent weekly on childcare and 16 hours of housework by women,” Marija Ćaćić and Dora Levačić said in their study “Death by a thousand cuts – Impact of austerity measures on women in Croatia”

There was no gender equality under state socialism, but laws and social benefits did exist that promised women more emancipation than in (capitalist) Western Europe. At the time, the concrete question that emerged was: what would a successful transformation to a system that offered individuals more rights and freedoms look like?

But the transformation did not have a feminist element. Not only were women unable to appear as agents of change, they have largely been ignored in the research conducted in the aftermath of the collapse. While the change of social structures and institutions—which was largely determined by men—has been well researched, there is little or nothing in this context that pertains to women as an object of study, or to ‘gender’ as a category.

Men made the state go around. They negotiated and determined the shape that the social transformation that occurred after 1989 should take. Thus, from 1999 onwards, as EU Enlargement Commissioner under the EU Commission Chairman Romani Prodi, Günter Verheugen dictated the accession of the Eastern European countries to the EU. His counterparts were representatives of a predominantly male ruling elite in the individual Eastern European countries.

Under the IMF Managing Director Michel Camdessus and his successor Horst Köhler (2000–2004), loan agreements were made for restructuring the weak economies of Eastern European countries, with structural reforms, labour market flexibility, and privatization demanded in return. Their counterparts were representatives of a predominantly male ruling elite in the individual Eastern European countries.

Dorit Riethmüller works as a Project Manager for Southeast Europe at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Berlin. Translated by Hunter Bolin & Louise Pain for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Women as representatives at the negotiating table were much like a hidden picture puzzle, their needs an annoying non-issue. A potential transformation of gender roles towards more gender equality was not necessarily part of the “Game-boys”.

Under state socialism, women were a decreed part (though not even half) of the political apparatus and thus had the potential to play a determining role in politics. However, the proportion of women in subsequent parliaments decreased rapidly. This was due to the increasing burden of domestic labour, but also to the revival of forgotten stereotypes that dictated that women did not belong in politics. Other apparent advancements achieved under state socialism, such as the full participation of women in working life, which was (mis)understood as a sufficient degree of women’s emancipation, went straight down the drain.

While women under state socialism still had equal rights to work and, let us say, almost equal income opportunities, in many cases the transformation left them with only precarious employment and an increase in domestic labour and care work. These forms of labour were not and never have been equally distributed, neither with nor without socialist emancipation.

Austerity measures that led to the closure of care facilities and massive cuts to social benefits, as well as the partial privatization of pension and health insurance, forced women back into the kitchen and increased female poverty in old age.

Due to the fact that the system change was bound up with such great economic insecurity, people were only able to achieve security by regressing to familiar traditions and the partitioning of roles according to gender. Despite its efforts, state socialism was unable to overcome these hurdles, especially in traditionally strictly patriarchal societies, such as those in Southeastern Europe. Here, in particular, conservative ideologies pertaining to state, nation, and religion, which came to the fore following the violent collapse of Yugoslavia, were coupled with a traditionalization of women’s roles and a reduction of women’s social rights.

Nevertheless, many women in Eastern Europe initially had great hopes for the process of accession to the European Union. After all, the acceding countries had to commit themselves to recognizing the EU acquis, which included many directives aimed at creating equality and fighting discrimination, as well as comprehensive gender mainstreaming. However, these hopes soon burst like bubbles. To a large extent, a “facade of equality” took place only on paper. The reality looked completely different.

From a feminist perspective, the transformation was a tremendous failure. Unpaid labour remains a cornerstone of capitalism. As long as we do not fundamentally reform this system once more into an economy of care, gender equality will remain the noble concern of but a handful of activists. The widespread unholy alliance between the state and church in Eastern Europe and the strengthening of right-wing conservative forces in almost all Eastern European countries does not bode well. Unfortunately, it is primarily up to men to determine whether things will improve in the future; they are still the ones clutching the levers of power, and they will not let go voluntarily.

A detailed analysis of the situation of women in transition countries in Eastern Europe, especially with regard to the financial crisis of 2007, is provided by the studies on Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Croatia, and Lithuania, which the RLS has published under the title When the Belt Can’t Get Any Tighter.