The University of Iowa

Women after The Wall Fell

April 7th, 2011

The following commentary by Peggy Mills appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Mills is a professor of Russian at The University of Iowa.

It is not a widely known fact that the Bolshevik Party legally granted “equal rights” for women in the 1918 Family Code. These laws removed marriage from the Orthodox Church to a civil ceremony, eased restrictions on divorce and legalized abortion. By 1928, Stalin introduced the first 5-Year Plan to quickly industrialize this backward, illiterate and agrarian nation. Major weight to produce the new Soviet work force was laid directly on the shoulders of women, calling them into the professions of engineering, education and medicine.

Early Soviet propaganda posters featured iconic images of female “warriors” in red kerchiefs (tied behind the head, not under the chin as peasants wore them) building hydro-electric dams, driving tractors on collective farms and wielding iron pots with the slogan “Down with Domestic Slavery!”

These colorful images faded quickly, as did Bolshevik promises that women’s new full-time roles in the work force would be supplemented by a host of state support such as work site nurseries, well-stocked cafeterias and much-needed basic housing.

Post-World War II Soviet expansion into the countries of Eastern Europe was swift. Communist doctrine and Moscow planning was forced on these countries with steel templates to shape new political, social and gender orders. Women were compelled into all sectors of the work force, including construction, heavy industry and mining. By 1960, more than 70 percent of women were employed outside the home. Yet Communist promises to ease the burdens on women in the private sphere while they labored daily in the public sphere never came to be.

Basic kitchen appliances were unavailable for most women. Vacuum cleaners were exalted. Family clothes were hand washed in bathtubs, and there were decades of deficits of the most basic consumer items such as laundry soap, diapers and baby food, clothing and toilet paper. Daily shopping for a meal took the average woman between two and three hours after work, and purchases were hauled home on public transportation.

Millions of women describe these daily hardships in short: “Nothing was convenient.”

Polish strikes in the 1980s and the Gorbachev era brought about seismic shifts in Eastern Europe. Designed to provide a “human face to Socialism,” Gorbachev’s policies ultimately brought about the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991.

The euphoria throughout Europe and the world was unprecedented. Few were more optimistic about the possibilities ahead than the 51 percent of these populations — their women. Yet have the sacrifices and continued barriers outweighed the modest gains since then? Or have women’s roles been slowly eroding back to pre-1989 status?

“20 Years after the Berlin Wall: Women’s Shifting Roles and Status in Post-Communist Europe” will be held today and Friday in 2025D of the University Capitol Centre. And on Friday, UI International Programs’ WorldCanvass, hosted by Joan Kjaer, will focus on “East European and Russian Women: Still Aspiring to Basic Rights in the 21st Century?”

A major theme of the conference is the growing gap between early expectations and current realities of women’s lives post-1989. Keynote speakers from St. Petersburg and Prague will lead off each day of panels and roundtables that will feature faculty, graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa. Topics will address Russian women’s health, 21st century women and Islam, women, politics and power in the Czech Republic and Germany, contemporary women’s voices from Poland and Russia, young professionals in Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Russia, and women in classic Russian literature and film.

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